Tom Gilson

When Teachers Contradict Christianity: What To Say To Your Child

Friday Parent Focus

Last Friday I spoke on dealing with the schools when they undermine the faith. There’s one more person involved that I didn’t mention: your child. What do you tell your child when teachers contradict Christianity?

Suppose your child were in a classroom where the teacher said the Bible is a book of fables. Suppose also the teacher retracted that statement, strictly on the grounds that it’s illegally discriminatory for him to say that in class. Your child would still wonder whether the Bible is a book of fables, wouldn’t she?

So far in this series I’ve dealt with relational aspects of dealing with your children and with schools. I trust you’ll keep that in the back of your mind and the forefront of your relationships. From this point on, though, I’m going to transition this series to the point of discussing specific questions.

Is the Bible a book of fables?

The Bible is a collection of books of varying genres, from poetry to wisdom literature, from laws to history and biography, from instruction on life to apocalyptic prophecy. There are some elements of fable in there: stories that are meant to serve as illustrations rather than as instruction in what really happened. But they are few.

What causes people to think the Bible is a book of fables, anyway? Its antiquity? Many documents from antiquity are considered reliable history. Lack of corroboration? The Bible is the most massively corroborated set of documents in all ancient history, through archaeology, other written sources, and the flow of history. Genre? Those who know literature know that the Bible doesn’t read like a fable; it reads like it’s intending to tell truth. Those who know ancient myths know that the Bible is not one of them.

Misconceptions

There are some severe misconceptions out there, such as, “the Bible has been through so many versions and translations, you can’t know what it really started out to be.” This is simply false. We have so many early copies of the New Testament that scholars have no doubt at all about what it said, except in limited ways that make no difference to the meaning of the text, and which are footnoted in most good Bibles anyway.

Some people think the Bible is just one book among many; that there are lots and lots of conflicting books like it, and that they all contradict and undermine each other. Not so. The Bible is unique for placing its major claims squarely in history where they can be examined along with all other history. Take all the other religious books in the world and call them fables if you will; you still have to recognize that the Bible is very significantly different from them, in that it places its claims squarely in history. It’s not just philosophy or wisdom, it’s an historical account.

Frankly I think there are two things that drive most people’s conclusion that the Bible is a book of fables. The first is misinformation. Lots of people, teachers included, believe what they’ve been told without checking the facts. They’re stuck in the kinds of misconceptions I just mentioned.

Circular Reasoning

And then there are those who jump to the “fable” conclusion because it’s a religious book that contains stories of miracles. Miracles are impossible, they think, therefore any book that tells about them must not be telling the truth. How do we know miracles are impossible? Because they never happen. How do we know they didn’t happen in the Bible as it claims? Because miracles are impossible, therefore any book that tells about them must not be telling the truth….

Parents, you could illustrate the circularity of this by handing your child a piece of paper that says “see other side,” on both sides.

To Respond in Class?

Chances are your child won’t have a chance to share any of this in class. I don’t recommend they try it unless they study it first, and study it deeply enough to hold their own in discussion with a teacher. Even then, that kind of debate probably wouldn’t be welcome, and students should respect that. It’s usually not their place to correct their teachers, and it’s very difficult to win.

There is a way, though, for students to help show that teachers’ claims about Christianity aren’t always based in fact. It just takes one simple question. I’ll share that next time.

Further Reading

Would you like to dig into this further? I’ve recommended Cold-Case Christianity more than once here, and this won’t be the last time I do. There’s more to be said than I can include in this blog post, and this book says it well.

Update: What about your student debating their teacher in class? Is that a good idea?

Commenting Restored

The comment function here has been out of service, possibly causing frustration, for which I apologize. You can comment again now, and it will save and post as it should do. First-time commenters' comments will not appear, however, until approved in moderation.

19 thoughts on “When Teachers Contradict Christianity: What To Say To Your Child

  1. In fairness, when I hear skeptics doubt the Bible, it’s generally the Old Testament stories they highlight, not the New Testament ones. Yes, people do say that the stories of Jesus were embellished with miracles and whatnot, but you can’t prove a negative.

    With the Old Testament there’s plenty of archeological and geologic evidence that seems to suggest a good portion of the accounts there are incorrect. The world appears to be about four billion years old, with life about three billion. There’s no evidence of a global flood that exterminated all life. There’s little real evidence the Jews were ever captive in Egypt. DNA analysis tracks humanity back to a small population, but not a single genetic Adam and Eve. The list goes on.

  2. The age of the earth is no problem except to a certain interpretation of Genesis, which I do not think is accurate. This is controversial in the church, but that’s my position, and I think it stands both biblically and scientifically.

    The flood may likely have been regional. I think the jury is out on this.

    The lack of evidence for Jews in Egypt is an argument from silence, with all the weaknesses appertaining thereunto.

    The DNA evidence is perhaps over-interpreted if one thinks it rules out a single original man and woman.

    Meanwhile there’s lots and lots of evidence for the Hittites, for Jericho, for Solomon, for the later OT history… The list goes on.

  3. DNA analysis tracks humanity back to a small population, but not a single genetic Adam and Eve.

    Could DNA analysis even do that – trace it back to a single couple if indeed that were the case? I know next to nothing about this sort of thing, but what little I’ve heard (criminal trials) is that conclusions are statistical/probabilistic, not precise and definitive.

  4. My general point was that the notion that a portion of the Old Testament is not historically accurate isn’t totally ludicrous. There are plenty of counterfactuals and for people who aren’t relying on faith, it’s easy to see why they wouldn’t be convinced.

    I’ve never heard any of this evidence addressed inside of a church type setting. It’s easy to see why people are defenseless against it. (And honestly, whether or not most of this stuff really happened or not is irrelevant to Christianity being true).

    A stunning large number of people are six day, young Earth creationists. When you’ve got mountains of evidence that all 100% agree that the earth is very old, that tends to set up an easy spike of the ball for people who want to call Christians a bunch of believers in fables. (I personally just cannot square a young earth with Romans 1. If general revelation is supposed to provide evidence enough to convict even those who have never heard of Christ, then its testimony needs to be true. And if the world we live in is at any level a fake (i.e., it’s young but God made it look old), it’s hard to see how that would be justice).

    As for the DNA issue, I’m not an expert myself, but even some Christian sources suggest a single ancestry pair is wrong. See:

    http://biologos.org/blog/understanding-evolution-mitochondrial-eve-y-chromosome-adam

    for example.

    There’s a lot more where this came from. The Pentateuch appears to be a compilation from multiple pre-existing sources. (The authorship differences were recently validated by a computer program some Orthodox Jews made for just this purpose. It apparently sorts known texts that are jumbled together into their various authors with high accuracy). Mosaic authorship is never anywhere claimed in it, I don’t believe. But it’s still something never discussed in church. (Many of the Old Testament books show much heavier signs of editing than the new).

    I’m a Christian incidentally, but believe inconvenient evidence needs to be addressed squarely and honestly, not just explained away or ignored. I’ve only ever heard a handful of sermons dealing with difficult Biblical issues, and overwhelmingly those were about the slavery issue.

  5. By the way, I’m not suggesting there’s not plenty of evidence to back up a lot of the Old Testament. I’m just saying there’s evidence against various aspects of it too.

    That web site you linked is interesting, though their first example about multiple flood myths would probably be interpreted by a skeptic as casting doubt on the Bible. A common refrain is that much of the Jewish religion was standard ancient near east stuff and therefore not the revelation of God. (The talion laws go along with this as well – they weaken the Biblical narrative, not help it, by showing those laws existed inside of a milieu where they were common, and did not necessarily originate at Sinai). The reason to doubt the flood in any case isn’t based on narratives, it’s about geology and physics.

  6. Casting doubt on one interpretation of the Bible could only be viewed as casting doubt on the Bible if said skeptic were more fundamentalist about the Bible than the fundamentalists.

    Casting doubt on some aspects of the OT is not what most people think of, anyway, when they hear “the Bible is a book of fables.”

    And frankly I haven’t had your experience where that mostly pertains to the OT. I’m not saying you haven’t. I’m just saying I don’t think that’s necessarily the norm.

  7. Oh, and the computer program that determined the multiple sources of the Pentateuch—have you considered the presuppositions that must have gone into its programming? Computers can’t make those decisions without human input.

    Here’s one view on that.

  8. Why would it weaken the biblical narrative, by the way, if some of the Sinaitic laws were shared among other nations at the time? I honestly don’t see the connection there.

  9. There is evidence for the global flood. It’s the fossil record! Fossils are not laid down gradually over billions of years. Most things don’t fossilize. Water is required. The fossil record bears testimony to a global catastrophe like the flood.

  10. I think that the same evidence can be interpreted either in a young or old earth way, global or local flood way, depending on your presuppositions. The Grand Canyon evidence can be interpreted as a lot of time and a little water, or a little time and lots of water. Andrew Snelling of AIG has written a two volume book defending a global flood from a geology perspective. (Earth’s Catastrophic Past Volume 1 and 2) I think it’s healthy to take a look at his evidence before we dismiss it as ignorant fundamentalism.

    As far as the documentary hypothesis is concerned, much of it was formulated before twentieth century archaeological discoveries were made that render it doubtful.

  11. SteveK –

    Could DNA analysis even do that – trace it back to a single couple if indeed that were the case?

    Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes – bundles of genetic material. That is, we have 46 chromosomes, but they come in pairs. You get one of each pair from your mother, and one from your father.

    So you get two copies of each gene. For example, the gene for the hemoglobin in your blood is on chromosome 11. You have two copies, one from your mother, and one from your father. Different versions of the same genes are called ‘alleles’. In the case of hemoglobin, one allele codes for a misshapen version of hemoglobin – the ‘sickle-cell’ allele.

    If you get two regular alleles, you’re fine. If you get one regular version, and one copy of the sickle-cell allele, you maybe have some extra trouble at high altitudes but you have increased resistance to malaria. If you get two copies, you get sickle-cell anemia.

    Now, if you think for a second, you can see that the maximum number of alleles that two humans could have for a particular gene would be four. Let’s call one of those humans Eve – she has alleles A and B. Another human – let’s call him Adam – would have C and D. There’s no place to put an E allele.

    A lot more than four alleles have been identified for most genes we’ve looked at. Indeed, more than twelve alleles (Noah’s sons and their wives?). The current genetic diversity we see in humans is far larger than can be accounted for by humanity going through a single-couple pinch-point in the past few thousand years.

    Consider cheetahs. They appear to have gone through a pinch-point a few thousand years ago – they very nearly went extinct. As few as a hundred cheetahs may have existed at one point. Today, cheetahs are so genetically uniform that they can accept skin grafts from each other. That is not the case for humans.

    So, based on the genetic diversity we see in humans today, we can be pretty sure that the initial population that diverged into humans was a few thousand individuals. It’s technically possible that instead we had a single couple, along with a mutation rate vastly higher than anything seen today, along with a miracle (and I use that word advisedly) to keep it from producing mass cancer, deformity, and death. But, well, that’s going to be a hard case to make.

  12. I’ve only ever heard a handful of sermons dealing with difficult Biblical issues, and overwhelmingly those were about the slavery issue.

    We have an apologetics team at our church that I’m a part of that preaches regularly on a variety of these issues, both at our church and elsewhere in Australia. It’s true that this isn’t common though.

    A quick comment on the OT. It seems to be typical that sceptics fail to give the OT the benefit of the doubt when it can’t be corroborated with external sources. The Hittites is a good example, but there are plenty of others. When external evidence emerges, they simply move on to another point of criticism. I don’t think that process ever ends, and the same pattern can be seen for the NT.

  13. Sorry, but it seems my previous reply did not post for some reasons.

    1. The Mosaic law was supposedly given by divine revelation at Sinai. So, if that’s true, how likely is it that other regional cultures who were godless came up with a lot of the same stuff? There are two main possibilities: they got them from the Jews or the Jews got it from them. I’d say most people who aren’t starting with a Bible-must-be-true mentality would conclude that in at least some cases it must have been the Jews who absorbed these concepts from the general Ancient Near East milieu, hence commonality of thinks like talion laws argues against divine revelation/origin. (By the way, I happily acknowledge the many unique things about the Jewish religion, of which there are many. But there are commonalities with others).

    2. Of course computers are only as good as the programming, but it’s not necessarily true that the computer has to be specifically instructed how to make the distinctions. For example, Bayesian spam filtering uses known good and known bad emails to train a system without any many programming designed to distinguish spam from ham. (This is the principal of many neural network systems as well).

    In this case, it would appear the program is very preliminary, but a bit of googling shows that when Ezekiel and Jeremiah were scrambled together, it basically unsorted them.

  14. Talion laws comprise a small proportion of the Mosaic law, and though I’m no expert, I’ve been told the Hebrews’ versions were more humane than others’.

    Similarities with surrounding culture are unsurprising, and are definitive only if there are no accompanying uniquenesses. If the question is whether the Bible is unique, one will not gain a reliable answer by paying attention only to what is not unique in it. But there are many points of uniqueness, here, for example.

    The computer could not have done any “unscrambling” if it’s programmers had not assumed there was scrambled text to start with. There are presuppositions in play here.

  15. The Pentateuch appears to be a compilation from multiple pre-existing sources. (The authorship differences were recently validated by a computer program some Orthodox Jews made for just this purpose. It apparently sorts known texts that are jumbled together into their various authors with high accuracy).

    From what I’ve read the program simply replicates the techniques various scholars have been using for years, and comes up with a similar conclusion – that there is a “priestly” and “non-priestly” division in the Pentateuch.

    The authors of the paper you are referring to say that the differences could be considered different styles rather than different authors.

    It doesn’t sound very threatening to me, and I don’t think your claim that “the Pentateuch appears to be a compilation from multiple pre-existing sources” is a valid conclusion.

  16. I don’t know what is so threatening about non-Mosaic authorship, especially as I don’t believe the Bible itself claims itself that Moses wrote the Pentateuch. The styles of say Leviticus and Deuteronomy are radically different to even a casual reader. It’s also highly unlikely that Moses would have written something like Numbers 12:3, “Now the man Moses was very humble, more than any man who was on the face of the earth.”

    The problem with arguing about the age of the earth, detecting authorship, etc. is that the techniques are predictive in the current era and work. We can put a rover on Mars so the physics must be at least semi-right. Similarly, even today people can detect all sorts of authorship matters. For example, when various style tics unmasked Joe Klein as the “Anonymous” who wrote Primary Colors.

    I think the philosophical arguments for Christianity are extremely strong, but I don’t think we do a great service in apologetics when going against scientific consensus on areas where there seems to be a conflict with the facile literalism of much of today’s Christianity, especially on non-critical matters of faith.

  17. The Bible does call them the books/Law/writings of Moses, Aaron. It’s implied all through Joshua. It’s explicit in Joshua 23:6, 1 Kings 2:3, 2 Kings 14:6, 2 Chr. 25:4, 34:14, 35:12; Ezra 6:18, Neh. 8:1, 13:1; Dan. 9:13. In the NT Moses is ascribed authorship in Matt 8:4, 17:3, 19:7, 22:4; Mark 1:44, 7:10, 10:3, 12:26; Luke 5:14, 16:31, 20:37, 24:44; John 5:45, 7:19, 7:22; Romans 9:15, 10:5, 10:19; 2 Cor 3:15, Heb. 9:19. Many of the NT references were from Jesus Christ’s own mouth. I left out many references, but enough is enough.

    So if Moses is not the author, then Jesus Christ’s own words in the Gospels cannot be trusted. I think this is a critical area of the faith.

    The differing styles reflect differing content and purposes, so I don’t know why anyone must conclude there were different authors. My style differs when I write for different purposes, too.

    That doesn’t mean there were no interpolations; you might also have mentioned the account of Moses’ death at the end of Deuteronomy. Still they can be (and I think are) substantially the books of Moses.

    Testing authorship by computer is fine when it’s a test: when you can evaluate the results. It’s fine when it’s based on contemporary knowledge and contemporary presuppositions. There are just too many unknowns in ancient literature, compared to a Joe Klein situation where the context is so easily accessible. Further, the Primary Colors analysis did not discover multiple authors.

    Scientific consensus is fine in matters of science, but literature is not physics, and literary presuppositions do not become science just by developing an algorithm to express them.

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