It was a Christian Union mission and I found myself sitting with the president of the atheist society. The topic for the evening was ‘Can we trust the Bible?’ and the speaker presented various archaeological and historical discoveries that confirmed a number of details in both Old and New Testaments. ‘And this is how I know that the Bible is God’s Word’, was his repeated conclusion.
It was very engaging and informative but as we chatted I had to agree with the atheist society president on at least one thing: we had not come anywhere near proving that the Bible is indeed God’s Word.
The problem of proof
I don’t mean to dismiss that sort of evidence, but the problem comes when we are overly ambitious about what that evidence achieves. In reality all it confirms are certain historical details in the Bible and therefore, possibly, that the Bible is a generally reliable historical book. But to extrapolate – that therefore we can trust the Bible to be God’s inerrant Word – seems to be several steps too far, a bit like concluding that because I own a pair of football boots I must be Steven Gerrard!
Unfortunately we can’t prove, in any scientific way, that the Bible is the Word of God. That may seem like a big problem, but it’s not. Let me give you three reasons why:
The highest authority
First, we can’t prove the Bible is the highest authority by referring to some other authority such as archaeology. Any attempt to ‘prove’ something to be the highest authority by reference to some other ‘evidence’, immediately makes that other evidence a higher authority, and defeats the argument. This is true for Christians who believe the Bible is our highest authority, but it’s also true for others who hold that reason, feelings, or an alternative religious text is their highest authority.
They ‘loved the darkness’
Second, even if we could produce some conclusive evidence of the reliability of the Bible, it still wouldn’t achieve what we want it to in an unbeliever’s life. The Bible repeatedly tells us that the main barrier to belief is more a heart than a head issue (see John 3:19, Luke 16:27-31, Rom. 1:18-25).
For the first 30 years of my life I was able to eat whatever I wanted without it making the slightest difference to my weight. But when I hit early thirties that changed: belts had to be looser, and the bathroom scales and my wife confirmed it – I was putting on weight. However, for quite a while I lived in denial, not because the evidence was doubtful, but because I like McDonalds and I don’t like salads! I didn’t want to face the consequences of where the evidence was taking me.
We have a vested interest to deny God’s existence and the truthfulness of the Bible because, like Adam and Eve and every human being since – we want to be in charge of our own lives. We therefore come at the evidence with a sinful bias which affects our interpretation of that evidence. Sin has infected every part of us – our motives, our desires, even our reasoning. Paul writes, ‘they are darkened in their understanding… because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts’ (Eph. 4:17-18). Spiritual truth must be revealed to us by God (Matt. 11:25, 1 Cor. 2:12-14).
‘My sheep hear my voice’
Third, and more positively, we can know that the Bible is God’s Word and therefore completely trustworthy. How? Imagine you ask me how I know that my wife loves me. I probably wouldn’t start by giving a list of evidence that ‘proves’ her love for me; rather I would likely say, ‘I just know’ or ‘because she says she does’. That’s how I know; and probably you’d be satisfied with that response.
Similarly the way we know – the only way we can know – that the Bible is utterly trustworthy is through the witness of God himself. The Bible claims to be God’s written word. Scripture is breathed out by God (2 Tim. 3:16), the words themselves came from God (1 Cor. 2:13), the prophets spoke as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21), Jesus himself always takes Scripture as his highest authority – what Scripture says God says, and that settles the argument. Further, God does not and cannot lie (Titus 1:2, Heb. 6:18). This is God’s witness about himself and his Word; we can appeal to no higher authority to prove God to be true. We have no option but to take him at his word. This we will do, only when God’s Spirit brings us into relationship with God and opens our spiritual eyes to recognise the words of the Bible as his words. ‘My sheep hear my voice’, Jesus said (John 10:27).
John Calvin put it like this:
God alone is a fit witness of himself in his Word… the Word will not find acceptance in men’s hearts before it is sealed by the inward testimony of the Spirit.
Give me some evidence
But where does this leave the president of the atheist society? What I’ve said so far probably won’t clinch it for him! Is there anything else we can say?
If we return to my illustration about how I know my wife loves me, you may still be a little sceptical after my initial response. You might ask, ‘but what evidence do you have that she loves you?’, and I could of course provide a long list! That evidence is not how I know that she loves me; but it might be useful to a sceptical outsider.
The Bible provides and points us towards evidence that supports the truth of its claims about itself. There is internal evidence, for example:
- the fulfilment of prophecies, particularly in the person and life of Christ;
- the constant surprises, even shocks in the storyline, that point beyond merely human authorship;
- the way the whole story, with over forty human authors, fits together;
- the way it corresponds to our experience of ourselves and the world;
- the way that it never hides the failures of its main characters – a merely human authorship would surely have been more careful!
Then there is external evidence. The Bible records God acting in history and we would expect to see his ‘fingerprints’ in archaeological and historical findings. An accessible place to start is the book Through the British Museum with the Bible. It is also possible to arrange for a guided tour of the Museum. We can also consider the overwhelming manuscript evidence, particularly for the New Testament. A forthcoming article will consider some of that evidence.
This may all be helpful to a ‘sceptical outsider’, but this is not our trump card. It can never prove the trustworthiness of the Bible. The role of this evidence is to strengthen believers’ confidence and help sceptics realise that their intellectual arguments are in fact a smoke screen hiding a deeper heart resistance.
Our trump card is the Bible itself. The means God’s Spirit uses to open blind eyes is the Word itself. If someone challenges your belief in the Bible as God’s Word, the best thing you can do is challenge them to read it – to see for themselves, and pray for them as they do!
 Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.7.4, John Calvin, tr. FL Battles, 1960.
 Through the British Museum with the Bible, Day One, Brian Edwards and Clive Anderson. Tours can be booked via www.dayone.co.uk/pages/british-museum-tours