by Jay Johansen | Jul 3, 1997
This article isn't for atheists -- it's for Christians.
Christians have a curious tendency to separate their lives as Christians from their lives as ordinary twentieth-century human beings. Even the most devout church-goers -- perhaps especially the most devout church-goers -- seem to see Christianity as an abstract part of their lives, on a different plane of existence from ordinary life.
I'm not talking about hypocrites. Yes, there are people who act pious on Sunday and then the rest of the week are getting drunk and cheating their business associates and cheating on their spouses or whatever. But I'm not talking here about people who are frauds. I'm talking about people who are quite sincere.
Now don't misunderstand, I'm not saying that salvation is not real or important. Of course it is. And anyone who calls himself a Christian and doesn't have salvation high on his list of things he is thankful for doesn't know what Christianity is all about. But ... is Christianity an abstract, "spiritual" thing? Or is it part of your daily life?
But beyond this "technical terminology", Christians seem to use a whole different language when they are in "spiritual mode". For example, I often hear Christians say, "I would covet your prayers on this". Covet? I sincerely doubt that these people would say at a business meeting, "I would covet you bringing this up with the district manager", or say to a child, "I would covet a look at your report card". Or, I have often heard Christians talk about "gathering together for a time of fellowship after the service". Yet at the office they never talk about "gathering together for a time of fellowship after the staff meeting". When we get together secularly, it's a meeting or a party; when we get together religiously, it suddenly becomes a "fellowship".
Yes, I think it does.
Another anecdote. When I was in college, I was once chatting with a friend who I have every reason to believe was a sincere, devout Christian. We were sitting in the cafeteria talking about history classes. She made a comment about something she had just read on the origins of civilization in the Far East, and I replied by noting that Orientals were probably descended from Shem after the Flood. She stared at me blankly for a moment and then said, "Oh, you're going by the Bible." "Well, yes, of course" I replied. She stumbled for a moment and then changed the subject.
You see, we were not discussing something "spiritual" or "Christian" -- we were talking about ordinary history. So the idea that the Bible might have something relevant to say about the subject just never occurred to her. It's not that she didn't believe the Bible. If you asked her she would certainly have replied that she believed every word. It's just that she was about as likely to check the Bible for relevant facts about "real world" history as she was to check an auto repair manual or the instructions for an IRS Schedule C. It's not that she would think these documents incorrect or unimportant, it's just that they have nothing to do with the subject.
That is how many Christians appear to view Christianity. Of course they believe the Bible to be absolutely true, they will tell you. When we're talking about religious topics. But when someone refers to the Bible in a discussion of history or politics or science ... then they go blank, apparently having never considered the possibility that the Bible might be relevant to such subjects.
Personally, I have trouble taking these people seriously. If you really believe that the writers of the Bible were incapable of accurately describing the mundane politics and geography of their own nation in their own lifetimes, how can you believe what they say about the "politics" and geography of Heaven and Hell? If the writers did not understand the laws of nature, how can you be confident that they understood the laws of God?
It is dangerous to try to second-guess the motives of others, but I can't help but wonder if this isn't a cop-out position. They know that their friends and other "good people" respect the Bible highly, they want to believe in God and eternal life and angels and so on, but ... they've heard so much about all those errors and contradictions in the Bible. It's awfully convenient to say that when the Bible makes a statement that might be subject to actually being tested, when it talks about nature and history and other objective facts, that it's not inspired on these subjects. But when it talks about things that nobody could possibly prove true or false, like the supernatural, or makes judgement calls, like discussing moral questions, then it is true and authoritative. Thus, if someone can prove the Bible wrong on some point of history or science, it doesn't matter. This neatly makes your faith absolutely unassailable. Unfortunately, it also makes it sound like a con game.
If someone could convince me that the Bible was wrong when it spoke about history or science, things which are, at least sometimes, subject to test and proof, I simply could not continue to believe it when it speaks about spiritual things, which are not normally subject to test and proof.
(Before some agnostic rushes in with a challenge to some obscure point in the Bible that I am unable to refute, let me qualify that statement by adding that I am not going to abandon my faith over one or two difficult points. I am sophisticated enough to realize that the fact that I don't know the answer to a question doesn't mean there is no answer. But if someone could offer a number of serious arguments of errors in the Bible that seemed impossible to refute, at some point I would have to conclude that my faith was mistaken.)
The Bible was meant for real people who live in the real world. It has a great deal to say about "secular" things: history, politics, money, sex, even a bit of science. Yes, it also talks about some strange and unearthly things. But that is because these things are real, too. They are no less real because we have difficulty understanding them or finding out about them.
© 1997 by Jay Johansen
John Jul 7, 2010
You wrote, "If someone could convince me that the Bible was wrong when it spoke about history or science, things which are, at least sometimes, subject to test and proof, I simply could not continue to believe it when it speaks about spiritual things, which are not normally subject to test and proof. (Before some agnostic rushes in with a challenge to some obscure point in the Bible that I am unable to refute, let me qualify that statement by adding that I am not going to abandon my faith over one or two difficult points. I am sophisticated enough to realize that the fact that I don't know the answer to a question doesn't mean there is no answer. But if someone could offer a number of serious arguments of errors in the Bible that seemed impossible to refute, at some point I would have to conclude that my faith was mistaken.)"
Later you quoted, ""Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years." (James 5:17)
James 5:17 apparently contradicts 1 Kings 18:
1 After a long time, in the third year, the word of the LORD came to Elijah: "Go and present yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain on the land." 2 So Elijah went to present himself to Ahab.
. . .
7 As Obadiah was walking along, Elijah met him. Obadiah recognized him, bowed down to the ground, and said, "Is it really you, my lord Elijah?"
8 "Yes," he replied. "Go tell your master, 'Elijah is here.' "
. . .
15 Elijah said, "As the LORD Almighty lives, whom I serve, I will surely present myself to Ahab today."
I cannot see how the writer of Kings and James could both have been accurate, about the duration of the drought that ended when Elijah prayed for rain. One writer says less that 3 years. The other says 3.5 years.
Jay Johansen Jul 8, 2010
James clearly says the drought lasted 3 1/2 years. No disagreement there.
Let's look at the statements about time as the story is told in Kings:
17:1 And Elijah the Tishbite, of the inhabitants of Gilead, said to Ahab, "As the LORD God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, except at my word."
Then we're told that Elijah went to the Kerith Ravine and lived by a brook there for a while. Then:
17:2 And it happened after a while that the brook dried up ...
So he moves to Zarephath where he lives with a widow and her son.
17:15 ... and she and he and her household ate for many days ...
17:17 Now it happened after these things that the son of the woman who owned the house became sick.
We go through the story about the widow's son, then:
18:1 And it came to pass after many days that the word of the LORD came to Elijah, in the third year, saying, "Go, present yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain on the earth."
Then etc about meeting with Ahab.
So we have the sequence of events: Announces the drought, after a while goes to Zeraphath, manages to get along there for many days, after these things the widow's son gets sick, after many days ... in the third year goes back to see Ahab.
So to find a contradiction here, you have to assume that when 18:1 says "after many days ... in the third year" that this means "in the third year after the drought began, that is, the third year after 17:1.
But when someone gives a chain of events like this and states a relative amount of time, if they do not explicitly link that time to an event, don't we normally understand them to mean "after the event I last mentioned" ? Like, suppose I said, "Bob graduated college, then five years later he met Sally and they got married. Six years later they moved to Pennsylvania." I think the normal understanding of that paragraph would be that Bob and Sally moved to Pennsylvania six years after they got married, not six years after he graduated college.
Surely the more natural reading here is that he went to see Ahab in the third year after the event described in the immediately preceding sentence, namely, the incident with the widow's son. If you reject the idea that the time must be referring to the immediately preceding event, how do you leap from there to assuming that it is since the start of the drought? How do you know it's not the third year after he moved to Zeraphath, or the third year after Ahab became King, or the third year after any of the events in the preceding 16 chapters?
All the times other than that "third year" are casual "many days", "after a while", etc. so there's no way to add up the times. If the amount of time Elijah spent at Kerith and Zeraphath was six months or so, then the total length of the drought would be consistent with 3 1/2 years.
(I tried going back and forth in Kings to see if there were any other more specific amounts of time to nail down the length of the drought, but there are none that are close enough. You can go forward to the wars with Syria and put the time spans together and say the drought must have been less than 5 years, but of course both 3 and 3 1/2 are less than 5, so that's not very helpful.)