Biblical scholar Pete Enns had a post this morning entitled 5 Main Challenges to Staying Christian, and moving forward anyway (part 1). He was basing his list on responses he got to a blog post that he wrote. The five challenges to staying Christian are:
1. Problems with the idea that the Bible is inerrant.
2. The conflict between the Bible and science.
3. God’s apparent absence in the midst of suffering.
4. Christians being jerks.
5. Christian exclusivism.
One could take issue with how I conceptualized or phrased these challenges in summarizing them, but you can read Enns’ post for yourself to see how he defines the challenges.
Someone who read the article told me that she thought that number 3 was the biggest challenge for Christians, and that a number of Christians could reconcile the other challenges in their own minds. I found this intriguing, since 1-2 and 4-5 have been huge challenges to me in my own Christian faith. But I think that she’s right—-there are many Christians who are not particularly phased by 1-2 and 4-5.
Let’s look at the challenges:
1. The Bible is inerrant. I’m surprised that this is not a bigger challenge for Christians than it is. After all, there are plenty of television documentaries that poke holes at a conservative Christian conception of Scripture, while highlighting the views of critical scholars. The Internet can bring people of different persuasions together into dialogue and debate, such that a conservative Christian can be exposed to the views of an atheist or a non-Christian religious Jew. Heck, even reading the Bible itself can expose one to its different tellings of the same stories, its contradictions, and its passages that offend today’s moral sensibilities.
Why, then, is biblical inerrancy not a problem for a number of Christians? I think there are a variety of reasons. For one, not every Christian is aware of every challenge to biblical inerrancy. In some cases, that’s because they are busy living their lives, but there are also cases in which they’re reading or listening to people who don’t talk much about these challenges. I know Christians who believe that the Old Testament’s prophecies have a solid record of coming to pass, and that Jesus fulfilled a number of Old Testament prophecies. They are not aware that there are scholars who argue that Ezekiel’s prophecies about Tyre and Egypt did not come to pass, or that the Old Testament “prophecies” (supposedly) about Jesus mean something different in their original contexts than how Christians in the New Testament (and thereafter) applied them. Come to think of it, I wasn’t aware of these issues, either, until they were thrown in my face, and I was one who went to church and read the Bible.
Second, on the television documentaries, you have to admit that sometimes they posit scenarios that can easily strike a person as speculative or even ridiculous! Even seminarians and scholars make fun of many of these documentaries about the Bible. A conservative Christian can easily watch them and conclude that the challenges to Christianity must not be particularly strong.
Third, conservative Christians have their own set of experts. You think the Bible contradicts itself or has errors? Check out Gleason Archer’s Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, or read commentaries online that seek to reconcile biblical contradictions. In a number of cases, conservative Christians go on believing because they think that their experts have come up with good answers to the objections against the Bible. Many decide to go deeper and follow the debate further; many do not. I wish, though, that more conservative Christians who place their faith in their experts would realize that a number of people who have problems with biblical inerrancy are well aware of what the conservative Christian experts argue and have found the arguments lacking. I know of one conservative Christian student who was surprised to see Josh McDowell’s Evidence that Demands a Verdict on his liberal professor’s bookshelf. So one can read Josh McDowell and walk away unconvinced? Apparently so!
2. The conflict between the Bible and science. I think that much of what I said for 1 applies here. There are a number of conservative Christians who believe that creationists have answered the challenges of evolutionists while upholding Genesis 1. Some choose to go deeper in researching the topic; some don’t.
3. God’s apparent absence in the midst of suffering. This challenges the faith of many Christians, but I think that a number of Christians find ways to help them to deal with suffering: to chalk it up to God’s will or God’s plan. The problem is that, sometimes, the burdens get to be too great, and the usual ways of dealing with suffering become less helpful. While a number of Christians may be able to find some way to cope with (or avoid) intellectual challenges to their faith, coping with suffering is much more difficult.
4. Christians being jerks. Conservative Christians can just say that Christians aren’t perfect, only forgiven, or that being around jerks is a refining process that makes us more Christ-like. Maybe they have a point, but number 4 is still a challenge to me. For one, I wonder why many Christians are so smug about how right they are and how everyone else is wrong, when they themselves have the same flaws as others. And, second, there are cases in which I believe that the content of Christian dogma itself encourages people to become jerks. It’s easy to get an us vs. them mindset when reading the Bible!
5. Christian exclusivism. I’m surprised that this isn’t a bigger challenge than it is, since many Christians know and love non-Christians, even if they may live in an area that does not have too many people from other religions. How can they make peace with the notion that these non-Christians will go to hell? I think there are a variety of ways. Some are satisfied with the idea that God is just to condemn them to hell. Some hold out hope that their non-Christian family members, friends, and neighbors will accept Christ before they die. Some may even adopt more inclusivistic versions of Christianity—-and these are becoming more popular (or such is my impression).