Do you remember Detective Columbo, the character Peter Falk played so well over the course of more than 30 years? Disarming but shrewd, his persistent questioning of suspects often involved some variation of starting to leave, apparently satisfied with the suspect’s explanation, only to stop, turn, and ask “Just one more thing…” Columbo’s thoughtful and relentless questions are usually a good example of persistence, thoroughness, critical thinking, and following the evidence wherever it leads – all good traits. But there is a time when continued questioning is not good. What do I mean? Let’s work through that today.
What I’m thinking of is the hyper-skepticism that can’t stop questioning. No answer can ever satisfy this mindset. The “question everything” mantra of this universal doubt sounds at first like a rigorous and impartial search for truth, but ends up being a self-destructive endeavor that only undercuts any truth it finds. How this often plays out in discussions of the existence of God or the reliability of the Bible is that there is always “one more thing” the skeptic objects to, one more justification for not believing the Bible. But these “reasons” tend to be reasons based on ignorance rather than positive knowledge. What I mean is that they are based on what we don’t know rather than what we do know. And that is not a good model to follow in any area of life. My own field of structural engineering is largely concerned with designing structures to resist loads caused in one way or another by gravity, but I couldn’t tell you whether gravity is a particle or a wave (although experiments in recent years appear to support the latter). And yet the most magnificent structures are built on the positive knowledge we do have about gravity and its effects, in spite of the details we don’t know. Likewise, we may not be able to verify everything in the Bible in our lifetimes. Some details may simply be impossible to confirm through archeology or other means after the millennia since it was written, but we are responsible for the knowledge we do have. We shouldn’t say that even though a witness has proven reliable in many other instances, we will discard all he has to say because of some statements we can’t prove. Yes, we are putting our trust in the person at that point, but it is an earned trust based on a consistent track record, and it is a reasonable position to take.
A question came up recently about the Massacre of the Innocents and the Resurrection of the Saints, two events recounted only in the Gospel of Matthew. In Matthew 2:1-18, he records King Herod’s jealousy of this prophesied King of the Jews, Jesus. In Herod’s paranoia about rivals (which is attested to outside the Bible), he tries to “nip this one in the bud” by having all the children under the age of two killed in the town of Bethlehem, Jesus’ birthplace. Then in Matthew 27:51-54, he records Jesus’ death on the cross, and the signs that followed, such as a great earthquake, graves being unblocked, and holy ones who had died coming back to life and coming out of the newly-opened graves to appear to people in Jerusalem. No other contemporary biblical or secular writer confirms these events or even mentions them, as far as we know (so far). Does that absence of independent corroborating testimony invalidate Matthew’s testimony? Of course not. There very well might’ve been other accounts lost to the ravages of time, but because of the importance of the subject matter Matthew was primarily focusing on (The life of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world), this lone account of those two secondary events survived as well.
Now, we may never find anything to corroborate these two stories in Matthew. On the other hand, someone 100 years from now may unearth another source contemporary with Matthew that confirms his account and fills in all the missing details. Who knows? But either way, there are a lot of things we do know and have to deal with. Rather than get stuck on secondary issues, I would encourage the skeptic to work through the primary issues first. A lot of the objections I hear from atheists about alleged Bible contradictions are things that could be ignored without affecting the central message of the Bible in the least. And that message is that God created this universe, we broke it by rebelling against Him, and yet He provided a solution to the mess we’re in that we never could get out of on our own, that solution is Jesus Christ, and we only have this life to decide our eternal destiny. While questions of what we are to do with unclear passages of Scripture are good and interesting exercises, and I have personally grown in my knowledge of Scripture and its interpretation by doing in-depth research to try to answer a skeptic’s question, the critically important question for the skeptic is what will you do with the clear message of the Gospel? To focus on many of objections I read or hear, and ignore the central message of rebellion and redemption, is akin to a person fretting about an ingrown fingernail when their leg is gangrenous. Their priorities are a bit misplaced, to say the least. Whatever your pet objection might be, might I suggest placing a higher priority on the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus and what that gift means for you? For if Christ was resurrected, then that is the single most important event in all of human history.
In closing, let me be clear that I don’t consider asking questions to be bad. But the purpose of asking honest questions is to find truthful answers. And when you get to the truth of a matter, there’s no more need for questions; they have served their purpose. Yet there is a mindset now that asks questions to undercut knowledge rather than to gain knowledge, as a means to protect cherished presuppositions, and that is what concerns me. If you’ve been “burned” before, and are skeptical in a merely cautious sense, by all means ask questions! Not every Christian out there may be able to answer your questions, but know that our ignorance on a specific issue doesn’t mean there isn’t an answer. And know that we care about you and want you to find the truth, “for the truth shall set you free” [John 8:32].