Now, if God exists, how do we know he didn’t simply create the universe and then retire into obscurity? How do we know he cares about us, or even knows of our existence?
If he does care about us, then it’s reasonable to expect some form of communication from him. But what form would this communication take? God could speak directly to one person, but how would others benefit unless the communication was recorded somehow? God could also reveal himself to a mass of people at the same time, but how would later generations benefit, unless the details were preserved in some way? The only form of communication that could have lasting duration would be a written record, passed down through the generations by people with a keen interest in its preservation.
Now let’s engage in another thought experiment. Let’s assume for a moment that God exists. Imagine that you could go back in time, to before any holy book began to be written. This is your unique opportunity to shape a holy book. What kind of questions would you want God to answer in the book, both for yourself and for future generations?
There are at least four big questions most people are interested in: Why are we here? What is the purpose of life? Why is there suffering? What does the future hold?
From an atheistic point of view, the answers to these questions are easy. We are here because a sludge of chemicals got together by themselves to form life in all of its complexity over billions of years. Life has no larger purpose other than to survive and reproduce. There is suffering because that’s just part of life. The future is unknowable, except for the inevitable overthrow of humans by the robots we designed to make our lives easier, who thousands of years later would have heated debates about how they must have evolved from primeval metal, until they too are overthrown by the robots they invent, in an infinite regress of creator robots.
Now, I don’t intend to suggest that this worldview is entirely bleak. We don’t watch a child building a sandcastle on a beach and think it to be pointless, just because the castle will be washed away moments later by the tide. We can still enjoy and appreciate life in the moment.
Nevertheless, for atheists, the life of an individual is a momentary ripple in the sea – here today, gone forever. This may sound pessimistic, but if God doesn’t exist, then at least it’s also realistic, and we aren’t deluding ourselves with fanciful but ultimately pointless notions such as prayer, repentance, holiness, resurrection, heaven, life after death and so on.
On the other hand, if God does exist, then the answers to our four questions may be completely different from those given by an atheist. However, only God could ultimately reveal the correct answers, otherwise we would still have to make our own deductions, which might not be much better than the answers I have just described.
Now, it has often been claimed that the Bible is a written communication from God, and I have already quoted from the Bible and provided evidence that it contains advanced scientific knowledge. However, can we prove it’s actually from God? In order to do this, we will first need to understand it better.
For now, I will simply put forward what I call the “Communication Hypothesis,” which is: the Bible was written by humans, but contains a record of communication and interaction between God and certain humans. This communication reveals God’s nature, and gives an in-depth answer to the four big questions.
Before we can explore this hypothesis further, I need to talk about what the Bible is and is not. The word “Bible” comes from the Greek word biblia meaning “books.” The Bible is really a collection of books or short pieces of writing such as letters, written over a span of perhaps a thousand years or more.
It’s also a different collection of books, depending on who you ask. In Judaism, the Bible includes books collectively referred to by Christians as the “Old Testament,” also called the Hebrew or Jewish scriptures. To Christians, the Bible also includes the “New Testament,” the collection of books, which are usually just short letters or fairly short gospels, centered around a figure called Jesus Christ, whom they believe to be the Son of God.
Christians refer to the Bible as “God’s Word,” but this phrase can be something of a word trap to an outsider. It doesn’t mean all the words contained in it are spoken by God. After all, the Bible also contains the words of God’s enemies, such as the Assyrian king’s mouthpiece who said, “Who among all the gods of the lands have rescued their land from my hand, so that YHWH should rescue Jerusalem from my hand?” 1 Clearly these are not the words of God!
As another example, in the Bible book of Job, God said to Job’s three friends: “You have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has.” 2 Yet the words of Job’s friends are part of the Bible. In fact, the book of Job is arguably the oldest written debate about the nature of God, and yet none of the characters in it were even Jewish, let alone Christian!
It also doesn’t mean God wrote the Bible. Instead, it was written by individuals who claimed to be prophets, servants and worshipers of YHWH, and in the case of the New Testament, apostles and disciples of Jesus. At times they directly wrote things that YHWH seems to have told them to write. At other times they seem to be writing their own thoughts and opinions, or the history of Israel. Sometimes the author even seems to be engaging in a debate with God, weaving their own questions and comments in with statements from God, as in the case of the short book written by the prophet Habakkuk.
In Judaism, the primary purpose of the Bible was to be a written record of the origin and history of Israel, the promises made to it, and YHWH’s interaction with it. For Christians, the New Testament is a record of God’s extension of his blessings, first to Jews and then to everybody else, by means of his Son.
All Christians believe that God inspired the Bible for the benefit of humans, but they differ with one another over what this actually means. Some believe every word was literally directed by God. 3 Others think God was more like an executive director – in overall control of the production, but not dictating every single word. For example, there was perhaps more control in the wording of, say, the Ten Commandments, than when the apostle Paul asked Timothy to bring with him the cloak Paul had left in Troas. In other words, Paul’s letter may have been inspired overall, but God may not have controlled every little detail. 4
Now, for the purpose of moving our discussion along, let me sum up the two opposing views of the Bible between atheists and believers. To the atheist, the Bible can’t be anything more than a fanciful collection of myths, fables and embellished historical accounts sometimes masquerading as prophecy, created perhaps by an elite priesthood to justify the creation and cohesion of ancient Israel, and later the Roman empire, and ruled by an imaginary god.
For the Jewish or Christian believer, the Bible is a broadly historical account, perhaps sometimes containing a measure of poetic license. It is primarily a record of the living God YHWH, Creator of the heavens and the Earth, in his dealings with humans in general, and with the nation of Israel in particular.
Since my hypothesis is that the Bible contains a written record of communication and interaction between God and humans, I will need to present further evidence for this. And while I could spend time examining the historical evidence for the events in the Bible, I will instead focus primarily on the reasons for certain key events mentioned in it, particularly when they reveal the nature of YHWH.
This is because, one spoken or unspoken objection to God’s existence is the nature of God as portrayed in the Bible. This, I will dare to suggest, is a big emotional reason for not believing in his existence. To put it bluntly: many atheists do not like God, particularly the God of the Old Testament. They see him as tyrannical, genocidal, sex-obsessed, bloodthirsty, and a generally unpleasant work of fiction.
Now, is this a truly fair assessment? To determine whether this is so, we will need to look carefully at the evidence, particularly the accounts that are the most disturbing to atheists. But before we can do this, we first need to consider the shocking story of the Hammer Killer.
1 2 Kings 18:35. 2 Job 42:7. 3 This view is based on the Greek word often translated as “inspired of God” or “given by inspiration of God” in 2 Timothy 3:16, which literally means “God spirited” or “God breathed.” It’s worth noting that if Paul was the author, he was probably referring to the Hebrew scriptures here. 4 2 Timothy 4:13.