Are there good reasons to believe that the Bible is true? Are there good reasons to believe that the Bible is the Word of God? Maybe you already believe that the Bible is true and that the Bible is God’s Word, but you’re not sure how to explain your beliefs to people who see Christianity differently. Let’s think through four key questions that tend to come up in conversations about the Bible.
- Is the Bible real?
- Is the Bible true?
- What do Christians mean when they say the Bible is the Word of God?
- How can we know that the Bible is the Word of God?
Is the Bible real?
What would you say if someone asked you, “Is the Bible real?” First, clarify what they mean by “real.” It’s generally uncontroversial to recognize that the Bible is a real collection of ancient documents which are held sacred by the Christian church. While Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics utilize books not recognized by most Protestants as Scripture, there is unanimous agreement among all three that the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments are not merely ancient, human writings. Rather, they are God’s Word to us.
Still, most people outside the church who ask, “Is the Bible real?” are often inquiring not about the mere existence of the Bible, but about the historical accuracy of the accounts it contains, as well as the truth of its claims, propositions, and teachings. For example, some may be hesitant to accept the idea that Jesus existed or that miracles like the resurrection of Jesus could really happen. Most people who ask “Is the Bible real?” often mean “Is the Bible true in what it claims?” So, how can we begin to think through the question, “Is the Bible true?”
Is the Bible true?
Many of our skeptical friends, family, and neighbors may not be familiar enough with the Bible to realize that it’s not just one book. This is understandable, as the printed Bibles most Christians carry into churches today can easily appear to be a single bound volume. However, this book is actually a collection of ancient texts written by a variety of authors in different times and places presented in two major sections:
- The Old Testament
- The New Testament
While the Old Testament refers to the Hebrew Scriptures, the New Testament is focused on the life and teachings of Jesus and his official spokespeople. It is important to help someone understand the basic nature of the Bible before having a discussion about its truthfulness.
Many people who see Christianity differently may not initially realize that the diverse books of the Bible represent a variety of genres, including stories represented as history and eyewitness testimony about Jesus. But could these accounts really be based on a true story?
Let us consider the central figure of the entire Bible: Jesus of Nazareth. The apostles Peter and John both claim to be eyewitnesses of the things Jesus said and did (2 Pet 1:16; 1 John 1). Luke believed that careful history based on eyewitness testimony could help increase Theophilus’s confidence that what Christians believed about Jesus was true, and this is one reason why he wrote his Gospel and the book of Acts (Luke 1:1–4; Acts 1:1). Although historians cannot corroborate every detail of past events, some people are surprised to find that the Gospel narratives fit the surviving traces of past events very well.
Many people outside the church have probably heard some of the core stories about Jesus. Take for example, the story of Jesus’s crucifixion, which is often depicted in great pieces of art and discussed in great poems and works of literature. Most people have seen crosses created as pieces of jewelry or crosses which adorn cathedrals and other church buildings. However, few people have read ancient non-Christian sources which agree with biblical details surrounding the death of Jesus.
Some may be surprised to know that Jesus’s crucifixion is mentioned by ancient sources which were not sympathetic to the Christian movement.1
Here are two examples:
- A first-century Jewish historian named Josephus wrote about the role of some Jewish leaders in Jesus’s crucifixion. In The Antiquities of the Jews, he mentions Jesus’s reputation as a miracle worker and his crucifixion at the time of Pontius Pilate (Antiquities of the Jews, 18.63–64).
- A Roman historian named Tacitus wrote about the Romans’ role in Jesus’s death in The Annals of Imperial Rome. In it, he mentions Jesus’s crucifixion and places it at the time of Pontius Pilate (Annals of Imperial Rome 15.44).
Additionally, the details of Jesus’s tomb described in John’s Gospel also match up very well with recent archeological discoveries about the details of tombs in Jesus’s Jewish context.2
Indeed, the details surrounding Jesus’s death in the first four books of the New Testament—the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—seem to fit well with known historical and archeological data.
Beyond historical corroboration, many have recognized that the content of the Old and New Testaments are profoundly united in presenting a consistent message about God while being radically diverse in terms of human authorship. Indeed, the people who wrote the biblical texts represent about forty authors from various cultures, times, and locations, writing over a span of over 1,500 years. This recognition may spark curiosity among those outside the church. Could the Bible be more than merely a collection of ancient religious texts? Could it really be God’s word? Before investigating these questions, it is important to define our terms. What does it mean to say that the Bible is the word of God?
What do Christians mean when they say that the Bible is the Word of God?
Beyond the claim that the Bible accurately reports historical events, Christians also believe that the Bible is a special collection of ancient documents that are God’s special communication to humanity. But where does this idea come from? If it is true, what are its implications?
The Bible’s claim about itself: the Bible is the Word of God
Many Christians first hear the idea that the Old and New Testaments are God’s Word from discussions of 2 Timothy 3:16–17. Here, the apostle Paul paints a picture of God breathing out the text:
Every scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, for reproof for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the person dedicated to God may be capable and equipped for every good work.3
So, the Bible presents itself as being “God-breathed” and a special collection of ancient texts that ultimately come from God. Still, this does not imply voice-dictation or a Christian version of “automatic writing” popular in the occult.
Christians who talk about the doctrine of inspiration refer to the concept that the Scriptures were physically written by people who were moved by God’s Spirit. They do not just mean that the Scriptures are inspiring to read, even though that is also true! Here is how the apostle Peter explains the origin of the divine message:
No prophecy of scripture ever comes about by the prophet’s own imagination, for no prophecy was ever borne of human impulse; rather, men carried along by the Holy Spirit spoke from God. (Pet 1:20–21)
Peter wasn’t only talking about the Old Testament here. He also includes the writings of the apostle Paul in his definition of the Scriptures, saying that some people distort some of Paul’s more complex ideas just like they distort other ideas of Scripture:
Therefore, dear friends, since you are waiting for these things, strive to be found at peace, without spot or blemish, when you come into his presence and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as also our dear brother Paul wrote to you, according to the wisdom given to him, speaking of these things in all his letters. Some things in these letters are hard to understand, things the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they also do to the rest of the scriptures. (2 Pet 3:14–16)
Moreover, the apostle Paul’s writings also show that early Christians saw both Old Testament and New Testament as Scripture. He writes:
For the scripture says, “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,” and, “The worker deserves his pay.” (1 Tim 5:18)
This verse is important to the discussion because Paul’s first quotation is from the Old Testament (Deut 25:4) and his second quotation is a saying of Jesus from the New Testament (Luke 10:7). Paul refers to both quotations as Scripture. So, when Paul writes that “every scripture is inspired by God” in 2 Timothy 3:16–17, he means that both the Old and New Testaments are God’s inspired word to humanity.
Thus, Christians don’t just believe that the biblical collection is merely a product of ancient human authors. Christians believe that God acted in history in order to communicate through people. Even though the human authors wrote with their own purposes and styles in their own languages and cultural contexts, Christians hold that God is ultimately the source of the actual words of the text. We can see this idea illustrated in the Gospel according to Matthew:
This all happened so that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet would be fulfilled: “Look! The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will name him Emmanuel,” which means “God with us.” (Matt 1:22–23)
Here, Matthew quotes an Old Testament passage (Isa 7:14) and asserts that it was spoken by God, who is the ultimate author of the text. But he also says that God spoke through the human prophet, Isaiah, who penned the quoted text. Later, we’ll see that Jesus saw Scripture in a very similar way.
Implications of the Bible’s claim about itself: the Bible is true
So the Bible itself claims to be God’s inspired Word. This implies other beliefs as well. One of these ideas is called the “inerrancy” of Scripture: If God is the divine author who supernaturally worked through human authors to communicate his message, and God does not lie (Num 23:19; Rom 3:4), then the Bible is true in all that it asserts and teaches. Christian theologians call this the doctrine of inerrancy. Paul Enns defines inerrancy this way:
The teaching that since the Scriptures are given by God, they are free from error in all their contents, including doctrinal, historical, scientific, geographical, and other branches of knowledge.4
By this definition, if the Bible is inspired, then it is true. Still, many people are especially hesitant to accept the supernatural elements and theological claims of the Bible. How can people who do not have a category for God or supernatural things in their view of reality begin to investigate the possibility that the Bible could perhaps be God’s Word?
How can we know that the Bible is the Word of God?
Is there a way for skeptics to begin to investigate the question about the Bible’s ultimate origin? One way to explain the historic conviction that the Bible is God’s Word is to approach the Gospels as a historian. Rather than assuming the inspiration or inerrancy of Scripture, this method requires the Christian to put himself or herself in someone else’s shoes and approach the conversation with their concerns in mind. I like to bring these kinds of conversations back to Jesus.
One way to explain the Christian belief in the divine inspiration of Scripture is to appeal to Jesus himself. That is to say, Christians believe that the Bible is God’s Word because Jesus taught that the Scriptures are inspired by God.
Jesus taught the divine inspiration of Scripture
First, Jesus taught that the Old Testament was God’s Word. Like most Jews in his cultural context, Jesus recognized two major divisions of the Old Testament: the Law and the Prophets (Matt 5:17). Further, Luke reports that Jesus referred to the Psalms as a special section of Scripture along with the rest of the Old Testament, calling all of it God’s revelation (Luke 24:44–46).
Jesus taught that David wrote by the Holy Spirit
The Gospels of Mark and Matthew both record an encounter where Jesus explicitly states that an Old Testament author was writing by the Holy Spirit. While Jesus was teaching in the temple courts, he poses a question about an oracle in Psalm 110. He raises the question about the identity of the figure David calls “my lord” in this text and mentions that the human author, David, was writing by God’s Spirit:
While Jesus was teaching in the temple courts, he said, “How is it that the experts in the law say that the Christ is David’s son? David himself, by the Holy Spirit, said,
‘The Lord said to my lord,
“Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet.”’
If David himself calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son?” And the large crowd was listening to him with delight. (Mark 12:35–37; cf. Matt 22:41–46)
Jesus taught that what the Scripture says, God says
On other occasions, Jesus seems to say “it is written” in order to invoke the authority of the Scriptures as God’s Word (e.g., Matt 4:4; cf. Deut 8:3). He appears to do a similar thing by using the phrase, “have you never read?” in order to ask “don’t you know what God says about this?” when referencing the Old Testament (Mark 2:25; cf. 1 Sam 21:1–6). But beyond treating the Old Testament as God’s Word, Jesus also seems to have anticipated the production of the New Testament—a new set of divinely inspired texts.
Jesus taught that God revealed a New Covenant
Jesus anticipated the New Testament writings. During Jesus’s final meal with his disciples, he spoke of God’s new covenant. Historians have recognized that this saying is preserved, albeit with slight variation, in two separate traditions: “This is my blood, the blood of the covenant, that is poured out for many” (Mark 14:24; cf. Matt 26:28) and, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (1 Cor 11:25; c.f. Luke 22:20). While Jesus perhaps said the former, the latter tradition adds the word “new” in order to make explicit what was already understood as implicit in the former. So, both are accurate in different ways. Indeed, Jews awaited the fulfillment of God’s promise of a new covenant for the forgiveness of sins and this is the new covenant that Jesus was talking about by alluding to Jeremiah 31:31–34, which record the prophecy:
“Indeed, a time is coming,” says the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah. It will not be like the old covenant that I made with their ancestors when I delivered them from Egypt. For they violated that covenant, even though I was like a faithful husband to them,” says the Lord. “But I will make a new covenant with the whole nation of Israel after I plant them back in the land,” says the Lord. “I will put my law within them and write it on their hearts and minds. I will be their God and they will be my people. People will no longer need to teach their neighbors and relatives to know me. For all of them, from the least important to the most important, will know me,” says the Lord. “For I will forgive their sin and will no longer call to mind the wrong they have done.”
This new covenant is God’s promise to forgive sin and restore the broken fellowship with people whose hearts would turn to him. Jesus’s disciples already recognized some fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant, along with elements of fulfillment of the Davidic Covenant precisely because of Jesus’s arrival as the promised Messiah. So, the new covenant which the prophet Jeremiah spoke about was the only covenant left to see elements of fulfillment.
The New Testament actually means “new covenant.” Just as God inspired the old covenant documents of the Old Testament, he also inspired the new covenant documents of the New Testament. These are the writings of Jesus’s apostles—his official spokespeople—the people to whom Jesus gave the promise that “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and will cause you to remember everything I said to you” (John 14:25–26; cf. Luke 12:12). This observation is very important when it comes to explaining how someone can investigate the idea that the Bible is the God’s Word.
How to explain that the Bible is the Word of God
Because God breathed out the Scriptures and he reveals truth to humanity, Jesus held that God’s Word is truth (John 17:17). However, for people who do not see the Bible as an authority, merely citing the Bible as authoritative may seem like circular reasoning. Therefore, the following is a suggested approach to explain the divine inspiration of the Bible when talking with people who see Christianity differently.5
- Jesus claimed to possess divine authority.
- God authenticated Jesus’s teaching by raising him from the dead.
- Hence, Jesus possesses divine authority.
- Jesus taught that the Old Testament is divinely inspired, and he promised the inspiration of the New Testament through his apostles.
- Therefore, the Bible is divinely inspired.
Part of my PhD dissertation research focused on the historicity of Jesus’s claim to possess divine authority. I concluded that there is continuity between Jesus’s claims and the early Christian belief in him as a divine figure because some of his enemies interpreted his words and deeds as unparalleled claims to possess divine authority. In fact, Jesus’s claims are part of what made him a unique kind of miracle worker in the ancient world.6
Thus, the key premise in this argument is premise 2: “God authenticated Jesus’s teaching by raising him from the dead.” If a historical case can be made for the resurrection of Jesus (as it can),7 point 3 follows: “Jesus possessed divine authority.”8 We have already seen how the Gospels provide good support for point 4: “Jesus taught that the Old Testament is divinely inspired, and he promised the inspiration of the New Testament through his apostles.”
In this case, given premises 1 (Jesus claimed to possess divine authority), 2 (God authenticated Jesus’s teaching by raising him from the dead), and 4 (Jesus taught that the Old Testament is divinely inspired, and he promised the inspiration of the New Testament through his apostles) the conclusion follows: “Therefore, the Bible is divinely inspired.”
How can we know that the Bible is the Word of God?
While many people find parts of the Bible difficult to understand, even more find some of the supernatural elements hard to believe. But the challenges and concerns which raise questions about the truth of the Bible are an invitation to investigate the claims of Jesus of Nazareth and the reports of his resurrection. If Jesus claimed to be divine and rose from the dead to vindicate his claims, Christianity is true and the Bible is the God’s Word.
Many people have reported such an investigation playing a role in their spiritual journeys from atheism to Christianity. That is, they did not begin with the idea that the Bible was true or that the Bible was God’s Word. Rather, their views on the Bible were clarified after careful study of the Scriptures, which they initially regarded as nothing more than ancient historical documents about religious subject matters.
Indeed, you don’t necessarily need to believe that the Bible is God’s Word before coming to the belief that Jesus rose from the dead and that Christianity is true. People like former Chicago Tribune legal editor Lee Strobel 9 and cold case homicide detective J. Warner Wallace10 investigated the texts concerning the resurrection of Jesus without first believing the Bible was true and later came to believe that the Bible is God’s Word.
While most people tend to assume that the Gospels are our earliest accounts of Jesus, it is actually the writings of the apostle Paul which are the earliest discussions about Jesus. Although Paul was previously a notorious persecutor of the Christian faith, he wrote the earliest books of the New Testament. Around AD 53–54, he quoted an ancient creed which was already in use before any New Testament book was ever written. He adds his personal comments to this creed as well, which encapsulates the gospel preaching of the apostles (1 Cor 15:3–8):
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
Here, Paul is talking about his conversion experience on the Damascus Road—an unexpected experience which changed the course of his life. Scholars believe his conversion occurred around AD 34/35. That’s within two years after Jesus was crucified in AD 33. This is evidence that the ideas contained in the ancient creed, including Jesus’s resurrection, were at the core of the proclamation that fueled the growth of the Christian movement. The story of Jesus’s resurrection did not emerge decades after Jesus’s crucifixion in AD 33.
By the Bible’s own standard, the resurrection of Jesus is the litmus test for the truth of the Christian faith. Paul goes on to explain to Christians that:
If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is futile and your faith is empty. … But now Christ has been raised from the dead. (1 Cor 15:14, 20)
So if someone asks “Is the Bible true?” or, “Is the Bible the Word of God?” point them to Jesus’s view on the matter. Why? Because the Christian’s perspective on the Bible is the perspective of Jesus. Rather than telling an unbeliever that Jesus’s resurrection is true merely because it’s in the Bible, Christians should invite unbelievers to consider the idea that Jesus’s resurrection is asserted by the Bible because it’s actually true. Indeed, the historicity of Jesus’s divine claims and resurrection are worth investigating. Because if Jesus rose from the dead, Christianity is true and the Bible is the Word of God.
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- Are There Contradictions in the Bible? An Apologist’s Answer
- For a brief discussion of all five sources, see Del Rosario, “Mikel Is Good Friday a Myth? What 5 Ancient, Non-Christian Writings Reveal,” Apologetics Guy, March 2013, https://apologeticsguy.com/2013/03/good-friday-jesus-myth/.
- Spinelli, Matt, “How well does archaeology match up with Jesus’ tomb in the Gospel of John?,” Apologetics Guy, April 2020, https://apologeticsguy.com/2020/04/archaeology-and-jesus-tomb/.
- Scriptures cited in this article are from the New English Translation (NET Bible).
- Paul P. Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology, rev. and exp. (Chicago: Moody Publishers), 638.
- My version of Cowan’s formulation replaces Jesus’s claim to be “God incarnate” in premise one with his claim to possess divine authority. The former may appear to be an unnecessarily high Christological claim to require an unbeliever to accept in order to process the argument for divine inspiration. The divine authority of Jesus is virtually synonymous with deity for this purpose, and it may perhaps be easier to begin a conversation with a skeptic utilizing Jesus’s claim to possess divine authority as a historical data point. See Cowan’s original formulation: Steven Cowan, “Review of Is the Bible the Word of God?,” in In Defense of the Bible: A Comprehensive Apologetic for the Authority of Scripture, eds. Steven Cowan and Terry Wilder (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2018), 429–64.
- For example, Jesus’s claim to forgive sins makes him a unique miracle worker. See Mikel del Rosario, “Was Jesus a Unique Kind of Miracle Worker?,” Worldview Bulletin Newsletter, June 26, 2022, https://worldviewbulletin.substack.com/p/was-jesus-a-unique-kind-of-miracle.
- See Gary R. Habermas and Michael R. Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2004).
- For examples of Jesus’ enemies calling him a blasphemer because they recognized his claim to possess divine authority, see Mark 2:1–12 and Mark 14:53–65.
- Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016).
- J. Warner Wallace, Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels (Colorado Springs: David C Cook, 2013).