- Is Salvation by faith alone?
- To kill or not to kill.
- Were there men or angels inside or outside the tomb when the women arrived?
- How did Judas die?
There are hundreds of them. Dan Barker seems especially fond of this kind of argument, as he has his “Easter Challenge” in which he asks Christians to reconcile the death of Jesus from the four Gospels into one coherent story.
At least one Christian apologist, Stephen Kingsley, has claimed that he’s been able to solve this challenge. I tried to read the answer he outlined at EasterAnswer.com, and frankly I don’t have the stamina to go through the whole thing and look for gaps. John Loftus claims that he failed, saying “His attempted harmonization is far fetched and as such no answer at all.”
Right… so it’s far fetched. Would that be more or less far fetched than the underlying story where Jesus rose from the dead after three days?
In general, I find it a waste of time to argue about whether the Bible tells a coherent, self-consistent story. I’m not saying that you can’t make a case against the Bible in this way; I’m just saying that by and large, Christians will not care. Since I’m concerned mostly with the effectiveness of arguments against Christianity in practical situations, an argument that kills time and goes nowhere is sometimes just as bad to use as an argument that has obvious logical inconsistencies.
What those arguments come down to is this: You’re debating the particular details of a fictional universe. It’s much like if you were to go to a Harry Potter meeting at Comic Con say “Wait a minute, it doesn’t make any sense that Hermione would have a time traveling device in Prisoner of Azkaban but then give it back to Dumbledore without doing anything else useful with it. She could have saved a ton of lives if she’d used it properly in future books, especially Deathly Hallows!”
Even if you happen to be right and you’ve found a plot hole, a really dedicated Harry Potter fan can always make up some kind of excuse that forces the story to make sense somehow. They can say “Ah, but you see, time travel in the Harry Potter universe has certain limitations which prevent you from interacting with your own past self / affecting large scale events / reversing the polarity of the phazon emitters / whatever.” Once you recognize that the universe is fictional and malleable so that you can make up your own rules as you go along, you can’t ever really force the fans to acknowledge an internal inconsistency.
If nothing else they can always play the trump card for getting out of any plot difficulties. As Lucy Lawless said in a guest appearance on The Simpsons: “Uh, yeah, well, whenever you notice something like that… a wizard did it.” Lots of stories have wizards, sonic screwdrivers, infinite improbability drives, a magical substance called Unobtainium whose properties are impossible to pin down… anything that can magically explain away any perceived problems with the plot. Some of these stories make them more obvious than others. You can easily criticize an author who relies too much on this sort of device as being a hack, but you can never really “disprove” the story by griping about its literary shortcomings.
You’ll find no shortage of apologists who are willing to devote a ridiculous amount of time to reconciling the perceived inconsistencies of the Bible. How did Judas die? One gospel said he hanged himself, one said he jumped off a cliff and his guts spilled out. The answer at carm.org is: He hanged himself, then the branch broke, then he fell down and burst open. Never mind that Acts doesn’t bother to mention the trifling detail that Judas was hanging from a tree first; never mind that it doesn’t make sense to ignore this detail from a literary point of view. If you start from the premise that the Bible is always accurate, then you can just pull out your favorite infinite improbability drive type of excuse. (Interesting note: In The Passion of the Christ, Judas hangs himself and that’s it. Mel Gibson was not nearly as concerned with playing these games as with making a movie.)
Sure, two women who came to see Jesus saw a stone in front of the tomb, and saw two men there, then went away, then came back again and saw one angel, and a second one showed up, having already moved the rock. Whatever. Just shuffle the pieces around like a jigsaw puzzle, and whatever you come up with — however thematically ridiculous it may sound — is correct as long as it leads to your desired conclusion.
And if none of that works, any story where God’s involved has the ultimate “a wizard did it” card to play. What’s that? You say the ark couldn’t possibly house all those animals for a year without eating each other? No problem, because a god did it. How could a man survive for three days in the belly of a giant fish, wouldn’t it digest him and kill him? Where would he get fresh water? A god did it. How does the trinity make sense? Well, it’s a beautiful mystery, you know, but it makes sense because a god did it. Now you’re getting it. It’s easy, see?
Finding those inconsistencies and examples of just plain terrible story telling is certainly an interesting exercise for the reader. But pointing them out to a serious fan of the fictional universe is by and large a massive rabbit hole that you don’t want to waste time in, unless you want to become the same kind of Comic Con attendee who is obsessively devoted to one and only one piece of literature.
That’s why I try not to get bogged down in conversations about details of the Bible. I just skip it and ask the one question, “What reason do I have to believe that any of this is reliable?” That usually saves a whole lot of time and doesn’t give unwarranted credibility to something that’s just a story in the first place.