I make no secret of my contempt for religious apologists. The reason: Their task is not to explore the implications of faith but to lull the faithful who might start questioning the authority of scripture and the truth of church doctrine. Sometimes these self-appointed Mouthpieces-for-God engage in debate with non-believers, but their main task is to reassure believers. It’s usually an easy task, because most believers want to be reassured and will gratefully swallow anything the apologist offers—no matter how cockamamie—that allows them to wave away their own questions and doubts.
The fact that believers want to believe reflects the fear engendered by doctrinal Christianity’s obsession with sin and salvation: fear of damnation, fear of God’s wrath, fear that their own doubts may doom them by short-circuiting their faith. Small wonder, then, that the church has so often exhibited a hostile attitude toward rationality and independent thought.
Bible-besotted True Believers place their primary faith in the notions of scriptural inerrancy and infallibility (the Bible contains no errors or inconsistencies, and it cannot mislead the faithful reader). These notions may be challenged by citing the Bible’s factual errors, logical inconsistencies or self-contradictions, and depictions of God as a vanity-driven genocidal monster. Apologists are ready to dismiss all such challenges. For some believers, the apologists’ assurance of the Bible’s accuracy and God’s righteousness is sufficient; but for others, who might look at the challenges to see if they are valid or why they are not, the apologists deliver ready-made or ad hoc explanations and justifications.
Let’s look at an example that shows clearly why such apologetics neither explain nor justify anything.
A penitent thief?
At Luke 23:40–43, one of the two thieves being crucified along with Jesus recognizes him as lord; he asks Jesus to remember him, and Jesus promises him, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” In the same story as reported by Mark (15:32) and Matthew (27:44), both thieves revile Jesus.
These accounts are plainly inconsistent. Luke reports that one of the thieves was penitent (this individual is traditionally but not scripturally identified as Dismas); Mark and Matthew report no such repentance on the part of either of the thieves. It may seem like a trivial detail, but an error or inconsistency means the text is not inerrant or infallible; these labels are categorical, so there is no such thing as “pretty darned inerrant.” (The disciples whose names are on the gospel accounts were not the authors, and the authors were not witnesses at the crucifixion—but that’s a separate issue.)
In most challenges that point to biblical inconsistencies, the apologist’s standard answer is that the challenger is reading the seemingly contradictory verses out of context. (A bogus argument: The fact that the verses seem contradictory means that the Bible is not infallible, for a truly infallible book would offer the explanation itself, without need for apologists.) However, the “context” argument cannot explain the discrepancy in the gospel accounts of the crucified thieves, because all three accounts are describing precisely the same event; so there should not be even the appearance of a discrepancy if the texts are really inerrant and infallible.
Because “context” is inapplicable to this challenge, the apologists must devise a different argument. They claim that all three accounts are completely accurate in describing events at different times during the crucifixion. Initially, both thieves reviled Jesus, as reported by Mark and Matthew; and then at some later time, one of the thieves had a change of heart, as reported by Luke. After all, the centurion was another character on the scene, and he had a change of heart, so why not one of the thieves?
It should be self-evident that this argument is untenable, but it will be useful to spell out the problems, to show the utter mindlessness of apologists and the gullible people who so desperately want to maintain their faith (by the way, this challenge is no threat to faith in God; it threatens idolatrous primary faith in a book).
The account in Luke is, frankly, a better story—a thief, dying, recognizes Jesus as lord, and so he will be saved! Then why didn’t Mark and Matthew report his repentance and salvation, even if it happened at a later time than when both thieves reviled Jesus? If the “different times” argument is valid, it means Mark and Matthew just walked away from the crucifixion, leaving only Luke there to hear and report Dismas’ repentance? Can anyone seriously believe that?
What about the centurion? Even accepting his story, the analogy to the penitent thief is invalid. The centurion’s words, commonly given as “Truly this was the son of God,” were spoken after Jesus died, and the earth shook and tombs were opened (Matthew 27:51–54); that is, the centurion saw terrifying and inexplicable events at the moment Jesus died, and so he became convinced of Jesus’ divine status. But Dismas’ recognition of Jesus as lord did not follow any such dramatic displays, so the centurion’s change of heart is not analogous to the notion that Dismas had a change of heart (initially reviling Jesus and then recognizing him as lord and repenting).
How can apologists do this? How can they peddle such nonsense? It’s easy when your audience desperately wants to be reassured. Start with conclusion—the Bible is inerrant and infallible—and then interpret the text in any way that will serve that pre-established conclusion. This is the opposite of rationality: instead of reading the text to determine whether the Bible is inerrant, just declare it so and then manipulate the text as needed to make it so.
Note that nothing in any of the three gospel accounts of this crucifixion scene gives the slightest hint that one of the thieves had a change of heart between the moment reported by Mark and Matthew and the moment reported by Luke. This notion has been invented by the apologists, based on absolutely nothing; it is just the story they devised to maintain the fiction that the accounts are actually truthful and consistent.
As if to illustrate that worship leaves no room for respect, apologists show no respect for the biblical text; they will twist it in any way they deem necessary to support the worshipful notion of scriptural inerrancy. And when they are called out for this travesty of intellectual thought, they maintain that their interpretation is perfectly logical.
No, it isn’t. It isn’t logical and it isn’t respectful. It is just the pseudo-pious fruit of their idolatry—shameless, unapologetic.