Of the various methods I’ve seen to “explain” these:
Now we get into the heart of the matter that Christians seeking to answer the skeptic need to pay close attention to.
1. “That is to be taken metaphorically” In other words, what is written is not what is meant. I find this entertaining, especially for those who decide what ISN’T to be taken as other than the absolute WORD OF GOD – which just happens to agree with the particular thing they happen to want…
There are those who will use the Bible to support whatever whacky or terrible position they wish to take. As bad as that is it doesn’t disprove the text it, only shows that humans will distort anything that will win them fame or fortune.
Having said that it is clear that the Bible contains several different genres of writing. Genesis is clearly written as history. The Psalms are written as poetry. Isaiah and Revelation are written as prophecy. Different genres make different points and are meant to be read in different ways. Histories are a straightforward telling of events. Poetry is meant to evoke an image and often exaggerates language to do so. Prophecy is meant to be handled very carefully and with patience waiting for the prophecy to be proven true. In other words you can’t read the Psalms the same way you read Genesis. You can’t read Jesus’ parables the same way you read Leviticus. There is a literary difference.
2. “There was more there than….” This is used when one verse says “there was a” and another says “there was b”, so they decide there was “a” AND “b” -which is said nowhere. This makes them happy, since it doesn’t say there WASN’T “a+b”. But it doesn’t say there was “a+b+little green martians”. This is often the same crowd that insists theirs is the ONLY possible interpretation (i.e. only “a”) and the only way. I find it entertaining they they don’t mind adding to verses.
We must be careful not to read into the text what isn’t there, or try to remove from the text what is there. In many cases the same event is told from different perspectives focusing on different elements. In fact, prosecutors can tell when witnesses in a trial are in collusion because their stories match exactly. When two witnesses tell the same story with slightly different facts the story is more likely to be true.
Now, for the Christian who tries to dogmatically claim that their interpretation is the only correct one, well, that’s why we need to discuss these things with other students of the Bible; for accountability and to make sure we aren’t forcing a meaning into the text.
3. “It has to be understood in context” I find this amusing because it comes from the same crowd that likes to push likewise extracted verses that support their particular view. Often it is just one of the verses in the contradictory set is suppose to be taken as THE TRUTH when if you add more to it it suddenly becomes “out of context”. How many of you have gotten JUST John 3:16 (taken out of all context) thrown up at you?
I can understand his frustration here as I have often been frustrated at modern Christians claiming something like Jeremiah 29:11 as their life verse. “I have plans to prosper you and not to fail.” Well, that might be true, but if you’re going to claim that verse, just know that the promise also contains 70 years in exile.
Now about context. Context is definitely important and the skeptic has a nasty habit of pulling the text out of it’s place in history, geography, and textual position. In other words, while Solomon could get away with saying his girlfriend was beautiful because she wasn’t missing any teeth, that might not go over so well today. Context is definitely important and if the skeptic wants to gain any traction at all they have to remember that the Bible was written with a cultural and historical context just like any other document.
4. “there was just a copying/writing error” This is sometimes called a “transcription error”, as in where one number was meant and an incorrect one was copied down. Or that what was “quoted” wasn’t really what was said, but just what the author thought was said when he thought it was said. And that’s right – I’m not disagreeing with events, I’m disagreeing with what is WRITTEN. Which is apparently agreed that it is incorrect. This is an amusing misdirection to the problem that the bible itself is wrong.
This one requires a long piece about Textual Criticism. Yes, there are transcription errors, but the reason we know they are there is because we find earlier copies without the error. Thus, the error is corrected in the modern text. Given the many thousands of copies we have of the Bible we can be assured that the text we have is correct. Got Questions? has a great piece on textual criticism.
5. “That is a miracle”. Naturally. That is why it is stated as fact.\n\n6. “God works in mysterious ways” A useful dodge when the speaker doesn’t understand the conflict between what the bible SAYS and what they WISH it said.
Granted, some Christians, when they can’t explain something will use these answers to get out of a tight spot. Nevertheless both are true. There are miracles in the Bible and when a miracle occurs it is a fact. God does often work in ways we can’t understand. If we could understand God 100% then He wouldn’t be much of a god. That shouldn’t stifle our natural curiosity though. Just because God can be mysterious doesn’t mean He doesn’t want us to try and figure it out.
One final note for the Christian; it’s okay to say, “I don’t know, but I’ll look into it.” Better to walk away without giving an answer then to give a bad one.
One final note for the Skeptic; thank you for reading and I do sincerely hope I can present some information to you that helps answer your questions. All I ask is that you be willing to listen one more time.