Can You Believe the Bible?
BELIEF in the Bible remains widespread, even in this modern world. For instance, in a recent Gallup survey of Americans, 80 percent expressed belief that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. Whether the percentage is as high in your area or not, you can understand that such believers expect to be taught the Bible in church. But often they are not. Take, for example, the doctrine of punishment of the soul after death.
Is either purgatory or a fiery hell taught anywhere in the Bible? Today, many scholars in Christendom would answer no. The New Catholic Encyclopedia states: “In the final analysis, the Catholic doctrine on purgatory is based on tradition, not Sacred Scripture.” Regarding hell, A Dictionary of Christian Theology comments: “In the N[ew] T[estament] we do not find hell fire to be a part of the primitive preaching.”
In fact, the doctrine commission of the Church of England recently made headlines when it recommended repudiating the teaching of hellfire altogether. Dr. Tom Wright, dean of Litchfield Cathedral, states that past imagery of hell “made God into a monster and left searing psychological scars on many.” The commission’s report describes hell as “total non-being.”* Similarly, the New Catholic Encyclopedia notes regarding the Catholic view: “Theology today approaches the problem of hell from the angle of separation from God.”
Actually, what the Bible teaches about the soul conflicts with the teachings of purgatory and hellfire. The Bible often speaks of the death of souls. “The soul that is sinning—it itself will die.” (Ezekiel 18:4; compare the King James and Catholic Douay versions.) According to the Bible, the dead are unconscious, unable to feel pain. “The living are conscious that they will die; but as for the dead, they are conscious of nothing at all.” (Ecclesiastes 9:5) The hope that the Bible holds out for the dead is that of a future resurrection. When Jesus’ friend Lazarus died, Jesus compared death to sleep. Lazarus’ sister Martha expressed the hope taught in the Bible when she declared: “I know he will rise in the resurrection on the last day.” By raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus confirmed that hope for mankind.—John 5:28, 29; 11:11-14, 24, 44.
Historians point out that the teaching that man possesses a separate, immortal soul did not originate with the Bible but with Greek philosophy. The New Catholic Encyclopedia observes that the ancient Hebrews did not think of man as being composed of a material body and an immaterial soul. It states about the Hebrews’ belief: “When the breath of life entered the first man whom God formed out of the ground, he became a ‘living being’ (G[enesis] 2.7). Death was not regarded as a separation of two distinct elements in man, as in Greek philosophy; the breath of life departs and man is left a ‘dead being’ (L[eviticus] 21.11; N[umbers] 6.6; 19.13). In each case the word ‘being’ would be the Hebrew [neʹphesh], often translated ‘soul’ but, in fact, virtually equated with the person.”
That same encyclopedia notes that Catholic scholars recently “have maintained that the N[ew] T[estament] does not teach the immortality of the soul in the Hellenistic [Greek] sense.” It concludes: “The ultimate solution to the problem is to be found not so much in philosophical speculation as in the supernatural gift of the Resurrection.”
The Bible or Tradition?
How, though, did non-Biblical ideas make their way into church teaching? Many churches profess that the Bible is their highest authority. For instance, not long ago Pope John Paul II spoke of the need for Scripture to be “accepted by the faithful in the full depths of its truth and as the supreme rule of our faith.” It is generally accepted, however, that the teachings of Christendom today are not identical with those of the first-century Christians. Most churches regard the changes as part of the gradual development of church doctrine. Moreover, the Catholic Church takes the position that church tradition has the same authority as the Scriptures. The New Catholic Encyclopedia says that the church “holds no truth on the basis of Scripture alone, independently of tradition, nor on the basis of tradition alone, independently of Scripture.”
Historically, churches have replaced Scriptural teachings with those based only on tradition. In fact, many churches now hold that the Bible’s teachings are wrong. For example, the New Catholic Encyclopedia states that it is “obvious that many Biblical statements are simply not true when judged according to modern knowledge of science and history.” Speaking of the Biblical teaching that the dead are unconscious, it adds: “Even in religious matters, the O[ld] T[estament] testifies to an imperfect knowledge of . . . life after death.” The encyclopedia cites Psalm 6:5 (verse 6 in some Bibles) as an example of this: “In death there is no mention of you; in Sheol [or, Hades] who will laud you?” Some Protestant seminaries and colleges no longer teach that the Bible is inerrant. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, believes that it possesses the magisterium, or teaching authority, by which it interprets what is taught in the Bible. You might wonder, though, ‘What if such interpretations seem to be at odds with the Scriptures?’
The Importance of the Scriptures
Jesus repeatedly cited the Scriptures as authoritative, often prefacing his points by saying: “It is written.” (Matthew 4:4, 7, 10; Luke 19:46) Indeed, when Jesus spoke about man’s marital situation, he drew, not upon Greek philosophical conjecture, but upon the Genesis account of creation. (Genesis 1:27; 2:24; Matthew 19:3-9) Clearly, Jesus considered the Scriptures to be inspired by God and factual. In prayer to God, he said: “Your word is truth.”—John 17:17.*
The Bible records Jesus’ censure of the religious leaders of his day: “Adroitly you set aside the commandment of God in order to retain your tradition. . . . Thus you make the word of God invalid by your tradition.” (Mark 7:6-13) Similarly, the apostle Paul resisted the pressure to assimilate either Greek philosophy or erroneous traditions into his teaching. “Look out,” he cautioned. “Perhaps there may be someone who will carry you off as his prey through the philosophy and empty deception according to the tradition of men.” (Colossians 2:8; 1 Corinthians 1:22, 23; 2:1-13) There were some traditions, or teachings, that Paul urged Christians to maintain, but these were based on the Scriptures and were totally in harmony with them. (2 Thessalonians 2:13-15) “All Scripture is inspired of God and beneficial,” Paul wrote, “that the man of God may be fully competent, completely equipped for every good work.”—2 Timothy 3:16, 17.
Paul foresaw a drift away from the Scriptures. He warned Timothy: “There will be a period of time when they will not put up with the healthful teaching, . . . and they will turn their ears away from the truth.” He urged Timothy: “You, though, keep your senses in all things.” (2 Timothy 4:3-5) But how? One way is to be “noble-minded.” A Greek lexicon defines this Bible word as “a willingness to learn and evaluate something fairly.” Luke used this expression to describe Paul’s listeners in first-century Beroea. Paul’s teachings were new to them, and they did not want to be misled. Commending them, Luke wrote: “The [Beroeans] were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with the greatest eagerness of mind, carefully examining the Scriptures daily as to whether these things were so.” Being noble-minded did not make the Beroeans skeptical, disinclined to believe in anything. Rather, the result of their honest inquiry was that “many of them became believers.”—Acts 17:11, 12.
Benefits of Living by the Bible
The early Christians were noted both for their adherence to the Bible and for their self-sacrificing love. Today, however, many people have “a form of godly devotion but [are] proving false to its power.” (2 Timothy 3:5) Any form of Christianity today that is not faithful to the original cannot have genuine power for good in people’s lives. Could this help to explain why, in the greater part of Christendom, we see increasing violence, immorality, family breakdown, and materialism? In some “Christian” lands, vicious ethnic wars are carried on even between members of the same religion.
Has the noble-minded spirit of the Beroeans died out? Is there any group of people today who believe in and live by the Bible?
The Encyclopedia Canadiana observes: “The work of Jehovah’s Witnesses is the revival and re-establishment of the primitive Christianity practised by Jesus and his disciples during the first and second centuries of our era.” Referring to the Witnesses, the New Catholic Encyclopedia notes: “They regard the Bible as their only source of belief and rule of conduct.”
No doubt this is a major reason why Jehovah’s Witnesses around the world are known for their spiritual prosperity, peace, and happiness. We therefore encourage our readers to learn more about the Bible’s spiritually healthful teachings. Greater knowledge can lead to even greater trust in the Bible and stronger faith in God. The eternal benefits of such faith are well worth the effort.
National Public Radio—“Morning Edition”
For further information on the reliability of the Bible, see the brochure A Book for All People, published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.
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The apostle Paul and others preached in the marketplace
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Jehovah’s Witnesses “regard the Bible as their only source of belief and rule of conduct”