Archaeology, the Bible, and the Leap of Faith

Author Greg Koukl Published on 11/01/2002

Does the archaeological accuracy of the Bible have anything to do with it’s truth claims? Not according to many world-class archaeologists. There’s a catch, however, which tells us volumes about modern man and his dilemma.

I have held for a long time—along with many Christian apologists—that archaeology is a great ally of Christians. It is one evidence of the Divine authorship of the Bible because it consistently vindicates the historical accuracy of Scripture.

Imagine my shock when I learned that many world-class archaeologists disagree.

I was flying to Israel reading an article in the 20th anniversary issue of Biblical Archaeology Review 1 in which scholars addressed three issues: the greatest achievements of biblical archaeology, its greatest failures, and the challenges it continues to face. As I read through the article, I noticed two themes unfold.

The first was a concern voiced by many of the contributors—some of them Jewish archaeologists, some Christian (though not evangelical or conservative)—who bemoaned the attempts of fundamentalists to use archaeology to “prove” the religious claims of the Bible.

This was an embarrassing revelation to me because I had been advocating that very thing. Yet here were prominent archaeologists saying that this misuse of their discipline deeply annoyed them.

There was a catch, though—the second theme. These same archaeologists continued to maintain with equal conviction that their research had confirmed, by and large, that the history of the Bible was sound.

Confused Convictions

Sometimes these two themes were played out side by side. Menahem Mansoor, a professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, said:

Biblical archaeology’s greatest significance is that it has corroborated many historical records in the Bible. Biblical archaeology has failed to deter people who seek to validate religious concepts by archaeological finds. These people should not confuse fact with faith, history with tradition, or science with religion.2

Israel Finkelstein, co-director of excavations at Tel Megiddo and professor of archaeology at Tel Aviv University, said:

The most obvious failure [of archaeology] has been the abuse of the “old Biblical archaeology” by semi-amateur archaeologists. I refer to the romantic days when a special breed of archaeologists roamed the Middle East with a spade in one hand and the Scriptures in the other. These were the times of desperate attempts to prove that the Bible was correct.3

David Ussishkin, professor of archaeology at Tel Aviv University, made similar comments about the problems of drawing religious conclusions based on the historical evidence in the Scriptures even while he made this interesting admission:

A fundamental question asked all over the world during the last two centuries is, Is the Bible true? Do the narratives related in it represent real events and are the figures mentioned there real people who lived and acted as the Biblical text tells us they did? ....In general, the evidence of material culture fits the Biblical account beginning with the period of the settlement of the tribes of Israel in the land of Canaan and the establishment of the kingdom of Israel. Hence, archaeological data are consistent with the view that at least this part of the Biblical account is, in general, true and historically based.4

Aren’t these statements odd? These eminent scholars admit archaeological evidence demonstrates that the historical record of the Bible is reliable, by and large. Yet they add a disclaimer warning us not to draw religious conclusions from the accurate history in the Scriptures.

My question is, “Why not?” Because, they say, this would be confusing history with religion, facts with faith.

Yet isn’t this precisely the point of the biblical narrative? Isn’t this the unique feature of Judaism and Christianity, that its religious claims are rooted in history? Isn’t this the whole point of God acting, that His revelation is given in the context of events that can be measured and quantified?

Seeing the Unseen

We learn a lesson regarding this from Jesus. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus caused a stir when He forgave the sins of a paralytic. As the scribes noted, forgiving sins was God’s privilege, not man’s. Further, how could anyone know if Jesus was telling the truth? It’s easy to make claims about an invisible realm that can’t be tested.

Jesus understood this, so He gave the people some tangible evidence. He said, “‘In order that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—He said to the paralytic—‘I say to you, rise, take up your pallet and go home.’” (Mk. 2:10–11)

This supernatural healing was an historical event, what Jesus’ biographers called an “attesting miracle.” Jesus gave them something they could see in the physical realm to substantiate a claim He was making about something they couldn’t see in the spiritual realm. History proved religion. Facts substantiated faith.

The historical record in the Hebrew Bible serves the same purpose. The great redemptive act in the history of the Jews was their escape from slavery in Egypt. In the writings of Moses we find an historical record of the events leading up to this exodus.

If we could show that these events took place largely as described in this account—that ten plagues culminating in the death of the firstborn of Ramses II shook the foundation of the greatest nation on earth at the time, and that the Hebrews then escaped across the Red Sea with the Egyptian army destroyed in its wake—wouldn’t it be fair to say this history has “religious” significance?

The record itself claims as much. In Exodus 9:14 we find this statement: “For this time I will send all My plagues on you and your servants and your people, so that you may know that there is no one like Me in all the earth.”5 Once again, a series of observable, historical events (plagues) were meant to verify unobservable, spiritual truths.

The resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth serves the same purpose in the New Testament. If, using the accepted cannons of historical research, we demonstrate that Jesus rose from the dead—as four different detailed records of Jesus’ life claim—wouldn't it be reasonable to conclude that this fact has something to do with the veracity of the Christian faith?

The apostle Paul thought so. He said that if Jesus had not risen from the dead, then Christians, of all people, ought to be pitied.6 The truthfulness of Christianity, just like the truthfulness of ancient Judaism, is necessarily tied to historical events. These redemptive claims cannot be separated from the facts of history, because history is a record of the redemptive acts themselves.

Strange Schizophrenia

When world-class archaeologists acknowledge that their research supports the Bible’s historicity, and then in the next breath warn, “This doesn’t mean the Bible is true,” they admit to a strange schizophrenia.

Dr. Francis Schaeffer described this malady in a little book entitled Escape from Reason. Schaeffer’s analysis helps us understand why archaeologists say the Bible is accurate—that their craft has overwhelmingly demonstrated the reliability of the Bible as an historical text—yet continue to assert this has nothing to do with the truthfulness of Scripture in other areas.

Schaeffer explains that modern man lives in an oddly fractured world. His life is lived on two different planes. Picture a two-story house with no staircase connecting the upper story with the lower story. The lower story consists of one kind of reality—facts, science, the laws of nature, rationality, logic, the world as it really is. The upper story is where values, meaning, religion, faith, morality, and God reside.

The tragedy of modern thinking is that there is no way to bring the two together. Schaeffer calls this the “line of despair.” There is no way to extract transcendent meaning from the mere facts of life. There is no way to infer religion or morality from the details of the world as it really is. The line that separates the lower story from the upper story is absolute and impermeable.

Modern man is split in two. In the lower story—the “real” world—he is imprisoned in a machine-like universe of cause and effect, matter in motion. His life is determined by natural forces which cannot be violated and which he cannot control. Mankind is dust in the wind, leading to despair.

Modern man’s only hope is what Schaeffer calls the “upper-story leap.” Meaning and significance cannot be found in the facts of the real world. Therefore, they must be fabricated by our imagination and believed against all fact and reason. Man invents significance, value, and morality for himself by making an irrational, blind leap of faith into the upper story. This alone gives hope, but it’s only a placebo. It gives nothing substantial to answer our despair. It only makes us feel better.

Listen to Schaeffer’s sober description of the plight of modern man:

What we are left with runs something like this: Below the line there is rationality and logic. The upper story becomes the non-logical and the non-rational. There is no relationship between them. In other words, in the lower story, on the basis of all reason, man as man is dead. You have simply mathematics, particulars, mechanics. Man has no meaning, no purpose, no significance. There is only pessimism concerning man as man. But up above, on the basis of a non-rational, non-reasonable leap, there is a non-reasonable faith which gives optimism. This is modern man’s total dichotomy.7

Faith in the Real World

This theme plays itself out daily in our culture. Pick up any newspaper or tune in to any talk show where moral or religious issues are being discussed. You’ll see this upper-story leap in evidence.

In the Los Angeles Times one writer, commenting on the Pope and Catholicism, gave the “fashionable” perspective:

“Religions are concerned with spiritual matters that are subjective, personal and private. One need have no proof or justification for one’s spiritual beliefs, because no one has the right to presume to judge the validity of those beliefs.”8

To this man, religious claims are in a separate category from fact. Spiritual beliefs are inventions of one’s own mind or blind leaps of faith. In neither case do they have anything to do with the real world. Therefore, there can be no objective foundation from which to make judgments.

This writer is describing Schaeffer’s upper story. Belief can’t be analyzed by fact or by argument because ultimately there is no relationship between religious belief and fact. There is no connection between the content of the upper story—value, meaning, significance, morals, religion, God—and the facts of the real world in the lower story. To suggest otherwise is foolish, false, and in today’s culture, rude.

Even our legal system operates by these rules. Gone is the confidence of the Founding Fathers who wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” The men who penned the Declaration of Independence held that the transcendent truths which were the foundation of the Revolution were also facts of the real world, facts so real they staked their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor on them. No line of despair here.

That has radically changed, though. In a recent Supreme Court Case, the court ruled, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”9 Even the Supreme Court admitted that issues of the upper story are completely subjective. We’ve gone from self-evident, transcendent truths to every man defining truth for himself.

This same “upper-story leap” is echoed in modern science. The late Stephen Jay Gould—outspoken Harvard paleontologist and popular writer on evolution—claimed:

Before Darwin, we thought that a benevolent God had created us. [Now we know that] no intervening spirit watches lovingly over the affairs of nature, (though Newton’s clock-winding God might have set up this machinery at the beginning of time and then let it run). No vital forces propel evolutionary change. And whatever we think of God, His existence is not manifest in the products of nature.10

In spite of statements like these, Gould held that evolution presents no threat to religion, and that many of his colleagues believe in God. How can we make sense out of Gould’s apparently contradictory views? It only makes sense if “God beliefs” are not in the real world of the lower story, but in the “faith” world of the upper story.

Notice the impermeable barrier between the upper and lower stories. The world evolved by natural laws. Divine intentions had nothing to do with it. Believers are welcome to cling to the idea of God as long as they understand that their religious language has nothing to do with reality. It’s just a religious placebo. In the real world we know better. We’re the mindless product of molecules clashing in the universe. Nothing more.

The schizophrenia of modern man permeates the public discourse and influences the disciplines of science and the dictates of law. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, to find the same thing in history and archaeology.

Restoring Harmony

The archaeologists I cited hold that religious truth has nothing to do with reality. The Bible is accurate where it touches history, but it is a misuse of archaeology, they claim, to suggest that such things can substantiate one’s private, personal, upper-story leap of faith.

Why do these scholars hold this? Because they must. They are modern men.

There’s a reason the Bible is a record of history and not merely a list of religious beliefs. God has tied religious claims—which can’t easily be tested—to historical events—which can be verified to a significant degree.

By their very nature the events of the Bible have ramifications for transcendent truth. If Jesus rose from the dead as a point of historical fact, intellectual honesty requires we not dismiss it as an interesting but meaningless fact of history. Instead, we are forced to concede with the apostle Paul that Jesus of Nazareth was “declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead.”11

For the Christian, there is no “second story leap.” Instead, there is harmony between our spiritual convictions and the particulars of our world. Archaeology—along with recorded history, science, philosophy, etc.—gives our faith a real purchase point, a secure footing. We are not just guessing; we’re not making this up; we’re not merely emoting. The truths of history and the truths of Christianity are linked together, both part of the real world.