I recently wrote about how the Bible no longer seems to be a requirement for today’s Christian. Many have rejected it, often because of the cruelty contained within or the fact that we now know that evolution by natural selection was how human beings came into existence (as opposed to creation from dirt, breath and a rib) or any number of other reasons. The one common theme among those that reject the Bible either in part or in whole, is having READ it. Not just the verses displayed on church walls and discussed in Sunday sermons, but the difficult parts, the passages nonbelievers often quote. Many christians who still view the Bible as the perfect word of god are often surprised to hear what it actually says. It is easy to view the Bible as holy when you haven’t fully read it. There is no need to accept or reject what you are not aware of. However, the fact that so many who have read it have left the faith should arouse some serious questions for you as a believer.
The reality is that the Bible (and Christianity) are quickly going out of style. As a Christian, this should trouble you. No doubt it is the work of Satan leading people astray. Even if it is, wouldn’t it make sense to understand how or why so many are leaving? Why are your fellow brothers and sisters in christ rejecting the foundational text of your shared religion? I would think this would be a pressing area of inquiry for all members of the church right now.
Let me quickly point out that there are in fact believers who have fully read the Bible and are content with it. In the words of a reader earlier this week – the Bible is “living and active” revealing new bits of information to the reader like a magic tide of insight washing up different treasures each time you read it. This is actually a great rationalization because it points to mysticism instead of fact, an explanation that helps the believer to avoid asking questions about veracity because that is not the point. The point is the ebb and flow of personal messages from god to individual. This explanation helps keep doubt at bay.
Is the Bible the Inspired Word of God?
This is an important question to start with because if this is true, many of us are horribly misguided. This question is not a question of opinion. This is a question of fact. Either he inspired it (either in full or partially) or he didn’t. Something happened or it did not happen. This leaves us with a few options here.
The Bible was either . . .
- fully inspired by god as a whole and complete communication to humans
- partially inspired as in god had a hand in only parts of it and humans were solely responsible for other parts (meaning some of the Bible is the work of humans alone) or
- god had no part in it at all and it was entirely the work of humans.
If the Bible is not the work of god (because either god doesn’t exist or he had no hand in the writing of it), then it is just a story written by humans. This would mean that heaven, hell, the garden where god cursed Adam and eve (with original sin), Jesus as god or a part of god on any level, the entire concept of SIN, would all be completely imaginary because the Bible is the ONLY evidence we have for any of these concepts. This would mean Christianity is mythology as all the religions before it have since become. Read this sentence as many times as it takes to sink in: Sin does not exist outside of the Bible. People do bad things that we deem immoral but there is no cosmic judge to punish eternally for them. Not unless the Bible is true.
If the Bible is partially true and was part god’s message, part humans putting in stuff that had nothing to do with him – how would you discern which parts were his and which parts were human’s? The Holy Spirit? That seems plausible. However, if the Holy Spirit is the way humans are supposed to detect the god parts and the Holy Spirit is given to every christian, every christian that asked would be able to discern the same parts at different times without every having spoken to each other directly. They would all come to the same conclusion because there would only be one conclusion to come to. We would not see any disagreement because they were simply shown which were the correct parts. Obviously, this is not the case. There are a ton of interpretations and not only different but COMPETING interpretations – as in for one to be right, the other must be wrong. It is fairly safe to assume that the Bible is not some parts god inspired and some parts human writing only.
This leaves us with one final option. The Bible is fully inspired by god. Now, if this is true, then every disgusting act, every instruction, all the rape, murder, instructions for keeping slaves, incest, instructions on animal sacrifice, people being mauled by animals, blood spilling violence – ALL of it was penned and put together upon his instruction. Even if you believe that some of it is not relevant today (because many of the instructions given are morally wrong and could land you in jail if you followed them) – even IF he knew he was giving instruction to only a select group in a select time of history, even IF he was using metaphors of unspeakable things to illustrate a point – the fact is that HE THOUGHT IT PERFECTLY APPROPRIATE AT ONE TIME. The Bible says God does not change and yet if he does not hold you to live by his instruction as he held the men in the Bronze Age to live by, then how do you explain him changing his position on slavery, animal cruelty, etc? Why does he accept prison now when he commanded stoning then? Is your mind already going back to the but the Old Testament doesn’t count thing? I would suggest rereading Matthew 19 where it says not one word passes from the law and whoever obeys the law will be greatest in the kingdom of heaven. But, even if it does NOT count now, but counted at one time – it still counted and not only that, but he knew you would one day be reading it, yes? That millions would be seeking wisdom within its pages and would not only be confused but horrified at the position he used to take? Why would he choose to make things clear in the Bronze Age and revolting in the 21st century? Does that make sense?
The Bible Must Be Read in Context
I have been told many things about the Bible, but none as frequently as the phrase that the Bible must be read “in context.” Do you have to read The Odyssey in context? No, because you are not trying to say that there really was a cyclops in a cave or that supernatural stories really happened or are metaphors for our lives or that we can read any line of it and Poseidon will speak to you through it. Of course we don’t. That would be ridiculous. Instead, we read it and enjoy the stories, the adventure, the gods, and characters. There is no pressure to apply it to our daily lives or garner strength from it. However, the Bible must be read in context in order to make sense. Of course you don’t just READ it and UNDERSTAND it. You must study it, read books that others have written dissecting each and every word of it. Take entire classes in apologetics designed to teach you to how to respond when people point out inconsistencies, contradictions, or cruelties. You must memorize lines of text and repeat them in prayer, recite them in groups, sing them in songs, and commit them to memory.
So, let’s explore the context theory for a moment. What context are we talking about exactly? The time period? The culture? Why would an all powerful god be bound by the customs of one particular group of humans at one particular time in history in a tiny blip of the earth?
Seems silly that of all the time periods to choose from God chose to show up in the Bronze Age Middle East. Why not show up after the invention of the printing press or the camera or the internet? Isn’t it interesting that he is the most active in history the further you go back and the height of his appearance was at a time when people still didn’t know where the sun went at night? And that his appearances have strangely tapered off as we develop into a more and more intelligent, rational and technologically advanced society? No doubt some believers will say that this is because we have left him behind and that is our sin, not his absence. Think for a moment. Isn’t it at least POSSIBLE that it is because we understand that magic is not real and so have less cause to be amazed by things that happened thousands of years ago? If you came upon Abraham today putting his son on a concrete picnic bench in the park and raising a knife to bring down and kill him with – would you not intervene? Call 911? If he said god told him to do it, would you be satisfied with that answer? I’m willing to guess you’d want him thrown in jail just like any other parent that has attempted to murder their child. But WHY do you believe the Abraham story but don’t trust someone to hear the voice of god telling them to kill in present day? He has given kill orders tons of times in the Bible. Why wouldn’t he still be issuing them today if he truly does not change? What changed? You understand that hearing a voice telling you to kill someone is INSANE and delusional. THAT is what has changed from your Bronze Age brothers and sisters. We have evolved in our capacity for empathy, understanding, and morality well beyond the Biblical era.
God’s Word is Timeless, Therefore Compatible with 21 Century Understanding
Some believers argue that faith is fully compatible with science (it is not) and they contend that they can believe in god and still fully accept scientific discovery and evidence as fact. Science is simply the means by which God accomplished his work. I tend to think this is an arrogant position even though I once held it myself. Any new discovery is simply ‘claimed’ to be the work of God with no evidence to back up that claim. Either god did it or he didn’t. Something is there or it is not. These are facts we are talking about. Truths. And in order to assert a truth you need some sort of evidence to indicate that it is, in fact, true. I could just as easily say that there is a complex fairy society that orchestrates the creation of everything on earth. Is it true simply because I said it was? Do you believe it? No. Why not? Because I have given you no REASON to believe it because there is absolutely no evidence of a fairy society.
However illogical, let’s grant the premise that god did it (or Allah or the fairy society). In order to accept both faith and science in the way some believers suggest, they must minimize the value of their holy text.
Christians must acknowledge the many inaccurate claims related to science or math in the Bible, such as classifying a bat as a bird or the fact that the dimensions given for Noah’s ark are far too small and create a structure that would be impossible to house 2 of every species. Not to mention, how did they separate predator from prey? What did the animals eat for 40 days? Did they bring extra animals to serve to the large carnivores? Insects to serve to the ant eaters? Where is the fossil evidence of a great migration of different animals from the Middle East where the ark was to all the rest of the continents of the earth where they are found today? How did penguins make it there and withstand the heat of the Middle East? The more you think about the logistics of the ark, the more it is absolutely absurd.
The ark is only one example. There are many, many more. In order to reconcile these inaccuracies or statements that conflict with reality, the believer must then look at these stories, not as literal fact but as allegorical fiction. Little by little, as we grow in our understanding of the world around us, the literal truth of the Bible keeps growing smaller and smaller. Think about that for a moment. Doesn’t that seem to suggest that perhaps the entirety of the Bible may be reduced to metaphor in our lifetimes? If it can move from what was once considered fact (the garden of Eden, talking snake – completely accurate) to metaphor (the snake just represents the devil, it wasn’t actually the devil in snake form), is it really that difficult to see that the possibility that it may be entirely fiction that we have held on to but seem to be outgrowing? Egyptians fully believed in Horus and Ra and Anubis. They were fully committed to these gods. We see evidence of their devotion to these gods in images, relics, and magnificent tombs. And yet here we are in the 21st century and we know their gods are not real and their belief system is classified as mythology, not religion? Is Christianity different?
Accept or reject it, but READ it before doing either
Today, the Bible continues to shrink into metaphor. Fewer christians are picking it up and the ones that do either leave the faith, reject the text as a christian (as I mentioned here), or are considered fundamentalists for adhering to it because it requires commitment to what are seen as outdated and oppressive views that seek to deny the rights of others.
I remember the first time my husband made the suggestion that the Bible was actually written by primitive men. I was so offended. I didn’t think about what he was saying, only that I couldn’t BELIEVE he just suggested that the Bible may not be the word of god. It is hard to think about the Bible not being a holy text. It’s scary to think that the words on the pages are barbaric because the men who wrote them were barbaric. That there is no greater mystery contained within them than in the Odyssey or in the images inscribed in an Eqyptian tomb. But there is great comfort in acknowledging this. It is intellectual relief and moral freedom. Not freedom to go out and be immoral, but to associate morality with suffering rather than rules that are centuries old. This means that what causes others harm or suffering and makes your heart hurt for them is immoral. It is simply the acknowledgment of the moral principles you already live by that are completely independent of the Bible. Freedom comes when you realize that you don’t have to worry about what choices other people make in their lives as long as they are not inflicting suffering upon others. You can accept them and love them without having to judge them at the same time. It is a beautiful feeling when love doesn’t carry conditions. It is freedom to embrace knowledge without worrying whether it conflicts with an ancient text. You can read philosophical ideas from so many great thinkers throughout history. You can study science and feel completely at ease acknowledging what we know to be true, what you can observe with your own senses. There is freedom in learning all that you can without worrying about whether that knowledge is too ‘worldly’.
In closing, despite all of these things, there are still some believers who will not bother themselves with questions about inconsistencies or contradictions. Instead, they are content with the old standby of “you gotta have faith.” Faith used to mean believing without evidence, but now has come to represent belief in spite of evidence. I was guilty of inserting this stopper when something didn’t make sense and I remember feeling bad for people that had less faith than I obviously did, because they felt the need to question rather than just accept. Faith is a virtue after all. For the faith-ful christian, the Bible is not meant to be analyzed and dissected. It is “god’s love letter to humanity” and we may never be able to fully understand his wisdom. End of discussion.