Thursday, April 21, 2005

How Could Anyone Believe the Bible These Days?

The Bible makes some outrageous claims.[1] I guess that’s why it is controversial. But I find it interesting that people doubt the Bible for different reasons. There are some who completely discount the Bible. They don’t read it, don’t want to, don’t care. We might call these folks secular.[2] A second group of folks see a value in the Bible, but understand it to be an ancient document, written for ancient times. It is a collection of great literature with some “golden nuggets” of wisdom and insight that has been passed down through the ages. We would be wise to glean from its pages. We might call these folks Liberal Christians.[3] A third group of people claim to follow the Bible “religiously.” They tell us the Bible is authoritative and infallible. It is God’s Word to mankind. We might call these folks Conservative Christians.[4] However, I want to make the case that none of these people believes the Bible, really.

Secular people look at the Bible and they don’t believe it can be true. They read about a man being swallowed by a fish and living (Jonah). They read about floating ax-heads (2 Kings 6), and the sun standing still (Joshua 10). They just can’t believe it, so they discount the entire Bible. Of course, we recognize that their unbelief is not simply intellectual; it is from experiential and existential reasons as well. I don’t think anyone is confused about secular people distrusting the Bible.

Liberal Christians look at the Bible and they like some of what they see. They are inspired by the story of David overcoming incredible odds by defeating the giant Goliath (1 Samuel 17). They are attracted to the message of the prophet Amos, “Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream” (Amos 5:24). They love the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the peacemakers…; Love your enemies and pray for [them]...; Do not judge or you too will be judged...” (Matthew 5-7). Here we find the wisdom and counsel of God himself, they think.

But Liberal Christians don’t believe it is all true. For example, they shudder to hear that God punished Achan and his whole family for a singular act of stealing by stoning them all to death (Joshua 7). They read that Jesus told his disciples that he will cast some people into utter darkness, into eternal punishment (Matthew 25). They read about the wrath of God being poured out onto all mankind (Romans 1). They just can’t believe it, so they discount those parts. And just with the secular folks, their reasoning is not just intellectual, it is experiential as well.

Liberal Christians commonly struggle (or at least ought to) with elitism. One can hardly get more arrogant than to suggest that he can determine which parts of the Bible are divinely inspired and which are not. This kind of understanding would require an amazing understanding of God prior to coming to the Bible. This discernment is usually attributed to hearing a “ring of truth.” Where does this “ring of truth” come from if not from inside a person? One must have an awfully high view of himself to determine what God said. I don’t think I could do that with my wife! Additionally, Liberal Christians are required to discount the (nearly) unanimous opinions of most of church history, which accepted the Bible as completely true, without reservation. However, I don’t think there is much confusion about whether Liberal Christians completely trust the Bible or not – mostly because they do not claim the Bible as completely authoritative.

Conservative Christians, on the other hand claim that they take the Bible as authoritative and infallible. I don’t believe them. Conservative Christians resonate with the story of Creation where God is sovereign over all things (Genesis 1). They tell and retell the story of the Exodus when God brings the Israelites out of the evil land of Egypt (Exodus 13-14). They love the practical teachings of the Apostle Paul such as “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers,” (2 Corinthians 6:14); “Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes,” (Ephesians 6:11); “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful,” (Colossians 4:2); and “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent,” (1 Timothy 2:12).

But Conservative Christians don’t believe it is all true even though they say they do. Unlike Secular people, they typically have no problem believing that the sun stood still, and an ax-head floated. Unlike Liberal Christians, they are typically comfortable with the punishment of Achan and the wrath of God being poured out on all mankind. But the Bible’s hardest statements to believe are not in these categories. Conservative Christians have trouble believing that God loves them.

Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Romans 5:7-8

This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 1 John 4:10

[Jesus said,] “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” John 10:11

Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare. Isaiah 55:1-2

This is just a tiny sample of what the Bible says about two things – humankind is in desperate need and God alone is ready, willing and able to meet that need. If you are a Conservative Christian, like me, you might be thinking, “I believe those things.” Do you? Really? If I really believed that God loved me completely and unconditionally, what would that do to me?

I remember as a little child, my parents took me to a children’s amusement park. Among other attractions there was a jungle of big thick nets spread among a network of short telephone poles. There were little nooks and cranies and places you could explore and hide and be generally adventurous. These nets had holes big enough for me to put my arm or leg completely through, but not big enough for my head to fit. I remember exploring with my dad, my brother and sister. We climbed all over the little “jungle” until I remember finding myself standing on a platform. I looked down and saw several nets underneath the one I was about to jump onto. The ground was far away, and I could see the tops of people’s heads through the various nets. As I looked at the net I was about to put my faith in, my faith started to doubt. My father was there laying on his back, looking up at me. He saw the fear in my eyes. He tried to reassure me. It’s ok. The net will hold. Look, it’s holding me! I said, Yes, but just barely – if I get on, it will break, and we will plunge to the ground. Nothing could be further from the truth. But I was convinced.

What would happen if I were totally convinced that the net would not break? I would not think about it at all. I would jump right onto it and keep exploring and enjoying the great adventure with my father. But my lack of faith held me on the platform.

What would happen if I were totally convinced that God’s love for me was infinite, eternal and unchangeable, as the Bible tells me it is? I would jump right into life and explore and enjoy the great adventure it has to offer. But my lack of faith holds me on the platform, still.

I am gripped by fear. There are times I fantasize about some dreadful thing happening, and the horrible consequences that would unfold. I think about being shamed, or losing my job, or embarrassed in front of my friends, or rejected by my wife. This motivates me to change my behavior to avoid any pain or suffering. I change my life based on my fears. If I were totally convinced that God’s love for me is infinite, eternal and unchangeable, things would be different. What can shame do to me if God has given me the glory of Christ Jesus? If God loves me, perhaps a loss of my job would take me in a wonderful direction. With the complete approval of God, why would I feel the need to gain approval from friends? If God has totally accepted me, I can easily abandon myself and give freely to my wife with no personal need to feel accepted by her.[5]

Multiple other examples could be given, and might be the subject for another day. My point here is this . . . the Bible says some unbelievable things. Even those who profess to believe the Bible entirely struggle on their best days to believe. Perhaps Conservative Christians ought to say, with the father who brought his demon-possessed son to Jesus,

I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief! Mark 9:24

[1] The reader should be warned that this article is not about religion per se, but about the Bible and people’s use (and abuse) of it.
[2] I hesitate to use this word, but I can’t think of a better one. I think this word is very emotionally charged, and I ask the reader to please forgive my lack of vocabulary. In debates such as these, most labels take on all sorts of nuanced meanings that cannot be thrown away easily.
[3] I’m using the term “Christian” here because it is my background. I would guess, though I am not really sure, that similar connections could be made in Judaism. I would be very interesting to learn from my Jewish brothers and sisters on this matter.
[4] I understand how this 3-tiered scheme of “Bible believers” is an extremely broad brush with many people left out of the picture. There are people who are “in between” tiers and many others. However, this scheme will serve to make my point, which is mainly toward the end of the article.
[5] Of course, this will free her from the pressure to perform well for me. Her freedom will help her to think of herself less and give herself more completely to me. The same could be said for all sorts of relationships in life – friendships, co-workers, parents, children, etc. This is one way God’s love for me “rubs off” on others and helps to make them more Godly. Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Hebrews 10:24.


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