“What if I don’t believe the Bible?”

creationI’ve run into a number of people who are struggling with Christianity because they’re not sure they can believe the Bible. If you can’t believe the Bible, how can you be a Christian?

The struggle tends to revolve around a tension between faith and science. Can you be a Christian without believing God created everything in 6 days? What if you don’t even buy that those days represent six geological eras (after all, the sun appears after the earth and its vegetation)? What if you struggle to believe a man named Noah got two of every kind of animal onto a big boat?

Some people and groups will tell you that you can’t be a Christian – or at the least that you don’t have enough faith – if you don’t believe these things. Some simply reject science in favor of whatever the Bible “literally says.” Some have come up with clever ways to show that the Bible and science are compatible.*

At the end of the day, though, even the most loyal biblical literalists fail to believe the Bible literally. None of them believe that Jesus was a literal vine, or that his disciples were branches, even though Jesus referred to them that way. Few, if any, believe that the rivers literally clapped their hands or that the mountains and trees sang for joy, even though we see those things happening in the psalms.

Why don’t we believe Jesus was a literal vine, even if we fully believe the Bible? Because we understand how to read a figure of speech. When someone speaks metaphorically, we don’t have to believe them literally to believe what they’re saying. Actually, we’re likely to totally miss their point if we’re focused on believing them literally.

What if there were big debates among Christians today about whether Jesus was a literal vine? First, we’d look pretty silly and lose a lot of credibility. But second, and even worse, we would miss the real point of Jesus’ statement, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”

I think much the same has happened in our faith and science debates – particularly regarding the early accounts in the Bible. 

I’ll come clean. I’m not sure I believe a historical couple named Adam and Eve were the first to walk the earth, that they encountered a serpent, ate fruit, saw that they were naked… Actually, I’m not sure a historical man named Noah ever took animals onto a boat and survived a flood.

Do I believe these things could have happened historically? Sure! I don’t question God’s power to have accomplished any of this historically. I just don’t believe that’s the point of the accounts. So I would say I believe these accounts deeply and fully for what they were intended to convey, even if I don’t necessarily believe them historically.

The early accounts in the Bible are written in a mythic fashion. Don’t take “myth” here to mean “false.” Ancient societies all had mythic poetic narratives that helped them understand who they were, who their gods were, and the purpose of all life. The first eleven chapters of Genesis – where we find creation, Adam & Eve, Noah, and the Tower of Babel – have the form of a mythic poetic narrative.

So what changes if we read the first eleven chapters of the Bible as mythic poetic narrative?

First, we stop fighting over whether it was six literal 24-hour days. Some people stop trying to prove how Noah got all those animals on that boat, while others stop worrying that they must not have enough faith because they don’t believe he did.

Second, we start believing the Bible in what I would call a deeper way:

  • We see that the creation narrative tells mankind shocking things – like that humanity was created in the image of a holy God (while most other cultures had less-than-holy gods who didn’t think very highly of humans)!
  • We are presented with one almighty God who created all things and called them good. A major contrast with the quarreling and only partially powerful gods of the surrounding cultures.
  • We see God’s deep anguish over humanity’s wickedness in the flood account, not the gods’ petty annoyance with humanity presented in other versions of that epic story.

[I’m not able to do justice here to a reading of these accounts as mythic poetic narratives. As I have seen them this way, they have become much more profound to me and important to my faith than when I simply believed them as history. Perhaps in the future I’ll try to give a more in-depth approach to them.]

If you have struggled to believe some of these early accounts as history, please don’t let that struggle prevent you from faith.

If you have fiercely supported the historicity of these early accounts, two things:

  1. I commend you for being dedicated to what the Bible says and believing it. I’m certainly not saying that you must stop believing these accounts as history to be a good Christian, or even to be right. I am asking you not to question others’ faith if they don’t call this history, though.
  2. Make sure you haven’t devoted so much attention to arguing that Jesus is a literal vine that you’ve missed the deeper point of “I am the vine; you are the branches.”

An important note here: I doubt that the first eleven chapters of the Bible are literal historical truth. I believe there are several pieces outside those first eleven chapters that may also qualify. I would insist, though, that the accounts of Christ’s incarnation, life, death, and resurrection are historical truth. I believe these were written to be understood as historical truth, and as the most important events of human history. I would be martyred for the belief that Jesus was historically crucified, died, and was buried. The third day he rose from the dead! I wouldn’t be martyred for the belief that the first woman was literally made from the rib of a man.

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* Perhaps the most perplexing of these attempts, in my humble opinion, is gap creationism. The theory is essentially an attempt to squeeze a whole new narrative in between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2, all to allow people to believe in a literal six-day creation  and also believe scientists who say that the world is really very old. Gap theorists say there’s biblical evidence to suggest this gap. Oddly, though, no one had ever noticed that biblical evidence until geologists’ studies started to show that the earth is much older than previously thought. Hmmm….

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