For many that hear about deconstructing one’s faith and having a different look at the Bible, this question becomes central:
If the stories we so love might not have happened, how can I trust the Bible? Where do I stop taking it literally? And is it all one big lie then?
There is so much to say to that, but first, let me assure you: I understand where you are coming from.
Let me start by telling you that all our beloved stories might well have happened. But, as we will see, that is not the most important feature of the biblical stories at all.
If it were, the Bible would mainly be a history book, a chronic of Israel and the church, covering the first 4000 years of the history of this universe.
We say that humanity does not learn from history, and it is easy to see why. At the moment, we are in a time of war, and many liken what is happening to historical precedents.
Putin talks about the era of Peter the Great, while most Westerners see much more parallels to the second world war. But we can also look at Georgia, Chechnya, and Syria. Which is it now?
It is important which we pick because the strategies and remedies are different. History only gives us stories to learn from, but it is our interpretation and application of those stories that change our own situations.
But if this is true, how relevant is it for the historical blueprint to have actually happened? Or could a well-thought-out war movie inspire us to find the solution, though fictional?
When Jesus tells a parable, can we learn from it even though it did not happen? Let’s take the parable of the prodigal son. Does it speak to us, and has it not spoken to us for the last 2000 years in different interpretations and applications, even though the son probably never existed and the story did not play out this way?
We were able to take it as a metaphor and learn from it anyway.
What if I told you that we lately found some scrolls that named the family and put the story in the context of first-century Nazareth, and that Jesus probably was telling the story of one of his childhood friends. Would that make this story somewhat more true? Is it more applicable because you now know that the son was called Simeon?
I am sure that somebody would come up with great teaching about Simeon being the one who hears, and all the parallels to the story of Simeon of old, Joseph’s brother.
Obviously, we have not found any evidence of this being a historical account, and still, we learn tons from it.
What difference then would it make if Cain and Abel were no real people?
The prodigal son has taught us to apply what we read to our own lives, and find ourselves in the role of each of the participants at times. We all ran away, we all were self-righteous, and we all learned to apply grace through that story.
Putting our focus on historicity in the story of Cain and Abel might distract us from applying it to our own lives. The energy we use to prove the historicity of the story of Noah takes up so much time we could use to learn from this story.
Jesus tells us that we have already committed murder when we think about murdering somebody. Have you thought about killing somebody? Have you been Cain? Has anybody thought about killing you? Have you therefore been in the role of Abel? Or did you have to deal with a struggle between brothers?
Could the story of Cain and Abel help you in such situations? Can you see the protection of the tribe and the family in sending away Cain? And the grace God extends to Cain at the same time? Can you understand the problems that Seth, their next child, could face, as he might have been treated as a replacement for Abel, and if misbehaving, looked at as a copy of Cain? Can you see this story playing out thousands of times in our culture today?
And if so, does it matter whether the first people to have this struggle really were named Cain and Abel? Would it be a problem if the story actually was one that formed over the millennia at the campfire with elders telling their wisdom contracted and distilled from thousands of such situations they and their ancestors had to deal with?
Would this story then be a lie? Or would it be on a certain level even more true?
True and false are categories we need. Today’s environment with all its fake news does show us that clearly. But judging everything along those categories is like driving into the other ditch.
There is no added value in winning the war over science by proving the historicity of the flood story. This only shows that we do not understand science at all. Science is on a search for truth, and ready to dismiss its theories for better ones at any time.
We just try to convince science with stories that never were meant for that purpose.
The story of the flood was never coined, historical or not, to prove the existence of God, the creation story, or the inerrancy of the Bible. It was told to instill trust amid catastrophic crises, and it was told as an explanation of the why of such things.
While today, we can see better explanations as we have a deeper understanding both of natural laws and God’s workings, we can still learn to trust from that story.
This is an important point because those stories were not primarily told to prove somebody wrong, but to teach us about life and to explain the unexplainable.
And while they can still teach us about life, the explanations have been found to be a bit on the magical, simplistic and naive side at times.
But remember the tools for understanding available to those people: they did not have scientific methods, logic had not been developed, reasoning was not in their toolbox, and technology was limited to fire and primitive weapons, with not even the wheel available.
Remember when you were a child and asked your dad or mom about something. They gave you an explanation that fit your understanding, maybe stretching it a bit, but they did not turn to a science book unless you were a prodigy of course. Their explanations later were expanded, corrected, and even falsified, and still, they were satisfying and helpful to you when they were given.
While technically being incorrect or short of the truth, they were life-giving to you at the time and allowed for further growth and curiosity.
We often look at those stories from our modern vantage point. We apply what we call truth today, and we apply our own worldview.
Alexander the Great conquered the whole world. The whole world? Really? He conquered the world known to him. That certainly did not include the Americas.
The flood covered the whole earth. Can you see where I am going with this? Even local floods covered all the territory at times that were known to those affected. Why would we need them to cover the whole planet to be true?
You might say that God knew and that we could consider it a lie if he told the writer it was the whole earth when it was a local phenomenon. This would lead to exactly the problem we have today because we know the whole planet and still the story must be true.
You have a point there. If God were acting from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, he would have certainly looked for factual and historical correctness. But he is not acting from that tree.
Jesus called God our Father. Do you think that your father was a liar because he simplified his explanations to you and made them understandable within the framework of your life? A life that did not have a grasp of reality beyond your horizon? Or did your father instill other things into you, like trust, admiration, and a basic understanding of how the world works, even though you later found out, that technically, it does not?
God did not really want to tell us how the world was created. Frankly, I think we could not understand it still today, so no matter how historically correct, factual, and scientifically true God would tell the story, it would be a simplified version if we were to understand even only parts of it. And we would concentrate on the wrong thing: understanding rather than trusting that God made everything and therefore knows his creation.
And there is one more dimension. While science wants to tell us how all this came into existence and functions, God wants to tell us why all this exists.
God himself allowed this conflict to come up. He knew that there would be a time when you asked yourself: if all this might not have ever happened, is God a liar then? Can I trust the Bible, and where do I stop?
He knew that there was a danger that you would run from him for a while, just like the prodigal son. Maybe you would not run because you wanted your personal freedom, but because you doubted the well-meaning and truthfulness, maybe even the existence of the father.
But, just as he told us in the story, he would wait for you to return and keep on loving you. He would trust your mutual relationship to be stronger than your doubts, and he would trust that you would come to your senses.
The prodigal son wanted to come back into the old home, not as a son but as a servant. But the old home was not the old home anymore. His relationship and his view of the father changed. His image of the father expanded.
God trusts your relationship and wants your image of him to enlarge.
We are in the danger to say that the father would even lie to us if it were profitable to us. But I would say that this is still coming from the wrong tree.
God is not functioning within the paradigm of right and wrong, truth and lie. He is functioning from the principle of growth.
In the past, we experienced some of the promises of God not working. We blamed ourselves, just as the prodigal son did, and it brought us to our senses in a way, returning to the father in the best way we understood: repenting, promising to have more faith and be more obedient, and accepting the necessary consequences.
But do we remember the beginnings of our relationship with God? Magically almost, all those promises worked. But then, one day …
Thus, those promises not working actually allowed us to draw closer to God when we were ready for it, while maybe driving us away for a while. But again, God trusted our relationship, and that relationship changed and grew deeper for it.
The topic we are talking about today is in the same line. God wants to deepen our relationship and allow us to grow. He knows that we might call out with Nietzsche for a while that God is dead because “he lied to us”. But he also knows that, once we return, our relationship and we ourselves will be more mature.
So what is holding you back?
That is easy to know. It is this intertwining of sin and final destiny. What if the prodigal son died in the outland? He will surely go to hell.
So, God, the Father does tolerate many going to hell just to have a deeper relationship with a few?
Only if those in the outland truly go to hell. So for all this to be a plan of mercy for everybody, we need to understand Genesis 3 differently.
And to understand Genesis 3 differently, we need to allow for the story to not be a historical account of what happened in paradise.
This is a conundrum, a paradox, as we are caught between a rock and a hard place. The story of Balaam’s donkey comes to mind. God’s angel was standing in a narrow place where there was no way to turn left or right. If that is not a place between a rock and a hard place, what then is?
The donkey saw the angel of the Lord, but Balaam did not and beat his donkey for refusing to go forward, not being obedient, and crashing into the wall, endangering Balaam.
Our subconscious, the spirit within us that speaks with God’s spirit does see the angel of the Lord, but we do not. God did not reveal the angel to Balaam at first but had the donkey speak.
Our spirit in such situations starts to speak what the Spirit reveals. But we much rather trust the circumstances and the external worldview, we much rather hold on to our interpretation of what the Bible tells us than listen to the Spirit through our spirit.
This is one of the most important lessons we can learn growing up: to trust God, to trust our relationship with him, and to trust ourselves.
There are times when, just as with his promises working flawlessly in our lives, others around us will all agree with us and we will have the necessary confirmation. But then, we have to learn the lesson to put our trust in our personal relationship with God.
This is dangerous, just as it was dangerous to go to the playground for the first time to meet other children, just as it was dangerous to step out for the first time in a romantic relationship. There are so many courageous steps that we took during our life and they helped us grow. Some went terribly wrong, but there is healing, forgiveness, and restoration. Was not mom there when our adventure on the playground went south? Could we not flee into her arms? And did she not encourage us to try again, giving us some advice to help?
God is always there to help, to guide us when we go astray, to wait for us when we run away, and even to look out for us. To love us.
It is this relationship of trust that God is after, and it is much bigger than obedience to a book and the historicity of its stories.
Are you up for the adventure?
What I am doing telling you these things can be viewed as dangerous and confusing, depriving you of your secure foundation if not your salvation. And certainly, that would be destructive for me as well, as I neglect my responsibility for those people that I have been given as my audience.
On yet another level I trust my relationship with God as well as yours. This is my part of the adventure.