Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth

This is part of my series on Doubt. You can see the whole series here.

Reading the Bible turned me into an atheist. A lot of people find that hard to believe, but it's true. My life was in an unexpected period of turbulence, so I turned to the Bible for answers. It's what I'd always done, but it didn't work.

I grew up in the Baptist church, so I knew the Bible was the Word of God, inspired and infallible. God wrote the Bible through men, and included in it everything mankind needed to know to serve Him. I knew the Bible to be life's instruction manual, and it was perfect. That perfection was a big deal to me–it meant that the Bible was accurate whenever it spoke of science or history.

What better resource could I have than God's letter to humanity?

Even though I knew the Bible was perfect, I knew that people weren't. Our fallible minds could take passages from the Bible out of context and misinterpret them. I knew this was responsible for all the divisions and schisms in Church history, and was one of the driving forces behind conflict in individual congregations. We had to be careful with scripture.

I decided to read the Bible from beginning to end as quickly as I could. I studied the Bible a lot, but I never made it all the way through. My Bible study mainly happened with a study guide or Sunday School curriculum, and I was aware there were a lot of books in there I was not familiar with.

I started in Genesis and finished in Revelations three months later. Then I did it again. And again. And a fourth time. I read the Bible four times in one year. It didn't make me feel closer to God, and instead lead me down a path where I decided that God does not exist.

My story is not unique. In our times, one of the most common ways that people leave their faith behind is by studying the Bible. I've gotten hundreds of notes from people telling me how the Bible wrecked their belief in God. I hear these stories almost every time I speak at an event.

The Bible, the Word of God, is leading people away from God. How can this be?

First, the Bible and science don't see eye-to-eye. The creation story in Genesis bears very little resemblance to a Universe that emerged from Singularity billions and billions of years ago. The science is clear that the diversity of life on earth arrived courtesy of evolution via natural selection. The only scientists that doubt natural selection are creationists.

The Bible isn't just at odds with cosmology and biology. When the Bible speaks about math, it's awful. It's approximation of pi is poor even for its era. Geology, archeology, and anthropology refute a global flood, the exodus of millions from Egypt, and even the conquering of the Promised Land. The more science learns about the world, the less the Bible seems to have right.

That alone is troubling enough, but the Bible contradicts itself. These contradictions start in Genesis 1 & 2, but continue throughout the rest of the Old Testament and New Testament. The Gospels contradict each other. The Bible contains two contradictory accounts of Israel's history. There are websites devoted to cataloging the Bible's inconsistencies.    

What about the morality of a God who commands the slaughter of innocents so His people can colonize the Promised Land, or drowns all life on Earth?

That's what caused my faith to unravel. How can an all-knowing God contradict Himself? How could a loving God kill children? I often wonder what would have happened if I'd stuck with a concordance and just read the chapters in the Bible about marriage. Would I have left my faith? Would I have left my church? I'll never know.

Games of "What If" aside, my understanding of the Bible wrecked my faith. Even after God returned to me, I didn't read the Bible again. I was afraid. Anytime I'd tentatively reach into the Bible, I'd find something that shocked or troubled me and set it aside again.

I was having lunch with my friend Eric, and telling him some of the troubles I had with scripture. Eric's a remarkable guy, grounded in his faith in a way that frees him. He told me about a book called Inspiration & Incarnation that proposes the Bible is a fully human and fully divine. In other words, the Bible is a human document that contains Divinity. It's human authors wrote with agendas and fallibility, but in doing so revealed God.

My friend Stratton told me about NT Wright, and how the Bible can be approached as the Word of God through the words of men. Through that lens, the Bible contains the Word, but it's alongside the stories of people.

Both of those things were interesting and encouraging. They didn't give me peace about scripture, but they made me less afraid of it. I started to read the Bible again, but more slowly and carefully than I did before. I stopped looking for answers to my questions and instead immersed myself in the stories–stories that were written by men.

Men tell stories all the time. Those stories are fascinating and wonderful, and they are flawed. Ask any investigator who assembles the testimonies of eyewitnesses how reliable our stories are. Even when we try to tell the truth without flair or flourish, we get things wrong. We mix up the order of events, and we get details wrong.

Our best storytellers hold facts loosely. One of my favorite movies is Big Fish. It's the story of a father and son. The father is always telling tall tales about his life, to the delight of his friends and to the horror of his son. His son knows that these stories aren't true, and he resents his fathers refusal to tell the truth.

At the climax of the story, the son realizes that his father's larger than life tales contain the truths of life far better than a factual telling of events. His father leans into metaphor and hyperbole to talk about the nature of things.

Back to the Bible: what if there's another way to read it? What if the Bible isn't God's letter to humanity at all?

What if the Bible is something that people wrote in response to God?

If men wrote the Bible, the Bible would reflect the cultural norms and scientific insights of the time it was written. The Bible was written by hundreds of authors over more than a thousand years, so those norms and understandings would change over time. More than that, later parts of the Bible could respond to, and even refute, earlier parts.

Suddenly we don't have a single document delivered via Divine Dictaphone. Instead we have a recording of the accounts of people trying to understand, relate to, and serve the same God that I am trying to understand, relate to, and serve. These accounts are full of mistakes, misunderstandings, and agendas.

The value of this Bible lies in its ability to provoke and probe us. It shows us where the people of God have been, and how their lives were changed by God. It shows us how we can be taken to uncomfortable places as we grow, and how God can use anyone, anytime to do amazing things.

But, this Bible doesn't offer easy insights or simple answers. For every story of encouragement, there's another who's as violent and brutal as the time it was written in. This Bible invites us to wrestle with it, and in that process we'll be challenged and changed.

I once thought that God made the Bible. Now I know that the Church made the Bible, and that Christ made the Church. The Bible is as much a reflection of us as it is of God. The Bible's inspiration and divinity come when we, the People of God, study it together. We challenge it as it challenges us, and in doing so challenge each other.

I love the Bible more than ever. It doesn't scare me anymore, and I don't feel the need to defend it anymore.

Or master it.

Instead, I take in the stories from this tremendous library and let them challenge me and change me.

The Bible warrants more than a single post. I could do a whole series on it, but Rob Bell already has. If you'd like to read more about reading the Bible this way, check out his series on the Bible. I also recommend The Bible Tells Me So by Peter Enns.

photo credit: Rowanhill via photopin cc

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