One of the things that’s cool about this blog is that I get to connect and dialogue with folks I’d have never met otherwise. I mean, sometimes, that’s annoying. But other times, it’s cool.
This is one of those other times.
I recently received an email from a self-identified agnostic. His name is Chad. He described himself as a former Christian, who left the faith for several reasons, including questions about the Bible and not feeling “different” after becoming born again. I think a lot of us can probably relate.
However, he also said “a scientific curiosity” contributed to his deconversion, and that makes me sad. That’s actually a big reason why I do what I do here on GOE.
It’s one thing if someone rejects the gospel because they reject the gospel. We don’t have any power over that. But it’s something else entirely if someone rejects the gospel because of a non-essential barrier we’ve placed in front of the gospel, and this is certainly the latter.
In a vacuum, “a scientific curiosity” would never be in conflict with the gospel, or even the basics of the Christian faith. It is not the gospel itself, but YEC proponents’ fanatical obsession with promulgating their views, that has helped make conservative evangelical Christianity into a modern-day atheist factory.
Anyway, in the course of our conversation, Chad asked me four questions about scripture and faith, and how I make sense of them as a Christian who accepts evolution. Two of his questions are ones I’ve encountered before, and two of them I get asked pretty much constantly, so I thought it might be helpful to share them with you, along with my answers.
Question 1. My first question deals with the Genesis story of Adam’s fall. If “With Adam’s fall, man sinned all” never happened (because Genesis is just allegorical and not literal), then what’s the need for a savior?
First, let me clarify something. Chad’s question suggests that he thinks I believe the fall of man never happened. That is not the case. I believe Genesis 1-3 is a symbolic account of real events.
Genesis 1 tells the story of how the universe came into being, and I do, in fact, believe that really happened: that is, that the universe came into being. But Genesis 1 is a symbolic account of that event, not a historical one, so if we went to it for historical information we’d come away with the wrong idea.
Same with Genesis 2 and 3. I do believe God revealed himself to early man, and we rejected him, and have reaped consequences for that, but Genesis 2 and 3 do not offer us historical information about how that happened — they tell the story through symbolism and allegory.
It’s like George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.” That book tells the story of the Russian Revolution and the rise of Stalinism and the Soviet Union, but it explains it through the use of mutinous pigs on a small farm. It is very much about real things that had a huge impact on the world, but if you read it as a literal, historical account, you will be, um, a little confused, to say the least.
Chad also asked about the need for a savior, and I want to address that, too, because it comes up all the time. There is absolutely nothing in the Bible, or in traditional Christian theology, that holds that original sin deriving from Adam and Eve’s transgression is the only reason mankind needs a savior.
The reason we need a savior is because of our own personal sin. The book of Romans could not say this more clearly: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”
Notice it says “all have sinned and fallen short,” not “Adam and Eve sinned and fell short.” You have sinned; I have sinned — that is why we need a savior. Period.
There are many different views of original sin, and not all Christians would agree with mine, but the fact is that, if anything, original sin is an additional strike against us — not the only thing standing between us and heaven.
The sins of our ancestors may indeed be another barrier between us and God (though it’s not my view). But even if you took that out of the equation entirely, it wouldn’t change the fact that we still stand condemned because of the transgressions that we alone are responsible for.
Question 2. If it’s established then that certain portions (Genesis, for example) are not to be taken literally, how is it decided which portions of the bible are to be taken as the “literal,” infallible “word of God?” Is it on a personal basis, or is there some other established set of rules?
I believe the entire Bible is the infallible word of God. “Infallible” and “literal” are not synonyms. I believe the Bible is infallible in all things that it was meant to teach; however, if we interpret from it something literally that was not meant to be taken literally, that’s our fault. Not the Bible’s.
As to how we determine how a particular part of the Bible is meant to be interpreted, well, that’s exactly the right question to ask. And there are, of course, books upon books that can be and have been written on the subject over the past couple thousand years, but there are, I think, a few general rules.
Sometimes, the book identifies its own genre. Psalms and Proverbs do this, as do the gospels. In his chapter 1 introduction, the author of the Gospel of Luke, explicitly describes his own writing and those of the other gospels as straightforward historical accounts, passed on by eyewitnesses.
Genesis does not do this, so we look at contextual clues. In this particular case, the use of repeated poetic language and structure, the internal contradictions between Genesis 1 and 2, the use of obvious devices like magic trees and talking animals, are just a few of the obvious signs that these stories were not meant to convey literal historical events.
Update: Remember how I mentioned some of this questions are rather common? Well, while I was writing this, I had someone else ask, at what point does Genesis “switch” from allegory to history. Here’s what I said:
I don’t believe thinking of it as a “switch” is a particularly helpful way to look at the text. The entire book, like the rest of the Bible, is about telling the story of God, mankind and the relationship between the two, how our sin separated us from him, and what he has done to save us.
Some parts of Genesis contain more historical content than others, and some — I’d argue — contain none at all, like the creation accounts, but the fundamental point of Genesis is the same throughout: to tell the story of God and his people.
Question 3. No one had an iPhone back in the time of Jesus, so they couldn’t record a voice memo while he was giving a sermon. So how is it that we’re supposed to believe that the verses of what he said can be at all accurate? There seems to be a general consensus that the first books of the NT weren’t even written until around 45 A.D. or so, which is more than 10 years after Jesus’s death, yet people get very specific about words chosen/used in certain passages when interpreting scriptures. How would it be possible to accurately record what Jesus said word for word in such circumstances?
At this point, I had to admit that Chad probably wouldn’t like my answer, but it’s really what I believe. I believe that the Bible is inspired by God.
Thing is, he is absolutely right: If we were talking about a book, just written by humans, with no outside help or modern technology, there’s no reason for us to find it particularly trustworthy. On the one hand, there is evidence that people’s memories were better back then (because, you know, they had to be), and we can reasonably presume that these stories were being repeated and shared orally long before they were committed to writing. It’s not like the author of Matthew hadn’t thought about Jesus for decades before he sat down to write his gospel.
But, beyond any of that, I believe there was a supernatural aspect to what was going on here. The Bible says this as well: “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.”
That’s Jesus, talking to his disciples, and assuring them the Holy Spirit would remind them of “everything” he said, after the was gone.
So, while I understand that non-believers aren’t going to find this nugget of doctrine overwhelmingly convincing, it is something that is a central component to our faith, and it is internally consistent.
Question 4. If God is omniscient and knows everything—the beginning and the end, how do you reconcile the paradox that exists with that? In other words, if God knows everything, then he knows every move and choice we will make throughout our lifetime. Therefore, he already knows who will choose to accept him and who won’t. And further to that, if everything is part of God’s plan, then that means every sinner who doesn’t repent was part of it too, doesn’t it? And doesn’t that mean that God created these people knowing that they would burn in hell?
For my part, I think we Christians might make a little too much of the omniscience of God. The fact is, nowhere in the Bible does it say, “God knows every little thing that will happen in the future, down to the tiniest detail.”
The Bible certainly says he knows big things, prophecies and whatnot, it says he numbers our days and prepares good works for us, but these are all things that he is more or less directly responsible for, or at least takes a very active role in.
Whereas, the question of whether or not a person will choose him is a matter of free will. Does God know, in advance, all of the decisions we will make of our own free will? Frankly, I don’t know, and I don’t think the Bible fully speaks to the matter.
I believe God is omniscient, in that he knows everything that can be known. But the question remains, are free will decisions really part of that, or not?
What we do know, is that the Bible says God “desires that all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4) and he does “not want anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
I believe that these verses are true, which means I do not believe God makes people knowing beyond any doubt that they will go to hell (Romans 9 be damned! Heh). To the contrary, I believe he makes each person in the hope that they will ultimately choose him, be reconciled to him and spend eternity with him.
And that’s that. Now I want to hear from you: Have you encountered questions like this before? If so, how did you answer them? If not, how would you have answered Chad’s?