SCRIPTURE – John 18:33-38 – Then Pilate entered the headquarters[i] again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” 35 Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” 36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” 37 Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” 38 Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”
Is the Bible True?
October 18, 2015
I’ve said throughout this sermon series on the Bible that first and foremost the Bible is a story. So let me tell you one of its stories. It’s one you’re probably going to know. “God said to Noah, ‘I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. And of every living thing, of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female. Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground according to its kind, two of every kind shall come in to you, to keep them alive. Also take with you every kind of food that is eaten, and store it up; and it shall serve as food for you and for them.’ Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him.”
Great story, isn’t it? We grew up hearing about Noah’s Ark and the animals that came two by two. Now, let me tell you another story, and let’s see what you think of this one: “Then the Lord said to Noah, ‘Go into the ark, you and all your household, for I have seen that you alone are righteous before me in this generation. Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and its mate; and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and its mate; and seven pairs of the birds of the air also, male and female, to keep their kind alive on the face of all the earth.”’
OK, we know the first story. That one is in the Bible, right there in Genesis 6. So where does the second story come from? Some knock-off translation? Some creative author’s paraphrase? Believe it or not, the second story comes from…the Bible. Right there in Genesis 7, just a few verses after the first one. There are actually two different Noah’s Ark stories woven together, and they contradict each other on several points. And yet, they’re both right there in the Bible. So here’s my question for you: Which one is true? This one example alone destroys the argument that the Bible is inerrant, and I’ve got hundreds more of them. But it’s still the Bible and we are called to take it seriously. So rather than being sacrilegious, it’s responsible of us to ask the question, “Is the Bible true?”
Before we can answer that question, we have to make sure we’re answering the RIGHT question. A four-year-old boy came to his mother one day and said, “Mommy, where did I come from?” The mom was completely caught off-guard, so she began hemming and hawing, trying to figure out how to appropriately answer. She mumbled something about when a man and woman really love each other, they hold hands until a stork comes to give the woman an epidural and brings a baby in a basket. The boy looked puzzled for a second, then said, “That’s weird, because Jimmy said he comes from Indiana.”
The key to finding answers is asking the right questions, and “Is the Bible true?” isn’t the right question. It’s a fair question, for sure, but it needs to be followed up, not with an answer, but with another question: What kind of truth are we talking about? Webster’s defines “true” as “in according with fact or reality.” In that case, the Bible isn’t true. For example, in Genesis 1, when God created the world, the writer tells us, “And God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.’ So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky.” As we know today, that answer is not in accordance with fact or reality.
Back when Genesis was written, they didn’t have NASA and space shuttles. They didn’t even have a VHS copy of “E.T.”! So they could only write what they knew. They looked up and saw this blue expanse, which was the same color as the water around them, so they assumed there was a dome holding back those waters. And they called the dome “Sky.” That was true for them, so that’s what they wrote. We know now there is no dome holding back the waters. From a factual standpoint, from a scientific standpoint, that’s just not true.
But is that the only kind of truth? When I walk out on my deck in the morning and see light appear in the sky, I say, “The sun is rising in the East.” Now, a meteorologist or astronomer would be quick to point out that statement is factually untrue. The sun doesn’t rise or set; it stays still while the earth moves. But my experience tells me that the sun rises and sets. That is true for me, even if it’s not true in other ways. Could there be more than one kind of truth?
A quick history lesson may help us answer that. A change occurred in the mid-17th century that fundamental altered the understanding of what is true. Until that point, the church had a lot of control over what was considered true, and the Bible was a primary authority on all truth. But in the 1500s, people like Galileo and Copernicus began asking questions the Bible couldn’t answer, and that set off a seismic cultural shift. Instead of using religion to explain the natural world, people started using reason and science. The only things that were true were things that could be proven true. The scientific method was born. Experiments were conducted. Telescopes were used. And the Bible was no longer the primary source of truth. This was the beginning of the Enlightenment.
But people knew there were other truths that were beyond proof. Does love exist? Of course! Can you prove it using the scientific method? Not a chance. During this time, a division occurred called the fact-value split. Facts can be proven, the can tell you what something is or how it works. Values cannot be proven, but are no less true. They tell you what something means, why it is important. There are truths out there that go beyond our ability to prove them as being true. Some things are true as facts, like 2+2=4; some things are true as values, like love and freedom.
So here’s the problem when it comes to the Bible. The whole belief that the Bible contains no factual errors and doesn’t contradict itself doesn’t come from the Bible. It never claims inerrancy and infallibility. Those concepts didn’t come along until about 100 years ago, and it created a sinister dichotomy that we still struggle with today. That dichotomy gives us two choices: either believe the Bible is true and explain away the stuff that doesn’t make sense, or don’t believe the Bible is true and question why we even read it at all. That choice set up the horrible, destructive assumption that if you questioned the Bible, then you were questioning your own faith and even questioning God.
That was never an issue for the early readers of the Bible. They didn’t care about the verifiable truth of the Bible, because for them, it was true in more profound ways. For example, archaeology has shown no evidence of a group the size of the Israelites leaving Egypt, traveling 40 years in the desert, and settling in Canaan. No candy wrappers, no discarded maps, no sandal prints. Archaeology and the Bible don’t line up. But that didn’t make a lick of difference to the early readers.
Getting the past right was not the driving issue of the biblical writers. The primary purpose of the Bible was to tell the story of God and God’s people as a way of explaining their current situation, not unlike how other cultures used supernatural stories to explain natural phenomena. They didn’t care that the facts didn’t line up. They didn’t care that in the Bible God spoke directly to people, the sun stopped moving, Jesus drove out demons, and animals talked. Who cares if that stuff doesn’t happen today? The purpose of the Bible is not to explain science or accurately recount historical events. And as soon to use it to do those things, we’re severely distorting the Bible’s purpose. Trying to contort the Bible to be factually true isn’t submitting to God, it’s making God submit to us.
So, is the Bible factually true? Not entirely. We know now the world isn’t flat, that evil doesn’t live in the ocean, and there’s not a dome above us. But is the Bible true in other ways? Absolutely, because for Christians there’s a difference between fact and truth. Here’s the best way I can think of to highlight the difference. To say “Jesus died” is a fact, as best as we know. To say “Jesus died for our sins” is a truth, one that goes much, much deeper than any fact.
There were certain truths the biblical writers were trying to convey, and they wrote in order to convey those truths, truths like God is love and Jesus is the Messiah and we are God’s children. Are those facts? I don’t know. I can’t prove them to you. But are they truths? Absolutely. It’s OK to believe that not everything in the Bible is factually true. It’s OK to have doubts about the historical validity of some of the stories. That doesn’t mean you’re a bad Christian or an irresponsible person. It means you’re human and you’re using your God-given brain to try and make sense of this thing called faith.
Facts aside, I do believe that there is truth in every passage of scripture. Sometimes that truth rests right on the surface, like when writer of Genesis tells us we were made in God’s image. That’s truth, plain and simple. But there are other truths that run much deeper, and we have to dig below the surface to get to them. Paul says, “Slaves obey your masters.” Jesus says, “Sell all you have and give it to the poor.” God says, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings that I created.” To get to the truths in those passage requires power tools and heavy lifting, and in the end, you still may end up not understanding. No one has yet to figure out all the answers, so you’re probably not going to, either. That’s OK. Faith is not a problem to be solved; it’s a mystery to be lived.
We’ve been told we have two choices: believe everything in the Bible and toss out all we’ve learned through science, astronomy, archaeology, and medicine; or don’t believe everything in the Bible and go to Hell. I believe there’s a better way. I choose to believe the biblical writers wrote what they knew at the time. I choose to believe we’ve used our brains to learn more about our natural world, sometimes in ways that contradict or even disprove the Bible. And I choose to believe the Bible is true in ways that go so much deeper than what we can prove. Thank God that we have been given this book which has a word to speak to every generation, including ours. Is the Bible true? From a factual standpoint sometimes, but not always. But for our lives, our faith, our path of following God, the Bible is absolutely true.