Today marks the first official post in a series I’m calling Tough Questions. To read the intro to the series, click here. Today’s question, “What do you do when the stories of the Bible contradict your understanding of the physical world?”
My feet swung free, unable to touch the floor because the chair was too large for my ten-year-old body. I did my best to keep my legs from waving back and forth. I wanted to look like an adult. I was nervous I wouldn’t be taken seriously if I acted like a kid. It was the first time I’d ever been in the pastor’s office and this was important. I had an adult question. It was time to put childish ways aside and focus on matters of substance and weight.
My pastor was warm and kind. I loved how his eyes seemed to slant down a little when he smiled, as if the tips of his lids and the points of lips were straining to meet. He sat behind his big desk and listened intently as I asked my very important question.
“Pastor Paul,” I said with a deep, thoughtful concern only a ten-year-old can convey, “if Adam and Eve were the only two people on earth, and they had two boys – Cain and Able, then where did Cain’s wife come from?”
Although I feigned confidence, I was afraid of the pastor’ reply. Instinctively I knew I was out of my ten-year-old depth; but I needed an answer. There was a fire in my gut that would not burn out until someone explained to me where Cain found a girl to marry.
Now, twenty-years later, I recognize there were a thousand answers Pastor Paul could have given me – theories, stacked upon theories, written in books that weighed more than my ten-year-old self, even if I was soaking wet. But he did not pontificate on great theological discussions. Rather, he leaned back in his chair, smiled, and said, “You know Jeff, I don’t know. What do you think?”
His “I don’t know” was a beautiful gift; the first of two he would give me that day. It is one I have treasured since. If Pastor Paul, a man I revered, a man I understood to be God’s guy, if he could say “I don’t know” about the Bible, then certainly I certainly could. If he didn’t know everything, than I was completely in the clear. With those three quick words, he transformed the Bible for me from a text book that should be studied into a mysterious adventure to be experienced and savored. I’ve been saying “I don’t know” about the Bible with great joy and freedom ever since. The words are an empowering invitation to go on a marvelous journey of discovery.
Sitting in that over-sized chair, I leaned forward, sitting on my hands, as I was in the habit of doing. I had thought up several wild answers on my own, but was afraid to share them out loud. What if the pastor laughed at me or thought I was crazy? I swallowed. Nothing to do but press forward. “Well,” I said, “Maybe God made more people after Adam and Eve and just didn’t tell anybody.”
“Maybe,” Pastor Paul said with gentle affirmation.
“Or maybe,” I said with more excitement, “Adam and Eve had a whole bunch of other kids and the Bible just doesn’t talk about them?”
“Maybe,” Pastor Paul said. “But then Cain would have been marrying his sister.” The pastor contorted his mouth in a squiggle and I laughed at the grossness of the idea. “There’s a lot of different ways to think about it,” he continued. “And I think you’ve come up with some good answers.” I leaned back relieved, feeling very proud of my great ten-year-old intellect. I nodded silently to let him know that, yes, I did have good answers.
Then he gave me the second gift. “But you know,” he said curiously, “I’m not sure that’s what the story is about. You’ve read the story. What do you think Cain and Abel is about?”
That day I put the question “What is the story about?” in my back pocket. I pull it out every time I read the Bible. It’s the first question I ask.
I don’t remember what I answered twenty-years-ago; but the story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4) has become one of my favorites. It’s a dynamic tale, with rich dialog and succinct characters. On the surface it’s about giving things to God. But like a magical onion, there seems to be no end to its layers. Hidden in the story are questions about the dark nature of people, and temptation, and what it means to relate to a living God. There’s amazing lines: like when God says to Cain, “Sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it”, or like when Cain snaps at God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” or like when God mourns, “Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out from the ground!” And the story ends with a fantastically unexpected moment of mercy and grace in which God offers Cain protection, for no perceivable reason other than that Cain asked and God cares about the safety of the first murderer. I feel as if every time I read it, I find new things the story is about; new layers of the magic onion come off and I see the story with fresh, glistening skin.
My questioning didn’t stop at ten-years-old. Often as I grew, I found my understanding of the Biblical narrative painfully colliding with my understanding of the world. In elementary school I search the pages of the Bible for dinosaurs, hoping to discover where all the fossils in the museums were coming from. In high-school biology I was taught that the universe is billions of years old, but it was clear to me that the Bible did not cover billions of years of history. In my college Old Testament class I wrote a paper describing the cosmology of the patriarchs, which was far different from my modern understanding of space.
Over the years I’ve read books and listened to speakers and had friends who tried to force this kind of stuff into alignment: either demanding the questions of others get back in line with their understanding of the Biblical narrative or contorting verses of the Bible until they are in agreement with the person’s understanding of the physical world. My favorite example of this was a picture book for kids I once found that showed dinosaurs drowning in the flood as Noah floated along happy and dry.
These thinkers’ passion to get everything lined up has occasionally filled me with self-doubt. “Maybe I’m going about this the wrong way? Am I just lazy? Or stupid? Or maybe focused on the wrong stuff?”
But the pursuit of perfect alignment never felt right to me. Trying to answer questions about protons, electrons, and quarks with scripture verses feels to me like trying to learn how to bake a souffle with an Organic Chemistry textbook. I’m sure, given enough time and luck, I could figure it out, but why go to all that trouble when there are perfectly good cook books about?
Which is why I’m so thankful for the two beautiful gifts Pastor Paul gave me: “I don’t know” and “What’s it about?” When I look at the narrative of the Bible through those lens, the picture becomes clear. Here’s what I see.
The story begins with God creating a good world. Not a perfect world. There is still room for growth, maturity, and further creation. But it is good. What makes it good are three founding relationships:
- God is the only God. He is the creator who loves and cares for his creation. Humanity is to live in this reality – the radical reality of monotheism (this phrase will occur again in future essays in this series, so hold on to it).
- People were created to be in partnership with one another. (Check out the fantastic story of the creation of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2 and make sure you ask the question, “What is this story about?”)
- People were commissioned by God to be the gardeners of the Land. (I’m capitalizing “L” because in the Old Testament the Land is a character – thank you Nathan “Snapper” Lane.)
Very quickly, we (humanity) break creation. We reject the radical reality of monotheism and decide we can be like God (see Genesis 3). When we break the first relationship, the other two fall apart. Suddenly people aren’t partners anymore. Injustice is born. And the world is not a peaceful and kind garden to live in anymore. The earth become hard and out of whack.
God could have punished His wayward creation. He could have gotten angry and simply started over; but instead he decided to fix it in a way that none of us would conceive. In Genesis 12 God grabs one guy, Abram (soon to be Abraham) and tells him, “The entire world is going to come to know me through my relationship with your family.” God partners with Abraham to restore the first of the three relationships.
The rest of the Old Testament, Genesis 12 through Malachi 4, is the story of Abraham’s family struggling to live in the radical reality of monotheism. It’s a conversation between God and people that spans generations. God constantly calling the people back to the big three. The people constantly wrecking #1 and thus never getting #2 or #3 off the ground. The entire story is a painfully repeating cycle of failure, exile, and restoration – over and over and over for generations.
Then God pulls another unexpected move. He shows up, in flesh, as a person, and shows us how it is done. He shows us how to live in the radical reality of monotheism, in partnership with one another, and as a gardener of the world. Then he relaunches the family with his death and resurrection – this time its called the Church. And they take on the job of Abraham – through their relationship with God, the whole world will come to know him. (Although in recent history we seem to be failing more than we are succeeding – more on that in other essays as well.)
That’s how I see the big picture. All the stories in all the books fall into this narrative: God is on a mission to rebuild the three relationships he intended creation to exist in.
This may seems like a massive oversimplification to you, but I find it empowering.
First, I don’t have a need for the Bible to solve every riddle our study of the physical world poses. Will I solve complicated physics problems by reading the Bible? Probably not, and I’m okay with that because it isn’t a physics textbook.
Second, I have a worldview, a foundational story that serve as lens through which I can see everything else. The Bible makes no attempt to prove the radical reality of monotheism. 66 books, written by over 40 authors, spanning over 1,500 years; but there is no apologetic discourse, no philosophical debate starting from a multi-god understanding of the world, no logical argument seeking to make the case for one God. The radical reality of monotheism is assumed as fact by the narrative. The founding premise is there for me to adopt or reject. I’ve chosen to adopt it, and the world makes sense to me because of it (more on this in future essays).
Finally, every day since I was a boy I’ve had the ability to joyfully explore the trails and hills of the story. Sometimes the climb is rough and it hurts as my self-understanding grinds against what I read. Other times it is comforting and smooth. What is important is that each time I strive to the text with the curiosity of that ten-year-old boy. I consistently remind myself that the objective is the journey of discovery, not the finality of static knowledge.
I believe that if I ever come to an end of my journey with the Bible, if I ever solve all the mysteries in the narrative, reconcile all the challenges, and fully grasp the nature of this lone God, then my life will become very dark and sad.
So I will continue to peal at the magic onion, finding fresh layers. I will reread the stories, each time asking the question again, “What’s this about?” And when I get stuck, when I can’t answer it, when my understanding of the physical world and the biblical narrative collide, I’ll allow myself to say, “I don’t know” and I won’t feel bad. I’ll enjoy and lean into the mystery.
Next week I’ll tackle, “What do you do when the Bible contradicts itself?”