What If I Doubt the Bible?
The question of the Bible’s reliability and trustworthiness is probably the most troubling area of doubt for any believer. Everything else hangs or falls on the answer. If the Bible isn’t true, then Christianity is a lie and our faith is misplaced and we are left with a God who is undiscoverable or who must be discovered a different way or cannot be discovered at all, because he does not exist. The stakes are high.
This area of doubt is often the most complex as well, because we question the Bible’s reliability for dozens of different reasons: how did God make sure the human beings who wrote the Bible didn’t make a mistake? How do we know the Hebrew and Greek Bible we have now is the same as it was originally written? How do we know the translations we have are accurate? What do we do when the Bible seems to contradict history or science? What do we do when the God of the Bible doesn’t seem to be the God of my experience? The list of questions goes on and on, and dozens of books have been written to help with each of them.
With stakes this high and questions this complex, where does the average Christian begin with these kinds of doubts?
- Start with Jesus
The resurrection of Jesus is a healthy starting point for every kind of doubt. When I went through a crisis of faith seven years ago, I asked a lot of the questions above. In the swirl of doubt, I kept coming back to one sure thing: if Jesus rose from the dead, then I have to do something with his claims to be God and his claims that the Scriptures were true. Jesus believed and quoted the Bible a lot. And, as Keller notes, “if Jesus rose from the dead, then you have to accept all he said; if he didn’t rise from the dead, then why worry about any of what he said?” When someone claims to be the Son of God, predicts his own death, and then checks out of the grave on the third day, alive, he deserves to be heard, to be taken seriously. Accepting what Jesus says about the Bible doesn’t answer all my questions and doubts, but it puts my feet on a solid platform from which to ask my other questions.
- Read the Bible Prayerfully
This may seem counterintuitive. If I have doubts about the Bible why should I read it? Because reading the Bible is one way God supernaturally deals with our doubts about the Bible. Jesus said in John 20:31, “But these [signs] are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you might have life in his name.” Paul agrees when he reminds us in Romans 10:17, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” As we read, even while struggling with doubt, God uses his words to grow our faith that what we are reading is true. Because God’s Word is true, there is a “ring of truth” to its words. The more we hear that ring of truth, the more our confidence in God’s Word grows.
Not all, but many, of our doubts about the Bible are simply rooted in an ignorance of the Bible. In other words, we are evaluating the Bible’s truthfulness on the basis of a very limited perspective. We’ve read bits and pieces of the Bible and found troubling statements or seeming contradictions or an incomplete picture of God that causes us dismay. Many of these kinds of doubts would start to disappear if we would simply read and re-read the whole story. I can’t remember how many times I’ve set aside a passage of Scripture that has troubled me, only to have an “aha” moment months or years later when I’ve taken more time to read the context or have discovered another part of God’s Story that sheds light on the mystery.
As you read, read prayerfully. Tell God your doubts. Ask him to keep his promises and give you faith as you read. Don’t demand, but ask God in his kindness to open your eyes, answer your questions, and to give you rest in him even if all the questions don’t get answered.
So, keep reading, even when you are doubting.
- Focus on What’s Clear
As you read, focus on what’s clear. It’s easy for many of us, especially the analytical types, to get hung up on a phrase or a word that we don’t understand and get caught in a cycle of doubt, thinking, “if this isn’t true or doesn’t make sense, how can I believe the rest of it?” We close our Bible (or Bible app) in dismay and open Facebook, hoping to read something more simple and inspirational. We usually find the former, but rarely the latter. At the moment we’ve set the Bible aside, doubt starts to grow and faith starts to wither.
But what if in that moment we instead focused on what was clear? I don’t mean ignore what’s unclear (see #4 below). I mean humbly recognize that maybe there is simply something we don’t yet understand, grammatically, historically, culturally, or biblically. And so, we temporarily set aside the mystery, and ask, “what about this passage is clear?” For example, if I’m reading Mark 11 and I read that Jesus curses the fig tree for not having figs, and yet the passage says, “it was not the season for figs,” it’s easy to scratch my head, put away my Bible, and say, “that doesn’t make any sense. Why would he curse a tree for not having what it wasn’t supposed to have?” But what if I acknowledge that maybe there is something I just don’t understand yet, and then keep reading and focus on what’s clear? At the very least, I am going to come away saying, “when Jesus speaks to fig trees, they obey. He’s got authority. I need to listen to him.” Is there more to the meaning of the passage than this? Is there an answer to the apparent contradiction? Absolutely. But, focusing on what’s clear can help me cultivate faith until I find the answer to those questions.
Perhaps an analogy would help. The Bible is a lot like the ocean. It is meant to simultaneously delight and overwhelm us. A child can play in the shallow waves at the beach and laugh with contentment while looking out at the awesome waves, recognizing that the ocean is so much bigger and more mysterious than what he is experiencing at the moment. Yet, his experience is nonetheless real and delightful. And a submarine crew with special equipment can dive several miles deep and explore parts of the ocean few have ever seen, only to realize there is so much more to discover.
Here’s the point. Don’t let the vastness and mysteriousness of the Bible rob you of childlike delight. Don’t stop visiting the beach and doubt the majesty of the ocean, simply because there are parts of the ocean that are scary or you don’t understand yet. And don’t stop exploring and diving and asking others with special equipment what it looks like when they dive. God wants to delight you and build your faith and your delight in his Word.
- Humbly Find Answers To Your Questions
What if I’m starting with Jesus, I’m reading the Bible, and I’m focusing on what’s clear and I still have doubts? Humbly search for answers and don’t be afraid to ask for help.
There are dozens of resources available to help answer these kinds of questions (see below for a few). And I can’t imagine any pastor at NHCC who wouldn’t be delighted to receive an e-mail or a call asking them to help with doubts about the Bible. God has given the church pastors, teachers, and scholars as gifts to us (Ephesians 4:11) to help us with the kinds of questions that are too hard to answer on our own.
Humility is a key factor in your search for two reasons. One, many questions take time to answer. Very often, when you begin to research, you will realize that your questions are more complex than you originally realized. Humility will produce the patience you need to have your questions answered on God’s timetable.
Two, often the answers we receive aren’t the answers we expected or want. In my experience, there have been times I’ve been delighted when God shows me the solution to a question I have, because the solution is far more majestic and elegant than I thought it could be. But more often, the answers, while satisfactory, are mysterious, leaving me thinking, “God, I kind of understand and I can sort of imagine how this makes sense in your infinite mind, but I don’t know how much I really like it.” At moments like this, God wants to teach us to worship him humbly. He is reminding us that, like the ocean, he is vast and mysterious, and so we won’t always understand him. But he still invites us to trust him and laugh and play in the waves and wonder with childlike awe.
- WisdomFest 2010: Bible 101
Messages on the Inspiration, Canonicity, Inerrancy, and Clarity of the Bible
- Why I Trust the Scriptures (sermon) by John Piper
- Is the Bible Reliable? – Seven Questions (article) by Sid Litke
- How the Bible is a Book Like No Other (PDF) by Andy Naselli
- Making Sense of Scripture’s “Inconsistency” (article) by Tim Keller
- Can We Trust Bible Translations? (video) by Bill Mounce
- Why So Many Versions? (article) by Daniel Wallace
By Ben Arnold