After a Crossroads membership class, I had a friend ask to meet with me about some concerns he was having. In a nutshell, he had some doubts about the historicity of some parts of the Bible, like Jonah and the early parts of Genesis. Because of these doubts, he was questioning his entire view of the Bible. After all, if parts of it weren’t true, how could any of the rest of it hold water either? Connecting the dots, this caused him to doubt his faith as a Christian.
Lack of belief that Jonah was actually eaten by a fish leads to lack of faith that God loves me, came to rescue me from my sins, has a mission on earth for me, and has prepared a place in heaven for me…Why does this happen?
I think it happens because we don’t do a good job of being honest about what the Bible actually is. Being brought up in church, I remember as a child believing that God literally wrote the Bible. That he got out a typewriter, wrote all of the pages, sealed it up, and dropped it out of the sky. This irony is, this is still the approach that most conservative evangelical churches take when talking about the Bible.
Is the Bible the authoritative word of God? Yes. Did God type it with a typewriter and drop it out of the sky? No. Have conservative evangelical churches been honest about what the Bible actually is? No. And this is why doubts about Jonah and a fish lead someone to doubt if Jesus truly resurrected and truly is our Savior.
We won’t be honest because we are afraid people will call us heretics. So we come up with a company line about what the Bible is, tell people to swallow it whole, ignore and skip over the confusing parts, and meanwhile people like my friend are leaving their faith altogether because it just doesn’t add up for them.
This bothers me. I think we as Bible-believing Jesus-followers can do a better job of being honest with what the Bible actually is, while at the same time maintaining it as God’s inspired Word, just as our predecessors the ancient Hebrews did. In doing so, people can be drawn to the story of the Bible and most importantly its climax, that Jesus came to save sinners by dying on a cross for them. While understanding the rest of the Bible as the rich history of God’s people that it is, written to specific contextual people for specific contextual purposes, full of authoritative eternal principles for us to follow today.
Do I believe Jonah was swallowed by an actual fish? I do.
Did the thief who got saved on the cross believe this?
Do I think it matters if you do or not?
Do I think you can pick and choose the parts of the Bible you like and dismiss the parts you don’t? No.
Can you believe that the story of Jonah was intentionally written as historical fiction to communicate specific eternal truths to God’s people?
Be thinking about these things and feel free to comment below. More to come soon…
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James Defrees says
We just talked about this in Merge a couple months ago. I approach is as such: With God anything is possible because God created everything, sustains everything, lived among us and died for us. So, it is entirely possible a giant fish swallowed Jonah. But, it is also possible it is just a symbolic story because it doesn’t seem to be God’s intent for us to believe in giant fish that can swallow people whole and spit them out unharmed. Rather it is God’s intent is for us to learn from Jonah’s mistakes and for us to understand God is control of everything and provides us with supernatural means of salvation…even when we run from Him. Jesus does seems to affirm Jonah’s adventures as truth in Matthew 12 so, I personally believe it happened however the state of my faith does not (should not) revolve around certain literal details like this or whether or not God created the universe in 6 24hr days.
Noah Filipiak says
Thanks for the great comment James. (At the conference we went to) I heard Dr. Gregg Allison make the same point about Jesus’ reference to the Jonah story, which he equated to proving that the Jonah story is literal history as an open and shut case. Again, I do believe it happened historically, but I like to look at these questions from both sides of the coin in hopes of helping others who are wrestling with these issues. If Jonah was written as historical fiction, where it was meant to teach godly lessons, I think the conversation Jesus has in Matthew 12:39-41 would still make sense since he was a Jew talking to a group of Jews. He was simply referring to a story that they all knew very well and to a character they knew very well. Like if I was saying something about my life and said it was like when Luke Skywalker learned the Force from Yoda. Just because I used this reference to an audience who understood this reference, doesn’t mean that I or my audience thinks it’s historical fact. I’m just giving food for thought here. I love your post and your approach. I’m going to do a follow-up post on Jonah later this week from an article in Zondervan’s “Archaeological Study Bible” which I found to be super helpful and surprisingly honest.
I’ve kinda been looking at the bible as a collection of honest reflections of mans interaction/understanding of God. The NT is more theologically minded, while a lot of the OT is story’s of the past and history of the Jews and how they interpreted living out with and through Gods will.
I feel like everyone picks and chooses in scripture, whether its working around obeying OT laws that don’t fit into our modern thoughts/morals or deciding to ignore certain marriage rules or woman’s role issues. I lean more toward the belief that picking and choosing might be more ok ( stuff like evolution or whether God really wanted the baby’s killed) but the focus should be on the internal honesty and censerity of the persons pursuit of God as revealed through the gospel.
Noah Filipiak says
Thanks for the great post Zane. Some of what you mentioned are the exact topics I want to blog on and will cover many of them as we go. I don’t like the idea of “picking and choosing” because it makes it sound like we can say “well I don’t like what Jesus says about adultery, so I’m going to ignore that one…but I do like what he says about loving the poor, so I’ll accept that one.” It puts the authority on me rather than on God/the Bible. And in a church setting, it also gets messy really fast because then you have a pastor giving his opinion rather than something authoritative, and you have members who can never really nail down what the church actually believes/stands for.
With all that said, the points you bring up are the exact reasons I get passionate about this issue. I think the default mode has been to pick and choose, when what really is needed is a clearer understanding of what the Bible is and reading the Bible on its terms, not on ours. So when we don’t do that, picking and choosing ends up happening, even by people who don’t realize that’s what they are doing. I can’t get into all of it now as it will be too long for a comment reply and would take up my good material for later posts! But I do think there is a way to unpack the Bible in a consistent and honest fashion, while not picking and choosing.
A whale is not a fish.