Here is a (lightly edited and shortened) letter, posted with permission, from a young man (and his wife). Their questions are becoming more and more common in my letter box, and so I thought a brief response might be of value to all of us:
In wanting to really build the message of Jesus into my wife and myself, there is a question that we are both dealing with that goes something like this. We were both brought up to believe what is written in the Bible and what our parents and church told us the Bible meant. But, more and more we’re hearing good Christians talking about parts of the Bible as if it is not that straight cut. What concerns us is stuff about Genesis and creation accounts. Is the Bible true or not? What about evolution? And what about Daniel’s historical accuracy? And Paul’s letters being Paul’s? Were the Gospels written by those authors?
So is the bible all true? If it is not, how can we know or believe that any of it is true and how do we work out what is literally true and what isn’t and what needs interpretation and how do we know whose interpretation to believe when one teacher may say, well what Jesus really meant was this, and another teacher may say well what this really mean to the people who heard it really meant this?
In sum, it seems easier just to believe how it is written. Any help would be a life line.
There are two approaches to your questions in the Christian world. (There are actually more, but I don’t think this is the place to sort out all the options.)
Before I say anything else, face your questions. Suppressing your questions won’t make your questions go away; they fester deep inside and sometimes all come out at once — and that can get ugly. I’ve seen young persons explode over some singular issue but what was happening was all their suppressed fears came gushing out over someone’s suggesting that it is best to interpret all prophecies in the New Testament as having been fulfilled in 70 AD. When someone convinced them of this, the whole faith seemed to collapse because they had suppressed all their other questions until that moment. So, face your real questions and seek for answers by studying.
Now, two basic approaches:
1. Some prefer the apologetic track. It doesn’t matter what your problem or your question is — creation/evolution or why the different Passover instructions in Exodus and Deuteronomy or why the oddities about who saw what and where and when in the resurrection of Jesus accounts — someone has studied this stuff, sorted it all out, and come up with a resolution that defends what is the plain reading of the Bible.
One of my former colleagues, Gleason Archer, wrote a book called The New International Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, and it sketches a solution to all kinds of problems.
2. Others prefer a genre approach to the Bible. That is, these folks tend to say these kinds of things: Genesis 1–11 looks like the author is responding to ancient myths and is adapting and criticizing and teaching an entirely different view, or they say the ancient Israelites respected the prophets of their past so much they didn’t write their own books but instead adapted and supplemented them much later, or they say the Gospel writers had the freedom to adjust sayings of Jesus.
If the first group asks us to adjust what seems incredible, the second group asks us to adjust what we thought was the right interpretation. So, both views ask us to adjust: either adjust what we think or adjust how we have learned to read the Bible.
I would hope that a reasonable person would do both — sometimes thinking that we need to adjust what we think but other times that the view we have inherited has got to adjust. People who rigidly fit into one or the other camp tend to get white-fisted about things. Why not just let the evidence of the Bible and the realities we see sit side by side until we can make sense of both?
A personal story. I had never heard in my life that Matthew and Mark and Luke told the same stories of Jesus in different ways. Nor had I ever heard that most scholars think that they actually used one another. The standard theory is that both Matthew and Luke did some serious “copying” of Mark. (And there weren’t copyright laws; copying was a sign of respect.) Well, I had not been taught these things. Then I began to read up on this, and then I got out a Synopsis and started underlining passage after passage, and then I faced a choice: either I had to give up on the idea that every “red” letter word in the Gospels is a verbatim quotation — something like what a newspaper or magazine writer is supposed to produce today — or I had to start believing some things that were a little too hard to believe.
Here’s an example: Did Peter say “You are the Messiah” or did he say “You are the Messiah of God” or did he say “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”? Some say he said the 3d one and that Mark and Luke reduced the words of Jesus; others (and I agree with them) say Peter said the first one and that Luke and Matthew “expanded” the words of Jesus. What I had to admit to myself — and you might differ with me here — was that what I thought the Evangelists were doing (recording verbatim quotations) is probably not what they were doing. What they were doing was both reporting precise quotations (sometimes) and slightly edited, paraphrased ones at other times. And I concluded this: If this is how God chose to do things, then who was I to tell God how God ought to have done things? I found it liberating.
So, friend, face your questions.
Now there’s one more thing I want to say, and I’ve run out of space so I’ll say it very briefly: instead of analyzing this problem on the basis of your view of Scripture, you just might prefer a path many are walking today: Follow Jesus, stay in fellowship with others who are following Jesus, let your faith in Jesus shape who you are, what you do, and what you read in the Bible, and that praxis-shaped faith will eventually give you confidence in the Bible as the Word of God that communicates God’s truth to us for our world today.