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  • Brian Chilcote

Is The Bible True?

Updated: 1 day ago

Coffee Shop, Sunday afternoon.


Behind their favorite hot brewed beverages sit two people just like you and me. One of the two is bothered. She reveals to her counterpart that she just can't wrap her mind around the idea that Adam and Eve might not be real historical people, or that evolutionary science may actually have something to say about how all of this (she gestures to the room filled with people and conversation) came to be.


Imagine this dialogue:


"Help me out here- I thought Christians were supposed to take the Bible at face value and put their faith in what's written as God's word. The Bible speaks about Adam and Eve as if they were real people who affected the rest of the humanity, and if they aren't real we can't believe anything in the Bible. The Bible is true, right?"




"It's a simple yes or no question. Is. The. Bible. True?"


"I get your question. But I don't agree that it's that simple. I think it's way more complicated than that. You're going to hate my answer, because it's another question."


"You're probably right, but go ahead."


"What do you mean by "truth?"


That sounds like a giant cop-out. John's gospel portrays Pontius Pilate using this tactic to avoid blame for crucifying an innocent man and he ends up looking like a weasel. Isn't the idea of truth straightforward? Isn't there a hard line between "real" and "not real?"


Let's explore the idea of reality for a few paragraphs. Let's assume that there is a completely objective reality.* In other words, things exist even though no one is conscious of them at a given time or place. Though no one is currently experiencing a certain tree in the park down the street, one can reasonably expect to find the same tree on a future visit to the park- it's not an utter fabrication of our imagination. Although there is research to suggest that we all construct our version of reality inside our brains to some degree, we can say that the truth about that tree is that it exists. Anyone who is conscious and has at least one of their five senses in operation can experience that same tree at any time.


Obviously, we can directly experience objective reality. Other times, we have to rely on others' reports and descriptions. Historical facts fall into this category; we have no choice but to trust someone else to tell us what happened. Without a time and space machine, we can't go to Jerusalem in 30 CE and acquire sensory data about the temple complex with all its sights, sounds, smells and textures.


There's another kind of truth. Once we are aware of a thing, we add it to our mental picture of the world. This is where "truth" gets a bit slippery because we experience phenomena differently. Someone who is color blind may not see red the exact same way as other people. She can listen to descriptions of redness without really understanding it in exactly the same way as someone who is not color blind.


Are emotional states real or true? Once a person recovers from feeling sad and laughs at a joke, does "sadness" cease to exist? What about beauty, justice, love, ignorance or inspiration? It's likely that most of us would include those things in the category of things that exist even though they aren't present in our minds all the time; they come and go.




What's more real or true: my direct experience of a thing or someone else's report about it? Both are susceptible to error, misperception, or misunderstanding. Some events are simply beyond what we can comprehend and descriptions fail. What about written accounts of historical events versus oral ones? Which is more likely to match reality without mistakes? Consider the transmission process of a fact or detail first perceived by Person A who assimilates it into her unique mental map of the world with its preconceived ideas of how things ought to be. Then she presents it to Person B whose mental map is different. Having trusted A's account, B then relates the story to Person C who writes it down in one language only to have it translated into another language by Person D. D does his best to approximate the event witnessed originally by A but in some cases there is no cultural or linguistic equivalent for A's descriptions. Can the end result be considered "true?"


Even if there was a divine power managing the process to maintain strict accuracy, the difficulty of transferring a concept from one set of cultural norms to another plagues the best of translators. For one thing, early manuscripts had no punctuation, paragraph breaks or other clues we use to read texts to ourselves. These were documents that were written to be read aloud. Just one example: according to Bill Mounce, the Greek word "hetaire" ( Ἑταῖρε) in Matthew 26:50 has no exact counterpart in English. Matthew's author has Jesus use the term to address Judas in Gethsemane. It is translated as "friend" by the NIV and other English translations, but in actuality that's not quite right. The BDAG Greek-English Lexicon indicates that hetaire can describe a "member of one’s group," and it can be a "general form of address to someone whose name one does not know.” It seems to be closer to how we might address someone that we want to keep at a social distance, like a known imposter, not someone who is considered a valued and trusted companion.


See also:  The Difficulties and the Art of Bible Translation by Dr. B. Brandon Scott 


To what extent, then, are translated texts "true" or not? Can there be gray areas where we are close to truth but not quite in the bullseye?


When we encounter a new idea, Do our own previous notions about the world shape the way we understand it?


Unequivocally, yes- we haven't found an exception yet. There's no escaping the deep cultural conditioning we undergo from our childhood on up. For example, most westerners avoid insects as disease-carrying pests and would never willingly enjoy a snack of fried locusts or a grub salad. Many other cultures on the planet will shake their collective head and say, "silly westerners." The truth is that grubs can be delicious and good for you, but there are choices to make that push our preconceived mental maps of the world to the breaking point. Any novel truth asks us to believe it and then to actually eat a grub.


There are truths about facts and objective realities, and there are also truths about subjective realities, like how to live a good life despite the human condition. There are times when we get things half right, but not quite.** There are also lies, errors, communication that seems deceptive, and just plain confusion.


How do we access truth?


Many people believe that God can speak directly to a person, with a message just for them or for their group. We share a long history of people recognizing this kind of relationship with divine beings, gods, goddesses or even deceased ancestors. For our purposes, we'll narrow it down to the God described in the Bible. 


Christians see it as an advantage to have God's words written in a book. Yes, it's ancient and diverse and many times difficult to understand, but Christians have treasured it as a reliable source of truth for centuries. One way to conceptualize the Bible is to see it as God's perfect directions for human life embedded in narratives, poems, letters and legal material. In addition, Christians often think of the Bible's essential origins as divine. It is infallible truth physically written by fallible human beings, but guided by a mysterious process that results in an accurate picture of the one universal cosmic creator's unified message to all human beings. Other perspectives on the Bible describe it as a less divine and more human product. More on that later.


This supernatural-miraculous assumption opens up some interesting avenues of access to truth. According to this standpoint not only are God's words intelligible in written form, God can also personally talk to individuals as they pray, meditate, or just go about their day. It allows for multiple interpretations and personal applications of biblical literature, tailored to each person's needs. The Bible's role then becomes the objectively true filter or check-and-balance for any episode of communication with God. The Bible is supposed to answer the question, "Did I hear that correctly?" or "Was that God who spoke?" But what if our received truths differ? And is this process in any way similar to what the writers of scripture experienced? Remember- they couldn’t use the Bible to help determine orthodoxy because there wasn't one.


The underlying assumption necessary to this idea is that both God and God's communicated truth are eternal and absolute. God's truth cannot change, evolve or contradict itself because by nature it can't ever be "true" at one time and place without being true for all times and places. Whether one hears a voice or sees a vision, or reads a proposition in the Bible, it must always cohere with what we already know about God (we decided on a canon, after all).


This would seem to work out well for worshippers of the God who communicates the same truths to everyone as adjudicated by the Bible! Each person struggling with addiction, or sadness, or doubt would all get a coherent and generally unified message. If God were to communicate this way, all Christians would agree on how salvation works, how churches should run, and how to balance judgement with mercy. How could there be any dispute about a truth that we may access subjectively and that lines up exactly with what we have decided are biblical principles?


Actual reality tells us otherwise. There are plenty of disputes about what the Bible actually means, and what to do with subjective experiences. Most Evangelicals  agree that when we interpret the Bible we must take into account the writers' personalities, cultural constraints, literary conventions and other contexts that shape their work. That alone muddies the waters of interpretive clarity. It's also hard to decide what type of truth we are accessing: is it objective or subjective? And yet there seems to be an expectation that reading the Bible is a way to grasp absolute objective truth without the mediation of our own biases and  built-in ways of perceiving, let alone those of the authors and original audiences. 


The problem with construing direct, firsthand conscious experience of God as objective, universal truth is that it might better fall under the category of subjective truth. One person can claim a direct experience of God, but what if that conflicts with another's experience? What does it mean for those who have never had that kind of experience, or forgot about it, or interpreted it as something else? Sometimes we hear Christians say, "God told me such-and-such," but if no one else heard the same thing, is it wise to believe the person? Trusting someone else's truth report is not a slam dunk for most of us, and rightly so. Most sane people understand that the world inside our heads does not match everyone else's. Neurological science has surfaced testable data relating to the complex, delicately balanced and unique electro-chemical signaling in individual brains that help explain the differences in the ways we interpret data from outside our skulls. 



Now back to our initial question: Is the Bible true?


Are we asking whether or not the Bible provides dependable data about the physical universe? Or by "true" do we mean accurate evaluations of the reality of the human condition and how to navigate life? Or both? Did the authors of Genesis intend to represent Adam and Eve as actual human beings that could be met and talked to as components of a perceivable physical universe (objectively real), or is Genesis chapter one teaching us something about the origin human suffering and conflict (subjectively real)? A fictional story, while not objectively true, can indeed relay dependable and actionable truth about the human condition. Harry Potter is not an actual person but he can teach us something true about friendship, bravery and perseverance.


So yes, the Bible is true in the sense that it accumulates the wisdom and experience of ancient and remarkable people who were both like and unlike us. The universe we find ourselves in can be overwhelming for beings with our level of consciousness, and we definitely benefit from those who have gone before us with the same hopes and fears. In the Bible there is truth- real insight- that can be used experimentally to solve common human psychological dilemmas like how to live in light of our own mortality.


Biblical authors had different priorities than ours. They were more interested in subjective truth, moral learning and interpretations of past events as meaningful beyond mere happenings. Facts and details about objective reality were not nearly as important as an understanding of where we came from and where we are destined to go, and a vision of what an ideal future might look like.


Sometimes the Bible touches on the real-world universe and when it does, we must remember that the writers were centuries from understanding the universe as we do. Floods, famines, disease, bumper crops and military victories were all attributable to the state of peoples' relationships to their God or gods. In the absence of germ theory, advanced meteorology, tectonic geology, evolutionary biology, neurology and so on, the best explanatory stories they had were based on the assumption that supernatural forces were always at work for good or ill. Ironically, there is some truth in their interpretation: powerful forces beyond our control affect us whether we can explain them scientifically or not. Does it matter if gravity is a little-understood force of nature or an inbuilt "affection" that causes everything to "want" to be near its creator?


Perhaps Genesis is telling the truth about the objective reality of a large flood. Many ancient cultures have legends about catastrophic flooding and in preserving the tale, valuable lessons could saturate the collective mores: the gods were angry with human beings and destroyed all but a few righteous ones, so let's cooperate against evil and work to please the gods. Scientific inquiry has established that catastrophic floods did occur around the end of the last ice age when temperatures warmed, sea levels rose and glaciers melted. It's one thing to tell that true story in terms of geological evidence, and quite another to address why these floods happened. Genesis is much more interested in why it happened than the physical mechanisms behind it, and the ancients would likely find our explanatory stories lacking. "Random natural processes" would not cut it with them.


We need to allow for the possibility that the Bible may or may not be precisely true in terms of data about historical events or physics. Its hard for modern scientific cultures to set aside expectations of clinical veracity, but we err in expecting objective truth from the Bible when it's actually trying to convey subjective truth.


Subjective truths capture a different side of reality. These are shared certainties about abstract phenomena like beauty, justice, sorrow, love, virtue and vice. Instead of describing physical reality, these truths describe the human condition, or qualities of our experiences as we move through the world. Subjective truths try to capture the effect the physical world has on our interior worlds. Are emotional responses to music or visual art real? Most people would say yes, pointing to the existence of something in human minds or souls that is unique to each person, but just as real as the bodies we inhabit.


We read some descriptions of physical realities, like descriptions of geographical features, cities, battles, animals, clothing and so on. We also read narratives of events that happened at different times and places relative to the authors, along with commentary and interpretation of those events. We see poetry expressing emotion, proverbs offering hard-won advice, and wonderfully crafted stories with heroes and villains. Like any well-written novel the Bible inspires, allows readers to explore themselves, focus on virtues to emulate, decisions to avoid and display how YHWH acts. Some of the characters and settings are true-to-life like Jericho, King Hezekiah, and Roman rule over Judea. Some aren't. We have no physical evidence of a garden of Eden or a mass exodus from Egypt, but we do have the equally real effects on the souls of people and nations.


The Bible contains some of each of these categories of truths, and when we let it speak for itself, we allow its authors to tell us what they thought was true about their world, and in many cases, why those particular facts mattered.




How would you define truth? What are its features and limitations?


Where are you on the spectrum of belief about the Bible between "literalist" and "fictivist?" With literalism defined as understanding biblical language as that which is chiefly the primary or strict meaning of the word or words; not figurative or metaphorical; and fictive meaning fabricated, imagined, or invented; allegorical or symbolic.

 Do you think fact and fiction work together in the Bible for a common purpose? How can someone understand God and believe that some Bible stories are legendary or mythologies?





*"Many philosophers would use the term 'objective reality' to refer to anything that exists as it is independent of any conscious awareness of it (via perception, thought, etc.). Common mid-sized physical objects presumably apply, as do persons having subjective states. Subjective reality would then include anything depending upon some (broadly construed) conscious awareness of it to exist. Particular instances of colors and sounds (as they are perceived) are prime examples of things that exist only when there are appropriate conscious states. Particular instances of emotions (e.g., my present happiness) also seem to be a subjective reality, existing when one feels them, and ceasing to exist when one’s mood changes.


'Objective knowledge' can simply refer to knowledge of an objective reality. Subjective knowledge would then be knowledge of any subjective reality."



**Example: Miasma Theory. In the 4th century BCE, Hippocrates advanced the idea that bad or polluted air brought about various diseases in human populations. Where did polluted air acquire its unhealthy properties? Mainly from wet lowland areas that produced foul smells or gases from decomposing organic matter. "Night Air" was thought to produce and spread disease until the 1860's with John Snow's and Louis Pasteur's research. While we got it half right- diseases like Cholera do flourish when people are in contact with damp, stagnant or contaminated water sources, and when swamplands near populated areas were drained and hospitals were cleaned regularly, diseases decreased- but not because the air was simply malodorous. Beneficial actions were taken for the wrong reasons and it wasn't until the germ theorists defeated the miasma theorists that truly effective prevention took hold.




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