If Genesis isn't literal history, why believe anything in the Bible?

(Jason Cunningham) #1

Hi, everyone. This is my first time commenting on this site, and I’m afraid my thoughts aren’t going to be very popular here.

I don’t think any of the OEC folks have made any rude or mean comments here, but in reading through them, I get the feeling that many theistic evolutionists have a tendency to view YEC folks as intellectually and/or theologically inferior, and I think that’s unfortunate. I realize that this is a large debate, and maybe this isn’t the place for it—not to mention that it’s quite time-consuming—but I wonder, for example, if any of you have given much time to reading the broad range of articles on answersingenesis.org or creation.com. There’s a lot of great info there from Ph.D. scientists who are also youth Earth creationists.

Some of my primary thoughts on this subject, in a nutshell:

If people aren’t going to believe that Jesus is the Son of God who miraculously rose from the dead, then they’re not going to believe it. Period. They will come to that decision regardless of whether they’re told that the Flood story is true or merely metaphor.

However, I think they’re less likely to believe that the story of Jesus is literal truth if they are under the impression that other narrative parts of the Bible are not literal truth. After all, how can some narrative portions be true but others not?

One question I like to ask theistic evolutionists: At what point in the narrative does Genesis become literally true? After chapter 11? But if Noah wasn’t a real person who survived a real, worldwide flood, how can you say that Abraham was a real person? And if Abraham wasn’t real, how could Jacob be? Where do you draw the line? How do you draw that line? Modern secular science, in addition to claiming evolution, says that dead people don’t come back to life and people don’t walk on water, so does that mean the Gospel narratives are not literally true, either?

Most important, if any (or all) of the Biblical events are not grounded in literal, historical reality, how are we to know that anything about Christianity is really real and not just a collection of pie-in-the-sky thinking? I agree that believing in theistic evolution doesn’t negate one’s salvation, but it does (in my view) beg the question: If you don’t take Genesis (especially chapters 1-11) at face value—as theological truth grounded in literal, historical reality—then why take the New Testament as such?

BioLogos Responds to the “Ark Encounter”
(Phil) #2

Hi Jason. I think there are a lot of different ways to view the Bible, and even those who call themselves inerrantists have very different definitions of what inerrant means. It would be helpful to know what your thoughts are on what you think it means, since you are forwarding the idea that any deviation from the literal negates the whole. How do you determine what is historical and literal?

(Christy Hemphill) #3


Hi, welcome to our forum! We actually love having intelligent YEC people around, it keeps things from being an echo chamber and it makes for more interesting thread reading. Otherwise it’s just certain regulars nit-picking each other’s word choices and finding novel ways to one-up each other, and that is just not really that interesting.

Yes, many of us have. I was taught from AIG materials as a child. For some of us it was actually reading that stuff that pushed us over the edge. We try not to make BioLogos a place that is constantly adversarial to what gets posted on YEC sites, since the goal is more to promote an evolutionary understanding of creationism than to refute the YEC arguments point by point. If someone is happy with their YEC beliefs, more power to them, we don’t want to be a stumbling block to anyone’s faith. We exist mainly for those who feel they have to choose between accepting what they see as compelling scientific evidence and accepting the Bible as God’s true revelation and authoritative foundation for faith. We are trying to communicate that this is a false choice. If you are interested in why AIG and creation.com are very unconvincing to many Christians, you could check out Joel Duff’s blog at https://thenaturalhistorian.com/. He has written many detailed articles interacting directly with the claims of creation science from an Evangelical perspective.


The Scriptures that comprise the Bible were composed over hundreds of years, by different authors, in different countries, speaking different languages, and representing different cultures and worldviews. I don’t think it is that difficult of a concept to explain to people that the authors did not all share the same ideas about how history should be told and that they did not all use the same literary conventions. So just because one book of the Bible tells a narrative in a way that may be fairly close to what we would expect from a modern historical account, that doesn’t mean we should approach all the narratives in Scripture as if they are following the same conventions.

Even in the NT, the events of the Gospels were probably not always presented in chronological order, like we might assume given our cultural expectations about historical narratives. They are often presented in pericopes, which is not a literary form we use for history. There are lots of things Bible scholars can help us understand about when and how we need to step outside of our cultural expectations and frameworks in order to get the message the ancient authors were trying to communicate.

When you say literal truth, do you mean “historical fact”? Because they are different. Historical fact can be presented in many different ways, and some cultures aren’t as concerned about objectivity as we are. It is common in many cultures to manipulate the facts or embellish them in any number of ways for rhetorical effect or for aesthetic appeal, or to include symbolic elements, and to generally meet the audience’s expectations for how history should be told. This doesn’t negate their truth, it just makes it more of a challenge to interpret them if the goal is to somehow get down to the objective “facts.”

People have different views on this. Here’s mine. I think all of Genesis is true. I think it has authority as God’s revelation and none of it can be “dismissed” in any way as “merely” a myth or a parable or an allegory or a fable. I like to think Adam and Noah and Jonah were real people whose stories we are given as part of our own redemptive history. (Though I wouldn’t die on that hill, I don’t think they need to be real people, theologically.)

But I also think that their histories are mythologized to a certain extent, and it is a mistake to read them as objective historical accounts filled with nothing other than objective historical facts. And further, I don’t think the point in reading them is to somehow undress them down to their bare historical facts and then “believe” those facts. I think the point is to learn about who God is and what he expects of his people so we can know God and faithfully and righteously continue our part in the story of redemption through our own histories. I don’t think it is important at all to believe that a literal fish swallowed Jonah for a literal three days and he lived to tell about it. But I think there is a true and authoritative message in that narrative that we are supposed to take to heart and be shaped and sharpened and challenged by. I think we get to the message by reading the narrative for what it is, not trying to figure out some sort of fact/fiction ratio or what parts were “literally historical.”

Modern secular science has never observed these things, and predicts it won’t happen in the future. But that is not the same thing as saying modern secular science claims resurrection is impossible. It doesn’t. It doesn’t speak to the supernatural. It doesn’t speak to miracles. However, miracles are experienced by people all over the world and have been attested throughout history. (Craig Keener did a nice academic write-up on this.)

Besides, even if modern secular science proved that Jesus of Nazareth did indeed rise from the dead, you would still have to take it purely on faith that his death atoned for humanity’s sins and reconciled believers to God and his resurrection enacted a miracle of new life in each believer’s heart and united them with God himself through the Holy Spirit. Believing historical facts doesn’t really get you to salvation anyway. You have to believe the Gospel’s and the apostles’ theological truth claims as well.

First of all, I don’t really understand this all or nothing mindset. There are good reasons for believing in the historicity of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, and that is the center of Christianity and redemption history.

And we don’t have the Bible in a historical and theological vacuum. We have the testimony and witness of believers throughout history. We have the apostolic teaching and the work of the early church as they wrestled with formulating the doctrines we use to interpret the Bible faithfully. We are part of a bigger story than just the one recorded in the New Testament. There is a nice excerpt on Zondervan Academic by Mike Bird about how Christians need more than just saying “We believe the Bible.”: http://zondervanacademic.com/blog/who-needs-creeds-when-ive-got-a-bible-an-excerpt-from-what-christians-ought-to-believe/

(Jim Lock) #4

@Jason_Cunningham Hey Jason,

There is a lot to respond to here and it looks like @Christy has hit the main points pretty well. It sounds like you’re asking how I justify picking and choosing which parts are ‘true/literal.’ First, I think a little background might help. I grew up in a conservative rural Midwestern Evangelical Church and was very much encouraged to challenge evolutionary theory, and I did. Right up until about 2 years ago. I’d read an article in National Geographic about a supernova, or something space related, and needed to find the apologetic explanation for the distance and apparent age of stars. Several Google searches later, I stumbled on this site and discovered that perhaps I don’t have to constantly worry about researching each fact because maybe the ‘literal’ interpretation of Genesis isn’t what I thought it was. This brings me to my point. I don’t see myself has choosing between literal and non-literal narratives. A literal reading includes contextual and cultural vocabulary, none of which demands a Conservative Evangelical reading of early Genesis. Some examples:

  1. The word eratz has seen considerable discussion on these boards and at the very least opens up the possibility that the literal reading of Noah’s flood is regional.

  2. The ancient Hebraic grammar for indicated a personal pronoun isn’t used for Adam until Seth is born.

  3. Does the story of Cain make more literal sense if God commanded his creation to commit the sin of incest, or if there are other people out in the world?

I’m not looking to debate everyone of these points. I just wanted to lay out for you where I am coming from and why. Hope this helps.


(George Brooks) #5

Do we reject all of early Roman history if we reject the silly story of Romulus and Remus being raised by a she-wolf? Hardly.

(Phil) #6

I might add that theological truth is not dependent on literal historical reality. Otherwise, you would have to throw out a big chunk of Jesus’s teachings, since he used a lot of parables.

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #7

God gave the Hebrews an understanding of the beginning of the universe and history, which enabled them to understand God’s Covenant with them.

Now times have changed. We understand the beginning of the universe and history much better than the Hebrews did, in large part because of Genesis and the Bible, but you insist that God speak to us as if we were living before the time of Jesus Christ?

If God has spoken to the Hebrews in modern scientific terms they would not have understood and the Bible would have ended up in the trash bin. God instead spoke to them in words that they understood, so we could understand Who Jesus Christ is, but that is not enough for some. They want God to spoon feed them science to prove that their religion is true. This degrades both science and faith.

(Paul Lucas) #8

The “Slippery Slope” fallacy. http://www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/slippery-slope.html

Let’s take this out of the Bible to look at this. Basically, there are different types of truth. Let’s look at Shakespeare’s play Macbeth. Still a very popular play, despite the changes in the English language. Why? Because Macbeth tells us truth. BUT, Macbeth is set in a purely fictitious Scottish history. So what truths does the play convey: truths about humanity and human existence: power corrupts, guilty conscience, justice will triumph, etc. These human truths are true no matter that the history is fictitious.

The Bible is telling us theological truths. Sometimes those truths are set in real human history. Sometimes they are not. One of the great tragedies of creationism is that, by focusing on Genesis 1-8 as only literal history, creationists overlook all the theological truths contained in those chapters. Let’s just look at the first creation story, from Genesis 1:1 to Genesis 2:3. This story was meant to counter the Babylonian religion. It did its job so well that, today, no one remembers that Babylonian religion. Yet Babylon, and its religion, were the greatest threat to ancient Israel and the Babylonian Conquest triggered a huge crisis of faith.

  1. There is only 1 god, and that god is the god of the Hebrews.
  2. God created all of the universe.
  3. There are no nature gods or spirits. this includes all the Babylonian gods and goddesses, because each is a god of something – sun, water, dry lang, plants, etc. – and all those things are created by God.
  4. There is no magic, because all of nature is under the dominion of God.
  5. The material world is good.
  6. Humans have value in and of themselves. They are not the playthings or slaves of deity.

Those are the theological messages in Genesis. And those messages are not affected at all by HOW God created (evolution). If God used evolution to get humans, then humans are still special to God.

"Modern secular science, in addition to claiming evolution, says that dead people don’t come back to life and people don’t walk on water, so does that mean the Gospel "

NO! Science does NOT claim this. Science cannot. We need to talk about data and theory. Data are observations. Theory is the explanation of observations or a digest of them. Again, let’s take this out of religion.

If you pick up a pencil and let it go, it will drop. Do a rock, tree branch, cup, etc. All will drop. So you generalize and make a theory: all objects when released will fall. Now comes a hot air balloon. Does it fall when released? No, it goes up. Do you now say “science says hot air balloons cannot go up”? NO! You modify the theory to say something like “objects heavier than the air they displace will fall when released.” You can never use theory to deny data.

Scientifically, what you have with the dead bodies is a theory, based upon the individual data points of dead bodies we have observed. The theory states that a person dead will not come back to life. BUT, Jesus’ resurrection is data. Data can always overthrow theory. But you cannot use theory reject data. People who say “modern secular science … says that dead people don’t come back to life” are using invalid science. They are misrepresenting science.

Now, as it turns out, the Resurrection happened a long time ago and there is no evidence that persists to today. So, the data – from the pov of science – is unreliable. But, IF the Resurrection could be demonstrated as reliable, then the theory would be modified something like “unless God intervenes and reverses death, dead people don’t come back to life”

The same argument applies to walking on water and all the other miracles mentioned in the Bible. Science cannot deny they happened. At the most, science can provide rationalization to be skeptical.

" Where do you draw the line? How do you draw that line?"

IMO, you can say “real” as long as you don’t have other evidence from God to deny the literal reading. In the case of Genesis 1-8, we have evidence from God in His Creation that those are not literal stories.

I would also have you think about this: Luke 2:1 says very clearly in Greek that the whole world was enrolled in Caesar’s census. Yet do you truly claim that Inuits, Japanese, and Zulus were enrolled? You do not believe, nor does even the most die-hard literalist I’ve ever encountered, that this is literal truth. Everyone uses extrabiblical evidence to conclude Luke 2:1 is not literally true.

So let me throw your question back at you:

“that other narrative parts of the Bible are not literal truth. After all, how can some narrative portions be true but others not?”

That part of the narrative of a Gospel is not literal truth. Are you OK with that? Don’t you think that causes doubt about the Resurrection? Why not?

Sauce for the goose.

(Walt Huber) #9

The stories in the Bible were observed, remembered, retold and eventually written down by people. These people viewed the world by what the saw and interpreted what they saw and experienced by their knowledge of the world and science they possessed at the time. The earth looked flat. The sun revolved around the earth. They observed “miracles” because they didn’t understand how many things happened. Let’s take a miracle Moses observed. He encounters a burning bush. It has fire, heat, light and is not consumed by the fire. The LORD even talks to him from the burning bush. A true miracle? Perhaps it was to Moses, but that burning bush is very common today. In fact I have one of those burning bushes in my family room. In my case my burning bush is contained inside a fire place so it doesn’t burn down my house. I go over to the wall, throw a switch and miracle of miracles, a fire instantly starts burning. It has heat, light and does not consume any of the “wood” inside the fire place. At this point is does not speak to anyone, but if I really want that to happen, I could make it speak. When I’m finished enjoying the fire, I throw the switch or OFF and the fire goes out until I’m ready for it again. We shouldn’t get hung up on the individual words in the Bible and miss God’s important message for humans.

(system) #10

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