Faith deconstruction and reconstruction
What this page is about
What do you do when your faith in the Bible is rocked by difficulties and anomalies you find there?
This page looks at some of the difficulties that lead to people questioning the Bible, difficulties that seem to be too pervasive and fundamental to ignore. But these difficulties don’t need to lead to a loss of faith. Rather, doubts and difficulties can be the gateway to new understandings.
So how can we reconstruct our belief in the Bible? And where might we end up?
Most christians are raised to reverence the Bible. It shouldn’t be questioned, but accepted. It is God’s word, so attacks on the Bible are attacks on God.
But thoughtful readers soon find difficulties and anomalies, and struggle to know how to deal with them. Should they simply ignore their thoughts, which are obviously unworthy. There must be simple answers, mustn’t there? Other christians must have seen these anomalies and resolved them, surely?
But for many, the issues become too large and insistent, and have to be faced. And so the process of deconstruction begins.
Two obvious starting points
Evolution vs Genesis
This is probably the most obvious starting point for deconstruction for many people. The science of evolution is well established, it’s taught in most schools and reinforced in nature programs on TV. Genesis 1-3, with a talking snake, a tree that gives knowledge of good and evil and another that gives everlasting life, reads like a folk tale.
Many christians can adapt their beliefs to accept this reality, but for many more conservative christians, evolution can be a faith-destroying issue. Yet it needn’t be. CS Lewis said that we should read the early chapters of Genesis as myth, used by God to reveal a truth different to scientific fact. Back 1600 years ago, Augustine said much the same.
So many christians are comfortable with a new understanding of Genesis, and this can lead to other insights.
Genocide and killing in the Old Testament
The Old Testament in several places, mostly associated with the story of Joshua entering the Promised land, depicts God as asking his people to destroy entire tribes or nations because of “detestable” practices. The punishment or cleansing included non-combatants – women, children, even animals.
It is hard to believe that a loving God could behave in this way. Conservative christians contort logic to try to justify behaviour that should never be justified. Killing is far from the teachings of Jesus who told us to love and forgive our enemies. Killing babies because their parents behaved badly is behaviour we would rightly condemn in any modern day despot. So how could a loving God command these things?
It is understandable that christians would look for an alternative understanding. And when they examine the texts more closely they find there is more than one story in them:
- There are two different accounts in the book of Joshua of the Israelites entering the Promised Land, and only one of them (chapters 1-12) supports the genocidal total invasion. Chapters 13-24 describe a much slower assimilation with some fighting. It seems most likely that the second account is more accurate, and the first is idealised.
- The archaeology supports the second account. It also suggests that the number of Israelites described in the Bible were grossly overstated, making a large-scale invasion actually impossible.
- DNA evidence indicates that the Jewish nation included many people directly descended from the Canaanite people who were supposedly annihilated, and a smaller number of those who emigrated from Egypt.
- The preceding Old Testament books have commands corresponding to both the genocidal invasion (which apparently didn’t happen) and the gradual settlement (which apparently did).
So we have good reason to doubt God gave the commands to kill. The genocide was never commanded, and never carried out
So, consistent with viewing Genesis 1-11 as more mythical than historical, it is reasonable to believe that the Old Testament contains folk tales, myths and legends mixed with history, especially in the earlier parts. There is no reason why God can’t reveal truth through non-historical writings.
Things become clearer as you look closely
There are many other anomalies in both the Old Testament and the New.
Parallel accounts, different details
There are cases in both testaments where parallel accounts give different details.
- In the OT, 1 Chronicles 22 & 23 portrays the transfer of power from David to Solomon as peaceful and popular, whereas 1 Kings 1 & 2 describe a bloody battle for power and revenge on some of those who plotted against Solomon.
- 2 Samuel 24:1 says an angry God told David to take a census, but 1 Chronicles 21:1 says it was Satan who did this.
- Proverbs 26:4-5 contains contradictory teachings alongside each other, showing that the author didn’t have a problem with that.
- In the NT, the various accounts of the resurrection and of Paul’s conversion differ in some details.
Contradictions or corrections
Some OT teachings contradict or correct others:
- The rules on slaves differ between Exodus 21:2-7 and Deuteronomy 15:12.
- The Passover rules differ between Exodus 12 and Deuteronomy 16.
- Job’s friends followed teachings in Deuteronomy 28 that suffering was the result of sin, but God took Job’s side against them (Job 42:7).
- Ezra 9-10 seems to command divorce and condemn inter-racial marriage, whereas Jesus condemns divorce and Jeremiah 29 allows inter-racial marriage.
New messages from the prophets
There are many cases where the OT prophets change or correct earlier teachings.
- Hosea gives a message that negates a previous oracle by the prophet Elisha.
- Isaiah (1:11-15) said that God took no pleasure in their sacrifices, even though they were commanded in the Law.
- Deuteronomy 28:63 says it pleased God to ruin and destroy, whereas Ezekiel 33:11 says God takes no pleasure in death.
- The Torah (Exodus 20:5, Deuteronomy 5:9) says God will punish children for the sins of their fathers, and 2 Samuel 12:14 shows this happening in the life of David, but Ezekiel (18:17-19) says God doesn’t do this.
The New Testament reinterprets and changes the Old
Jesus and the NT writers often re-interpret OT teachings, showing they didn’t regard them as inviolate.
- The Old Testament often attributes sickness and suffering to God, whereas Jesus says they come from the devil (e.g. Luke 13:16).
- In John 10:34-36, Jesus quotes from Psalm 82, but completely changes the meaning of the passage.
- In Luke 4:18 Jesus quotes Isaiah 61:1-2, but omits a couple of phrases and inserts one from Isaiah 58. Thus he removes a reference to God’s vengeance, making the whole prophecy much more positive.
- When Paul quotes Psalm 68 in Ephesians 4:8, he changes the wording from “you took many captives; you received gifts from people” to “he took many captives and gave gifts to his people”. The meaning is thus changed from God receiving gifts to giving them.
- Three times Paul quotes from Old Testament passages that talk of God’s punishment and vengeance (Romans 15:9-10 quoting Psalm 18:49 and Deuteronomy 32:43, Romans 12:19-21 quoting from Deuteronomy 32 and Romans 3:10-18 quoting from a series of Psalm), but each time he turns them into a reference to God’s love, mercy and forgiveness.
The genocidal commands are not the only Old Testament teachings that 21st century christians find hard to swallow.
- The subordinate status of women in the ancient patriarchal societies, still found (with some important signs of greater equality) in the New Testament is difficult for most christians today to accept. Women with gifts and abilities are increasingly refusing to be pushed aside.
- More progressive christians are now questioning the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality, and some churches now perform weddings for same-sex couples.
- Punishment by stoning to death for adultery, homosexuality and blasphemy are thankfully not acceptable today.
- Teachings on tough physical discipline of children are also no longer acceptable today, and corporal punishment is illegal in many places.
- So many other OT teachings are irrelevant to our situation today (just read Leviticus to quickly see this).
The concepts of progressive revelation (where these commands belong to an early stage in God’s revelation) and the old and new covenants (where these old covenant laws are superseded by the new covenant of grace) help most christians to come to terms with these now unacceptable teachings. But christians aren’t always consistent about this, so these old teachings can still cause problems.
And so the doctrine that the Bible is without error has come under great scrutiny, and many christians find it an impossible doctrine to believe. The question is, where to go from there?
Conscious and unconscious choices
Option 1: All or nothing?
Many christians have been taught that with the Bible it is all or nothing. Either it is God’s word, all of it reliable and relevant, or else it is of no value. This is a strong dogmatic position, but it has several drawbacks:
- As we have seen, it doesn’t look like a totally consistent and perfect book. It is a difficult viewpoint for a thoughtful christian to maintain.
- It is strange that the Bible doesn’t actually make this claim plainly itself.
- There is no logical reason why God cannot reveal himself via a less than perfect book.
- It gives a questioner no option other than giving up belief in the Bible, and in Jesus. And many walk that path, when it is quite unnecessary, and not based on the evidence (as we shall see).
Option 2: Hope the problems go away
I have seen some christians avoid giving up their belief, but are unable to hold the conservative line and appear unwilling to reconstruct their faith. They can easily stay in a limbo of half belief, never really happy with their faith, but somehow unable to move forward.
This is a debilitating place to be, and not recommended.
Option 3: Start the process of reconstruction
I recall a CS Lewis quote which I have been unable to verify, which goes: “If God and truth seem to be on different paths, follow truth – and you’ll find that was where God was all along.” Doubts can be the gateway to new understandings.
And so it seems to me, and many others, that the most honest way forward is to reconstruct our beliefs from the ground up.
Reconstruction – the process
In reviewing and reconstructing our beliefs, it makes sense to start with what we know, and examine all our beliefs in that light.
For many people, what is most basic to their faith is an experience of God, or a relationship with him. But I think we need to start with something more objective.
For me, the objective starting point is the life of Jesus as recorded in the gospels. But wait, you may be thinking, haven’t we just shown that the Bible is unreliable?
The key here is to remember that the Bible isn’t one book but a collection of books of many different genres by many different authors. What applies to one may not apply to another.
So while the historians and Bible scholars tell us that many early parts of the Old Testament contain legendary material, they also tell us that the gospels are good historical documents – not without their difficulties and anomalies, but quite good enough to provide a reasonable picture of the life and teachings of Jesus.
And so we can start there. Do we believe he was who he is presented as – the incarnation of God? It seems to me that no other conclusion satisfactorily explains the history – Jesus’ teachings, claims and miracles, the disciples’ response, the resurrection stories and the growth of the church. If we do believe it, then we have a strong basis for continued faith in him, and the process of re-evaluation of our beliefs can begin.
This is where I disagree with many others who are walking a similar path. Too often (I think) christians allow their individual preferences to guide them. Either (1) they simply jettison doctrines that don’t seem to fit with their view of Jesus, or (2) they look for ways to interpret key passages differently so they support their feeling.
While I think our understanding of Jesus must be the primary lens through which we interpret the Bible, and while I also think that we must do our Biblical exegesis, I think both ways miss a crucial component – the Holy Spirit.
Jesus promised that his Spirit would lead us into all truth (John 16:13) and we should ask for the Spirit’s wisdom (John 16:23, Matthew 7:7-11, see also James 1:5 & Colossians 1:9). So it is important that we be praying for God’s guidance as we reconstruct, and keep looking to discern what God is saying to other christians who we respect – a growing consensus could be a sign of the SPirit’s work.
Reconstruction – the outcome
No longer needing to believe that the Bible is inerrant is liberating, for we are now free to take the Bible on face value and accept it as God has given it to us, as apparently a human document (or, more accurately, as a collection of human documents) that nevertheless are inspired by God so that they reveal truth to us as we allow the Holy Spirit to guide us.
The Bible ceases to be a guidebook that cannot be questioned, and instead becomes a record of God’s dealings with one people group, leading up to the life of Jesus, which we can know with assurance. Plus, it is a resource book which the Holy Spirit can use to teach, challenge, correct and encourage us. Because God is so far beyond our comprehension, and because different people experienced God in different ways, we see different portraits and perspectives in the Bible. This shouldn’t worry us, but give us a more rounded picture for the Holy Spirit to use to teach us.
There is plenty that is still clear, but we become more humble and open about those things that are not clear.
Other pages on this site will look at how we may reconstruct some of the problematic doctrines discussed here.
This revised view of scripture also has a practical value. Christians no longer need to spend time defending the Bible from a myriad attacks. We don’t have to pretend we accept the whole Bible while using some passages to explain away others. Doubting christians no longer need to feel that it’s all or nothing – one admitted error and their faith is destroyed.
I have found this process enlightening, exhilarating and liberating. I have found my belief in Jesus has been deepened by understanding him as he was in history, rather than as modern evangelical belief has distorted him. And this historically-based view of the Old Testament makes sense and removes many of the difficulties.
So many people who have reconstructed their faith have said the same thing. Their beliefs have become more real and they can believe with integrity again.
I hope you find it the same.
- Impossible things for many christians to believe any longer
- Deconstruction stories
- Faith deconstruction
- Why believe in the Bible?
- How to interpret the Bible
- Old Testament God angry, New Testament God loving. Right? Or wrong?
- Should christians accept everything in the Old Testament as truly from God?