I was asked recently if a person can be a Christian yet not believe that some of the stories in the Old Testament are literally true. The examples were predictable: Balaam's donkey speaking with the voice of a man, Lot's wife turned into a pillar of salt, Jonah and the great fish and, of course, the creation story. It was a legitimate question asked in all sincerity by a person I think seriously desires to know more about the type of God I worship.
My answer may surprise you. I said "yes." The person seemed greatly relieved, assuming my answer confirmed that even I thought that each of those stories are simply that, stories: yarns spun for pre-enlightened people to help them understand a greater truth; myths or fables perpetuated over multiple millennia that people believe because they are told they have to believe. However, that is not what I think at all. I believe that at one time in human history, the God who created matter, and time, and quasars, and the Swiss Alps, and grasshoppers, chose to give a donkey a voice, turn a woman into a pillar of salt, commanded a great fish to swallow a fleeing prophet, and spoke our universe into existence.
Actually, those are easy stories to believe, as I shared with this questioning friend. It isn't the Old Testament stories that are the hardest to swallow, it's those pesky New Testament ones. A dead and buried man walking out of a tomb after being placed there four days prior. Blind people seeing again at the verbal command of a Jewish carpenter. That same carpenter transformed, in the sight of three others, into a celestial being clothed like the sun, and talking with two chaps who had been dead for a really long time. And the coup de grace for me? A teenage virgin giving birth to the incarnate Son of God. These stories test the limits of credulity. They baffle me even on my best days. I believe these stories, but only by the grace of God and his undeserved gift of faith. Without those two gifts, I would be laughing these stories off along with the easier to believe stories from the Old Testament.
But, do you have to believe in talking donkeys to be saved? I don't think so. I think you can believe that some Old Testament stories are meant only to elicit faith and point to a greater truth, and do not have to be historical to accomplish that task. I do not recommend that approach to Scripture, however, because it is a slippery slope. That approach always leads to questions about other truth claims in Scripture, which leads to questions about biblical morality, which leads to questions about how culture shaped the Bible, which leads to questions about the reliability of Jesus himself, which leads to questions about why any of it matters anyway. Maybe none of it does matter, which means we are all going to be okay in the end, which leads back to the first premise - stories don't have to be real to have real meaning, we just give them the meaning we want. So you see, questioning biblical authority never stops at questioning biblical authority; it always leads to further questioning. Should Christians fear questions and simply swallow the faith pill and move on? Not at all. I do not believe you have to swallow anything. Our faith stands up to reason quite well. Christianity is mind-expanding, not mind-numbing. Faith, like almost everything else in our Christian walk, takes time to develop. However, faith is not blind. We can speak intelligently and discuss the reality of God moving supernaturally in a world he created. Faith is not what Mark Twain said it was when he quipped, “faith is believing in what you know ain’t so.” Actually no, that is not biblical faith at all. Our faith is built upon reality, good history, and reasonable concepts.
So, doubting some Old Testament stories probably won’t keep you out of heaven, but doubting New Testament stories can. Like those New Testament stories that call faith to saving action. Like God entering space and time in Bethlehem, demonstrating how seriously we need a Savior. Like those miracle stories that confirm to us that Mary’s boy in the manger was, and is, the God of the universe. And like that story of a resurrection that Paul tells us is paramount in our confession of faith before others, that "if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved" (Rom. 10:9). Some stories in the Bible are necessary to believe in order to be a Christian, and the interesting thing is, they are the hardest ones to believe. Those stories have also been affirmed, however, by eyewitness testimony and two-thousand years of orthodox history. I believe them with all my heart. I have staked my life and death on them. I sincerely pray that all of you reading this article do as well.
Grace and peace,