Why I Stopped Reading The Bible
Joel Eschenbach • April 23, 2017
I grew up in the church. In fact, my family was at church every time the doors were open (which was at least 3 times a week). On top of that, I went to a private, Christian school all through elementary school and into middle school. So, I spent a ton of time learning about God, Jesus and the Bible. Memorizing verses was at the core of my school and home life throughout those years.
I’m mostly grateful for the years of foundation in the scriptures that my parents and teachers gave me. It allowed me to understand God better and even experience God in a personal way later in life. Almost like a signpost that pointed ahead of me, the Bible was what showed me that God was accessible and could be known and experienced just like he had been to countless men and women throughout history.
Fast forward to my senior year of High School, when after spending a few years rebelling from my roots (mostly by smoking a lot of pot), I experienced God “calling me back". This re-ignited passion extended into every area of my life. So, after I finished High School and got my Graphic Design degree, I headed off to Bible College in Dallas, Texas. There, I learned even more about the Bible and experienced God on a deeper level than I ever had before. It was amazing!…
Until the day I started having doubts.
Halfway through my first year there, I began to ask questions like, “Am I actually saved?”, “Is God pleased with or disappointed in me?”, "Did I say the right prayer and do all the right things?”, “Am I really going to heaven when I die?”. This was weird to me because I knew all the “right” answers to those questions and could even quote verses to refute my doubts. But at a deep level, something was starting to unravel within me and I was terrified. So, I did what a 19-year old wanting to become a leader in the church does; I buried it and eventually came up with some internal answers that I could live with.
Like many, I was raised in a specific corner of the much larger historical and multi-cultural church that is known as Conservative Evangelicalism. My tradition taught me that the Bible was an instruction book for life, but mostly a step-by-step manual on how to get to heaven after I die. The words “inerrant” (without error) and “Word of God” were used regularly and this book contained the actual words of God transmitted directly into the minds of men who wrote them down to answer all of our questions. If you had a question, there was a direct answer for it in the Bible. I knew a little bit about other interpretations, but only in the sense of small, minor details. The interpretation that I knew was basically the only interpretation that existed as far as me and my tradition were concerned. The Bible was not to be questioned. After all, it was the very words of God in written form!
As I grew and experienced more of life, I kept running into things that didn't sit well with me. Every time I opened the Bible to read, I was confronted with how much I needed to get my act together. Sure, I knew that Jesus had come to save me from my sin and that I would go to heaven because I believed in him, but what about the day-to-day. I kept reading about how I needed to get rid of the sin in my life and that even though I was “saved," I still needed to stay on the straight and narrow. It was a constant push/pull, like God wasn’t quite sure if He’d accepted me... the verdict was still out.
Now, I know what my Christian friends would tell me… “You just didn’t have a good understanding of Grace and Jesus’ sacrifice that covered all of your sin.” I knew all of that, and it still seemed like the God that I read about in the Bible was not the same Divine being that I’d personally experienced and had come to know and love. For instance, I could never reconcile the angry, vengeful, war-like God of the Old Testament with Jesus who was the exact opposite. No one had a good answer for that… and how could you, if the Bible is the exact, literal words and thoughts of God given directly to the authors of both the old and new testament.
As I swirled through my twenties full of church leadership, random jobs, getting married, getting divorced, getting married again, and raising children, the Bible became a source of anxiety and a reminder of my daily failures more than a source of encouragement, hope, and faith.
So, I just stopped reading it.
This was not initially an intentional decision. In fact, I was ridden with guilt for a while until I started reading some other perspectives.
It never really occurred to me that my biblical worldview was just one perspective in a sea of many interpretations and understandings throughout the history of the church. I began reading all sorts of articles and books like The Bible Tells Me So, by Peter Enns, Surprised by Hope, by N.T. Wright, Rob Bell's Tumblr series on The Bible (which is being released as a book next month that I highly recommend), Things Hidden, by Richard Rohr, A Generous Orthodoxy, by Brian McLaren… the list goes on. As I read more and more of these perspectives from respected (and some not so respected) authors and theologians, it made me start thinking about the bible and my faith differently. My heart began to explode with my newfound understanding that God is so much bigger than I could have ever imagined!
Here’s at least 7 ideas that have brought me freedom, peace, and a much deeper knowing of God:
1. The Bible is a progressive revelation
I’ve come to believe that the bible is a progressive revelation of humanity's understanding and interaction with God that has grown and evolved as human consciousness has developed. We all have a version of God that reflects our culture, values, and lifestyles. So did the ancient biblical characters. Just as ancient cultures were more barbaric and vengeful, so was their God. They understood God at their level from their own perspective, just as we do. That’s what they wrote down. Did God “inspire” it? Yes, I think so. Is it without error? Depends what you mean by error.
2. The Bible is forward-thinking
The scriptures portray a God that was very forward-thinking. It doesn’t seem like it now, because we’re looking backwards, but many times the portrayal of God was pulling people forward. Just look at how God rescued Issac from being sacrificed in a culture familiar with sacrificing children to please “the gods” or Jesus’ talking to the Samaritan woman in a time when women were de-valued and Samaritans were considered “unclean” at best. There are so many examples if you look for them.
3. There are as many different writing styles in the bible as there are authors
From hyperbole and metaphor, to poems, narratives, and parables, different writers were using all sorts of ways to get the point across and explain the unexplainable. This is why the term “inerrant” isn’t very helpful for me anymore. How do you determine if a poem is without error? You don’t. It’s the wrong question to ask about a poem. A poem is meant to create an experience within you and open your heart and mind to a larger idea or feeling.
"Metaphor is the only possible language available to religion because it alone is honest about Mystery."- Richard Rohr
4. The Bible is not a history or science book
The Bible is meant to inspire more than it is to give exact answers to questions. It’s meant to open up our eyes to the reality under the reality. Many of the stories are meant to hit us at a heart level more than give an exact historical account of a particular event or group of people. When I read the Bible now, I reflect on the deeper meaning of a story or the point that comes across instead of trying to understand God’s exact response or understand a scientific process. If science or archeology proves that a particular biblical account didn’t happen or the story isn’t anything like how it actually happened, it won’t send me into a spiral… God and the writers had a deeper purpose for it!
5. We will never completely understand the Bible
That’s OK. It’s OK if we don’t have everything figured out. I think God knows that. It’s OK if everyone doesn’t understand it, God still loves and accepts them. It’s fine to ask questions or even doubt things in the Bible. It’s all part of the process. What matters is what it’s doing to me. Is it transforming me to be a more loving and peaceful person? Great! If not, maybe it’s not helping.
6. The God of the Bible is way more inclusive than I was ever taught
This one took a long time for me to see, but I’ve come to realize that God (and Jesus in the New Testament) was always trying to bring people in. To be more inclusive. Whether God was blessing Israel SO THAT they could help other nations, or Jesus was inviting the sinners to come and eat with him, there are so many stories of a God that is more concerned with including than with finding an exclusive group of do-gooders to dwell with in heaven.
7. The Church came before the Bible
The Bible wasn't put together the way we know it now until around 400AD. That's 400 years without the Bible! The church grew at an amazing rate all over the known world before the Bible was ever compiled. The church of the first 300 years is the church that we consider to be the model and the purest form of how a Christian community should live, and they did it without the Bible. Of course they had oral tradition and the parts of the Old Testament, but the church came first, then the Bible. That has helped me remember that although the scripture in its current form is amazing and hugely beneficial to the world, God didn't need the Bible to reveal himself to people.
There are so many more things I’d like to share but this post has already been too long.
When I came back to the bible after 2 years of not reading it and blew off the dust (not really because I was using the bible app), it came alive to me! It’s like the scales fell off of my eyes and I saw things hidden that I’d never seen in all the years of reading, studying and hearing sermons. I began to feel free in ways that words can’t really explain… Deep down in the depths of my soul. It was hard and a part of me felt like it died, but it was worth it.
If you’re in the place that I was in a few years ago, maybe it’s time to lay it down so that you can re-discover the treasure that it truly is. Maybe it’s time to face the fear that what you believe may not be the only interpretation.
Maybe it’s time to experience a God that is so much bigger, way more inclusive, way more creative, and a ton more loving than we could have ever imagined!