Some Thoughts for Those who Wish they Could
Our best modern science tells us that:
- The universe is almost fourteen billion years old.
- Our solar system formed gradually about four and a half billion years ago.
- Life first appeared on earth nearly four billion years ago.
- Humans evolved from lower animals about two and a half million years ago.
But the Bible says that:
- The universe is about six thousand years old.
- The sun, moon, stars, and earth were created instantaneously.
- All life on earth, including humans, was created in less than six days.
So how can we believe the Bible?
If we read the Bible as a textbook of science and history, we must choose whether to believe the Bible or science. But if we read the Bible as a book about God and spiritual life, we can believe both science and the Bible. A rational person can believe the Bible, not as a schoolroom textbook, but as a guidebook to spiritual life.
That’s because the Bible’s literal meaning contains a spiritual meaning, like a locked chest that contains precious jewels. The key to unlocking the chest is understanding “correspondences”: the living relationship between heaven and earth.
How can we possibly believe the Bible?
Let’s face it: the Bible is just plain old. Even the most recent parts of it were written almost two thousand years ago. Back then they didn’t have all the scientific knowledge we have today—and you can certainly tell! The world created in six days? All the people on earth descended from Adam and Eve? A flood that covered the whole earth? How can a rational, scientific person possibly believe the Bible when it contains so many things that can’t possibly be true?
Is God a good author?
Christianity can be its own worst enemy. In the past few hundred years, many Christian ministers have preached the notion that every word in the Bible must be literally true.
Do we apply the same standard to human literature?
If we’re reading a textbook of chemistry or biology, then of course we hope that what’s in it is literally true. Those textbooks are supposed to be informing us about the physical world around us. If the information is outdated or inaccurate, that textbook must be replaced!
But what about the great literature of humankind? What about A Tale of Two Cities and The Lord of the Rings? What about “The Road Not Taken,” by Robert Frost? What about Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet? What about Star Wars and Titanic? These are some of the most widely circulated stories of all time, yet most of what is in them never happened! And if any of it actually did happen, it makes very little difference to the story.
Is God capable of writing only textbooks? We humans can produce great literature, plays, poetry, and movies that tell powerful truths about the human spirit through characters that are products of the human imagination. We limit God if we think that God can write only in a literal historical and scientific style. God is a far greater author than the greatest of human authors. God’s book, the Bible, has all the features of the greatest human literature . . . and so much more!
The Bible is a book inspired by God, yet written by the hand of many human authors. It draws on time-bound human history and events, arranging and narrating them in such a way that the narrative conveys a timeless spiritual message from God to humankind.
What is the Bible about, anyway?
When authors sit down to write a book, they pick a style that will best convey the message they want to deliver. Those writing about science, mathematics, or history will pick a direct, literal, informative style. Those wanting to convey something about the human spirit will more likely pick a narrative, fictional style. One kind of author will produce a textbook; the other, a novel.
If God were to write a book for humans, what would it be about? And what style would God pick to convey that subject to us?
Some Christians assume that the Bible is a textbook of science and history. But does God really need to tell us about these things? God has given us physical senses and thinking minds so that we are capable of investigating and figuring these things out for ourselves. No, God produced a book for humans about things we couldn’t figure out for ourselves.
Jesus asked the question, “What good would it be for you to gain the whole world but lose your own soul?” (Matthew 16:26). The Bible is not a textbook of science or history telling us how to gain the whole world. It is a divine story telling us how to gain our own soul.
Where is the Bible’s meaning?
In “The Road Not Taken,” poet Robert Frost paints a picture of two roads diverging in the woods, with many vivid details about the fresh leaves and grass, and how the paths turn in the surrounding undergrowth. It ends in these famous lines:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
For many years I have used this poem as an example to introduce the Bible’s deeper meaning to both teenagers and adults. After reading it to them I ask, “What is this poem about?” Not once has anyone answered, “It’s about walking in the woods.” There have been a variety of answers relating to decisions, regrets, pathways taken in life, and standing out from the crowd. Everyone reading this poem recognizes that its meaning transcends strolling in a forest and turning left instead of right at a fork.
Isn’t that a little surprising? The entire poem is describing a physical setting and a physical activity in great detail! But neither the author nor the reader is focusing on physical things. The meaning of the poem is conveyed by the physical details, but the meaning itself is not physical. It is psychological and spiritual.
This is precisely where the primary meaning of the Bible lies as well. The meaning is conveyed by the physical objects, people, and events described in the Bible. And yes, some parts of it are intended to be followed literally. But the entire Bible is a great divine parable containing deeper meanings that relate not only to the human spirit, but also to who God is and how we humans can have a relationship with God.
Think of the literal meaning of the Bible as a chest that opens up to reveal great spiritual and divine treasures. Or think of it as a beautiful, clear crystal that flashes as the sun shines through it. The beauty and meaning of the Bible is not the chest itself, but the treasure it contains. It is not the crystal itself, but the light of divine truth shining through the crystal.
Focusing only on the literal story of the Bible is like studying the ornamentation on the outside of the chest without ever opening it up to see what’s inside. It is like describing the scientific properties of the crystal in meticulous detail, but never holding it up to the sunlight.
Wouldn’t you rather have the gold and silver, rubies and diamonds that are contained in the chest? Wouldn’t you rather have beautiful rainbows shining all through your house?
Will we ever find the key to the chest?
For many centuries Christians knew that the Bible contained deeper meanings. In the Gospels Jesus is continually speaking to the crowds in parables, and sometimes he explains to his disciples what they mean (see Matthew 13:34–35; Mark 4:33–34). Psalm 78 opens with these lines: “Give ear, my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old” (Psalm 78:1–2). The “parable” that follows is a poetic narrative of the history of ancient Israel.
These and many other passages and prophecies in the Bible have suggested to Christians throughout the centuries that the Bible is a divine parable containing deeper messages. And many Christians did find precious insights hidden in the Bible. Yet no one was able to offer a clear and consistent method of seeing the deeper meanings shining through the literal stories, poetry, and prophecies.
Perhaps it was out of frustration at never finding the key to unlock the chest of the Bible and lay open its spiritual meaning that for the past five hundred years, many Christian leaders have focused entirely on the literal meaning.
However, interest in the spiritual meanings in the Bible and in nature has made a comeback in recent centuries, thanks largely to the work of scientist, philosopher, and spiritual pioneer Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772). In volume after volume of his spiritual writings, Swedenborg detailed a method of interpreting the deeper meanings of the Bible based on a mechanism he called “correspondences.”
You can think of correspondences as the way spiritual things express themselves on the physical level. The idea is that every person, place, object, animal, and action in nature and in the Bible is an expression of something spiritual. And of course, everything is also an expression of something about God, who created it all. Just as a painting, sculpture, novel, or movie expresses something of the mind of the artist who created it, so God’s creations, both in nature and in the Bible, express the mind of God.
What the heck are “correspondences”?
The fact is, we talk in correspondences all the time. We say “I see” when we mean “I understand.” We talk about our friends and family “warming our hearts” when we mean they fill us with love. We talk about people being “hard-headed” when we mean they are stubborn. We talk about people being “spineless” when we mean they lack courage. We instinctively realize that every physical thing has a deeper psychological and spiritual meaning. It’s built right into the universe, and right into the human mind.
The same principle applies to the deeper meanings of the Bible. To give you an idea of how correspondences work in the Bible, here’s a quick sketch of the spiritual meaning contained in the famous (or infamous) story of the world being created in six days. That story is not really about the creation of the physical universe. It is the story of our own spiritual creation and rebirth.
- Day One: God’s creation of light and darkness, day and night corresponds to our first realization that there is a higher truth and meaning (represented by light) to our often dark and meaningless life here on earth.
- Day Two: God’s creation of the sky, and the waters above and below corresponds to learning more clearly the difference between spiritual and material-level truth (which is also represented by water).
- Day Three: God’s creation of the land and seas, the plants and trees corresponds to a more “grounded” spiritual life and the gradual development of our understanding of spiritual reality, represented by the growing plants.
- Day Four: God’s creation of the sun, moon, and stars corresponds to when we start putting God (represented by the sun) at the center of our life, and start being guided by our faith (the moon as reflected light from the sun, or God) and by various spiritual insights (the stars).
- Day Five: God’s creation of fish and birds corresponds to a new and more living faith that comes from our new focus on following God’s will in our lives.
- Day Six: God’s creation of land animals and humans corresponds to our growing into a warm-blooded love and faith that is expressed in a joyful life of service to God and to our fellow human beings.
When we have gone through all these stages of spiritual development, we reach the seventh day when God rests from all the work of creating us as angels of love and light. We can then enjoy the fullness of human life as it was originally intended for us by God.
So can a rational person really believe the Bible?
Obviously, we can only scratch the surface here. But this may give you a sense of the great treasures that lie hidden in God’s Word. It can also provide assurance that it is perfectly possible for a rational, scientific person to believe in the Bible. Good science and true spiritual knowledge do not conflict with each other. Both material and spiritual reality operate according to universal laws that come from God.
The key is understanding that the Bible is not intended to teach us about science and history. It is intended to teach us about our spiritual life and our relationship with God.
This article is © 2012 by Lee Woofenden
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