How Do We Explain Talking Donkeys and Burning Bushes?
EAR pastor, I’m completely committed to the authority of the Word of God and to all it teaches including its inspiration, inerrancy, and infallibility. Unfortunately, I have this nagging doubt that I feel plagues me at times when I read certain portions of Scripture.
It’s not a doubt caused by “apparent” contradictions and the like, but a reservation and doubt as I read the portions that seem like they could be straight out of a fairy tale—things like a talking serpent, a special tree, a burning bush, Balaam’s talking donkey, Samson slaying a thousand men with the jawbone of a donkey, a pillar of cloud and fire that went ahead of the Israelites in the wilderness, and so on. On top of that, there are the difficult passages that gnaw at the question of God’s goodness when he deals out justice. When I read Scripture with my children and things like these come up, I feel perplexed and even a little disingenuous as I try to communicate why these stories are true but why those in The Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe are not. Could you help?
Thank you for your note. I appreciate your honesty. Please know that doubt isn’t a bad thing in and of itself. Doubt can be a sign that you are taking your faith seriously. I sometimes worry about Christians who have no questions. That can be a sign they aren’t paying much attention to their faith or the world around them.
You mentioned that you believe the Bible but sometimes struggle with parts that seem like they could be ripped from a fairy tale: talking snakes and donkeys, fish swallowing men whole then vomiting them up on land so they can preach God’s judgment, and stuff like the sun standing still for an entire day.
Things like these can offend our modern sensibilities, can’t they? Let me offer a few thoughts for you to consider.
We are often more deeply affected by our times than we realize. In our secular age we tend to see things through a skeptical lens without noticing—even when we’re trying hard not to. For starters, here are four ways our view of reality can be affected by the world around us.
1. Low View of God
Pretend we are having this conversation in a coffee shop. “Do you believe, if God wanted to, he could lift this entire coffee shop?” I ask. “Well, I suppose if he wanted to, he could,” you might respond. “Based on your answer, would it seem illogical if I suggested that if God is able to lift the entire shop, he is also able to lift up one packet of sugar off of our table?” I imagine you’d respond that the sugar packet would be a far smaller thing to do, given God’s ability to lift the entire shop.
As Christians we believe God created the world out of nothing. We believe he has revealed himself in nature, in Scripture, and in history in the person of Jesus Christ. These are the larger things, the lifting of the whole coffee shop, if you will. When we bristle at elements in the Bible that seem fairy-tale-like to us, we must recognize that they are actually lesser matters, the lifting of the sugar packet.
If God can do the greater, then surely he can do the lesser, too. If he is the author of life itself, can he not fill the chapters of his story with whatever he wants, whatever best suits his purposes—be it talking snakes or prophesying donkeys?
2. High View of Secular Science
A deficient view of God’s ability to do the lesser things is sometimes a result of thinking too highly of the sophisticated claims of secular scientists. It’s a terrible thing to place oneself against the prevailing scientific consensus of our day. You don’t want to look like a Neanderthal. I completely understand.
But the Bible does say we must look rather foolish to the world, doesn’t it? And yet, the atheistic scientists seem to have such a rock-solid, evidenced-based view of things. But do they really?
Consider Carl Sagan’s famous maxim: “The cosmos is all that is, that ever was, or ever will be.” That has more fairy tale in it than you might realize. Science can confirm none of it. For example, it’s widely held that some sort of matter and energy preceded the explosive event that led to our universe. So even according to scientific theories, the cosmos is not all that ever was.
Further, a number of atheist thinkers today are courting multiverse theory, the view that there’s an infinite number of randomly ordered universes that, through cosmic natural selection, finally gave way to our universe. Thus the cosmos is, according to them, not all that is. And how much hubris does it take to suggest that we can conclusively prove the cosmos is all that ever will be? Can you see the fairy tales at work here, too?
3. Tame View of Our World
Just look at our world. It’s filled with the stuff of fairy tales. For example, a caterpillar will literally digest itself, and turn into a mushy soup-like liquid that later grows into a colorful being capable of flight. See the fairy-tale elements lurking outside your very window?
In the mysterious quantum world, a particle can be in two places simultaneously. Electrons can exist as waves or particles at the same time. Beam me up, Scotty! Sorry for the old science-fiction pop-culture reference. But this all sounds rather fairy-tale-esque to me.
4. Lofty View of Ourselves
Before I close, I must raise an issue that is quite personal. Sometimes—not always, but sometimes—our doubts about the Bible can result from other issues in our lives. When I don’t want to accept a certain moral command in Scripture, for example, or if I have difficulty in keeping it, my conscience can feel comforted in doubting or questioning the command. In other words, if I’m not careful, my lifestyle can lead me to a place of doubt.
We will either place ourselves under the Bible, or we won’t. It’s not easy. It’s not a once-for-all decision; it’s a commitment that will be challenged daily.
That means I must ask of every doubt if it’s a sign of deeper unbelief. If God exists, and if he has revealed himself, then I must come to terms with his authoritative revelation. Is my doubt a sign of my wrestling against submitting to the authority of his Word? To stand in judgment of it,—when, if it is true, it stands in judgment of me,—would not be wise. As Paul said, “Let God be true through every one were a liar” (Rom. 3:4).
One True Fairy Tale
I would encourage you to face your doubts with belief. Not blind belief, mind you, but well-reasoned trust, to borrow an expression from the late theologian R. C. Sproul. God has given you good reason to trust him. So, trust him. Trust his Word even as you work through your questions and doubts.
The world is filled with fairy tales, but there is one grand tale that gives them all meaning. The God whose words brought time, space, matter, and energy into being, the God who in the fullness of time took on human flesh—the God who, after being crucified and buried in a borrowed tomb, stood with one foot on death and the other on the great deceiver—is worthy of your trust.
Sounds like a fairy tale, doesn’t it? Indeed, it’s the greatest fairy tale ever told. And it’s all true. Every word.
This post was originally published at The Gospel Coalition here.