The Bible is God’s guidebook for life—but it’s not always a comfortable guidebook. How should we handle the moments when our instincts and the Bible clash?
Thomas Jefferson, America’s third president, had some issues with the New Testament.
Jesus Christ was, in his view, the greatest moral teacher the world had ever known. Writing to John Adams, he referred to Jesus’ teachings as “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.” He saw those teachings as a collection of diamonds—precious and priceless.
His issues were with everything else.
If Jesus’ moral teachings were diamonds, the remainder of the New Testament was, in Jefferson’s mind, a dunghill. Jefferson was convinced that Jesus had never intended to present Himself as a promised Messiah or the Son of God—that He had never even performed a miracle—and that these were all fictional details added by those who were trying to make “legitimate the corruptions which they had incorporated” into the story.
He believed the true bits and pieces of the Gospel accounts were “as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill” because they weren’t fanciful details added by those who were “expressing unintelligibly for others what they had not understood themselves.”
And so, toward the end of his life, Jefferson sat down to do literally what so many have done and continue to do figuratively. With a razor and some glue, he began cutting out passages from the Gospels, rearranging and editing the four accounts until he had something he agreed with.
The result was an 84-page volume Jefferson titled The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth—a work more commonly known today as The Jefferson Bible. It tells the story of a very wise Jewish teacher who lived in the first century, who taught His followers how to live good and ethical lives, and who was ultimately executed by the Roman government.
After Jefferson was done cutting and pasting, there was no trace left of Jesus the resurrected Son of God or Jesus the sin-forgiving Savior or even Jesus the miracle worker. Those versions of Jesus conflicted with Jefferson’s worldview—and so verse by verse, he cut them out.
All that remained was the Jesus he wanted to read about: a wise man who shared some good morals with the world.
When our views clash with the Bible
What do you do with the parts of the Bible that challenge your worldview?
Because they’re there. If you haven’t already come across passages that leave you feeling uncertain or uncomfortable, rest assured—you will.
Here is a book that claims to be the inspired Word of God—that confronts its readers with their own flawed human nature—that demands radical changes in how we live and how we think. There’s nothing comfortable about looking into “the perfect law of liberty” (James 1:25) and watching it illuminate our own failures and inadequacies.
But there’s more to it than that.
The Bible is also a book that doesn’t always mesh with our own views about how things should work. There will be stories in the Bible where the words God says and the actions God takes are not the words you think He should say or the actions you think He should take.
These are moments of intense discomfort—moments when our human reasoning says that God should have handled something differently. That something important ought to be worded differently—or not be there at all—or replaced with another approach entirely.
What do we do then?
The danger of cutting and pasting
The fact is, all of us have Jefferson’s razor and glue at our disposal. Whenever we come across parts of the Bible we don’t understand, don’t like or don’t want to grapple with, we can start mentally cutting and pasting God’s Word until we arrive at a final product that makes sense to us. We replace what the book actually says with the version we’ve created in our minds.
How can we possibly afford to slice up and shuffle around the words of a Being so infinitely superior to us—even if we don’t always understand them?That’s the easy way out. It’s easy to make the Bible say what we want it to say—to edit and sanitize, cut and paste, until we have something we’re happy with. We can even incorporate bits and pieces from other religions and philosophies if we like.
The trouble is, it doesn’t work. You can’t shove a belief in karma into the framework of the Bible. You can’t fit modern concepts of near universal acceptance and tolerance into the Bible. Yin and yang, the law of attraction, forgiveness as a license to sin, a God who doesn’t involve Himself in human affairs, a God who leaves “good” up to our own interpretation—ideas like these don’t mesh with the Bible. They’re incompatible—unless you’re ready to do a lot of cutting and pasting.
We have to choose how we look at the Bible
The Bible challenges us to do something more difficult:
To acknowledge the discomfort. Not to bury it or run away from it, but to sit with it and ponder it.
Accepting that our instincts would lead us in a different direction, we must then ask ourselves whether we really trust God—whether we really believe that the Bible is His Word, and whether He really is the omnipotent, infinitely wise Being He claims to be.
That’s the core of the issue.
Either the Bible is the inspired Word of the Creator of the universe—or it isn’t.
Either God knows better than we do—or He doesn’t.
Either we believe Him—or we don’t.
If we believe God—if we believe He knows better than we do—if we believe the Bible is His Word—then the Jefferson approach is out of the question.
How can we possibly afford to slice up and shuffle around the words of a Being so infinitely superior to us—even if we don’t always understand them? How can we possibly dare to staple in an appendix of conflicting philosophies and alternate worldviews?
If we don’t believe any of that, then, well—have at it. Cut it up. Rearrange it. We can add in whatever we want, remove whatever we dislike. But we can’t expect the resulting patchwork to tell us anything meaningful about the reason for our existence, about what’s truly right and wrong.
At best, forcing together our own Frankensteined jigsaw puzzle of beliefs can only give us a personal code of ethics we find appealing. It can’t tell us anything about how things are supposed to be, or how they ought to be—or how we ought to be.
The logical flaw in picking and choosing
That’s what the Bible asks of us.
All or nothing. No half-measures. Either we trust it completely, or not at all.
The second we begin to decide that God can be wrong, that His reasoning can miss the mark or need updating, we also decide that God has nothing useful to tell us about the way the world works. How can He? If we can outthink God, there’s hardly any need for Him, is there?
C.S. Lewis famously offered a version of that argument more focused on the divinity of Jesus Christ:
“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to” (Mere Christianity, p. 52).
Jefferson tried to sidestep that point with all his cutting and pasting, but even the “sublime and benevolent” code of morals that remained was a matter of opinion. He had removed everything from the Gospels that he didn’t personally believe—why shouldn’t someone else do the same?
What would be left if everyone took his or her turn with the razor? Who can really say what belongs and what doesn’t?
Sitting with the discomfort
Life would be so much easier if the Bible only said the things we want it to say—but it would also be a rather empty affair. Writing your own rules makes you the most significant, most important person in your life—and it’s also an affirmation that no higher power has anything meaningful to offer you, in this life or the next, because you know better.
As Christians in progress, our job is to do the opposite. It’s to sit with the discomfort, trusting God when our own reasoning conflicts with His, and accepting that His thoughts are higher than our thoughts; His ways higher than our ways (Isaiah 55:9).
If the Bible is the Word of God, we can’t pick and choose the parts of it we’d like to believe.
It’s all or nothing.
Study further in our booklet Is the Bible True?
If you’d like to suggest a topic for future editions of “Christianity in Progress,” you can do so anonymously at lifehopeandtruth.com/ideas. We look forward to your suggestions!