Sunday, 10 June 2012


I am not a Biblical literalist. Well I am, about certain things. I believe, for example, that the historical person, Jesus of Nazareth, was (and is) more than just a person. I believe that he was God come among us and that, after being crucified, he was physically raised from the dead. The early Christians - who lived during and shortly after his lifetime - lived and died for this belief, and I hope that - if it ever came to it - I would be prepared to do the same.

There are other parts of the Bible though, which go much further back, the origins and accuracy of which are much more difficult, if not impossible to trace or to verify. We still have many good reasons to value them and take them seriously though, and in my experience God speaks powerfully through them and they have a great deal still to teach us.

The earliest story in the Bible (that is, the one with the earliest setting), is of course the story of creation. This is not one of the stories I take literally, although I know this is controversial for some of my fellow evangelical Christians. It is a story though, that teaches us some very important things - about ourselves, God and the world around us.

One of the things this story tries to get to grips with is the problem of estrangement. Its author(s) plainly believed that God was real and that He was good - so why did He always seem so distant? And why was there so much evil in the world? The author(s) deal(s) with this by telling a story. In this story, God creates the world - which of course He must have done, somehow - and then makes people to live in it. These people are somehow more than just animals. They are in fact - in some small but very significant ways - like God Himself. God looks after these people - He gives them everything they need - and He trusts them. He gives them responsibility to rule over His world and - crucially - He also lets them choose whether they will be faithful to Him, or ignore Him and go their own way.

In the story, Adam and Eve - our actual, or metaphorical, ancestors - choose to go their own way. They give in to the temptation - presented to them by a serpent - of becoming even more like God than they already are. They eat from the tree of the "knowledge of good and evil" - which is the only thing God has told them they mustn't do. By doing this they are choosing to end their reliance on God's wisdom (and by extension His mercy) and rely on their own judgement instead. Shame and guilt quickly enter the equation as they realise that - without God's help - they are at the mercy of standards they can no longer live up to.

This decision excludes them from God's abundance and provision. They are thrown out of "the garden" - where all their needs have been met, and God has walked and talked with them - into the much harsher world outside, where they are left to their own devices (more or less) in accordance with the choice they have made.

However literally or otherwise we take this story, we can see the reality of it in our own lives and its effects on us and the world around us. Apart from the suffering and evil that are sadly so characteristic of life, God also seems extraordinarily distant, to the extent that many of us doubt, or have even altogether rejected, His existence. The signs of His presence are still all around us though - in the amazing beauty and complexity of nature, wherever and whenever we experience true love, joy or compassion, in our capacity for awe and wonder and in our searching and heartfelt questions about the nature and purpose of reality and of life.

The good news of course is that God hasn't entirely abandoned His creation. The rest of the first part of the Bible (the "Old Testament") is the story of His dealings with a particular group of people, as they struggle to understand Him and live in relationship with Him, and as He prepares a way to heal the rift between Himself and humanity and repair the damage that has been done.

The healing of this rift was the primary purpose of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth - the subject of my first paragraph. How exactly this helps, is the subject of my next post

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