Answering the really big questions

This page last updated January 11th, 2023
Questioning woman

Faith deconstruction and reconstruction are all about knowing what’s true and what’s not. What we can believe with integrity, and what we can no longer believe.

We’ll all have different doctrinal and life issues that trouble us, but if we want to “build back better” and reconstruct our faith on a firm foundation, we need to feel confident about some of the really big questions:

Is there a God and does he love me?
Is Jesus really the son of God?
Is the Bible truly God’s Word?

How do we know what we know?

When we start to doubt, we may realise we haven’t ever been given clear reasons why we should believe. So let’s consider how we know what’s true in everyday life.

Authority – we trust someone who knows more than we do (e.g. a specialist doctor).

Evidence – something conforms to what we know about the world via science or history or observation (e.g. the extreme weather we have experienced lately is predicted by climate science and so is evidence for climate change).

Experience – our personal experience is a very direct way of knowing (e.g. an eye witness in a court case).

Track record – if something leads to a better world or a better life, we are justified in thinking it may be true (e.g. Nazism often leads to ugly behaviour, so we may reasonably conclude it is likely to be untrue).

Intuition – sometimes we feel strongly that something is right or wrong (e.g. a relationship that needs to end).

Revelation – God may reveal truth to us, through scripture or through experience – perhaps a vision or a dream, but more likely via a thought or a new understanding.

This is how we make decisions about relationships, careers, and politics. For example, in deciding on a new job opportunity we will do our research (evidence), we may seek advice from someone we trust (authority) and we may talk to someone who works in that organisation (track record).

So in reviewing our faith, we need to consider all these ways of making decisions about what is right and true.

Is believing the most important thing?

We have been taught that believing is what is of ultimate importance. Believing in Jesus, believing the “right” things about him, believing the approved doctrines of our community.

Now, clearly Jesus wanted us to believe him and believe in him, but that wasn’t the only thing he said. In a little parable about two sons whose father asked them to work in his fields (Matthew 21:28-31), Jesus pointed out that God prefers those who act rightly to those who speak well but don’t act.

In the Bible, deeds matter more than words (James 1:22). Jesus’ brother said (James: 2:18) that we can show our faith by our deeds. 

So perhaps we need to ask several questions:

  • Can I honestly keep on believing?
  • Can I trust Jesus enough to follow his teachings?
  • Do I think I would live better if I followed Jesus’ teaching?

So where do we start reconstructing?

Obviously we will each want to start where we first have significant doubts – perhaps hell, or Old Testament killings or something else. I address most of these issues elsewhere.

But it is likely that these doubts will lead us to more fundamental questions, which are actually more important.

  • Is there a God and does he love me?
  • Is Jesus really the son of God?
  • Is the Bible truly God’s Word?

If we can’t answer these, the other questions won’t matter. And if we can answer these, they may help us answer the other questions too.

Let’s see if we can answer these questions using as many different ways of knowing as we can.

Is there a God & does he love me?

We cannot explain the existence and amazing design of the universe without God. Atheists often say the universe is just a “brute fact”, meaning they believe it has no explanation.

There are good reasons for believing that some sort of God created the world.

  • How else can we explain that a universe started out of nothing, and against all probability it is well designed for life?
  • Many aspects of what it means to be human – beauty, love, morality, free will, rationality and consciousness – cannot be adequately explained without God.
  • Many people’s experience of life includes times when God has helped them, healed them, spoken to them, even appeared in a vision to them. Many find that following Jesus gives their life purpose, meaning and hope.
  • Christians believe there is good evidence that God has shown himself in Jesus (we’ll explore this in the next question).

For those who need to consider this question in more depth, check out Reasons to believe there is a God.

The more personal question

But for many of us, the key question is not philosophical – whether God exists – but whether God cares and whether he is worthy of our worship.

We may feel God has let us down – failed to answer our prayers, put us in a life situation that hurts, or asks us to live in a way that we find impossible. Or maybe we have been hurt by the church, or christians, so we can’t really trust their God. (If that is you, you may want to read When christianity leads to trauma and Leaving a religion of fear.)

So how can we know God well enough to know that?

The christian claim is that we will know God best by seeing Jesus. So we must ask ourselves whether we can believe Jesus truly showed us the character of God. And therefore if we can believe in Jesus’ God and believe he does love us, despite our hurts and fears.

So let’s examine that question.

Was Jesus really the son of God?

Can we know Jesus well enough to trust his teaching and the believe in his God? To make this assessment, we must answer three very different questions:

A small fragment of a copy of John’s gospel, the earliest known New Testament text, and dated about a century after Jesus died, and half a century after the gospel was written. We can thus be fairly confident that John was written in the first century, and wasn’t a legendary story written much later.

1. Are the gospels historical?

How can we know if the stories about Jesus are true? Maybe the gospels aren’t reliable?

There is a wide variation in the views of the best historians. But ignoring the extremes, we can say the consensus is:

  1. The gospels, taken together, are good historical sources for their time.
  • they include a number of independent sources (very important),
  • they were written not long after the events they describe and so are based on recent orally transmitted eye-witness reports, though of course selected and interpreted, and
  • there are so many copies that we can be confident that no major changes have occurred in copying since the originals (even though lots of minor changes have occurred and we can’t always be sure what was original).
  1. The picture we have of Jesus, his teachings and actions, is largely authentic, though not always exactly as taught by the modern church.
  2. Jesus was seen in his day as a teacher (rabbi), healer and prophet. Some saw him as the Messiah (God’s promised king who would restore the kingdom of Israel ands defeat their enemies). But Jesus was clear his mission was peaceful and sacrificial, not combative or violent. 
  3. Historians accept as a historical fact that he was believed to perform miracles and exorcisms. Some believe these stories were legendary, some that they were a natural reality, others a supernatural reality and others offer no conclusion.

Thus, without any assumption about the inspiration of the gospels, we have a good historical basis for deciding what we can believe about Jesus. We don’t have to believe the sources are totally without error to accept that they give us good historical information. The experts can guide us when to be circumspect about information in the gospels.

2. Did Jesus claim to be divine?

Jesus was reticent about any claim to divinity or being the Messiah. (Note that in his day, the Messiah was seen as a human king, and “son of God” was a term of high praise but didn’t imply divinity.) But he did give hints:

  1. He claimed a special relationship with God, who he called “my Father” in a more intimate way than any human being can.
  2. He acted as God’s special agent on earth.
  • He said his teachings had greater authority than the Old Testament Law given by God himself (e.g. Matthew 5:31-32 & Mark 10:2-12).
  • Both Jesus and his hearers saw his power to heal and exorcise as a sign of divine authority (“But if I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” Luke 11:20).
  • Jesus several times forgave people their sins. To the Jews, this was something only God could do, and they saw Jesus’ claim as blasphemous (see Mark 2:1-6).
  1. He told his disciples they would reign with him in the future kingdom (Matthew 19:28) and that God’s judgment of people would be based on how they responded to him (Luke 12:8-9).

As a result of these sayings and his actions, his followers began to worship him as divine soon after his death. 

Scholars have different views on these claims, but historian Richard Bauckham from Cambridge University concludes:

“Jesus …., though usually reticent about it, speaks and acts for God in a way that far surpassed the authority of a prophet in the Jewish tradition. …. Could Jesus act with fully divine authority and exercise the divine prerogative of giving life, while being himself no more than a human servant of God? No, because in Jewish theology such prerogatives belong uniquely to God and cannot simply be delegated to someone else.”

3 . Can we believe Jesus?

The factual information about Jesus is evidence and authority, two of the factors we need to consider in deciding what we can believe. Now comes the more personal part.

It is likely that we will have an intuition about whether we can trust the Jesus we read about in the gospels. Do you think he was an admirable character? Someone you can respect enough to want to follow him? Do you think he told the truth as he saw it?

We can also consider other ways we can know truth.

Consider your personal experience. Has your experience of following Jesus been positive or negative? Have any negatives been because his teachings have been followed, or because they have been neglected? 

Consider also the track record of those following Jesus, especially those you know. Has his teaching and example led them to live unselfishly, or selfishly? Do christian organisations do good work, even if you doubt some of their teachings? Does following Jesus leads you to a “better” life?

(It seems to me that when christians follow the teachings of Jesus to care for the poor, forgive their enemies and love everyone, they have a very positive impact on the world. But much evil comes when churches or governments use religion as a way of keeping power.)

None of this is certain, any more than any human relationship is certain. But in the end, we have (I believe) enough information to make a choice between three different alternatives:

  1. You may believe Jesus did indeed tell the truth and you are willing to trust his teachings. That doesn’t mean you accept everything in the Bible or all that modern christianity teaches, but it does give you a starting point.
  2. You may believe Jesus was a good man, but not feel you are able to commit to more than that, at least not yet. But you may be happy to follow his teachings. You may also choose to keep investigating – some useful links are below.
  3. You may be unimpressed. He may have been a good man but there are many good people. You may remain unsure about God.

We make these choices by our words and by the way we choose to live.

Is the Bible truly God’s Word?

Papyrus containing part of 2 Corinthians, dated to about 200 CE.

Firstly, what does “God’s Word” even mean?

We know the Bible had human authors who wrote in the language and culture of their time, and it was compiled and transmitted to us by people (we don’t have the original documents, but copies of copies).

So there is no claim that the Bible was directly written by God. But did God so control the human authors, compilers and copiers that what they wrote comes to us completely from God, without error and full of truth?

Internal evidence

The Bible nowhere claims to be entirely the word of God. (How could it? The Bible is a collection of separate “books”, compiled long after all of them were written.) It claims some parts are directly the words of God, but that is all.

For the whole of scripture, the strongest claim is the apostle Paul’s statement that all scripture is inspired, or “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16).

This phrase is much argued over because it is the only place it is used and its meaning is unclear. Does it mean that God breathed it out (which may be a claim for divine authorship)? Or does it mean God breathed into it to use it for his purposes?

There are a number of Biblical statements of God breathing in the Bible. In most cases, God breathed into something already existing, e.g.:

  • Genesis 2:7: God breathed into the life he had just created.
  • Ezekiel 37: God’s breath entered into skeletons.
  • John 20: Jesus breathed on his disciples to give them the Holy Spirit.

This suggests, perhaps, that Paul is speaking of how the Holy Spirit speaks to us now through the scriptures. If this is so, then the statement doesn’t imply that the written text is God’s word, but that God can speak to us through it.

And it doesn’t look as if it is the perfect words of God. There are many documented historical and doctrinal inconsistencies within its pages.

Old Testament inconsistencies

  • Sometimes there are two versions of events – e.g. 2 Samuel 24:1 says an angry God told David to take a census, but 1 Chronicles 21:1 says Satan did this.
  • Some teachings contradict each other- e.g. the rules on slaves differ between Exodus 21:2-7 and Deuteronomy 15:12 and the Passover rules differ between Exodus 12 and Deuteronomy 16.
  • Prophets sometimes correct earlier Torah understandings – e.g. Exodus 20:5 & Deuteronomy 5:9 say God will punish children for the sins of their fathers, but Ezekiel (18:17-19) says God doesn’t do this.

It’s as if the authors offer the reader choices from two different perspectives. We don’t need to be worried about this, but recognise it as the ancient Israelites’ way. It didn’t prevent Jesus believing that God spoke to us through those scriptures.

New Testament variations

It is most interesting to see the way Jesus and the apostles reference the Old Testament, often changing the meaning to make a different point from what the original author was saying:

  • Jesus in John 10:34-5 changes the meaning of Psalm 86.
  • Paul in Ephesians 4:8 reverses who gives gifts to whom from the original in Psalm 68.
  • Jesus in Luke 4:18-19 and Paul in Romans 3:10-18 , 5:9-10 & 12:19-21 omit or change Old Testament quotes to remove references to God’s vengeance.

It seems that Jesus and the apostles didn’t see their scriptures as fixed and binding authorities, but rather as God’s fluid revelation that could be applied in different ways.

External evidence

The experts confirm this view of scripture.

  • The early books have similarities with other ancient religious texts, and thus seem to be somewhat legendary and derivative.
  • Different sections record a range of views, apparently coming from different segments of Jewish life – priests, the royal court, and prophets.
  • There are historical and archaeological inaccuracies and and anachronisms.

So how is it best to view the Bible?

The Bible contains the sacred writings that formed the basis of first Jewish and then Christian religious beliefs and practices. They are not perfect nor consistent, for they reveal the gradual unfolding of understanding about God.

The Old Testament contains material that is legendary or a selective interpretation of history. The New Testament is much more historically based. Both are used by God to reveal truth.

Thus we can gain knowledge of God, and especially Jesus, from the scriptures without needing to defend, investigate or worry about every anomaly. It leaves some matters uncertain, but the main matters are well-evidenced.

The end of certainty?

The appeal of a perfectly accurate Bible is that it gives us a sense of certainty. “God said it, I believe it!” Does the view I’m suggesting leave us in perpetual doubt?

Firstly, inerrancy only gives us an appearance of certainty. Believers still disagree over many doctrines (e.g. Calvinism vs Arminianism, the return of Jesus). And they are often selective in the Biblical teachings they accept, for example:

  • Few christians believe in the death penalty for mediums, blasphemers, adulterers, homosexuals, or those who curse their parents, as commanded in Leviticus.
  • Few western christians would accept Jesus’ teaching that those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples” (Luke 14:33). Yet the evils of wealth is a common but neglected New Testament theme (James 5:1-6, Mark 4:19, 10:22, 1 Timothy 6:17).

There are many such examples. So an inerrant Bible doesn’t provide certainty at all.

Secondly, the Bible tells us of ways we can be confident of the truths we need to know – via the Holy Spirit. Jesus promised the Spirit would lead us into “all truth” (John 16:13). Paul says we’ll know God’s “perfect will” if we allow the Spirit to transform our minds (Romans 12:2).

I conclude that the days of thinking we have certainty may be in the past, and we’re now living in a time of allowing the Spirit to interpret the scriptures to us with confidence (if not certainty).

So can I keep on believing?

Can you believe these things?

  • A God who created a scientifically “finely-tuned” universe, but also created humans as physical/mental beings with abilities to reason, act ethically, freely choose, create beauty and to love? A God who loves and can be known?
  • A Jesus who is known in history. Who calls us to a life of purpose and altruism. Who will one day put all things right.
  • And a Bible that portrays God’s unfolding revelation to, and correction of, pagan people who recorded the good and the bad? A Bible that is very human, warts and all, but still contains information that leads us to God, truth and life through Jesus?

Do you think the evidence, or your personal experience show them to be true?

Would believing this encourage you to live well?

Does it feel right?

If so, you have a basis to keep on believing. And (hopefully) your questions and doubts can be considered from that viewpoint. 

Main photo by Luriko Yamaguchi. Smaller photos from the free photograph sites, Pexels and Free Bible Images.

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