How Do We Know the Bible is True? Questions Children Ask

questions children ask when learning the BibleWe take the horrifying stories in the Bible, water them down to make them palatable to children, and then teach them as “The Bible tells me so” truth because we say the Bible is true.

Kids ask the darndest questions. Previously, I tackled the question from a five-year-old granddaughter, “How do we know God is real? How do we know he’s not someone that because we are little you tell us he’s real, but then when we’re older we find out he’s fake.”

Today, it’s a question from a seven-year-old grandson, “How do we know that the Bible is true because all that you’re telling this is from the Bible?”

About time someone asked! And it brings me to a long-standing concern about how we teach the Bible to children. We take many of the horrifying stories in the Bible, water them down to make them palatable to children, and then explain them as “The Bible tells me so” truths.

There are dark, horrible stories in the Bible: are they true in the historical sense?

Take the story of Noah. God, angry and full of vengeance, decides to destroy everything and everyone. Just one dinky family and a few chosen animals escape the deluge. Every other living creature on earth gets wiped out.

It’s a dark, horrible story. Other Middle Eastern literature from around the same period contain similar stories. The Gilgamesh flood story is the most well known but there are lots of others.

When we Christians teach this dark, dark story, we sanitize it with “arky, arky” songs, pretty boats, and sweet animals all peacefully walking in. We also pretend that this is a true, historical event.

We do the same with the story of Jonah. We present it as great fun that he got swallowed by a whale and then try to justify teaching it as “truth” by seeing what kind of fish could swallow a human being (whales can’t) and not have him pretty thoroughly digested three days later.

Folks, the Noah story tries to make sense of a natural disaster. The Jonah story is satire, meant to nudge the hearers to repentance and abandonment of their evil ways. They are both “true” in the sense that they speak of significant issues of human existence. They are not “true” in the sense that they describe historical events.

Find the truth behind the text

To work with the text as truth, we must use the words and stories as the original hearers and writers meant. We do this by looking at context and examining the historical and cultural settings.

Something written as poetry needs to be interpreted as poetry, not as verifiable scientific fact.

We see one of the most beautiful passages in the Bible in Isaiah 55, which describes the hope of full reconciliation with God. Verse 12 reads, “For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”

Now, will the trees suddenly grow hands and muscles clap them? Of course not. We rightly see this as poetry, a metaphorical way of describing a joy so profound that nature finds ways to celebrate it.

Remember, what we have now as written text came by way of oral traditions in pre-literate societies. People memorized the stories. They passed them down through the generations.

Poetry is far, far easier to memorize than prose. Think of the rhythms of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Here are a couple of the stanzas:

And through the drifts the snowy clifts
Did send a dismal sheen:
Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken—
The ice was all between.

The ice was here; the ice was there,
The ice was all around:
It cracked and growled, and roared and howled,
Like noises in a swound!

How easy to commit that to memory! Between the rhythms, the rhymes and the repetition, it sits in the brain forever.

The first chapter of Genesis is poetry, not science

That’s the first chapter of Genesis: the mornings and the evenings of creation and “God saw that it was good.” Read it as a piece of exquisite poetry that teaches the glory of God and bestows upon human beings the image of that creative glory.

When we attempt to read it as a scientific treatise, we do violence to the text. It is true. It offers us the truth about the nature of God, the nature of the physical world and the nature of humanity: all good and all to be cherished in their goodness.

But how do we teach it to children? Too often, as “In six 24 hour days, God made the world and it all happened about 6000 years ago because that’s what the Bible says.” So when children and youth, assured by their parents and church that this is “true”  come face to face with rigorous science, many walk away from their faith.

This seven-year-old is already asking what a lot of later teens want to know: “What is truth? Is the Bible trustworthy?”

Well, no when we insist on misusing the texts like this. We need raw honesty, not whitewashed cutesy stories. Let’s face with courage and honesty both the beautiful and the horrifying parts of the Bible.

Bible as truth?Let us forever leave behind the poem, itself so very easy to memorize, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it for me.” Otherwise, we can and do use the Bible to justify slavery, mistreatment of women, and slaughter of the outsider, among other things.

If we want the next generation to respect the Bible as the word of God, it is time we treat the Bible with more respect. Then we can affirm that it is true, but not because it is either historically accurate or a science textbook. It’s neither.

Next week, and this is a question that the dad of those two kids asked when he was young, “Mom, what would have happened if Adam had picked up a tree limb and beaten the **** out of the serpent?”

What questions do your children and grandchildren have? Send them to me and I’ll do my darndest to answer them!

Note: A version of this column is slated to run in the Denton Record-Chronicle. The Thoughtful Pastor, AKA Christy Thomas, welcomes all questions for the column and would especially like questions your children/grandchildren/students ask. Although the questioner will not be identified, I do need a name and verifiable contact information in case the newspaper editor has need of it. You may use this link to email questions.

Photo Source: © Thefreemangroup |, modified by Christy Thomas

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  • jekylldoc

    It helps me to construct some narratives that are consistent with scholarly information. “The people of Israel were sickened by child sacrifice, and they reflected on how God feels about it. The story of Abraham offering Isaac for sacrifice may have been the result.” Or “Israel was a crossroads, and people from many parts of the Middle East found their way there. So they carefully gathered stories of outsiders finding an important place in their society, like Ruth and Naomi.”

  • Melo Himme

    You didn’t even tell us the answer. You just told us the stories in the bible ????

    • You are right. I’m not sure what the answer is.

      • Ficino

        At this point, I think the books of the Bible are purely human documents. But for the person who wants to affirm their centrality for faith, can it be enough to say that they are a record of people’s/communities’ faith experience, or of their experience with God? I.e. the Word became flesh in Jesus, and the Bible is not God’s word but a testimony to it?

  • Clement Agonistes

    I think that was beautifully written. I have seen at least one hard-core conservative Christian say pretty much the same thing. It’s a great moment when we find this kind of harmony.

    So, yeah, the Bible is a book of Truth, even though each of its stories may not be historically true. It, IMO, is meant to guide us through a thought process that gradually brings us to understand that Truth (or as much as I can grasp). But, how do we know that the Truth it guides us to is really true? As the child points out, the Bible is vouching for itself. Outside of the Bible, how can we know what truth is?

    As adults, we have been through the process of separating fact from fiction millions of times. Our tools for doing this have gotten better and more numerous over time. And, yet, we still make a LOT of mistakes. For a child, I might start with a simple analogy: “How do you know it is true that your parents (or “I”) love you?”

    Sure, your parents SAY they love you, but how do you know you will not discover later that they were lying? Is love something that you can hold in your hand? Can you take out a ruler (do they still make those things?) and measure it? Can you put it on the bathroom scale and measure it? Your parents loved you even before they met you. From a time before you could even know who they were, they were changing your poopy diapers, feeding you, keeping you warm, and hugging you when you cried. The Bible is how God let us know that we are loved.

    When we read the Bible, we can feel God hugging us when we are sad, taking the poop out of our lives, and giving us that warm felling inside. There are some things that we “just know”.

    Now, clearly, “The Koran” conversation is waiting for you somewhere out there. The blog topics never end . . . .

  • John

    What process or method are you using to determine if an event is real or metaphorical? I agree with you that many parts of scripture can be easily seen for their intention and are not literal (the parables of Jesus, poetry in the Psalms, apocalypse in Revelation), but when events are mixed into the more narrative portions of scripture, it gets more complex. So, how do you navigate through these passages to confidently say they are satire or a ancient near eastern creation myth?

    • Clement Agonistes

      The first question I always ask is, “Does it make any difference if it is real or metaphorical?” If it doesn’t make any difference, I’m going to have to find something else to lose sleep over. There is no moving on to Step 2.

      The story of Noah is an easy call since we would have scientific evidence of such a worldwide. The number of hebrews escaping Egypt with Moses and then entering Canaan falls into a similar category – they may have been numerous, but they weren’t 2 million. So, science can help.

      History can also help. We know there were Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, and Roman empires. In terms of big picture history, the Bible nails it. It gets rulers correct, also. But, I’m not sure how relevant that is to the message.