A Doubter's Guide to the Bible: Inside History's Bestseller for Believers and Skeptics

A Doubter's Guide to the Bible: Inside History's Bestseller for Believers and Skeptics

by John Dickson


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780310518433
Publisher: Zondervan
Publication date: 02/03/2015
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 845,478
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.00(h) x 0.80(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

John Dickson (PhD, Ancient History) is the author of more than a dozen books, Rector of St Andrew's Roseville, and a busy public speaker. He has hosted three TV documentaries and is a regular media commentator. In 2007 he founded the Centre for Public Christianity. He has held lecturing and research positions at both Macquarie University (Sydney) and the University of Sydney, where he teaches a course on the historical Jesus. A visiting academic in the department of Classics at Oxford University for 2017-18, he lives in Sydney with his wife and three children.

Read an Excerpt

A Doubter's Guide to the Bible

Inside History's Bestseller for Believers and Skeptics

By John Dickson


Copyright © 2014 John Dickson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-310-51843-3




The first thing we confront when we open the Bible is the radical claim that the world is good. I say "radical" not because Westerners today will think this idea is terribly revolutionary but because when the Bible was written, this was not a widely held view. The biblical idea of the goodness of the world has infused the thinking of most people in Western culture, regardless of their faith perspective; but when the Old Testament first tried out the idea, it was novel.

The first scene of the Bible states it simply:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

And God said, "Let there be light," and there was light. God saw that the light was good. (Genesis 1:1–4a)

Then follows the story of the rest of the creation, with the deliberate repetition of the words "it was good." Here's an executive summary:

(Genesis 1:10) God called the dry ground "land," and the gathered waters he called "seas." And God saw that it was good.

(Genesis 1:12) The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good.

(Genesis 1:16, 18) God made two great lights ... to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness. And God saw that it was good.

(Genesis 1:21) So God created the great creatures of the sea and every living thing with which the water teems and that moves about in it, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.

(Genesis 1:25) God made the wild animals according to their kinds, the livestock according to their kinds, and all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good.

(Genesis 1:31) God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.

The opening point of the Bible is striking: a good God created a good world in which he placed good people to do good work. Everything is good.


Before I go further, I should say a little about my view of Genesis 1. For some, this part of Holy Scripture, with its emphasis on God creating the world in six days, is a huge obstacle to taking the Bible seriously. For others, it is the test case of whether one takes the Bible seriously. It needn't be either.

I do not believe Genesis 1 was ever meant to be read in a concrete way. The literary style in the original Hebrew (still observable in English) is not identical to historical prose, such as you find from Genesis 12 on or in the books of the Kings or in the much later Gospels. Most experts agree with this. Genesis 1 isn't quite poetry, such as we find in the book of Psalms, but neither is it exactly prose. With a striking saturation of literary devices, Genesis 1 sits somewhere between poetry and prose—what you might call an ode. It is an "ode to creation" or, perhaps more accurately, an "ode to the Creator."

Old Testament specialist Bill T. Arnold calls it a "creation overture," alluding to the way an opera might open with some of the key themes and tunes to be developed later. "The Bible's first chapter has an elegant prose more akin to poetry and may, in fact, have been based on a poem originally.... Its position at the head of the Bible means it charts the course for the reader" (Bill T. Arnold, Genesis [Cambridge University Press, 2008], 29).

Old Testament specialists regularly point out the rhyme, rhythm, repetition, and artistic structure of Genesis 1. These (in the minds of many but certainly not all) indicate that the author is trying to convey his point in a highly literary way. Adding to this impression is the use throughout the opening chapter of the number seven. In Hebrew literary tradition the number seven was the number of perfection, the number of wholeness and of the divine. It was used in all sorts of literature to convey the theme. Indeed, the traditional Jewish menorah or seven-candle lampstand, the symbol of the modern state of Israel, comes from this same ancient biblical motif.

The opening sentence of the Bible contains just seven words in Hebrew (though it obviously differs in translation). The crucial phrase "And it was so" is repeated seven times in this opening ode. The words "and it was good" also appear exactly seven times. And there is the obvious fact that the whole account is structured around seven scenes or seven days. Multiples of seven also appear in uncanny ways. The second sentence of the ode contains fourteen words (2 x 7). "God" appears thirty-five times (5 x 7). "Earth" and "heaven/firmament," the two halves of the created order, are each named twenty-one times (3 x 7) (so, Gordon Wenham, Genesis 1–15 [Word, 1987], 6).

This combination of literary devices in Genesis 1 is most unusual and is never found in this concentrated way in historical prose elsewhere in the Bible. Pretty much everyone agrees with that. This observation convinces me, and many others, that the main point of the Bible's creation account is not historical or scientific but literary, theological, and philosophical. It is this deeper point that the original author wants us to focus on. I would go as far as to say that even if scientists next week proved that the world was made in just six days, six thousand years ago, I would still maintain that this is not what the author of Genesis was getting at in his opening ode.

Let me offer a comparison. Imagine if historians were able to prove that the famous parable Jesus told about the Good Samaritan—where a Jewish man is beaten and left for dead on the Jericho road, and then is cared for by a Samaritan—also turned out to be a true historical narrative. Even if we found evidence that these events occurred in time and space exactly as Luke 10 recounts, I would still contend that Jesus' retelling of the narrative was a parable with a moral or symbolic point and was not an intended historical report. I feel the same about Genesis 1. Many fellow Chris tians disagree with me, and that is fine; I do not want to be dogmatic about this, and nor do I want to cast my Six-Day Creationist friends as naïve. However, I do want to insist that the central point of Genesis 1 is not the pressing scientific question of modern men and women but the more pressing theological and philosophical questions that have haunted humanity for all history.

In passing, I also want to mention that those who hold a more symbolic view of Genesis 1 are in very good, and very old, company. Long before modern science began to pose difficult questions to the biblical text, numerous ancient theologians, like Clement of Alexandria (third century AD) and Saint Augustine of Hippo (fifth century AD), interpreted the six days of Genesis as a symbol of the orderliness of creation. Indeed, even before these giants of the Christian church, the first-century Jewish intellectual Philo of Alexandria took the "six days" to be a deliberate literary device designed by the author of Genesis to convey the deep structure and organization of the created world (Philo, De opificio mundi 13). And the leading Jewish scholar of the Middle Ages, Moses Maimonides (twelfth century), insisted that the creation story is to be read figuratively, not concretely (Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, 2.29).

My point here is not that because some clever people in the past held a nonconcrete view of Genesis 1, so should we. I am merely underlining that these revered figures of Jewish and Christian history came to their views about Genesis centuries before the rise of evolutionary science and evidence of deep geological time. It is simply wrong to suggest, as some contemporary atheists imagine, that a symbolic reading of this part of the Bible is a watering-down or liberalization of biblical faith inspired by the great torrent of modern science.

I am saddened when my Six-Day Creationist friends—and I am pleased to say I have a few—tell me I am not taking the Bible seriously. I reply that I genuinely believe that the symbolic reading of Genesis 1 is the more sensitive and faithful reading of this foundational scriptural text (and in view of Philo's comments above, we can also describe it as the oldest interpretation we know of). The view I am advocating is probably the majority view of mainstream churches today (taking a global, multi-denominational perspective), but Chris tians have freedom to disagree on this matter. I am also happy for readers to disagree with me, because the key points of the Genesis narrative remain true regardless of what we think of this debate.

It is probably worth pointing out, if only in passing, that there are a few major passages and themes in the Bible where Christians come to different views. Genesis 1 is an obvious fault line, but there are others. I imagine it leaves the outside observer wondering how we know when to take Scripture concretely and when to take a more symbolic view. The best I can say is that where there are genuine, significant disagreements between equally informed and devoted Christians (as opposed to those who are looking to create God in their own image), it is probably a sign that the Author—with a capital A—is granting us some slack. This does not mean that everything is up for grabs or that you can make the Bible say whatever you want. Far more impressive than these disagreements are the plentiful shared convictions of Christians of all stripes down through history. There is a profound basic plotline and vision for life in the Bible. That's where we should form our strongest opinions. That is the focus of this book.


What, then, are the main theological points of the Bible's opening chapter (whether or not we also take the "six days" concretely)? In answering this, we must consider the beliefs of the cultures that surrounded the Bible's original audience.

In the nineteenth century archaeologists discovered stone tablets narrating a story that dates from around the same time as Moses, the traditional author of Genesis. It is called Enuma Elish ("When on High"), and although its precise origins and date are still a matter of debate, its central claims about creation are almost certainly representative of convictions held throughout the non-Jewish world of the second millennium BC.

Enuma Elish was a Babylonian masterpiece. It is a seven-part story found on seven tablets and was recited every New Year's Day as a kind of reminder of the order of the universe. It opens in a watery chaos, out of which the gods arise and conduct an enormous celestial war. As a result of combat, the bits and pieces of the wounded gods form the universe: this limb of a defeated god becomes the earth, another the sky, and so on. In the sixth scene on the sixth tablet humankind is made. Interestingly, they are crafted as an afterthought. The vanquished gods cry out to the king god, Marduk, that it is unfair that they should be his slaves for eternity. After all, they are gods! They entreat Marduk to create some other beast that could serve him his daily food. Marduk, being a benevolent dictator, declares:

When Marduk hears the words of the gods, his heart prompts him to fashion artful works. Opening his mouth, he addresses Ea to impart the plan he had conceived in his heart: "Blood I will mass and cause bones to be. I will establish a savage, Man shall be his name. Truly, savage man I will create. He shall be charged with the ser vice of the gods that they [the gods] might be at ease!" ... They bound Kinju, holding him before Ea. They imposed on him his guilt and severed his blood vessels. Out of his blood they fashioned mankind. He imposed the ser vice and let free the gods. (Enuma Elish, Tablet 6, lines 1– 8, 31– 34. Translation found in Bill T. Arnold and Bryan E. Beyer, Readings from the Ancient Near East [Baker, 2002], 42– 43)

Genesis 1 has undeniable affinities with Enuma Elish. It, too, begins with a watery chaos. It has the same basic order of creation. Human beings are also created in the sixth scene. This may be accidental, indicative simply of a shared cultural environment. And no one (anymore) thinks the Bible is simply copying Enuma Elish (the texts come from roughly the same time, but we can't be sure which was composed first). It is likely that the Genesis narrative mirrors pagan forms of thought, whether in Enuma Elish or elsewhere, in an effort to overthrow them.


There are similarities between Genesis 1 and Enuma Elish, but the contrasts are far more striking. Ancient people aware of pagan ideas would have spotted several subversive ideas in Genesis 1. Enuma Elish opens with nine gods in the first paragraphs, but Genesis enjoys telling us, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." Instantly, we are transported out of the complicated world of polytheism (many gods), where even the gods themselves are part of the physical universe, into the stunningly simple universe where one God is responsible for everything, and where he himself is not part of creation at all—not a "fairy at the bottom of the garden" or a "flying spaghetti monster," but the ground of all existence.

Here is perhaps the most basic misunderstanding perpetuated by recent popular literature on atheism. The "god" Richard Dawkins and others debunk is part of the universe, an object that ought to be observable, like a wall in a house or an actor in a play. Dawkins' supposedly knockdown argument against God reveals his mistake. He insists that any god capable of developing a complex universe would himself have to be more highly developed and complex than the universe. This in turn—so his logic goes—begs the question: How did god's own complexity develop? Dawkins' case against the Creator, in other words, boils down to the old chestnut who-made-god? But as many philosophers (including atheist ones) have pointed out to Dawkins, this is a weak argument from an otherwise highly educated man.

Philosophy textbooks routinely emphasize that classical theism—the kind we're talking about here—concerns a Being beyond time and space. It is precisely the observation that everything that exists in the universe is caused by something else, which leads to the philosophical affirmation that the ultimate cause of the universe must, of necessity and by definition, be timeless and nonspatial. This Being, therefore, cannot be preceded by anything, nor can it have developed; it cannot be part of the physical universe at all. As British intellectual Francis Spufford recently quipped:

When people who believe in God talk about God, we don't mean that a being exists who is an animal like ourselves, only bigger and cleverer and more complex. We don't think He lives in the universe. In fact we don't think that He exists in any environment; we don't imagine that He had to grow, or evolve, or appear, or emerge, thanks to some process or other. It's the other way up. We think that all processes exist thanks to Him; we think that He is the universe's environment. We may well be wrong, crazed, doolally, travelling first-class on the delusion express, but showing that God-the-evolved-organism is unlikely says nothing about the probability of the different thing we do in fact believe. Arguing with people imposes an unfortunate necessity to find out what they think before you open your big mouth to contradict it. (Francis Spufford, Apologetic: How, Despite Everything, Chris tianity Can Make Surprising Emotional Sense [HarperOne, 2013], 68–69)

God is not an actor within a play, to recall that image; he is its Director. He cannot be seen as a figure in the work, but his majesty and creativity are seen in every hint of rational order throughout the universe. This is the God of Genesis 1, in contrast to the gods of Enuma Elish.


Excerpted from A Doubter's Guide to the Bible by John Dickson. Copyright © 2014 John Dickson. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Chapter 1: How Everything is Good
Chapter 2: Why So Much is Bad
Chapter 3: Plan A, B, and C
Chapter 4: The Good Life
Chapter 5: Justice for All
Chapter 6: Kingdom Come
Chapter 7: The Wait is (Almost) Over
Chapter 8: The Great Work
Chapter 9: Concerning Life and Doctrine
Chapter 10: How Everything is Good Again

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