In a previous article, I looked at the question of the literalness of the Bible. This article is a follow-up to that one, looking at the truthfulness of the Bible. Is everything that the Bible teaches true?

What Does It Mean to Be True?

The dictionary defines the word “true” as “what is in accordance with fact or reality.” Something is true if it is factual. Truth is not based on what we may believe or perceive. Our beliefs may well be at odds with the truth. And what we sometimes erroneously label as fact may not be factual at all. Just look at the political advertising that periodically floods the media.

There are times when the truth is relative. My wife and I have quite different ideas about comfortable temperatures. She will be dressed in summer clothes while I am still cold. For her, it is hot. But for me, it is cold. The truth of what makes for a comfortable temperature is relative to the person making the assessment, and it may change over time.

But the truth we are interested in here – the truthfulness of the Bible – is not relative. It does not depend on a person’s point of view, and it is timeless. So, the title of this article might be appropriately named, “Is everything that the Bible teaches true for every person regardless of where or when they live?” And I would argue that it is. The Bible is indeed true in all that it teaches. The problem is in determining just what it is teaching.

The Parable of the Good Samaritan

But there is another aspect of “true” that is relevant to this discussion. I might create a story that is designed to illustrate a truth. The details of the story may well not be true, but the point of what I am teaching could be.

Jesus' parables are an example of this. The parable of the Good Samaritan tells the story of a man who was robbed, beaten, and left for dead. A priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan, each in their turn, passed by him as he lay on the side of the road. But only the Samaritan offed any assistance to him. Jesus used this story to illustrate what it means to love our neighbor.

Was this story factually true? It could have been. But it does not matter because it has little to do with the truth that the parable is teaching. The truth is that my neighbor is anyone I come into contact with who has a need I can meet. Whether this event was real or fictional has no bearing on the truth being taught.

The Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus

Some might argue that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are unimportant. That what really matters is the lessons we can learn from the teachings attributed to him. Whether or not he actually lived is of little consequence.

But the historicity of Jesus is fundamentally different than whether or not the Good Samaritan existed. My faith is entirely independent of the existence of the Samaritan in Jesus’ parable. But that is not true of Jesus. My faith is based on the reality of Jesus as the Son of God who died for me and was raised to life on the third day.

If Jesus was not the eternal Son of God who offered his life as an atoning sacrifice for my sin and then rose from the dead, then I have no hope for the future. All I have are some ethical teachings that may have value in this life. If Jesus is not who the gospels proclaim him to be, then as Paul says, I am to be pitied above all men (1 Cor. 15).

The New Jerusalem

Two additional examples from opposite ends of the Bible will be useful in this discussion. The first is the description of the New Jerusalem found in Revelation 21:1-22:5. This passage describes an immense city descending from heaven. It had twelve foundations and twelve gates made of pearls. The streets were made of transparent gold. The glory of God and the Lamb light the city. The throne of God was in the center of the city and the river of the water of life flowed from it. On either side of the river stood the tree of life whose leaves were used for the healing of the nations.

What is the Bible teaching us in this passage? Is this a literal city that will descend from heaven to be the home of the redeemed of the Lamb? There are certainly many people who believe that it is. But the account gives us a clue that we should not take this as a literal city. In Revelation 21:2, when John first sees this city, he describes it as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And then in Revelation 21:9-10, an angel tells John that he will show him the bride, the wife of the lamb, and then what he shows him is this city descending from heaven.

Rather than describing a literal city, this is a symbolic description of the church, the bride of Christ. Rather than being a city that we will live in, we are the building blocks that make up this city.

What is significant about this example is that, while the truth of the passage is unchanging, our understanding of it is not. What I believe it to be teaching may not be what it is teaching at all. This calls for humility on my part, recognizing that while the Scripture is always truthful in what it teaches, my interpretation of it is not always correct.

Genesis 1

The last example I want to explore is the creation account in Genesis 1:1-2:3. This short account has become one that divides believers today. Does it describe a literal six-day creation a few thousand years ago? Or is this physical description unimportant to the truth that this passage teaches?

Unlike the previous example, this passage contains no clues that would help us to know that it is not to be taken as a literal description of creation. And, until recent years, there was no question about the literalness of the account. But that has changed with the rise of modern science.

Today, the scientific account of the origin and formation of the earth differs dramatically from a literal reading of the first chapter of Genesis. And it has caused many to call into question the validity of the Genesis account and the truthfulness of the Bible as a whole. Others have chosen to reject the scientific accounts as attempts to discredit the Bible.

But I believe it is important here to step back and consider just what the Bible is actually teaching in this chapter. Is the intent of the account in this chapter to provide a description of the mechanisms of creation?  Or is it to affirm that God is the creator of all that is, including us? And that he has made humanity as his image bearers with special responsibility for the rest of the creation?

How Can We Know What the Bible Is Teaching?

How can I determine what it is that the Bible is actually teaching? I believe that 2 Timothy 3:16-17 can assist us in making that determination.

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

This passage tells us that the ultimate goal of what the Bible is teaching is to equip us for every good work. In other words, it is to enable us to be effective in our life and service in the kingdom of God. And it does that by teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.

Whether or not the parable of the Good Samaritan is an actual event has no bearing on what the Bible is trying to teach me about who my neighbor is. In the same way, whether or not God created the sun three days after he created light is immaterial to the truth that he is my creator and that I am his image-bearer.

The Bible was not written to satisfy my curiosity or to answer all the questions I might have. It was given to me to enable me to better know my God and to more effectively be in relationship with him, serving him as my Lord.

The Problem of Interpretation

I do believe that all the Bible teaches is true. But that is not the same thing as saying that my interpretation of what it teaches is always true. I have a finite ability to understand what the infinite God is teaching in his word. And my interpretation is influenced by my experience and by what I have heard and read from other people.

And this is not a problem that is limited to me. It should be obvious that there are a multitude of different interpretations of what the Bible teaches. And unfortunately, those differences often divide us as believers and churches. All of us would like to believe that the interpretation we hold to is the correct one and others have misunderstood what the Bible is teaching. But it is unlikely that any one person or group has a monopoly on the truth the Bible teaches.

How much better it would be if we would show grace to those whose interpretations of the Scripture may be different than our own. There is much we could learn from each other if we were willing to seek the truth of God’s word together rather than divide over it. We may not always be able to agree, but it is worth the effort.

Related article - Should We Read (All of) the Bible Literally?

Photo credit: Unsplash/SixteenMilesOut


Ed Jarrett headshotEd Jarrett is a long-time follower of Jesus and a member of Sylvan Way Baptist Church. He has been a Bible teacher for over 40 years and regularly blogs at A Clay Jar. You can also follow him on Twitter or Facebook. Ed is married, the father of two, and grandfather of three. He is retired and currently enjoys his gardens and backpacking.