Bill Nye

Dear Hannah,

There isn't really any way to keep myself from getting into trouble with this letter, so I'll begin it in the most straightforward manner possible: if anyone tells you to take the Bible literally, it's important that you question that person's teaching seriously.

If you're wondering why, and you still have my old study Bible around, I'll ask you to turn to page 229 and find a small editorial section in the Book of Numbers called A Problem with Numbers, in which the editors overtly state, in no uncertain terms -- and I am not joking -- that the most difficult issue in the Book of Numbers is its numbers.

It then goes on to describe the difference between the population of Israel during the time of the Exodus and their population during Solomon's reign, explaining -- or rather, trying to explain -- why the former, if the Bible is taken literally, was so much larger than the latter.  Poetry, they decide, and a "hyperbolic" exaggeration of numbers, is to blame for the issue; and I'm well aware that in Biblical times, a week could mean a week or it could mean seven years, and that a day could mean an entire morning-to-evening day, and at other times mean only part of a day -- it's almost enough to make the modern reader dizzy with confusion.  But these kinds of things must be interpreted with a healthy amount of study; poetic license forms the gist of Nelson's article.  

I'm bringing this up because for years I was of the position that the Biblical creation could be taken literally -- and perhaps it can, and I haven't been able to see exactly how.  But I've recently seen a debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye which proved, without any shadow of a doubt, that something is wrong with Mr. Ham's interpretation.  Between the fossil record, which betrays a gradual introduction of species; layers of ice found in the Arctic, which admit an extensive number of winters far beyond a literal Biblical allowance; and tree rings, which proclaim ages longer than Biblical genealogical records permit, there is no reasonable conclusion but that the earth is more than 4,000-6,000 years old.  Maybe Jesus did make perfectly aged wine immediately out of water.  Maybe He did make Adam as a fully-grown man instead of a baby.  But I have a difficult time believing that He fashioned ice to look extremely old and categorized animals in layers of rocks simply to give the appearance that ice had fallen and species had risen and vanished over many millions of years.  Simply put, with the former, there is direct utility in having them be the way they are when they were created: with the latter, the only purpose for their being so could be an obstacle to faith -- or perhaps a message that God doesn't have to speak literally in order for His word to be true.

From what I can tell, this kind of poetic license is everywhere in the Bible.  Did Jesus not give the Last Supper because Paul's account differs in wording from the Gospels?  Is Paul a liar, because he quotes the Old Testament without any regard for form or actual words?  Do Christians chop their arms off to keep from sinning?  Are Solomon's proverbs wrong because he speaks in generalizations?  Most importantly, when a translation of the Bible reads that money is the root of all evil, should we ever believe it?  A close look at our lives should yield that evil is rooted in many things other than money.  I may be a good employee, but I've never been a businessman, whether crooked or honest, and I've never had much money.  I have, however, caused many people lots of trouble because I couldn't keep my hands off of women.  Any good preacher will reinterpret the verse as money is the root of all kinds of evil -- not even because he has any scholarly background, but simply because he can't bring himself to say something plainly false and thereby dishonor his religion.  What we know of ourselves, without any form of doubt, can't be untrue simply because the Bible is interpreted wrongly.  If the Bible says there is none who does good, it is right; but this means something other than that so-and-so the pagan is incapable of loving his family.  It is up to you to find these answers on your own by reading the greatest theologians of all time, and most importantly of all your Bible. 

We must give our brothers and sisters a lot of leeway with this issue of literalism: Christianity (hopefully your Christianity, at this point) is difficult and complex, and there are Christians all over the world with backward ideas about what the Bible says.  The best way to know when poetic license is used is by knowing the whole Bible and seeing when two statements cannot be true together.  If there is a contradiction, then something must bend.  The question is whether we're wise enough to see which one must -- or it may also be that in our ignorance or stupidity, we haven't yet found a way for them to both be true.

The Bible says that we choose to go astray, and then it says the Lord fashions every heart (Isaiah 53:6; Psalm 33:15).  The Bible calls men evil, but then it claims they are blinded by the power of Satan (Matthew 7:11; Matthew 13:1-9) .  The Bible says that God chooses us, but that we are responsible for choosing Him (Acts 13:48).  The Bible even says -- in the same verse! -- that God is merciful, but that he by no means clears the guilty (what else could be the definition of mercy?), and in another passage, that anyone who sins doesn't know God, but that Christians who sin can ask for forgiveness (Numbers 14:18; 1 John 1:8-10).  Should we spend all day arguing about these ideas, as though black was white and white was black and victims were guilty and guilty men victims -- or should we be more reasonable, unlike the fundamentalist, and admit that many of the Bible's statements about humanity are poetic, and the rest are to be taken literally -- and that perhaps few of us are wise enough to know the difference between the two?  Or maybe we should be fair and admit that two things may seem exclusive because we're simply incapable of understanding how they could coexist in the same object -- and that our philosophical ignorance isn't necessarily a refutation of truth?  Perhaps the Catholic church was right even in being wrong; not that their interpretation is the one true version, but that Christian theology is too complex and difficult to be tackled successfully by common men.  And are we not Christians, simply because our intellects are imperfect?

I would recommend praying heartily on this subject.  Be ready to abandon your positions when new evidence comes to light.  This isn't your religion, but God's -- and His thoughts are much higher than yours.  Every year you should be abandoning old thoughts and getting better ones.  Every year Jesus and His word should become more and more precious.  You cannot advance in the Christian faith if you don't first make yourself a child and learn new things.  You cannot even become a pagan adult unless you learn new things.  It's strange to me that people would think differently of religion.

Lastly, regarding Bill Nye, the man came under a lot of censure for having debated a creationist.  The people who complained about Nye engaging "the enemy" are fools: if nobody else was convinced by Nye's presentation, your father was.  God is not a liar because Ken Ham was wrong, but He is a poet -- and a master scientist.  If this is the case, we must all be poets and scientists on some level: we must speak at some times symbolically and at others literally.  And always engage the enemy, unless you're convinced that only harm will come of it (Matthew 7:6).  Engage not to convince them at the moment of conversation, but so that when they go home and digest what they've heard, beyond our knowledge and away from censure, perhaps what we've said will begin to take root.  Or maybe you're the one who will change.  This is when men become convinced of things: I am the only person I've ever met, who's been willing to publicly abandon a position at the moment he discovered he was wrong.  If you are like me in this respect, you will save yourself a lot of trouble -- and gain a healthy amount respect amongst the opposition.