The Bible is thousands of years old. How could it be relevant now?
In regard to this Great Book, I have but to say, it is the best gift God has given to man. All the good the Savior gave to the world was communicated through this book.Abraham Lincoln, sixteenth president of the United States1
Let's just face it. The Bible and the people who produced it were barbaric and superstitious. The only redeeming qualities about the Bible or the Christian tradition are those things that civilized people agree with them about, and hence they are irrelevant to modern scientifically literate people.John W. Loftus, author and atheist2
Is the Bible still relevant? Apparently, Abraham Lincoln thought it was in the mid-nineteenth century. Did it somehow become obsolete in the next century, as Lotus believed?
Some say the Bible is a relic of a bygone age—an outdated remnant of an ancient society. The eighteenth-century French philosopher Voltaire supposedly boasted that the Bible would, for all practical purposes, disappear from public life within one hundred years of his own. But the Bible is still around and Voltaire’s influence is disappearing.
Is the Bible still a source of useful and reliable guidance in the modern world or is it locked in the past? Does the Bible contain realistic assessments of our challenges and offer successful solutions?
When people talk about the Bible, some immediately think of a dated document with a laundry list of regulations reflecting pre-modern views. But, in fact, the Bible preserves a storehouse of wisdom and explores timeless questions: Why do bad things happen to good people? Where does evil come from? What is the meaning of life?
These questions continue to perplex even the greatest minds. Ironically, the Bible never seeks to “answer” these deep questions for us; it accepts that answers to some questions may be beyond human understanding. What it does give us are ways of thinking about these issues more profoundly.
The book of Proverbs, on the other hand, is full of straightforward, practical wisdom. It contains brief, pithy sayings designed to be easily remembered. Proverbs contains advice as relevant today as it was three thousand years ago. Perhaps you heard your parents or grandparents say: “Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”
Well, nearly three millennia ago, an ancient biblical proverb conveyed a similar message, emphasizing the value of discipline and hard work:
Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise! It has no commander, no overseer or ruler, yet it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest. How long will you lie there, you sluggard? When will you get up from your sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest—and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man.3
Laziness and lack of discipline were problems three thousand years ago, and they are certainly still with us today. Moreover, the promise of wealth and the threat of poverty continue to motivate us as they did the ancient audience.
For another example, consider Don Henley’s single “The Heart of the Matter.”4 The lyrics reflect the kind of loneliness and pain we all feel after important relationships crumble. When he gets down to the heart of the matter, however, he realizes it is all about forgiveness.
Well, the twentieth century didn’t create broken hearts. They’ve been around since before the first word of the Bible was written. The Bible is brutally honest about how deeply people are broken and flawed. It reflects on the pain and loneliness of broken hearts and lost friendships.
But it doesn’t leave us alone in our hurt; it sets before us guidance for the way back with promises of the reconciliation and wholeness that people desire. Any honest assessment of Scripture reveals that forgiveness is at its core—not just forgiveness from God but forgiveness of others.
A Realistic Perspective
Perhaps unexpectedly, the Bible presents a realistic and balanced approach to the challenges of life. The Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes remains one of the most relevant documents from the ancient world. In it, “the teacher” addresses issues such as education, vocation, laziness, patriotism, politics, materialism, womanizing, futility, and aging.
King Solomon, considered by many to be the book’s author, is known for his wisdom. He had many wives, concubines, slaves, and immense wealth. He experimented with every pleasure and philosophy available in an attempt to find meaning and purpose in life. At times he was skeptical and disillusioned.
The words in Ecclesiastes come from a “man of the world.” He tried money, sex, and power and found them all lacking. Like the Rolling Stones, he couldn’t get no satisfaction.5 Frustrated, the teacher cries out, “Meaningless! Meaningless! . . . Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”6
However, Solomon ultimately discovers that it is only apart from God that everything in life seems meaningless. Through knowing God, he ultimately finds meaning in life. He urges us to take full advantage of opportunities and enjoy life—without forgetting God’s guidance. He realizes that there is a balance in life—“a time for everything, and a season for every activity.”7
The Bible, here and elsewhere, provides a healthy outlook on life—one that leads to mental and emotional well-being.
As suggested earlier, biblical characters are not whitewashed. We read about their successes through the backdoor of failure.8 They are men and women who find purpose in life in spite of being uncertain, ruthless, or selfish. The powerful and powerless, rich and poor, pious and perverse can equally find contentment, courage, and confidence through God.
Within the pages of the Bible, a murderer becomes a leader, a prostitute the ancestor of a spiritual hero, a dishonest tax collector a benefactor, a shy guy an instructor, and a callous religious zealot an ambassador of faith. Barren women become mothers of important children; cowardly fishermen become spokesmen for reformation; people with pronounced impediments become messengers for God.
The realization that God uses flawed people is inspiring and reassuring; after all, we’re certainly not perfect. This valuable biblical knowledge can help us keep going in the face of discouraging circumstances and the temptation to believe the worst about ourselves.
Contrary to what many believe, the Bible is not simply a list of thou-shalt-nots. But the regulations it does contain actually form much of the basis of modern ethics and law. “You shall not murder,” “you shall not steal,” and “you shall not give false testimony,” for example, are considered so right and just that we’ve codified them in law.9
Even when we have not enshrined the Bible’s guidelines into laws, many people regard them as important for ordering everyday life. For example, it may not be a criminal offense to commit adultery, but most people agree that marital infidelity is wrong.
The Bible has shaped much of our society and culture. Stroll through any art museum and you’ll see image after image inspired by the stories in the Bible. Pick up many of the great books written in the past four hundred years and you will hear echoes of the Scriptures. Drive through any major city and you will find hospitals named Good Samaritan, St. Francis, or Divine Mercy. The Bible’s impact upon our world should not be forgotten, ignored, or minimized.
Still, much of the Bible remains strange and distant. It was, after all, written a long time ago by people living in cultures vastly different than our own. It reflects the language, standards, and worldview of its first authors, editors, and audiences—as should be expected of any piece of literature.
People who pass judgment on the Bible based on modern standards imagine they are superior to these primitive, superstitious people. They figure that polite, civilized society just emerged. But we should be careful in thinking we have somehow “arrived” on our own.
Two thousand years from now, our current knowledge of science and the world will be considered antiquated. How would we like it if our customs, ideas, politics, and science were judged according to twenty-third-century standards?
Humility is necessary in every age. To read the Bible well, we must let it sit comfortably in its original era before we insist that it speak to our own.
So when we encounter in the Bible views different than our own, it is only fair to try to understand the times in which they were written. If we take that journey into the past, we will discover the Bible’s teachings are exploring cultural boundaries. Very often we will find prophets pushing hard against powerful people and agendas in order to bring them more in line with God’s mercy. Very often we will see a harsh edge taken off of cruel, worldly realities.
In a world still characterized by anger, anxiety, discord, and disillusionment, the Bible contains a message of hope, peace, and prosperity. It remains—regardless of one’s theological starting-point—a steady source of spiritual sustenance. It may have been written to an ancient society, but it was meant for all generations.