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Dear Exhausted Evangelical: I struggle with inerrancy

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By Kaitlin Schmidt

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”  (John 18:36-38 NRSV)

Inerrancy

As an evangelical, my salvation was precarious. If I found one mistake in the Bible I couldn’t defend, I would lose everything.

I didn’t see it that way at first. I just wanted to keep the salvation I thought I had found when I became a Christian. But these thoughts threatened that salvation:

  • If it turns out that even one story in the Bible is fictional, how do I know that Jesus’ resurrection isn’t fictional too? That it’s not all made up? That God’s not made up?
  • If God is perfect, so is his holy document. If I call it imperfect, I am really calling God imperfect, and I don’t have enough faith to qualify for the offer, “Everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (from John 3:16 NRSV).

So I became a defender of biblical inerrancy, the belief that the Bible is completely true. By true, I mean accurate, a word carrying connotations of history, science, factual and physical observation, and impartiality. In my mind back then, there might’ve been a little room for poetic language, but I saw myth, fairy tale and realistic fiction labels as excuses not to take the Bible seriously and, therefore, out of the question.

How I handled inerrancy

Here are some examples of how I defended inerrancy:

  • To prove the Genesis creation story really happened, I researched the young Earth theory even though deep down I knew I was looking for evidence for a conclusion I was already determined to make
  • I found ways to explain various seeming contradictions between the four Gospels, such as Judas both hanging himself and jumping off a cliff and whatever else he did
  • I tried to constantly pray silently in my mind (from a plea to “pray unceasingly” in a letter Paul wrote to an early church) and felt like a failure when I let my mind wander or listened to someone talking with my full attention (I felt like a failure a lot)
  • I tried to prove that a man really could be eaten by a big fish and live
  • I didn’t tear out my eyes or chop off my hands when I lusted (Matthew 5), but I at least felt pretty guilty about not doing it.

In all of these situations, I shoved down a smart, skeptical voice inside me saying, “Wow, that seems unrealistic.” But I had to find ways to rationalize these problem passages if I wanted to keep my ticket to heaven. I didn’t notice the damage I was doing to myself by telling that skeptical voice it didn’t belong.

What I wanted

What I really wanted from inerrancy was security. I needed to know what was right and what was true. Because otherwise, how would I know the rules for going to heaven? Always in the back of my mind, that unconscious question was so freaking scary that I was more than prepared to jump through the mental hoops of believing that Judas set up a noose, jumped into that noose, broke the rope, fell to the ground and burst open in his middle.

But instead of finding security, I only found more fear. My certainty of salvation was balanced on a precipice, and all it would take to fall over the edge was finding one tiny inaccurate detail that couldn’t be rationalized away.

What changed

There was no definitive moment when I decided to let go of inerrancy. The part of me hungry for security was continually not satisfied. I became more and more anxious and got overwhelmed.

Over time, I realized I was looking for the Bible to conquer my fear of abandonment. To my deep disappointment, I began to think the Bible wasn’t offering an inerrant plan to escape loneliness. For a more detailed account of that journey, see Dear exhausted Evangelical: I was terrified of hell.

When I accepted I would have to look elsewhere for security, I began to entertain the idea of parts of the Bible being fictional. I thought this might be the gateway to dismissing the Bible altogether, but it felt so good to finally listen to myself. After shoving down my smart, skeptical voice for so long, I finally gave it permission to speak.

Once it had space, that same voice began to ask, “If it’s not about accuracy, what is it about?” And that’s when I ended up really listening to what the stories were trying to tell me. The questioning voice I thought would bring me despair ended up bringing me more genuine faith.

When I listened to myself, I felt like a whole person. I didn’t have to shove down parts of myself anymore.

Leaving behind inerrancy didn’t make the Bible less valuable to me; it shifted my emphasis from finding evidence of God’s reality to finding out how to love. Reading the Bible became an emotional, empathetic experience instead of an intellectual, factual one.

What is truth?

I used to read Jesus’ statement to Pilate about “testifying to the truth” as though Jesus was born for the purpose of telling people to believe in the physical events of his life so they could go to heaven.

Now I think I’d ask the same question as Pilate: “What is truth?” Four chapters before Pilate’s question, Jesus himself says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6 NRSV).

I am the truth, he says. A person. A person defined by his relationships with outcasts, sinners, widows, orphans, foreigners, strangers and other vulnerable populations – not only by facts.

I now believe the Bible offers a truth not from this world – not just a matter of physical events the way I used to assume. I think the writers of the various books unapologetically use all kinds of genres – history, myth, realistic fiction, fantasy – to explore truth, relational truth, truth too complicated to fit into facts alone.

Kaitlin Schmidt

About Kaitlin Schmidt

Kaitlin Schmidt is a nanny and copy editor in Spokane. She hopes to teach English literature and writing to high school students. Schmidt grew up not knowing what a church was, but then experienced a sensational conversion to evangelical Christianity in her youth. Now in her mid-20s, she no longer considers herself evangelical but is still devotedly Christian.

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  • John Hancock

    I really like your story. It’s thoughtful, deeply introspective, and very well written.

    From my point of view, I’m sorry you were burdened for so long and hard with what I think is a damaging dogma. Inerrancy is a word made up by men, not by God.

    Uncertainty, to me, is simply a condition of the world, of nature, and of people, by virtue of their natural state. Yes, it causes anxiety of the sort you described on your journey of discovery. People to whom we appeal for answers sometimes provide the sort of authoritarian assurance designed to settle the question. That’s how experts stay in business.

    You’ve discovered an alternative method of self-assurance balanced with uncertainty, and it’s a place I find both scary and affirming. That’s the life path towards sensitivity, curiosity, and generosity. That’s not Godless, to me. And it’s a path Jesus talked about a lot, if that’s your Book.

    There are few absolutes in the natural world. I’m trying to find peace amid the uproar of conflicting values. It won’t result from hardening my judgement about the haters and morons, but rather understanding their motivations. I’d like to change the conditions that encourage such behaviors. Open-mindedness and inerrancy can’t coexist, in either groups or individuals. We humans are far too complicated.

    I think the Bible creators (all men) edited out the ambiguity and contradiction. The Gospel of Thomas is one of my favorite examples.

    Personal peace with uncertainty is my recommended practice, in the general direction of experimentation and compassion!

    • Kaitlin Schmidt

      Thank you for reading and for your thoughtful comment. I agree that uncertainty is just a part of life, and trying to use inerrancy may mask it but can’t make it go away. When I can I even embrace uncertainty as a place of power – it opens up all kinds of routes that I can take to have a good and meaningful life. But I’m not sure it will ever not be scary.

      It’s interesting that you say the editors of the Bible (I do think it’s unfortunate that they were all men) edited out the ambiguity and the contradiction. I see many examples of ambiguity and contradiction, and I don’t think the redactors just missed them in the editing process – I think they were left there on purpose to reflect the ambiguity and contradictions of real life. However, I do see your point about the Gospel of Thomas and other books left out of the canon – how were those choices made? By whom? For what reasons? I once learned that the ones included were the ones most widely used among early churches at the time of whichever council made the decisions about the canon. But I can’t believe that the process was perfect, just like I can’t believe the Bible is perfect.

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