A Critique of The Bible Project’s “The Story of the Bible”
See the video first — https://youtu.be/7_CGP-12AE0
Firstly let me commend The Bible Project. I am a massive fan of their desire to introduce the Bible to those who are not familiar with it. It’s not an easy thing to summarise the Bible in 5 minutes! They have pulled off a well produced video, very high quality stuff. In particular, they seem to have worked hard to use language and concepts that skeptics and ‘outsiders’ will understand. That’s a great thing, and we should all emulate them in this!
I also want to say how appreciative I am of The Bible Project. We have shown their videos at our youth group to help them understand overviews of books, especially books like Leviticus. I love what they do. So helpful! What an awesome ministry to help people understand God’s word!
But I have theological concerns. Of course in a 5 minute summary you have to leave stuff out. That’s not my concern. My fear is that in trying to use language that is understandable by outsiders (which is a great goal!) they may have inadvertantly misrepresented some really important things.
Some might think I am being overly critical, and I’m not going to deny the possibility. I will just say that theology does matter and the time we are most likely to go astray is when we try to explain it to outsiders. As we try to show the reasonability of the Christian faith and communicate in concepts that others will understand, there is always the danger of accidentally adjusting the actual message itself. I think there are a few areas where that may have happened here:
1. The presentation of God
I don’t think God is presented accurately. ‘A beautiful mind’ is an interesting description of God. It’s not wrong if you already know that God is not just a mind, but also the sovereign, personal, almighty, holy, perfect Spiritual being that is completely unlike us. But many people today are practically Deists, in the vein of Albert Einstein, who believe in a ‘mind’ behind the universe but in a way that is nothing like the Bible’s presentation of God.
The language of creation doesn’t help: ‘a power to take the dark chaos of the uncreated world and bring about…’ It sounds like God is a manipulator of existing substance, rather than the one who created everything out of nothing with just a word. Similarly with the way the creation of humans is described. The video doesn’t say we were made, but rather ‘appointed’.
I would want a video summarising the Bible to present a clearer picture of the Bible’s God, especially since the shortest summary of the Bible is that it is a book about: God. Also. since most people’s big problem with Christianity begins with misunderstanding God, this is a fairly big place to go wrong.
2. The presentation of Sin
I always pay attention to how sin is presented in any gospel presentation or summary of the Bible. This is because a deficient understanding of sin leads to a deficient understanding of Jesus’ saving work and our place in it. Many skeptics struggle to believe that they are truly sinful, therefore it is difficult to convince them that they need a Saviour and harder still to convince them that hell is an appropriate punishment if they don’t accept him.
So how does this video present sin? My concern is that it does not portray sin as primarily a crime against God. The topic is raised in the context of humanity’s task on earth, which good. That is the appropriate context to discuss our failure to fulfil that task! But what is our task? ‘Created to do meaningful work’, says the video. I would have said: to obey, thank, and honour God (Romans 1).
The problem is that their definition of humanity’s purpose is essentially horizontal. It lacks the vertical element (God) that is at the very heart of our role as humans, the rejection of which is very thing that makes sin serious enough to be punishable by hell.
The choice to sin is described as a choice between ‘partnering with God’ (note partnering rather than obeying) or seizing power. God is ‘warning’ rather than ‘commanding’ The consequences of sin are mainly presented as the natural results of the path, rather than God’s active judgment on their action (as well as the natural results) (Gen 3).
Essentially sin is presented as a bad choice humans made, which has hurt us very badly. This is a mainly horizontal presentation of sin (operating at an inter-human level) rather than a mainly vertical presentation (operating at the level of a created being rejecting the commands of their ruler).
I’m not saying that the vertical elements are entirely absent: if you know to look for them, you will find them. But for an audience that doesn’t know to look for them or want to look for them, I worry that the horizontal presentation of sin is what they hear.
Here’s one big implication of this: it makes judgment and hell harder to believe. If sin is a bad choice we made that hurt us, what we need is not God’s punishment but rather God’s therapy. Hell becomes hard to believe. We deserve God’s sympathy and help, not his condemnation. We need to keep the vertical element of sin (whether in legal language of breaking God’s laws, or in relational language of disobedience or rejection). Only then does hell make sense. Notice that the video doesn’t talk about judgment day or hell, despite it being a big theme in the Prophets, Jesus, and Revelation.
Here’s another big implication of this: it changes the sort of salvation we need. If sin is a bad choice, then what does salvation look like? It looks like God helping us to make the right choice. Rather than needing forgiveness for rejection, and atonement for law-breaking, we need someone to help us make the right decision. This pre-empts another criticism I will make in a minute. Basically, I think the video goes on to present Jesus’ work as a ministry of ‘helping us choose better’ rather than a mission to give his life to pay our punishment to forgive our sins.
3. The presentation of Jesus’ work and how we are saved
If you read all of point 2, well done. You probably can already guess where I’m going here.
I quite like the video’s presentation of Adam’s choice, Israel’s choice, Jesus’ choice. That is accurate. In Biblical Theology, Jesus is the new Adam and the new Israel, succeeding where they failed. Likewise it was cool to see the connection between the exile to Babylon and the ejection from the Garden of Eden. These are subtle points of Biblical Theology that I’m impressed they managed to include in their video!
I felt that Abraham and Israel was presented as a bit of a failed experiment, rather than God’s good plan, but that might just be me. It’s not the biggest point. But we do want to be careful to make sure we don’t present God as a guy who took 3 goes to get it right.
However, the big problem is that the video leaves the impression that Jesus’ work essentially helps us make a better choice.
Yes, the video does say that Jesus came to ‘cover for their failures’ and explains how he came to be for us what we could never be for ourselves. I am glad it mentioned that he takes the consequences of our evil ‘into himself’. The Christian who already knows the gospel probably hears in this line that Jesus faced God’s anger and punishment for our sins. But I don’t think that is how the explanation sounds to an unbeliever. I think it could sound like Jesus just suffered the natural consequences for sin. At any rate, considering that Paul considered the cross and resurrection to be of ‘first importance’ (1 Corinthians 15), I would have wanted a clearer explanation of how Jesus’ death on the cross pays for our sin. I don’t think that ‘his sacrificial love proved more powerful than evil’ really cuts it. The video would have been better if it had drawn on the rich language of rescue, salvation, forgiveness, words that our culture has no trouble understanding.
But the real issue is the overall impression left. ‘So now humanity is presented with a new choice.’ It leaves the impression that salvation comes by finally making the right choice. The problem was that we made a bad choice, but now we have another chance to make that choice. And if we ‘choose the way of Jesus’ we will be ok. This is essentially very liable to being heard as a ‘salvation by repentance’ message.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that it talks about Jesus as king. Too many presentations of the gospel are actually ‘easy believism’ and ‘cheap grace’ that doesn’t accurately present the need for repentance.
But in a culture that thinks all religions essentially say, ‘do good and God will accept you’, I don’t think this video goes far enough to explain the uniqueness of grace.
As the video nears the end, I wonder where judgment day and hell have gone.
In the end, I’m thankful for this attempt to communicate the core message of the Bible to those who do not yet know God. But I fear that it has been made more palatable to our culture in a way that changes the actual message.