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Timeless Truth and Constant Change

39 years ago, my new bride and I went on a honeymoon to Pensacola Beach. I still fondly remember riding the waterslide with her at the water park at Gulf Breeze, and our beachside motel. I remember ELO’s “Don’t Bring Me Down”, Nick Lowe’s “Cruel to Be Kind”, and Supertramp’s “Logical Song” playing in the park and in the car, and a legal drinking age of 18.

Last year we returned to Pensacola Breach. The water park was gone, erased so completely that there is almost no trace of where it stood. Our guess is that the waterslide was on the low hill in the above picture, on what is now the property of a local hospital. Our motel survived Hurricane Frederick two months after our honeymoon, but was so completely destroyed by another hurricane in 2004 that it was never rebuilt (see picture on Facebook). The 1979 drinking age was gone with the wind as well. And the pine trees that lined I-55 in Mississippi have grown huge.

Maps are snapshots in time in a constantly changing world. Facts on the ground may or may not change much, but political realities can change dramatically. Recently, at Pioneer Village in Nebraska, I saw copies of maps from the mid-1800’s on which “Dakota” covered both Dakotas, most of Montana, and part of Wyoming, while Idaho was part of Washington Territory, and Wyoming did not exist. (Didn’t Garfield the Cat say that Wyoming means “No State Here”?) And Mount St. Helen’s is a lot shorter than that pre-1980 map says it was.

Similarly, the book of Joshua gives us a map of tribal territories that functions as a demographic snapshot in time. Examining which towns are mentioned and which ones are missing, it appears that the verbal maps in Joshua come from the ninth century BCE, regardless of when the book itself was written.

And yes, facts on the ground can change, too. We tried to find the original site of Fort Boise last month, and the Snake River appears to have washed away all traces of it. Rivers like the Mississippi are constantly cutting new courses, leaving parts of IL, MO, TN, MS, and LA on the wrong side of the river. When we go down to the Ozarks, Pulltite Spring on the Current River seems to have shrunk since the 1980’s, while nearby Fire Hydrant Spring seems to have stolen all that missing water. One can see that how much water flows from the spring at Biblical Kadesh-Barnea today is no proof of how much water the spring produced in Biblical times.

Kierkegaard once compared reading the Bible to reading an outdated travel guide. While one is traveling comfortably by rail, one reads that here is the place where robbers hide and will attack you. Indeed, since Kierkegaard’s time, the railway is likely to have been replaced by the autobahn and Lufthansa.

So how true is Kierkegaard’s contention? The longer I think about it, the less I agree with it.

Certainly, standards of living have changed for a huge portion of the world. Most of us enjoy comforts that would have made the Rich Young Ruler and Roman emperors green with envy. And technology for travel and communication has improved exponentially. But here the comparison breaks down if we go any further. The field of demographics illustrates that what goes on in people’s minds may change, but it does not advance. Tastes and opinions about what is “cool” are constantly changing, but some realities do not change with the clock or the GPS.

“The world has changed” is not nearly as true as some claim. Part of my personal mission during my year writing “Biblical Words and World” ( was to show that the world in which the Bible was inspired was amazingly “modern.” Our belief that we are somehow smarter than the ancients were is a crock. We falsely imagine that times have changed, therefore the moral wisdom of previous ages goes out the window. C. S. Lewis called that “chronological snobbery.”

Bedrock truths do not change with time. They are not social constructs. If racism is wrong today, then it was just as wrong in the age of Jim Crow, whether anyone thought so or not. If free sex was truly wrong in the age of Queen Victoria, then it is still wrong today.

The most unpopular teachings of the Bible today have been unpopular for centuries, all the way back to when they were first given. The Bible’s teachings about sex, hell, and Christ as the only way to God were ridiculed just as mercilessly by the pagan world as they are today, and have never been without their critics. But sometimes it doesn’t matter what we think. We don’t invent timeless truth. All we can do is discover it.

The Bible was put into words in an ancient time and context, but it speaks powerfully and authoritatively to our own time and context, and to every age and people. We can see how this works in stories from the trails in the old West to California and Oregon.

Two famous groups traveled down the trackless Emigration Canyon in Utah. In 1846, the ill-fated Donner Party encountered a huge tangle of willows and brushwood blocking the canyon. Believing the roadblock to be hopeless, they chose to drive their wagons up over the steep hillside, costing precious time and delay, and exhausting their oxen, some of which died. All of which contributed to their tragic winter in the Sierras.

The very next year, the Mormons came down the same canyon and ran into the same hopeless roadblock. But the Mormons divided into teams and cut down that humongous pile of brush in a matter of hours, making Emigration Canyon passable. Today, there is no trace of that hopeless roadblock that once made the difference between life and death, only a historical marker to tell the story.

The old Oregon Trail must have seemed equally hopeless, with endless rock and dust and deprivation. A passenger on a jet at 39,000 feet would be able to see forests up ahead that would take months of grueling travel to reach on the ground. But that modern airline passenger has their own challenges that seem equally hopeless.

Let’s not be so quick to dismiss the Bible as an outdated guidebook. Even if the Oregon Trail has been replaced with a freeway where we can legally drive 80 mph, we can learn a ton from the experiences of those who first traveled that endless trail of rock and dirt. The ancient roadblocks may be gone, but God shows us how to recognize and overcome the ones that stand in our way today.