In After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre famously illustrates that stories are necessary if we are to assign meaning to anything. He imagines standing at a bus stop when a young man he doesn’t know comes up to him and says, “The name of the common wild duck is Histrionicus histrionicus histrionicus.” He knows what the sentence literally conveys, but he has no idea what the young man’s statement and action mean. The only way to know that is to know the story into which the incident fits. Perhaps, alas, the young man is mentally ill. That sad life story would explain it all. Or what if yesterday someone had approached the young man in the library and asked him the Latin word for the wild duck, and today the young man mistakes the man at the bus stop for that person in the library. That trivial story would explain it as well. Or perhaps the young man is a foreign spy “waiting at a prearranged rendezvous and uttering the ill-chosen code sentence which will identify him to his contact.” That dramatic story would make sense of the incident too. But without a story, there’s no meaning.
All Fits Together
The title of this article includes an all-important assumption: the Bible is not just a diverse assortment of stories and materials; it altogether comprises a master narrative. This is not to say the Bible is written like a novel with a tight, simple plotline—not at all. It contains many individual stories and a lot of nonnarrative material. But just as J. R. R. Tolkien produced thousands of pages of narratives, poetry, articles, maps, and even lexicons over the course of decades in order to tell one very sweeping story, so God, the author of every part of the Bible, is also telling one overarching story about the real world he created. There is a basic plotline to which all the parts relate and which makes sense of all the pieces.
The Bible begins with God making the world “very good” (Gen. 1:31)—without the corruption, decay, and death that now dominate the world (Rom. 8:20–21). He placed human beings in the world as his masterpiece, made in his image to reflect his own glory (Gen. 1:27). We were created to adore and serve God and to love others. If we had chosen to live like that, we would have enjoyed a completely happy life and a perfect world. But instead, we wanted God to serve us and do what we wanted because we made our will the sovereign measure of all things. Instead of living for God and loving our neighbor, we turned away to live self-centered lives (Gen. 3:1–7). And because our relationship with God has been broken, all other relationships—with other human beings, with our very selves, and with the created world—are also ruptured (Gen. 3:8–19). The result is spiritual, psychological, social, and physical decay and breakdown. “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” (William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”)—that describes the world under sin now.
How did God respond? Did he respond with wrath toward the human race or with love? The answer is yes—to both (Rom. 1:18; John 3:16). God insists on truth, demands that we do right, and threatens to punish all disobedience and evil. Nonetheless, he pursues the human race in love, declaring his intention to save and not allow all to perish in their sin. The Lord calls a people to himself in order to create a new human society—people who know his holy character and his law, his love and his grace. This community began as an extended family (Gen. 12:1–8) out of which God created an entire nation: the people of Israel, whom God delivered from slavery and established under Moses. With this people God made a covenant in which he promised to be their loving God and they promised to be his faithful people (Exod. 19:1–8). But the history of this covenant relationship is one of almost unrelieved failure of the people to be what God called them to be.
All stories have plot “tension” and, in the most gripping narratives, it’s intense. It comes from the clash of seemingly intractable forces in the struggle to restore things. And here we can see why the Bible is indeed a story. Through two-thirds of the Bible, the part we call the Old Testament (OT), an increasingly urgent, apparently insolvable problem drives the narrative forward. God is a God of holiness and is therefore implacably opposed to evil, injustice, and wrong, and yet he is a God of infinite love. He enters into a relationship with a people who are fatally self-centered. Will he bring down the curse he says must fall on sin and cut off his people, or will he forgive and love his people regardless of their sin? If he does either one or the other, sin and evil win! But it seems impossible to do both. Is the covenant relationship he established with his people conditional (so that failure is punished) or unconditional (so that the covenant is maintained despite the people’s failure)?
Again, the answer is yes—to both. This resolution is largely hidden from the reader through the OT, though Isaiah comes closest to unveiling it. The glorious King who brings God’s judgment in the first part of Isaiah is also the suffering servant who bears God’s judgment in the second part. It is Jesus. And in the New Testament (NT), Jesus Christ, the Son of God, comes as our substitute—living the life we should have lived and dying the death we should have died, in our place. By living a perfect life, he earns God’s blessing for obedience; by dying on the cross, he takes the curse for disobedience (Gal. 3:10–14). When we believe in him, he receives the punishment we deserve and we receive eternal life as a gift (2 Cor. 5:21). And he does this in order to not only pardon our guilt but eventually free us from all sin and give us glorious new bodies and even a perfect, renewed world (Rom. 8:18–39).
The Greatest Story of All
The best and most compelling stories have high stakes and astonishing, unexpected resolutions. If that is the case, there has never been a greater story than this. The stakes are literally cosmic: everyone and everything is at stake. It seems impossible that God could be true to himself—fully good and loving, fully righteous and just—and still save us. It seems impossible that after all we have done there should be any hope. But victory is achieved through one man’s infinite sacrifice on the cross, where God both punishes sin fully yet provides free salvation, where he is revealed as both just and justifier of those who believe (Rom 3:26). Jesus stands as the ultimate protagonist, the hero of heroes.
Because the Bible’s basic plotline is the tension between God’s justice and his grace and because it is all resolved in the person and work of Jesus Christ, Jesus could tell his followers after the resurrection that the OT—“the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44)—is really all about him (Luke 24:27, 45). Paul says that all God’s promises throughout the Scripture find their fulfillment only in Christ (2 Cor. 1:20). So everything in the Bible—all its themes and patterns, main images and major figures—points to Jesus.
The Bible, then, is not a collection of Aesop-like fables, fictional stories that give us insights on how to find God and live right. Rather, it is both true history and a unified story about how God came to find us in the person of Jesus Christ, who lived and died in our place so we could be saved by grace through faith and live with him forever in a remade world, the Garden-City of God (Rev. 21–22). From this basic plot there emerge profound insights, principles, and directives on how to live. But the Bible is not primarily about us and what we should do. It is first and foremost about Jesus and what he has done.
This is the Greatest Story not merely because of its infinitely high stakes and the endless wonder of its resolution but also because of its transforming power. How different is the Bible’s story from the dominant one told in the Western world today—that we are accidents, here for no purpose other than what we create for ourselves, living in a world marked by one operative principle: the survival of the strong over the weak? Just as MacIntyre’s response to the incident at the bus stop will be completely determined by what he discovers the story to be about, how we respond to suffering, death, sex, money, and power will be profoundly influenced by whether we understand and believe the story of the Bible about Jesus—or not.