Why should I take the bible literally?

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I think this is a perfectly valid question. I can’t really think of a good reason why I should take it literally, and I haven’t been presented with a good reason by anyone else. But more importantly, plenty of other religious people haven’t and don’t. So what gives? What changed? I think looking back at history can shed some light on this phenomenon.

We can take this all the way back to the 4th century. St. Augustine of Hippo (Yes, that’s right, a freaking saint), wrote extensively about how Genesis should be considered allegorical, and that the timeline presented in the text is not a literal one, but rather a logical framework. According to Augustine, when Genesis says it took the lord six days to create the earth and the heavens, it isn’t talking about human days. It’s talking about what a day to God, an eternal being, would be. Which, according to him and many other biblical scholars, should probably be considered a reeeeeally long time (like maybe 14 billion years?). 

Moreover, Augustine was pretty progressive for his day. He believed that our interpretation of the bible should change based on available knowledge. On this subject, he wrote, in matters that are obscure and far beyond our vision … we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it. That would be to battle not for the teaching of Holy Scripture but for our own, wishing its teaching to conform to ours, whereas we ought to wish ours to conform to that of Sacred Scripture. Wow. Mind you, Augustine died in 430 AD. But he goes on:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men.

And this was about a thousand years before the development of modern science! These quotes, by the way, are taken from Augustine’s work, “On the Literal Meaning of Genesis.” In case anyone is interested in exploring this more. But it’s pretty clear that Augustine believed that the bible was more of an allegorical guide to God–not a literal historical, scientific document. It also seems pretty clear that he believed such a belief was damaging to the faith in general. And that prediction seems to be true. As Christians increasingly reject science and fact, they alienate people. That’s probably why atheism and agnosticism are on the rise. 

And it’s hard to make the argument that Augustine was a quack, considering his works were used at the Council of Nicaea and the Council of Constantinople. Clearly, the religious who’s who of the day believed Augustine was a very learned and wise man, and his views profoundly influenced the church. And that attitude continued well into the 20th century. Take a gander at what Pope Pius XII had to say about evolution back in 1950:

The Teaching Authority of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions, on the part of men experiences in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter—for the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God.

Here’s a wonderful scene from the film “Religulous” where Bill Maher interviews a Vatican astronomer. This scene is interspersed with a second interview with our old favorite here on this blog, Ken Ham. The comparison between Ham and a Vatican scientist is quite nice. Here’s another speech given by the same priest about the age of the universe. The views of modern science are not incompatible with the beliefs of Christians. Unless of course you take everything in the bible to be literal. The problem with that viewpoint, though, is that there literally is no reason to do so. I think Father Coyne and St. Augustine and the freakin’ Pope make that pretty clear. Hell, the Vatican employs astronomers! Let that sink it. 

So where did the fundamentalist, literal movement we see today come from? Why do people see the bible as a scientific document? Well, young earth creationists are the main proponents of this way of viewing the bible. This movement can be traced back to the work of George McCready Price. Price was not a scientist and was not an accredited geologist. Yet he felt compelled to write science-like papers about the subject in relation to genesis and evolution. It’s very crucial to note here that absolutely no science whatsoever took place here. Price did ZERO FIELD RESEARCH, no experimentation, or anything else that could remotely be considered scientific. He simply critiqued work which was already published and established that he personally did not like. 

I feel this bears repeating. In no way did Price scientifically discredit any modern science. Zero. None. Zilch. What he DID do was start with biblical suppositions and then if he encountered evidence to the contrary, simply refused to believe it. That is not science. There is nothing scientific about the way young earth creationism was born, and there’s nothing scientific about the way it exists now. Presenting it as “creation science” is completely and utterly disingenuous. 

I think there’s pretty strong evidence that the bible should NOT be taken literally. That seems to the standpoint of the majority of biblical scholars, religious historical figures, and a fair amount of the faithful every man today in the 21st century. Hell, even people in 430 AD who had no concept of the scientific process knew better than to take the bible as a literal scientific document. I’m particularly fond of this quote:

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You don’t need to take the bible literally to follow the teachings in it. Even young earth creationists don’t take everything in the bible literally. If they did, I would assume people would get stoned to death for working on Sunday and that they’d be arguing that the bible justifies us bringing back slavery. But they don’t. I hope that’s because they know those two things are wrong, and not just because it isn’t looked upon favorably in our society anymore.

Regardless, the bible does contain great teachings. Loving thy neighbor, treating others how you want to be treated, turning the other cheek, the parable of the good Samaritan. All of these things, they’re all things that I, as an atheist, can get behind 100% from a philosophical sense. There are a lot of good things in the bible that shouldn’t be ignored and that everyone, regardless of faith, should probably try to incorporate into their lives. But please, stop taking the bible literally. It makes no sense. Besides, what impact could that possibly have on one’s faith? Why can’t you embrace Jesus as your lord and savior–which is the crux of the religion–and believe that God created a universe that is 14 billion years old? 

Do young earth creationists and other fundamentalists really, truly believe that if they don’t believe that the earth is 6,000 years old that God will hold it against them? Do they really, truly think that if they spend their lives having accepted Christ as their savior and lord and living according to the teachings of Jesus, that when they finally die and get to the pearly gates that St. Peter is going to say, “Ooh, sorry. If only you’d believed that man coexisted with dinosaurs. That was the most important part of the test!” and pull the lever and send them to hell? 

Come on, get real. 

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14 thoughts on “Why should I take the bible literally?

  1. Why should you take the Bible literally? Firstly, that’s a misleading question. It’s not that you should take the entire Bible literally, it’s that you should take literally what’s meant to be taken literally.

    Of course there will be believers of every faith (including atheism) who disagree with the traditional or mainstream thinking. That’s human nature, and that doesn’t speak against the authority of the Bible. Augustine doesn’t make a compelling case as to why we shouldn’t take the Genesis days as literal 24-hour days. If God meant it to be a literal 24-hour day, I’m not sure how he could have been much clearer. Not only does it say that God created the heavens and earth in six days, but he also says it elsewhere in the Bible (Exodus 20:11). Other passages in the Bible also make it fairly clear; and denying that actually has many theological implications that can’t be overcome. Augustine has some good advice, but I’m not so sure he was practicing what he preached.

    Okay, you may believe that creationists reject science and fact (that’s not true) and alienate people. But I would contend that atheists are alienating people by the arrogance of secular scientists who claim that they know it all, yet can’t back up a single claim via the scientific method. If atheism and agnosticism are on the rise, it’s because of ignorance and misinformation.

    Sorry, but I’m not buying your explanation of modern young earth creation science. People have always had a belief in some form of young earth creationism, right from the beginning of creation. It’s not new. Adam and Eve believed it. Further, creationist Francis Bacon is considered the man responsible for the formation of the scientific method, so it’s disingenuous to usurp science in any other name.

    I’ll accept your challenge: provide some evidence that the Bible should not be taken literally. Sure, you may not need to take the Bible literally to follow the teachings in it, but you do need to take it literally if it actually has any meaning or truth. If humans (or animals) evolved, then what is sin, how did we become sinners, why did God create such a broken world with death, disease, suffering and violence, and why did Jesus need to die on the cross if death, sin and suffering always existed?

    It makes complete sense to take the Bible literally where it’s meant to do so, and it doesn’t make sense not to. Jesus death on the cross only makes sense if sin came through Adam and Eve disobeying God’s command. Understanding that allows us to understand where sin, death and suffering came from, and why we need a savior. Biblical theology crumbles if the Genesis account is allegorical and not literal. And that’s why atheists are so eager to attack it, and that’s why I’m working to encourage Christians to trust God’s word and not the secular cosmology.

    1. So are we differentiating between taking the words literally or the ideas? To me that seems like a huge difference. If you don’t have to take the words literally, then what ground do young earth creationists have to stand on? The time lines they establish can only exist if you take the words as literal.

      Yes, young earth creationism has been around in some form another for as long as people have existed probably. Modern science has not. So what am I supposed to conclude here? That history is indicative of whether or not something is factual? More so than science? That’s an entry different can of worms to open.

      1. I’m not sure if I’m following your question, but I’m talking about taking the words and ideas in context. What did the author intend? That’s what we need to ascertain. And when Genesis 1 describes “evening and morning, the first day,” I think it’s pretty clear that we’re talking about a 24-hour day. If it were allegorical or figurative, other language could have been used to convey that. But, if it were a literal 24-hour day, what could have been written to convince Augustine and others of this? Probably nothing.

        What are you to conclude about young earth creationism being around from the beginning? Well, it sounded like you were suggesting that it’s a new phenomenon, as if that somehow disqualifies it. But since it’s been around from the beginning, I don’t think that’s a valid argument. Sure, there’s a modern form of young earth creationism, but it is based on the same understanding of Scripture as the previous versions.

      2. Fair point about context. I would agree that this matters.

        But how do you derive the correct context? That seems incredibly challenging to me, considering that the bible was not written all at once, but over a span of time and by different people. Moreover, it wasn’t written in modern English. It’s been translated and re-translated, copied and recopied in multiple languages over the centuries in different places and within different political contexts.

        So how is it possible to arrive at any sort of definitive context?

      3. I think the context can be derived in several ways. Of course it helps to understand the original language (which I don’t) and the culture of the time. In this case, I think there’s evidence that the people to whom Genesis was written understood that God was referring to a 24-hour day and a six-day work-week. God provided the example he expected them to follow. He worked six days, and that is our standard. If, however, his work took millions and billions of years, then that nullifies the concept of a six-day work week and the Sabbath.

        Further, by reading through the rest of the Bible, it’s pretty clear that Adam and Eve were real people, and that the concept of sin, salvation, redemption and justification becomes meaningless if the universe and life came about by some type of evolutionary process over billions of years.

        The Bible tells us that Jesus Christ died for our sins as a perfect sacrifice, and through the forgiveness of sin we can have eternal life. It also tells us that sin and death came through Adam’s disobedience, and that all humans are descendants of Adam and are affected by his sin. But if the secular cosmology is correct, then none of that can be true because there would be death, disease and suffering long before Adam. And if sin wasn’t the result of Adam’s disobedience, and if we’re not descendants of a historical Adam and Eve, then the gospel message is meaningless. The gospel message only makes sense in the context of a 24-hour, six-day creation with a historical Adam and Eve. I don’t think anyone can make sense of the Bible, except through spiritual gymnastics, if Genesis isn’t literal.

        Therefore, I think the context can be derived and confirmed from how the rest of Scripture unfolds. If God really did create the universe in six 24-hour days, then that explains how sin, death, disease and suffering resulted, and it explains the existence of the Sabbath.

        So the real challenge for anyone who rejects a 24-hour, six-day creation is to explain these Biblical concepts without resorting to spiritual gymnastics or esoteric spirituality.

      4. I guess it’s not clear to me at all that Adam and Eve were real people. Is there some sort of evidence you can offer to support your statement?

        I’m not really making a connection between a six-day creation and sin/redemption/salvation. Can you elaborate here?

      5. I have been thinking about this for awhile now. Something I have a problem with is the whole idea of interpretation. And not just linguistic interpretation, although that certainly is a biggie. What I guess I have a hard time with is the idea that if the bible is such a perfect document, and everything in it is a valid historical account, then shouldn’t there not be ANY interpretation at all? And yet there is.

        I mean no disrespect to you, but why is you interpretation of Genesis better than Augustine’s? Why is your view on evolution more correct than the Pope’s? There are very learned men of devoted faith who love and accept Jesus and who spend their entire lives dedicated to theology, and they’ve arrived at a different interpretation than the one you subscribe to. The catholic priest in the video, for instance. I would never presume to be a better authority on biblical interpretation than a catholic priest, even if I was still a practicing catholic.

        Why do we even have evangelicals, Catholics, Baptists, Lutherans, Quakers, Amish, etc? How could something so “perfect” be interpreted so differently by people? And again, I ask in earnest, why should your interpretation be any more correct that anyone else’s?

        I know that the learned answer is not always right. Or that the learned answer is not always the best answer. There just seems to be a radical…I don’t know. Maybe cognitive dissonance isn’t the right word, but something akin to it, to believe that the Pope’s interpretation of the bible is incorrect, and that your own is better.

        I’m not trying to argue that there is an arrogance, because I’m sure there is a reason why you subscribe to your particular flavor of Christianity. I also am not arguing arrogance because I assume that you only have the best intentions at heart, and approach these things with honesty.

        Nonetheless, I am left considering all of these things, and I see a lot of things that are not congruent to me.

    2. Scientists don’t claim that they know everything. That’s total propaganda. Scientists are the first to point out what we DON’T know. In fact, as I recall, in his debate with Ken Ham, Bill Nye answered “I don’t know” more than once to various questions. Of course, his logic is that just because we don’t know something doesn’t mean that there isn’t a rational explanation for it.

      I assume that when you say, “can’t back up a single claim via the scientific method” you’re speaking specifically about the big bang or evolution. Because I’m pretty sure science has pretty much nailed down a bunch of other stuff. Every piece of technology you use exists thanks to the scientific method. I’m pretty sure that the scientific method told us how sound works, that the outrageous claims of a heliocentric solar system were correct, and so forth. Germ theory was verified by the scientific method. I could go on, but I think it’s pretty clear that countless scientific claims have been indeed proven correct thanks tot he scientific method.

      Of course I would argue that there is plenty of evidence that evolution is real and that the big bang occurred. I also know you don’t accept such evidence. But just because we can’t explain something doesn’t automatically mean there’s a supernatural explanation. Throughout history superstition has been dispelled by science and replaced by knowledge and fact. And just because we weren’t around to eye witness something doesn’t mean that our faculties and the scientific method aren’t capable of deducing the correct answer.

      Consider the following thought experiment. Let’s say I create something, some scene. Let’s say it’s a crime scene, specifically a murder. There are various clues, multiple suspects. And let’s say that for the sake of this experiment I also filmed a reenactment of the entire thing. Now let’s say that I bring in three total strangers who have nothing to do with the set up of this experiment. They’re entering the entire thing blindly. They don’t even know that a murder has been committed. They just show up to a place they’ve never been and are asked, “What do you think happened here?”

      Let’s suppose the first person sees all the evidence and concludes that there had been a wild party. Not at all correct. Perhaps the second person concludes that there was a fight. A lot closer to the truth of the matter. And let’s say that the third person is able to fully step back, see all of the evidence, and through a process of logic and trial and error, concludes that a murder has taken place.

      I show them the video and low and behold, they were correct. What does this say? Well, it says that logic and science are perfectly capable of guiding us to correctly deducing an event that occurred in the past for which we were not present. So what’s the difference between this experiment and the big bang theory? The only difference is that there was no video camera around at the time the big bang occurred.

  2. Actually young earth creationists have not been around as much as you might think. Those who put together the bible intended for it to be inspirational, and not to be taken literally. Christianity in those times followed the philosophy of the older eastern religions which was that the universe was cyclical, that it died, was reborn and everything happened again. I am not sure what the length of time of all the cycles were in the various philosophies, but I believe Hinduism was somewhere on the order of 250,000 years. A far cry from the real age of the Earth but also much higher than the biblical timescale. As the Holy Roman empire grew, the church was no longer happy with cyclical universe because they felt it took away from Jesus’ sacrifice. They wanted it to be unique, not something that could happen over and over again. They wanted a beginning and end. Time went from being viewed as a circle to a straight line. Ironically that change initiated by the Christian church is what ended up getting a lot of people to ask the question “How old is the Earth” and this would eventually lead to the discovery of the irrefutable evidence that the Earth was 4.5 billion years old.

    1. Interesting historical context! I suppose that gives new meaning to the idea of “Alpha and Omega.”

      I wasn’t aware of that bit about cyclical time in Eastern religions. Then again, I’m not really a religious scholar. Anyway, this is interesting to note, especially when we consider everything else Christianity “borrowed” from religions that preceded it. I’ve never understood how Christianity can be the “one true religion” when it essentially stole all of it’s figures and mythology from other faiths…

      1. Indeed! lol

        Learning about different religions…just like a reading the bible, also is a good way to get away from Christianity too. lol That part about eastern religions comes from my study on the history of time (of which I also teach a course about). It’s interesting that for a long time, nobody ever asked the question, “How old is the Earth” because ultimately it didn’t matter in a cycle. It many ways I find the linear, beginning and end, model of time very counter-intuitive to just the naked eye. A cyclical philosophy seems more natural given that everything in the sky appears to be turning in circles around us.

        Yep…it’s all variations on the same story. Just the fact that there are religions that pre-date Christianity makes me feel like it should be obvious that Christianity is just the next one in the chain (luckily the printing press was invented for easy distribution!)

  3. “… you may believe that creationists reject science and fact (that’s not true) … arrogance of secular scientists who claim that they know it all, yet can’t back up a single claim via the scientific method. ”

    This is a joke, right? First that you say creationists don’t reject science (and fact), then immediately state that scientists can’t back up a single claim via the scientific method. How does this make any sense? It doesn’t unless you’re ignorant as to how science is accomplished.

    1. What I find especially ironic about this is that scientists have never once claimed “they know it all.” Scientists are the first people to point out what we DON’T know.

  4. No one knows 100 percent of anything so it is safe to safe that Jesus and God are real ? Prophecy proves it History proves it nature proves it , SCIENCE proves it but most of all the Bible proves it , faith is believing in the unseen but God does not leave us blind or ignorant you feel the wind but cannot see it yet you believe , i had a toothache and knew it was a toothache because i felt it , i believe in God for the same reason

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