Six Things That Aren’t “Literally” in the Bible

It’s fine if you want to believe these things. Just stop saying they’re in an easily-checkable text, and stop taking other people’s word for it that they are.

It’s one thing when really out-there fundamentalist wackos say that something or other is “the literal word of God”. They’re wackos, I don’t expect their statements to map to reality. It bothers me a lot more when I see media outlets cheerfully repeating these claims of literalism as though they’re true. “So-and-so believes in a literal interpretation of Biblical prophecies about the Rapture” or some such nonsense.

There is a very, very big difference between making claims about the ineffable and unknowable, about the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen, and making claims about the actual text of a very popular and well-known book. The existence of an afterlife is not, at present, directly checkable. The existence of the word “Rapture” in the Bible is ten freakin’ seconds in Google. There are things that people of various faiths or no faith can disagree on, but guys, seriously, the text is right there.

So, in the forlorn hope of clearing up a few of these simple, checkable errors, here are six things that are widely claimed to be literally in the Bible, and simply aren’t.

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1. The Rapture

You all know this one. The End of Days, Armageddon, the Second Coming, with the plagues and the dead rising from the grave and the four horsemen and all that awesome stuff that reads like a Jack Kirby comic book as reimagined by Guillermo Del Toro. Among enthusiasts of this belief, there’s a serious split between those who believe in a premillennial Rapture and those who believe in a postmillennial Rapture; they have arguments over whose theory is better supported by the Bible. Since neither theory is actually anywhere in the Bible, they have equally strong cases.

The entire modern concept of the Rapture was not only made up, we know who made it up because they signed their names on it and charged money for it. John Darby did the initial creative work, coming up with the basic idea of assembling an awesome Rapture story out of various half-sentences from different books of the Bible. Sure, his resultant chronology jumped around from Revelation to Daniel to Romans within a single paragraph, but it had a good beat and you could dance to it. Even the Beatles need their Brian Epstein, though, and for Darby’s theory, that was Cyrus Scofield, author and publisher of the Scofield Reference Bible. Scofield’s edition combined the King James Version of the text with a great deal of extra material, charts and timelines and so on, explaining the hidden, secret, literal meaning of the text, because apparently that’s what “literal” means now.

Essentially, Darby and Scofield created a brand-new narrative by taking a Biblical text and cutting bits and pieces out, reshuffling them into a whole different order, and adding a bunch of commentary to make it fit a new story that hadn’t existed before. You know who else did that exact same thing? This guy:

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2. The Creation of the World in 4004 BCE

People get really into this one. A lot of my atheist friends like to sneer “who cares about a book that says the world was created in 4004 BCE?” A lot of fundamentalists have decided that’s the number they’re going to believe in, and will fight for it come hell or high water. And once again, we know exactly who invented it.

Archbishop James Ussher was one of a number of theologians and math nerds of the 17th century who tried to reverse-engineer the date of God’s creation of the earth by starting from Jesus and working backward. He came up with October 23, 4004. Other nerds came up with totally different numbers, of course, but Ussher’s is the one everyone knows. Why, you ask? Because it’s cited in the Scofield Reference Bible, of course.

Lest I be accused of nitpicking, let me point out that being in the Scofield Reference Bible does not count as being literally in the Bible, any more than a complicated rant about the bimetallic question is literally in The Wizard of Oz.

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3. The Antichrist

You knew this one was coming. All those cool stories about the son of Satan, the messiah of evil who will usher in the end of the world? Made up. Completely. Biblical basis: zero.

Don’t get me wrong; unlike the Rapture, the word “antichrist” does occur in the Bible. Well, in John. A couple times. It doesn’t bode well for those plots about the desperate attempt to discover the Antichrist’s identity in time, though, because he tells us quite literally and specifically who it is.

2 John 1:7 — I say this because many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist.

So… that’d be me, then. And all the other atheists. And the Hindus. And the Buddhists. Most of the world’s population, really. We’re all antichrists.

This is going to be the worst remake of The Omen ever.

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4. The Seven Deadly Sins

I’m sorry, now I’m just ruining cool horror movies for no reason. Sadly, though, this is one of those timeless moral principles that has a specific timestamp, in this case 1274, when Thomas Aquinas finally stopped writing his extraordinary Summa Theologica on account of being dead. While he didn’t originate the concept of the Seven Deadly Sins, his work was so influential that if he said they and the Seven Cardinal Virtues were a thing, all of medieval Europe was more than willing to take his word for it. (Not kidding about his influence. To this day, talking smack on Aquinas is a good way to get punched in the face by a Jesuit.)

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5. The Ten Commandments

I know you’re offended, but bear with me. The Ten Commandments are not literally in the Bible. They are strictly a matter of interpretation.

First off, there aren’t ten. There are six hundred and thirteen commandments laid down in the book of Exodus, which together comprise God’s covenant with the Jewish people. Okay, I’m cheating a bit, it’s fair to say that the text sets the first seventeen verses slightly apart from the rest, and then repeats versions of them later in Exodus, and again in Deuteronomy, so those ones probably are of particular note. We just need to decide which ten we’re going to believe.

Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant doctrines all offer different versions of the ten rules derived from those three versions of seventeen verses. Is the second commandment about graven images, or taking the Lord’s name in vain? Is that whole section about coveting one commandment or two? And does it say “Thou shalt not kill” or “Thou shalt not commit murder”? Unsurprisingly, each religion edited a Ten Commandments that best suited their religious practices.

Now, you might say that none of this changes the text, that the rules are there, it’s just a question of how people choose to interpret, emphasize, and organize them. Which is true. But it’s also what people who talk about “the literal word of God” always say they’re not doing. So going by the definition of literal that they want to use, the Ten Commandments simply don’t make the cut.

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6. Hell

Not kidding about this one either. All those demons with their pitchforks, all those great Hieronymus Bosch paintings, Dante’s Inferno, all those jokes involving three lawyers who die and go there… not in the text.

Not technically in the Bible, believe it or not.

Belief in the doctrine of eternal torment has been part of Christian belief probably since the beginning, and there are apocrypha (For the uninitiated, that’s books of the Bible that aren’t considered canon. Like the Star Trek animated series.) such as the Apocalypse of Peter that get into Jack Chick levels of glee about hell, but we’re talking about the actual literal-word-of-God Bible, aren’t we? And in those 66 books (81 if you’re Ethiopian Orthodox, but let’s stay focused) there are three references to anything resembling hell.

The first is in Luke 19, within a parable Jesus is telling. Not a factual account, but a story used to illustrate a moral point. I think when something is explicitly presented as a parable, it reflects poorly on us to consider it literal, no? (Spoiler alert: the Good Samaritan wasn’t literal either.)

The second and third, in Matthew 25 and Revelation 20, are both extremely vague and metaphorical representations of a final judgment. Matthew refers (after some rambling about bridesmaids and talents) to “eternal punishment” for those who failed to show charity and kindness while alive, and Revelation talks about a “lake of fire” into which those with bad works are thrown. Neither of these makes any reference to such punishment being visited prior to the Second Coming, implying instead that this will be part of the final moral accounting of the universe at the end of the world.

So even if we take these thin and scattered references as sufficient to prove a core moral doctrine like the existence of hell, there’s simply nothing suggesting that people go there when they die. Maybe after the end of the world, hell will be a thing, but there’s no suggestion in the text that it’s a thing now.

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I don’t make these points to try to demolish anyone’s doctrine or beliefs. There are sources of faith other than the literal text of the Bible, always have been, and everyone has a right to their own beliefs. However, they do not have a right to their own facts, and if they are going to claim that things are literally in a text, that is a claim of fact that can be easily checked.

As I said above, I’m an atheist, so I honestly have no dog in the fight when it comes to doctrine. I am also an editor, though, and as such I cannot in good conscience stand idly by and watch the word “literally” suffer such egregious and intemperate abuse.

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About Noah Brand

Noah Brand is an Editor-at-Large at Good Men Project, and possibly also a cartoon character from the 1930s. His life, when it is written, will read better than it lived. He is usually found in Portland, Oregon, directly underneath a very nice hat.

Comments

  1. Good (and useful) reference, Noah. Thanks.

  2. Some thoughts:

    1. The Rapture does claim basis in the literal text. For instance, the reference to some being taken and others left in Matthew 24:40-41 or the reference to people being caught up in the clouds in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17. While I believe the Rapture to be a very misguided belief, based upon an extremely problematic interpretation of the texts in question, it isn’t just snatched out of someone’s imagination.

    2. Once again, this interpretation – which, again, I don’t share – is based upon a fairly close literal reading of the text, in particular the genealogies of Genesis, which might seem to invite dating.

    3. The antichrist is identified with various other figures – the Man of Sin in 2 Thessalonians 2, or the Beast of Revelation. Within Johannine theology one could argue that the ‘spirit of the antichrist’ is at work before the actual personified Antichrist comes. I happen to believe that the Antichrist has already come and gone, but partial preterist eschatology is too big a can of worms to open here.

    4. The seven deadly sins serve as a sort of harmatological taxonomy. They may not be mentioned as such within the text, but the data that they are ordering is biblical.

    5. The ‘ten commandments’ are mentioned in Deuteronomy 4:13 and 10:4. The real question concerns the division, as they are not numbered for us.

    6. Hell has significantly more textual support than this suggests, although it would take a while to unpack it (I might just have to ask you to trust a PhD Theology student on this one). Of course, the cartoons bear no relationship to the biblical teaching. It is correct that hell proper is seen as something that follows the final judgment. However, the interim period is one that also is seen to involve some measure of judgment (e.g. Jude 6). That said, a lot of fanciful or speculative rubbish is written on this subject. We are told a lot less about hell than most presume.

    • I’d have to agree with what you’ve said here Alastair. Put a religious person who actually studies his text on this and he’d rip this up. I guess it’s easy for me to see room for improvement because I was once religious.
      One example that could’ve been used is that Christians believe that there was a war in heaven and Satan got cast out. This isn’t in the bible, but a specific passage in Isaiah was reimagined by John Milton which later became “Paradise Lost” and the story also explains why Satan is (erroneously) called Lucifer.

      • Revelation 12: 7 – 9. And there was war in heaven…and Satan … was thrown down to earth.

        That is the passage that supports the war in Heaven idea.

        I liked the article although it wasn’t fully accurate. I like it though because too many people believe things are in the Bible without checking them. This can be ok, not every Christian needs to be a theologian but it would help if they could be convinced they are at a grade school level and may not have all the answers.

        Actually find it hard to believe someone with a love for fact would be an Atheist, I really do. Sometimes I go so far as to say I don’t believe in thinking Atheists.

        Ok that came out as an unintended insult. I guess I can accept that someone who just accepted someone else’s word for the existence of God could be an Atheist but find it hard to believe someone who actually with an open mind and willing to question their own prejudges could end up there.

        I think the primary stumbling block for educated Atheists is that Salvation is available to all, regardless of age, intellect or education. This leads to a lot of people with saving knowledge / faith but lacking the understanding to answer the tough questions. The thinking Atheist runs into so many of these people (they would be in the majority) they assume that no better answers are forthcoming than the ones from the majority.
        The incorrect assumption is that every Christian understands enough to vigorously defend their beliefs and the word of God. Ask a six year old to defend mathematics and they will fail. This does not make adding and subtracting false nor does it mean it can’t be defended.

  3. Since the bible is junk, I’m guessing your phd in Theology is not worth the paper it’s printed on. Don’t get me wrong, I can appreciate the years of effort and thought and hard work that has gone into your phd, but a phd in theology is about as useful as a phd in Harry Potter.

    • Rob,

      While I believe in the Bible, let us presume for a moment that the Bible is actually junk, as you argue. Even if that were the case, knowledge of Theology would be of considerably more use than many doctorates out there. The Bible is one of the most – if not the most – seminal text for much of Western religion, culture, literature, art, ethics, politics, history, philosophy, etc. The person who is largely ignorant of the Bible and Theology is a cultural orphan, cut off from many of the riches of the Western tradition, alienated from one of its most fundamental sources, and unable to understand much of the Western imagination.

      In studying Theology you do not merely learn how to read a particular ancient text, you learn how to ‘read’ Western society, which has been in intense conversation with this text for a few millennia. You are trained in various philosophical tradition, have close and extensive engagement with Western culture in its various stages, learn a number of languages, study other cultures and religions, spend countless hours studying and writing history, learn how to read texts, engage in sociological research and analysis, etc. Few other disciplines demand as much range of their students. The adept theologian has to be a polymath. The Eastern Orthodox theologian, David Bentley Hart puts it well:

      “Now, as it happens, theology is actually a pitilessly demanding discipline concerning an immense, profoundly sophisticated legacy of hermeneutics, dialectics, and logic; it deals in minute detail with a vast variety of concrete historical data; over the centuries, it has incubated speculative systems of extraordinary rigor and intricacy, many of whose questions and methods continue to inform contemporary philosophy; and it does, when all is said and done, constitute the single intellectual, moral, spiritual, and cultural tradition uniting the classical, medieval, and early modern worlds. Even if one entirely avoids considering what metaphysical content one should attach to the word “God,” one can still plausibly argue that theology is no more lacking in a substantial field of inquiry than are history, philosophy, the study of literature, or any of the other genuinely respectable university disciplines.

      Moreover, theology requires far greater scholarly range. The properly trained Christian theologian should be a proficient linguist, with a mastery of several ancient and modern tongues, should have formation in the subtleties of the whole Christian dogmatic tradition, should possess a considerable knowledge of the liturgies, texts, and arguments produced in every period of the Church, should be a good historian, should have a thorough philosophical training, should possess considerable knowledge of the fine arts, should have an intelligent interest in such areas as law or economics, and so on. This is not to say that one cannot practice theology without all these attainments, but such an education remains the scholarly ideal of the guild.”

  4. Out of curiosity, what was the purpose of writing this article? I’d had originally wrote out this long drawn out response but I need to discern when and where it’s appropriate to discuss such topics. I discerned that this is not one of them. But thank you for writing this, it allowed me to search my faith a little more, and that’s good thing.
    And as I’ve said before, this is not a welcoming site for people of faith.

  5. Arguably #7 is the Trinity.

  6. Forrest Horn says:

    “There is no God. And I hate him.”

  7. Forrest Horn says:

    just because “fundamentalist wackos” have some erroneous beliefs about the bible does not mean that it is not – in theological parlance – divinely inspired sacred writ etc… these are straw man arguments presented by someone who, while possesses some good knowledge of the bible and its history, does not love the book for what it is… it is one thing to possess knowledge it is another to have the affections of one’s heart changed… and that is THE point of the book in question. the author here would have us believe that he “doesn’t have a dog in this fight” but he doesn’t get to make that choice… regardless of how much he might wish to… the bible is a story… it is THE story and just like your own story you can hate the author and object to the way it’s being written. Or, you can join the author in co-creating a new one. that is the invitation given to us all in the Scriptures.

  8. as much as I know I’m gonna get hate for pointing this out… What Noah’s saying here isn’t that he thinks the Bible is junk, or that people who believe in it (I do, but that’s irrelevant here) are stupid. He just wants people to actually know the text before they talk about what is in it and claim that there are things in there that actually aren’t.
    I could write a similar article about, I dunno… misinterpretations of Moby Dick, let’s say, and I have a hard time believing it would generate the same kind of angry responses.
    Just something to think about.

  9. I completely agree with the concept behind this post – it infuriates me when people try to convince me the bible is junk and their argument is based on things which aren’t actually in the bible. There are so many disturbing and screwed up things already in the bible, there’s no need to invent ones which aren’t there.
    I just want to comment on one subtle point in the section about the ten commandments. You said that people who practice religion claim they are not interpreting the bible’s verses to suit their practices. In modern-orthodox Judaism that’s absolutely not true. (Again, no generalizations – there are always stupid people and extremists). We don’t claim to understand everything in the bible, and we have entire libraries of books interpreting the old testament. Each person understands the bible through their way of life, their experience and their conscience. We don’t claim to understand God and we even admit that some of the biblical commandments were actually never practiced because of how brutal they are.

    • wellokaythen says:

      “We don’t claim to understand everything in the bible, and we have entire libraries of books interpreting the old testament.”

      This is an excellent point about the way different religious groups view many of the same passages. Before the modern era, it was not uncommon for Christians to believe in the concept of “Mystery,” the idea that a human being can never fully comprehend the mind of God, and may not even be able to fully understand the Bible itself. From that point of view, the fact that God or the Bible didn’t seem to make sense was seen as a beautiful thing, part of the wondrousness of God.

      Now, the principle of Mystery is largely in the hands of New Age fringes, and what’s left is the literally truthers versus the non literally truthers.

      Nowadays, it’s more common to believe that if something doesn’t make logical, scientific, literal sense, then it can’t be true. So, people either ignore biblical writing or try to prove that it’s logically, scientifically, historically true. The focus on the Bible as literally word-for-word true is a very modern-day emphasis. No one is so obsessed with literalism as fundamentalists have been since the early 20th century.

      Many of the Christian ancestors of today’s Christians would be shocked at how cavalierly people today talk about how they know exactly what God wants, they know they’re going to heaven, they have their spot in heaven all ready for them, etc. Medieval Christians would have found that incredibly arrogant and may have even burned you at the stake for saying such things. If you told them that God was your “co-pilot,” they most certainly would have burned you alive.

  10. I think you forgot to discuss the concept of marriage which is not referenced in the bible. I don’t know where the whole concept of getting the fathers blessing and a big wedding ceremony actually came from.

    • This is a surprising thing to say. The concept of marriage is mentioned on numerous occasions in the Bible. Of course, marriage takes strikingly different cultural forms in various of the biblical cultures mentioned, but it is most certainly referenced.

      The idea of getting the father’s blessing and having a big wedding ceremony are not integral to the meaning of marriage. Even so, we find both in the Bible. In fact, the very climax of the entire biblical text is the ‘marriage supper of the Lamb’. We see Jesus at the marriage in Cana. Also the father’s approval is sought in a number of marriages in Scripture.

    • Yellowsquash says:

      It is so random that I’ve come across this article today that is 11 months old, but am compelled to reply nevertheless:

      Marriage, as a concept, is probably one of the largest subjects in the Bible. It is quite unfortunate that it is probably one of the most misunderstood subjects from the Biblical text as well. One could say that the concept of marriage was the whole purpose of Jesus descending down from Heaven and will be the reason that He returns again. It was the foundation of civilization given to mankind in the garden and is responsible for God choosing a people for himself. And when a breach was made was also the reason for the casting away of Israel into bondage. Understanding this concept is also paramount in describing just what blaspheming the Holy Ghost is all about, without which no true understanding of this will suffice. So this concept of marriage is found from cover to cover within the biblical text moreso than it might at first appear.

      In addition, I appreciate your confession about not knowing where the fathers blessing originates. It can be found in Numbers ch 30. Read that chapter and you will recognize the familiar phrase ‘hold his peace’ which has become a tradition in the wedding ceremony. You might also recognize that tradition doesn’t quite apply the concept correctly. This is a responsibility to only the father of the bride and nobody else. Contemplating upon this chapter gives a great insight about many things that so often haven’t been taught or passed down other than through that clumsy imitative tradition during the ceremony that nobody seems to know where it came from or why it occurs. The nature in which God deals with man and his vows as compared to the allowance which he provides for a woman and her vows is striking. God is stepping out of the way and giving the maid’s father or the married wife’s husband opportunity to provide a protective role unto those he has been given a charge to defend. Then God is prepared to do for the woman what would be unfathomable to do for a man. He is ready to forgive the vow due to the discretion of the man when he disallows it. This the order of things, yet it feels somewhat foreign to us at first exposure…or is it rediscovery?

      It lends itself to showing the beauty of the process when a man gives his daughter away to be married, passing the mantle of protection to another who is found worthy of this duty. This is why a man seeks the approval/blessing of the father of his betrothed. These things, long ago, used to be taught and passed down, the importance of chivalry and honor and duty. It is the Bible which informs us of these things which we thought that we had forgotten.

  11. Thank you, Alistair, for bringing calmness and knowledge into what could be a heated discussion. I applaud your views and the basis you have for them. Wouldn’t it be easier for all of us if this were all black and white, not subject to interpretation. It ain’t so. But it’s nice to have these discussions to learn, to understand, rather than insult and foster hatred.

  12. wellokaythen says:

    To be truly precise about what is or is not in “The Bible,” one would need to specify which version you are using. There is some broad consensus in the present day about what goes in the text, but that is far from universal. There are multiple versions out there that do not necessarily say the same thing. The King James Bible I have on my shelf has footnotes showing multiple translations of various words and phrases. Even the KJV is different today than it was 300 years ago.

    The tricky part is that there is nothing in the text of any bible saying what the table of contents are. The Table of Contents is a human invention. There is no verse in the Bible saying, “God says the following shall be the books of the Bible, and none other.”

    Similarly, there are different branches and interpretations within Christianity, which is a highly diverse global phenomenon at any given moment and changes over time. What is canonical in one historical context may not be so in another. I’m somewhat familiar with late twentieth century American Protestantism, but honestly I can’t say that all Christians around the world are reading the same Bible just in different languages. I would not be surprised if the Christian scriptures read in Egypt, Ethiopia, and Armenia today are quite different.

    So, the best anyone can say about “what The Bible says” is really “what the most widely accepted versions of The Bible say.” There’s canonical status, but that’s not the same thing as being universal.

    I don’t mean this to denigrate biblical works, just to point out that there is no one single, universal Christian viewpoint and no one single, universal Bible. At the very least, anyone who quotes a Bible should provide the name of the version (KJV, NIV, etc.). I agree with Alastair on this point, that even if you find biblical works useless, they have been very influential cultural forces in history (and not just in Western culture).

    • And, in addition to these points, it is important to recognize that what we think of as the ‘Bible’ – a mass-produced, privately owned, publicly sold book, with 66 (in most cases) books in a set order, with chapters and verses, navigational and textual tools, cross-references, etc., and generally encountered primarily in the act of private and silent reading – is a relatively novel development. For most of history, most Christians have engaged with the Scriptures in a rather different way – for instance, as one trained reader would read aloud a communally owned and hand-crafted text publicly in the presence of the entire congregation. The phenomenology of the text and its reading do have surprising effects on the way that we interpret it.

      We should beware of over emphasizing the variety of texts, however. Biblical scholars work with texts in the original languages rather than translations, in terms of textual traditions with fairly well established provenance and reliability. There are minor variations and differences, but remarkably few of these are of sufficient weight to change the meaning of anything and, given the sheer multitude of surviving ancient texts that we have, we are in a good position to reconstruct the history of various textual streams.

      In many ways, the same thing that holds in the case of ancient texts hold with translations. When we have a multitude of ancient texts, we are better able to assess the relative reliability of textual traditions and variants. In the same way, as we have knowledge of many translations, we can read them in conversation with each other, noting variations and learning which parts are more or less reliable.

      The real differences between streams of Christianity exist at the level of interpretations of the same texts, not at differences in the texts that are held to be canonical. It is also worth recognizing that, although many of us might not hold apocryphal texts to be divinely inspired, we still believe that they are of considerable value for understanding.

  13. Nick, mostly says:

    I like the commandments in Exodus 23, particularly verse 19. Hate boiled kid in milk…

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