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.
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:
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.