There is a common mistake made by atheists and by many preachers who say they take the Bible literally. The problem involves knowing the difference between literalism and a literal understanding of the Bible. Literalism is interpreting a passage while ignoring who wrote it, why they wrote it, what kind of literature or teaching technique it is, and to whom it was written.
When atheists try to say that a biblical passage cannot be true, they are almost always using literalism. An example is skeptics who claim that the Bible says the Earth is flat and has corners like a sheet of paper. They use Revelation 7:1 to support this, “I saw four angels standing on the four corners of the earth…” If you don’t read the passage’s context, you might conclude that it says the Earth is flat and has corners. There is a “Flat Earth Society” that believes that today, but that is not what the Bible is saying. In the past, literalist church leaders insisted that the Bible says the Sun orbits the Earth instead of the other way around. They based that on passages that talk about the motion of the Sun (such as Joshua 19) or a passage they believed said that the Earth cannot be moved (Psalms 93:1 KJV).
A more complex example is seen in Luke 16:19-31. It’s the familiar story of Lazarus, the rich man, and Abraham. Atheists have used this account to ridicule the concept of heaven and hell and preachers have used it to justify fire and damnation sermons. Is this passage a literal description of the judgment scene? This is an excellent example of the principles of literalism and a literal understanding of the Bible.
This passage is one of a series of parables. It begins as the other parables with, “There was a …” Abraham is the only proper name used in the passage. “A certain rich man…” is never identified. The word translated “Lazarus” means “without help” in the original language. It is a description of the beggar, not his formal name. Abraham is never given the role of a judge in the scripture. He is the father of Israel, but he certainly is not God. Jesus told the story to “the Pharisees who were covetous” (verse 14) and considered themselves sons of Abraham. Jesus did not address the parable to theologians wanting to know the nature of hell. The picture of people in hell seeing people in heaven may be useful for artists, but it violates all descriptions of heaven and hell. The parable’s message is condemning the hypocrisy of people who claimed a relationship with God but did nothing to help others.
We must apply these principles to any passage we read. Were the nephilim of Genesis 6 literal giants? No, we have discussed that before. Did the animal in Job 41:14 have doors on its face? Does light shine when it sneezes (verse 18)? Do sparks, smoke, and flame come out of its mouth (verse 19, 20)? Is its heart as hard as a millstone (verse 24)?
There are many other passages where people confuse literalism and a literal understanding of the Bible. The entire book of Revelation is misrepresented by folks who use literalism instead of taking it literally. As we have said before, taking a Bible passage literally means looking at who wrote it, to whom and why, and how the people it was written to would have understood it. The Bible is easy to understand, and its message is 100% true, but, like any written message, it can be distorted and misrepresented. Sometimes skeptics do that purposely. Many times believers do it innocently because they don’t read it carefully and apply common sense to understand it literally.
— John N. Clayton © 2020