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.
Most of our readers seem to be pretty well convinced that the Earth is round. When I mention flat Earth believers, I get mail indicating that most of our readers believe that the flat Earth subject is a joke. Most of our readers also believe that the Earth orbits the Sun and not the other way around. As an earth science teacher in the public schools for 41 years, my students did simple lab exercises to show that the Earth orbits the Sun. However, these simple facts seem to have escaped significant numbers of people in our twenty-first century world as you can see by a web search for flat Earth believers.
The Does God Exist? ministry was founded on the belief that good science and good biblical study produce a conclusion that science and faith support each other. The problem is that there is a great deal of bad science and biblical misunderstanding out there, and the web has made it available to large numbers of people. People ascribe many beliefs to the Bible that are not actually in the Bible. Also, many scientists have allowed their anti-religious antagonism to cause them to see science and faith as enemies.
The answer to the science-faith conflict is education. We need people with a scientific understanding to clarify what science actually says when it appears to conflict with faith. We also need people with some biblical understanding to present what the Bible actually says, not what denominational views teach.
A Newsweek article for November 30, 2017, reported that more Americans scoured the internet looking for proof that the Earth is flat in the past 12 months than ever before. The first “Flat Earth International Conference” in September drew 500 “believers.” I put the word believers in quotes because there is no way to tell how many of these folks view the whole thing as a joke, and how many people truly believe in a flat Earth.
Atheist and popularizer of secular humanism Neil DeGrasse Tyson got into the act by “sharing a photoshopped image of the moon on Twitter to undermine Flat-Earthers.” The image shows what a lunar eclipse would look like with a flat Earth. Tyson frequently equates belief in God with the flat Earth mentality. We may shake our heads in wonderment at this whole scenario, but it brings to mind the old proverb, “If people don’t believe in something, they will believe anything.”
While the Bible doesn’t discuss this issue directly, there are passages like Isaiah 40:22, Proverbs 8:27, and Luke 17:30-35 which infer that the Earth is round with daytime and nighttime activities taking place simultaneously. Unfortunately, we see some Christians taking positions on scientific issues that are similar to the Flat-Earthers. When the Bible is put in the same arena with flat Earth believers the Bible’s credibility suffers.