Your Best Life Now

Your Best Life Now


Is the Bible Literally True? No, Of Course Not!

posted by smcswain

Most people could care less whether it is or it isn’t. If you’re reading this, however, you probably care at least enough to read this.

To me, the Bible is important. It is for me the sacred story of the origins of my faith. In light of this, I could no more feel as if it were unimportant than a follower of Hinduism would feel the Bhagavad Gita is unimportant.

I do not believe, however, that the Bible is a Divinely-dictated book or a sacred text without error.

If you are a Biblical literalist, as some of you may be, what I’ve just said most likely bothers you greatly. You believe, not only that the Bible is Divinely-dictated and error-free, but you also believe that whatever it says must be taken as literally and factually true.

Furthermore, you feel, if the Bible is allowed to be a very human book, instead of a Divinely-dictated one…you would have to “throw the baby out with the bath water,” so to speak. That, if you questioned any of it, you’d undermine all of it and the end result would not be good either for you or the future of your faith. This probably also explains why you and other literalists are among those most concerned about the recent release of the Hollywood film Noah, starring Russell Crowe. Since the movie’s creators have taken liberty to create a movie not tied to a literal reading of the story of Noah, you regard that as objectionable, even a blatant disregard, and perhaps even disrespectful, of a literalist reading of the story.

As far as I’m concerned, however, I am bothered neither by Hollywood’s version of the story of Noah nor whether it conforms to a literalist reading of Genesis. If you’ve ever actually read the Genesis text for yourself, you will know there are actually two flood stories in Genesis, the one most familiar to people where God instructs Noah to preserve two of each species of animals (Gen. 7:15) and the other where God instructs Noah to preserve seven of each species of animals (Gen. 7:2). I am more bothered instead by such sacred stories being made into movies at all.

Why? Because these Bible stories were interpreted history, preserved for future generations, not for their factual accuracy, but their faith-generating component. When these movies are made, however, they are almost always recreated in a way resembling a literalist reading of the story.  Which makes them about as believable as the movies Superman or Planet of the Apes. I can remember, for example, the first time I saw Cecil B. DeMille’s classic story of Moses. As dramatic as cinematography would permit at that time, DeMille captured a compelling but literalist depiction of the Moses epic. Even as a child, however, I found it completely unbelievable.

The real Moses never wielded a staff with supernatural powers, the tip of which, when dipped into the Nile, turned the river into a cesspool of blood. Or, when dipped into the Red Sea, caused it to part so Israelites could pass to the other side on dry, not muddy, ground.

None of these Biblical stories, including the ones where Jesus is depicted as defying the laws of nature and performing miracles…as in, walking on water or giving sight to the blind or, most amazingly, raising dead people back to life were recorded as factual, or literal, eyewitness accounts. And, even if they were, they cannot be depicted as such today, if you want any of it to be believed…to be respected…or, to be read with any seriousness.

For much too long, the Bible has been regarded as an encyclopedic collection of factual history complete with divine magic and mystery all bound together and defying every law of nature we know. This view of the Bible may have worked in a pre-scientific world. It will not, however, work in ours. In other words, it is past time to let go of a literalist reading of scripture. Instead, the Bible should be regarded for what it is: a sacred text of the faith stories as recorded through the Judaeo-Christian traditions. Inside those stories are timeless life lessons just waiting to be discovered by those who seek a more human and divine way of living and loving.

In Living the Questions, the author’s, Felten and Procter-Murphy, quote Marcus Borg who beautifully frames what I’m trying to say:

“There are many Christians in North America who are bothered by any suggestion that the Bible might be anything less than a divine product. There are also millions of people in North America and in Europe who simply cannot be biblical literalists. And my passion, my vocation, my mission even, if you will, is talking to the people who can’t be literalists.  And what I want to say to conservative Christians who are upset by this other approach to the Bible is, “What do we say to the people who can’t be literalists? Do we say, ‘Sorry. Only literalists can be Christians.’? Or, do we say, ‘Sorry. God accepts only literalists.’?”

“Now, if you are a literalist and your literalism isn’t getting in your way or you’re not using it to beat up on other people, I have no problem with it whatsoever.  God can work through literalism or non-literalism. But again, what do we say to the people who can’t be literalists? And here, my argument is that a more historic, and metaphorical approach to the Gospels, to the story of Jesus, and to the Bible as a whole provides a way for non-literalists to be Christian” (taken from Living the Questions, by David M. Felten and Jeff Procter-Murphy, Harper-Collins, 2012, pp. 13-14).

The Bible’s real authority…power…is found in its stories and the imaginative way those stories have shaped the life of those who seriously listen for its divine message. It has never been what people say about the Bible that really matters.

So you say, “The Bible is literally true!”

Who really cares? No one, except you, the person who makes the claim. There is no power, however, in claiming something that increasingly looks no more believable than Hollywood’s version of Noah.

It has always been, and always will be, what the Bible says to you, in you, and through you that matters most.

When literalists finally get this, if they ever do, then the Bible will live again. There is no future for the Bible, however, where a literalist reading of the text is the only option.

Period.

(If you would like to read more of what I write, follow me on Twitter #DrSteveMcSwain).



  • http://ThankyouforyourcommentsMargaret Dr. Steve McSwain

    Sure. God speaks through many means. She is not limited to any one sacred text. She may be known through any and perhaps all sacred texts. He might be heard through nature, through another person, through your own life experiences. You alone know when you feel you’ve gotten a divine message. Thanks for your questions

  • Gillian

    Thanks for your answer! How do you identify the divine message that runs through the text? Is it just a feeling you get from certain passages, or is there some way to tell what the message in the text really is? Also, could there be divine messages in other humanly-authored texts (like Dickens novels, or Moby Dick or something), or does the Bible fall into a special category in terms of divine messaging? Thanks again!

  • http://ThankyouforyourcommentsMargaret Dr. Steve McSwain

    No, do not believe the Bible is dictated. If so, then the Divine has a hard time keeping his story straight and the errors at a minimum. But that does not mean there is not a divine message that runs throughout it. So I look for what I believe is a message from God through the stories and teachings of the text. Not very complicated. Just the way it is. I hope this helps.

  • Anonymous

    Hi! I find your article very interesting and have a theological question about it. If you don’t believe that the Bible is divinely-dictated, but you do believe that it contains a divine message, how does that work? (I don’t mean this question to sound like a challenge or like I already have an answer in mind. I really don’t. I’m just genuinely curious, because you use the phrase “divinely-dicated” to say what the text is not and the phrase “divine message” to explain what it is.) Thanks for any insights you can offer into how you view divine presence in the Bible. I look forward to learning more about your approach.

  • http://ThankyouforyourcommentsMargaret Dr. Steve McSwain

    One hopeful thing, and I’m sure this reminder will make you happy, is that, since you’ve concluded that I, and others like me, are the “lost sheep” then God will leave the fold, according to Jesus, (Luke 15) just so she can find the lost sheep. There’s hope. Thank you for you comments.

  • Anonymous

    The sad part of your article is that people are going to lap it up like lost sheep because it’s got a cut and dry answer to one of the questions of the day: Is the Bible literally true? You gave them the answer they were looking for. “No”. Why? Because “no” is easier. If the answer is no, then why go to church? We don’t have to obey the 4th commandment anymore, Dr. Steve McSwain said so. That love thy neighbor thing? Not literally a commandment from Jesus I guess so not so important now. The 10 commandments could just now be called the 10 suggestions. Oh and Jesus, I promise I will still go to mass on Good Friday because I KNOW you really did die for me, after living out your life on earth performing miracles. YES MIRACLES! Miracles are things we do NOT need to explain to science. If they could be explained they would not be called miracles now would they?
    So yes Jesus, I will be at that vigil mass and look forward to the celebration of the greatest MIRACLE ever! The day YOU defeated earthly death and were resurrected.
    I hope you have just as much resistance with the other sheep and as a matter of fact I’m going to pray for just that. The internet is such a useful weapon that the devil uses because people will randomly look for things to read as I did and, as I did not, believe it hook, line and sinker because it’s on the internet. But you know what? My God’s bigger than your computer and I’m going to pray.
    We got this one God!

  • http://Itsoundsasif... Dr. Steve McSwain

    Well, we all do make judgments. That’s part of the nature of being human. We decide for vanilla ice cream over chocolate. Admittedly, a little example but it serves to illustrate that we are always deciding for one thing over another. That is judgment. Too often, when people encounter an opinion or a judgment that is different from theirs they react. They then assume the other is judging them. It’s often hard not to feel personally attacked when one has wedding himself or herself to beliefs, whatever they may be. I’m not attacking you or anyone. How could I? I do not even know you. Now, it would be one thing for me to say, “Ms or Mr Anonymous you and your beliefs are just plain stupid, ignorant and uneducated.” That’s a judgment. It’s personal. It’s unChristian, too. To state, however, one’s opinion or beliefs and to contrast those to other beliefs one deems not to be adequate or even believable is not an attack. I hope you can see the difference. My own experience has taught me that, when I feel attacked in my beliefs, the real truth is, I am often deep inside not so certain of my beliefs. That is, when I’m honest with myself, I am quietly questioning them. Since, however, I can see inwardly no alternative or, when the thought of giving up those beliefs to which I’ve so closely attached my sense of self… or security…that causes me to inwardly fight back to save those beliefs. This is probably not what’s happening in you. I only share it because I know this to be true at times for me. Walk with God. You do, whether you’re conscious of it or not. Blessings.

  • Anonymous

    I absolutely do wish you well. Please understand that my opinion is not a judgement on you or you beliefs. I firmly believe that we all have a right to our beliefs. My only concern is that when you post what appears to be a judgmental position on what *other* people believe, I think that is harmless to us all – as well as OUR collective freedom to believe what we will. There is enough division in this world without us adding to it. I am not threatened by your beliefs, I just ask that you not judge mine.

  • http://Itsoundsasif... Dr. Steve McSwain

    No need to abandon BeliefNet if this is how you feel. Just do not read what I write. There are plenty of persons who write and blog for BeliefNet who hold similar views with yours. You need not be angry and threatened by my beliefs. I recognize and respect that many do not see things as I do. I wish you well in your walk with God. I thank you for your prayers in my walk with the same. Blessings.

  • Anonymous

    Wow. I find your post very offensive. Let me share why.

    1. You say – no one really cares as if the Bible is literally true. Really? No one? That’s pretty conclusive.
    2. You imply that if I do believe the Bible is literally true (I do) that I am uneducated and I enlightened. Really? That’s pretty judgmental.
    3. You make it clear that your beliefs are superior to mine. Really? I thought we both had equal rights to our beliefs. (You make it clear that I am allowed to have my beliefs but you also make it clear that I am wrong.)

    When you post your writing publically, you have the right to “say” what you believe and we, the readers, have the right to read it or not. I will not be frequenting beliefnet in the future (I am unsubscribing) NOT because I believe that you are wrong, Sir, (it is your right to believe what you wish) but because I believe your writing is INTOLERANT.

    The last thing we need is for our conversations about God to divide us.

  • http://Itsoundsasif... Dr. Steve McSwain

    you have decided already what I believe and what I must not believe, so I suppose a response to your comments will not be necessary. If this is not a correct reading of your comments, let me know what it is you’d actually like to know and I’ll do my best to respond. Thank you.

  • Stuart

    Ok, I have a huge problem with your way of thinking. You claim that the bible is just a bunch of stories of “spiritual truths”. So do you claim to be a Christian or not? The basic tenet of Christianity is that Jesus was God become Man, he was born, died on the cross, and rose again. If you don’t even believe that, then how can you believe anything in the bible? You have 3 options with Jesus. He was a liar, he was crazy, or He was who He says He was, God made flesh. You can have it no other way because of what He told people Himself. If you only believe He was a prophet, or a “good man”, then He was a liar. And if you don’t believe in Him as the Messiah, the Son of God, then how can you believe any of bible. On the other hand, if you believe that He is who He says He was, then how can you not believe the rest of the bible.
    If you don’t believe the bible, then why do try to follow it’s “spiritual lessons” as you put it?
    Basically what you are telling me with this article is that you are either knowingly trying to deceive people, or you are a hypocrite.
    Yes, I believe the bible is a literal factual history and there are many other sources that point to that fact as well, too many to go into here since I have already typed a whole lot more than I normally do in a response. I will correct your one misquote though, you say that it contradicts itself in the Genesis flood story about the animals (you don’t use that term, but that is what you infer), but Genesis 7:2 specifically says 7 pairs of “clean” animals and 1 pair of every “unclean” animal. Then 7:15 only mentions that pairs of all kinds of animals came to the ark (directed by God), it doesn’t say 1 or 7 pairs, just that they came in pairs.

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