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The Bible Unfiltered

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Sincerity and the Supernatural

In the previous article, I noted that the right context for interpreting the Bible accurately isn’t the history of Christianity in any of its creedal distillations or denominational forms. But I went even further—I said that the biblical context isn’t any modern world context, period. The right context for understanding the Bible is the context that produced the Bible. That seems simple, but experience has taught me that commitment to this patently obvious truth isn’t easy.
The biblical context includes its supernaturalism. The biblical writers believed in an active, animate spiritual world. That world was home to a lot more than the triune God, angels, Satan, and demons. It included other gods (i.e., the gods of the nations were not merely idols) and territorial spiritual beings that were not demons—and were, in fact, superior to demons. It included what we think of as ghosts, who could appear visibly, and even physically, and communicate to the embodied living world of which they had once been a part (). For the biblical writers, divine beings could eat, drink, fight, and produce offspring with humans (; ; ; ; ; ; ).

Facing Up to the Bible’s “Weird” Passages

In the biblical worldview, the supernatural unseen realm had its own pecking order. Scripture never says that such intelligent beings always had the same agenda, either. The members of the heavenly host were also created in God’s image (the plurality language of isn’t about the Trinity), so they possess free will, the ability to make decisions. Their acts and attitudes are not programmed and predestined. They believe they can defeat the plans of God, or at least forestall them indefinitely, at great pain to him and great cost to humanity (eternal and otherwise).
Let’s face it—we just don’t think like that. The above isn’t the supernatural world of most Christian traditions. That doesn’t matter if we’re sincere about reading Scripture through the cognitive framework of its writers and original intended audience. But in many cases, especially in evangelical biblical scholarship, the supernatural thinking of the biblical writers has been something to explain away or avoid. I’ve seen it hundreds of times over the course of twenty years of sustained focused study as a biblical scholar. There are many creative ways to explain away what the text plainly says in various “weird” passages. But understanding Scripture isn’t about making it palatable or comfortable to modern readers. It’s about discerning what the biblical writer believed and was seeking to communicate to readers who thought the same way.

Are We Sincere about Biblical Authority?

To be blunt, most Christians think themselves believers in the supernatural because they believe in the Trinity, Satan, angels, and demons. They profess Christ and believe in God—and that’s the extent of what they truly think is real in terms of the supernatural. They affirm what they need to affirm to call themselves Christians. The rest is too scary or weird or seems simply superstitious.
When it comes to the supernatural, the question for every Christian who says they believe in biblical inspiration and authority to ask themselves is simple: How much of what biblical characters and writers believed about the supernatural world do I believe? Put negatively: How much of what biblical characters and writers believed about the supernatural world do I feel comfortable dismissing as a modern person? The answer to these questions will tell you how serious you are about biblical authority on such matters.
4

Let the Bible Be What It Is

As a biblical scholar, I’m often asked for advice on how to interpret the Bible. I could refer people to tools (like Logos Bible Software) and techniques for analyzing the original languages, even for people dependent on English. But neither of those are my go-to answer. My own journey has convinced me there’s one fundamental insight that, if faithfully observed, will help more than anything. It’s the best piece of advice I can give you:
Let the Bible be what it is.
What do I mean? I’m suggesting that the path to real biblical understanding requires that we don’t make the Bible conform to our traditions, our prejudices, our personal crises, or our culture’s intellectual battles. Yes, you’ll find material in Scripture that will help you resolve personal difficulties and questions. But you must remember that, while the Bible was written for us, it wasn’t written to us. What they wrote is still vital for our lives today, but we can only accurately discern the message if we let them speak as they spoke.
This advice of course dovetails with my previous article about getting serious and being honest about the oft-repeated mantra “the Bible needs to be interpreted in context.” That article was about recognizing all contexts—including the history of Christianity—that post-date the biblical world are foreign to the Bible. The right contexts for interpreting the Bible are those in which the Bible was written. You can’t let the Bible be what it is if you’re filtering it through a set of experiences and ideas (a “cognitive framework”) that would have been incomprehensible to the biblical writers.

A Firm Grasp of the Obvious

I know that, on the surface, what I’m saying amounts to having a firm grasp of the obvious. But if it were easy to do—and if it was the norm—I’d be writing about something else. It isn’t and it hasn’t been. But it certainly needs to be, at least if we don’t want to be pretenders when it comes to respecting God’s decision to produce Scripture when he did and through whom he chose.
Many illustrations come to mind of the importance of letting the Bible be what it is. The supernaturalist worldview I talked about before, which is the focus of my books The Unseen Realm and Supernatural, is one example. I’ll return to that illustration later. I want to offer two others.
What about the pre-scientific cosmology of the Bible? I’ve written about the ancient Hebrew conception of the universe in the Faithlife Study Bible. For the biblical writers, the earth was flat and round, supported by pillars () and surrounded by water (); the water was held in place by the edges of the solid dome (“expanse”; “firmament”) that covered the earth (; ). The people God chose to write about the fact that he created everything were not writing science because they couldn’t—and God, of course, knew that. Instead of pressing Genesis into a debate with Darwin or making it cryptically convey the truths of quantum physics, we should let it be what it is so it can accomplish the goals for which God inspired it—to assert the fact of a Creator and our accountability to him. Rather than fight the critics on grounds they choose, we ought to insist that they explain why it makes any sense to criticize the Bible for not being what it wasn’t intended to be. Following such absurd logic, perhaps we should expect them to criticize their dog for not being a cat or their son for not being a daughter. Their attack is patently absurd. But we endorse it when we make the Bible a modern science book instead of letting it be what it is—what God intended.

Truth That Transcends Culture

The same problem persists when we try to deny that the Old Testament is patriarchal, or that parts of the Mosaic Law are biased against women. Some are because that was their culture. God didn’t hand down a new culture for particular use in Scripture. He didn’t demand that the writers he chose change their worldview before he’d use them. The biblical material simply reflects the cultural attitudes of the people who wrote it.
Again, all this is obvious—but so many students of Scripture seem to approach such issues with the assumption that the Bible endorses a culture. God wasn’t trying to endorse a culture from the first millennium bc or the first century ad for all time and in all places among all peoples. The reason ought to be apparent: God knew that the truths he wanted to get across through the biblical writers would transcend all cultures. Endorsing the prejudices the writers grew up with wasn’t what God had in mind. Some parts of Scripture reveal culture simply as part of Israel’s history. Others focus on behavior. With respect to the latter, God let the writers be who they were (i.e., he knew what he was getting when he chose them for their task), knowing they were capable of communicating timeless principles of conduct by means of their culture.
The point is that letting the Bible be what it is not only helps us interpret Scripture accurately, but it has unexpected apologetic value. Taking Scripture on its own terms helps our focus and fends off distractions. When Scripture is rightly understood, its relevance will also be clear.
5

Bad Bible Interpretation Really Can Hurt People

Anyone who teaches the word of God wants people excited about exploring Scripture. Ultimately, you want to turn listeners into competent students so that they can teach others. Along the way you have to deal with a lot of mistaken methods and conclusions. But so what? Hey—having folks engaged in studying the Bible is more important than what they actually think they see in it. It’s no concern that what most Christians think is “digging deep” is barely scratching the surface of a passage or a topic. I’ll take one misguided Bible student over a hundred straight-laced, passive, ecclesiastically-correct “believers” who never open a Bible anywhere else but church. At least those are the sorts of things I’ve told myself for a long time. If I’m honest, though, I’ve had doubts about the wisdom of my position. I still do.
I’ve run across a lot of bad Bible interpretation over the years. The problem isn’t just the Internet. Granted, most of what passes for Bible teaching online could be aggregated under the banner of the “P.T. Barnum School of the Bible.” Unfortunately, a lot of poor thinking about Scripture has been published for popular consumption in the Church—and consumed it is.
But is it really harmful? Most of it isn’t destructive. It won’t do anything worse than keep those who buy into it ignorant and never able to move on to what they might really discover. And I’ve seen a few instances where bad Bible interpretation has even been helpful. Because of the sorts of things I do—especially writing paranormal fiction and maintaining two blogs on strange stuff that people believe—I often encounter people with terribly misguided ideas about the Bible and its meaning. My offbeat “ministry” produces all sorts of, shall we say, interesting email. Many people who contact me are Christians with genuine testimonies who’ve had an unusual, frightening experience, or who’ve spent too much time watching Ancient Aliens on the Fantasy (er, History) Channel. After their pastor or another friend who’s ill-equipped to talk about what’s causing their spiritual crisis tells them they need counseling (or worse), they have a decision to make: dump Christianity or find a way to process what’s disturbing them using the Bible. I’ve heard some of the most absurd Bible interpretation imaginable emerge from those sorts of struggles, but it often keeps people pursuing the Lord. So be it. In these circumstances, the last thing that’s needed is a biblical scholar-bully destroying the interpretations that keep people in the faith. It’s far better to maintain some relationship and build some trust. Maybe down the road we can have a talk about the fact that the Tower of Babel really wasn’t a Stargate.

Truly Destructive Bible Interpretation

But some Bible interpretation is truly damaging—and on a wide scale. For that sort of harm you needed professionals—people who are supposed to know better because they have degrees or are in positions of spiritual leadership.
Perhaps the most egregious example is racism. Since the Age of Exploration (16th century) on through the eras of European empire and colonization, the racism that was an inextricable part of those centuries can be laid at the feet of the Church. Though it may make you flinch, it’s true—and I’m not launching into some ludicrous left-wing propagandistic screed. It’s pretty simple and, on its own terms, very understandable, though the coherence of how it all came about is no excuse.
In the sixteenth century, as Europeans ventured for the first time across the Atlantic and deepened their penetration east into the “Indies,” they encountered people and places that were not part of the biblical world. The place that would be called North America was not India or China, places that Europeans had been exposed to earlier. How did they get here? The Bible said nothing about them. Things didn’t get any more comfortable in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries after the decipherment of the literary language of ancient India (Sanskrit). In a shocking twist, Sanskrit turned out to be from the same language family as classical Latin and Greek (Indo-European), the intellectual bedrock of European civilization. Sanskrit texts revealed a much longer human history than that of the Bible. And the physical evidence of a civilization much older than the patriarchs gave weight to that history.
The cumulative impact of all these discoveries was that the Bible no longer looked like it had any claim on being special. To make the crisis even more acute, in 1859 Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species. In the wake of that bombshell, the alternative stories of creation in Sanskrit and the discoveries of people in the New World who shouldn’t have been there (because the Bible didn’t mention them) gave opponents of the Bible all the ammunition they needed. The Bible was not only wrong, but inferior. After all, it was such a Jewish book.
It’s no accident that this was the era that produced theories about how all races not European (especially blacks and Semitic peoples) were inferior to the “more pure” Europeans. Defenders of the Bible couldn’t argue there; instead they did their best to make the Bible support those things. The era produced “scholarly” defenses of how the sin of Ham produced the black peoples, or how Cain’s wife proved there were co-Adamic races in antiquity, inferior to Adam, who wasn’t Jewish by the way, or that Jesus wasn’t really a Jew but an Aryan, a Sanskrit term for the high born. Other interpretive leaps were used to justify older suspicions of Jews as Christ killers whose disinheritance by God had subordinated them to the civilization that had embraced Christianity—the Europeans. But at least the Bible wasn’t left behind in its “accurate” understanding of history. It still deserved its high status. And so the Bible was “saved” through horrific Bible interpretation. And we’re still living with the results since this was all brought to American shores.
So yes, sometimes bad Bible interpretation is truly destructive—with effects lasting generations. This is yet another illustration why we need to get serious about interpreting the Bible in its own context, not against the backdrop of our own modern questions. The tragic baptism of racism was completely unnecessary. But there it is.
6

Unyielding Literalism: You Reap What You Sow

Now we’ve established that bad Bible interpretation really can be harmful. I mentioned earlier that I’m exposed to more than my fair share of interpretive incoherence because I’m known on the Internet for my paranormal fiction and for blogging on strange things people believe about the Bible and the ancient world. But that earlier article was about how historical circumstances produced challenges to biblical veracity and authority. Unfortunately, sometimes Bible believers have no one but themselves to blame for making the content of Scripture seem utterly absurd.
Recently, I’ve had the dispiriting experience of fielding several emails asking me to inject some sanity into the new flat earth movement circulating among Christians. Yes—you read that correctly: there’s a growing cadre of “Bible teachers” busily contending for the faith by teaching their followers (in church and online) that the Bible requires us to believe the earth is flat. This idea is related to another “Bible fact” that is experiencing a revival: geocentrism, the idea that the earth is the center of our solar system, not the sun. “Biblical geocentrism” is based on the hyper-literal interpretation of verses like (the sun and other planets must revolve around the earth since the earth cannot be moved).
Now, I know what you’re thinking. What about space travel? Satellites sent into orbit that enable (dare I say) global communication? Airline flight patterns that use the curvature of the earth to cheat passengers out of extra frequent flyer miles (okay, maybe that isn’t the carrier’s motivation)? The truth is these are conspiracies contrived by people who hate the Bible. That’s what science does … make up lies to cover up the fact that the Bible has the truth about how God created the earth. Sigh.

Sanctified Brainwashing

By what process of hermeneutical alchemy is all this possible? It’s actually pretty simple: hyper-literalism. The sanctified flat-earthers have blindly presumed that the Bible’s pre-scientific cosmology—which is well known to Old Testament scholars—has to be taken as a literal reality that trumps basic science (and human experience) or else biblical inspiration and inerrancy have to be rejected. This thinking is deeply flawed.
The Bible’s pre-scientific cosmology is what it is because God decided to prompt people who lived in a pre-scientific age to produce the books of the Bible, not because the earth is really round and flat with a solid dome over it. The flat-earthers and geocentrists sort of skip the dome part, unless they deny the lunar landings and the existence of the international space station. God didn’t ask the people he picked to be something they weren’t (modern scientists who understood celestial mechanics). He prompted them via his Spirit to tell some important truths: all we know was created by God—including us—and so we are accountable to him and dependent on him for life beyond this terrestrial existence. The biblical writers didn’t need a modern science education to communicate, through their own worldview frame of reference and symbolic metaphors well known throughout the ancient world (their cultural context), who the true Creator was and why it mattered. That’s taking the Bible for what it is and interpreting it in light of its own context, not ours. But too many Christians have been brainwashed into thinking that absolute, uncompromising literalism is a synonym for believing in inspiration and inerrancy. It isn’t—and never has been throughout the entire history of believing Christianity.

Literalism as Idolatry

I’ve been a Christian for 35 years. For most of that time my church context has been either fundamentalism (my early years as a believer) or, what I’ll call for convenience, popular evangelicalism that divorces itself from a reformed or creedal heritage. Both of those Christian sub-cultures exalt the “literal” interpretation of the Bible, especially when it comes to creation and prophecy. Granted, the notion that the Bible teaches a flat earth isn’t common to those contexts. But over-emphasis on biblical literalism has a cost. Literalism can become idolatry. During my teaching career I’ve had students espouse a number of preposterous Bible teachings, among them:
• Babies are really stored in a man’s sperm (the Hebrew word for “seed” [zrʿ] refers to children and is never used of women); genetics is a lie (; zrʿ = offspring)
• The Bible teaches teleportation ()
• Flying saucers are piloted by angels (; )
• Animals could talk in Eden ()
I could extend the list, but I think you get the point. But here’s a point that’s less obvious that you might miss: when we unquestioningly teach Bible students that literalness is next to godliness, we teach them to think poorly. Don’t believe me? Read on.

What Does “Literal” Mean Anyway?

Many readers have heard the old bromide in defense of literal Bible interpretation: “When the plain sense makes sense, seek no other sense.” It’s pithy. If you don’t think too much about it, it might even sound like it makes sense. It’s actually not helpful.
It might sound odd, but “literal interpretation” needs to be interpreted. The meaning is far from clear. Consider the word ......

“water.”

What does it “literally” mean? Is it a noun or a verb? In either case, what exactly is its “plain sense”? Here are some options.

As a noun, “water” can be:

• a chemical compound (H2O)
• a liquid beverage (“I’d like some water”)
• a natural body of water (“look at all that water”), but which kind?
- an ocean
- a sea
- a lake
- a pond
- a river
- a stream
- a creek
- an inlet

As a verb, “water” can mean:

• to irrigate (“water the fields”)
• to provide hydration (“he watered the cattle”)
• to salivate (“my mouth watered”)
• to cry (“his eyes watered”)
So which of the above is the “literal” meaning? Which one is the “plain” meaning? That’s the point. They’re all plain. What distinguishes them is context and metaphor. Things get even more interesting when you move into metaphorical meanings for water—and metaphorical meaning can be exactly what context requires. “Water” can be used metaphorically for a life source, purification, transformation, motion, or danger. The metaphors work because of the physical properties of water—and still describe real things.

Non-literal doesn’t mean “not real.”

And as the saga of sanctified geocentrism tells us, devotion to literalism won’t necessarily produce accurate—or even coherent—Bible interpretation.[1]
[1] Heiser, M. S. (2017). The Bible Unfiltered: Approaching Scripture on Its Own Terms (pp. 16–31). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
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