“The Bible says …”
These may be the most dangerous words in the world, because people say this all the time — and sometimes have no idea what they are talking about. As a pastor (you know, I’m supposed to know what the Bible says), it’s not at all uncommon for someone to ask something like, “Preacher, where does the Bible say, ‘A penny saved is a penny earned’?”
“The Bible says when we die our bodies go in the ground and our souls come out of our bodies and go up to heaven.”Except, this is not at all what it says. Read Paul’s extensive discussion of resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15: When you die the earthly body is buried and a new, spiritual body comes to life. Trained as a good Hebrew, there is no disembodied life for Paul. Now, I don’t know exactly what a “spiritual body” is, how it might differ from the ghostly “soul” that is common in our popular imagination, and in too much preaching, but the dualism of body vs. soul is absent in Paul’s theology.
“Thou shalt not have sex before marriage” is not in the Bible. As a good Southern Baptist preacher’s kid, I thought this was one of the Ten Commandments. I lived by it, in reverent, adolescent loathing, and it’s probably not a bad standard. As a straight-forward command, “The Bible says …,” however, it’s just not there. There are exhortations to sexual fidelity, admonitions against sexual indiscretion, truths on which an ethic of commitment in relationship can be based, but “fornication” meant something very different in a culture where polygamy was common than it means in the religiosity of “true love waits.” (I’m not a historian, but I suspect there may be a correlation to the rise of an abstinence-only ethic and the development of the birth control pill.)
“When we go to heaven, we will see our loved ones and know them just as they were.” Where? Where does it say this in the Bible? It does not. Not at all. The closest you can get is 1 Corinthians 13: “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” Heaven? A great family reunion in the sky? Hardly. It’s not even clear Paul is speaking of the afterlife (even if you’re trying to read the text “literally”). “When the complete comes … I shall know fully.” There’s no mention of afterlife or heaven. The text is better understood as referring to a conversion of spiritual clarity. “When the complete comes,” in that moment, whenever it comes, I will know myself. I will “see” other people more clearly.
“Biblical illiteracy, the willing gullibility and dangerous naivete of vast swaths of the American populace ought to be of grave concern to us all.”
Jesus goes a step further when the Sadducees ask about the woman who, according to the law regarding “levirate marriage,” had taken seven brothers as her husband. They want to know which will be her husband in the resurrection. This would have been a perfect opportunity to say, “She will know them all,” or something like that. Instead, Jesus says, “You are wrong … in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like angels in heaven.” Whatever heaven is, according to Jesus, you’re not going to know (or need to know) your spouse.
Why is this important?
I’m not trying to take away anyone’s Bible, destroy anyone’s faith. Biblical truth has been essential to my understanding for all of the 57 years I’ve had any understanding. I’m not writing about afterlife theology. I’m not concerned about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. What “the Bible says” (especially in the minds of misinformed Americans) is not an esoteric concern reserved for pointy-headed academics or self-righteous Bible thumpers.
Biblical illiteracy, the willing gullibility and dangerous naivete of vast swaths of the American populace ought to be of grave concern to us all.
What “the Bible says” carries a great deal of weight, even in our increasingly secular society. What “the Bible says” has become a critical weapon in the culture war that is tearing the nation apart, largely destroying the integrity of the church and thinking Christians in the process.
“’The Bible says’ may be the most dangerous phrase in the world.”
In a 2015 survey by YouGov (a for-profit research firm), 41% of respondents said that people and dinosaurs lived together. Another 16% were “not sure.” When that much of the population is that far removed from understanding and accepting reality, a preoccupation with hobbyhorses in heaven is the least of our concern.
So-called “literal” interpretations of the Bible legitimized slavery and continue to justify racial injustice, as well as the subjugation of women, the condemnation of homosexuals, the destruction of the environment, the alienation of the immigrant, judgment and exclusion and violence — all in the name of God.
“The Bible says” may be the most dangerous phrase in the world for a fearful church armed with political influence in access to the nuclear codes. Maybe thermonuclear war, our mutually assured destruction is prophecy? You know, “The Bible says.”
Russ Dean serves as co-pastor of Park Road Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C. He holds degrees from Furman University, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Beeson Divinity School. He and his wife, Amy, have been co-pastors of Park Road since 2000. They are parents of two sons. Russ is active in social justice ministries and interfaith dialogue.
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