Have you ever met a person who believed the earth was flat instead of round? I have—it was me. When I was very young one of my fundamentalist leaders taught that the earth was flat. In fifth grade I argued this with some of my classmates and one day I had opportunity to prove it from the Bible when our teacher asked me to do the Bible reading for the day (in the 1960s).
So I read from Revelation 7 in the King James Version:
And after these things I saw four angels standing on the four corners of the earth, holding the four winds of the earth, that the wind should not blow on the earth, nor on the sea, nor on any tree.
And I saw another angel ascending from the east, having the seal of the living God: and he cried with a loud voice to the four angels, to whom it was given to hurt the earth and the sea, Saying, Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees, till we have sealed the servants of our God in their foreheads.
This might sound like heavy stuff for fifth graders, but my interest was not in angels and seals—it was in a specific referenced fact: The Four Corners of the Earth. If the earth has corners, then it is flat and square—not round. One of my classmates suggested this might simply mean the four directions of north, south, east, and west. That never occurred to me; if the Bible say corners, it means corners.
Most of us are not this extreme, but this silly example demonstrates the way many believers reach conclusions on much more serious matters. If the Bible is God’s actual revealed, inerrant truth, then every word it says must be literally true and any alternative is a lie; but this approach does not do justice to the writings–including the culture, limitations of knowledge, or intent.
Let me mention that not all inerrantists understand inerrancy the same way. The cases I discuss are from a ‘literal reading’ inerrancy which attributes inerrancy to the words. There is another understanding that accepts metaphor and other genre for what they are but insist that the message they intend is inerrant. While both forms are harmful in my opinion, my concern here is specifically ‘literal reading’ inerrancy.
Here, I will focus on four huge inerrancy issues that are very prominent in our world today.
Creation vs. Evolution
There is a fierce battle going on. In the mid-1800s, Charles Darwin released his theory of evolution which created great excitement. It also created an alarmed reaction among some believers who saw Darwin’s theory as a direct assault against God’s clear revelation of how life was created, as written in the inerrant Genesis chapter 1.
Other believers recognize that the Genesis creation stories are ancient reflective meditations on God and the human condition and not revealed accounts of how life came into being, but for inerrantists who consider these stories to be God’s actual, revealed truth, such alternative understandings are faithless accommodations to a Godless worldview.
In the 1960s, a vocal creationist initiative emerged promoting the particularly narrow Young Earth Creationism in which creation occurred in six literal 24-hour days fewer than 10,000 years ago. These creationist spend a great deal of time and energy writing books and debating against the science of evolution with what they call Scientific Creationism.
The fact is, however, Scientific Creationism is weak and ineffective while genuine science continues to discover that all areas of science impressively support an evolutionary understanding of life. This is now so clear to ordinary people that it is no more questioned than that the earth is a globe rather than flat.
Yet, Young Earth Creationists continue vigorously promoting their creationism as a vital aspect of true faith and belief in God—and everyone hears about it: who has not seen pictures of dinosaurs and humans roaming and working together?
This very public conflict makes believers look foolish. It also alienates many believers from the church and prevents unbelievers from considering the good news of Jesus that should be the church’s primary message. Believers lose, and unbelievers lose.
This creationism is incredibly harmful.
Condemnation of Gays
Inerrantists often take a few words from here and there in the Bible and create a big theological issue where no issue exists. This is what happens when one ignores the human sources of the Bible and tries to read every word as God’s revealed truth.
Perhaps the biggest conflict in the church today is acceptance vs. condemnation of LGBT individuals. It is a battle of condemnation and vitriol over what some consider a foundational issue of faith in God’s inerrant Bible. However, the Bible says nothing about LGBT issues. It mentions homosexual rapes and homosexual temple practices, but it says nothing about LGBT individuals and their relationships.
But inerrantists see a few isolated statements that reflect other concerns such as Israel’s relationship with surrounding cultures or a couple obscure terms on Paul’s lists of bad behavior, concoct a vicious anti-gay agenda, and call it a fundamental issue of faith and practice.
The tremendous harm that results is so clear that it hardly needs describing. We (who are called upon by Jesus to love people) inflict great pain and suffering on innocent people; LGBT Christians and their supporters within the church often leave the church; LGBT individuals outside the church are alienated so that the good news of Jesus is not heard; and we turn ourselves into bigots and bullies—which is not a reflection of the love of Jesus within us.
Condemnation of gays and associated minorities is incredibly harmful.
Preparing for the Rapture and Great Tribulation
Everyone has heard the sensational issues related to the theory called dispensationalism: the secret rapture, the rise of the Antichrist, the 7-year great tribulation, the mark of the beast—666, the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple.
It is interesting that this teaching did not exist before the 1800s when one man—John Nelson Darby—saw the Bible as being filled with prophetic hints about end-times details. By coordinating these hints he formulated a complex scheme of end-time events. It was as though the Bible wrote the history of the future; charts and time-lines abounded.
People like puzzles, and they like to know insider details of the future, so it was not long before Darby’s system had a large following; they were called dispensationalists. Such flights of fancy might seem innocent enough, but dispensational theology impacts people’s lives, as well as the progress of the good news of Jesus, in terrible ways.
Pressure to be constantly ready for the any-moment rapture introduces fear, insecurity, and anxiety.
Sharing the good news message of Jesus is eclipsed by the message of the secret rapture and avoiding the great tribulation.
Because the nation of Israel is key in the dispensational scenario, full support of Israel in anything they do is considered a required Christian commitment—resulting in the long-term oppression of the Palestinians that continues today.
Since, according to dispensationalism, the world will be destroyed very soon, there is little need to care for the earth, the environment, or the needs of future generations. We are no longer transforming the earth to God’s will but escaping the doomed planet and the horrible events that are about to occur.
The teachings of dispensationalism are incredibly harmful.
The Heavy Burden of Legalism
Recently, we discussed two major harmful beliefs—that God is angry and harsh, and that the Bible is somehow inerrant. Together these two lead to other harmful beliefs as we have seen. But perhaps the overriding harmful, hurtful, and counter-productive belief they produce is legalism. We will talk about this next time.
In this series:
6 Religious Beliefs that Cause Tremendous Harm
The #1 Most Harmful Belief Among Christians—Angry God
4 Ways that Believing God is Angry and Harsh Hurts People
The #2 Most Harmful Religious Belief—the Inerrant Bible
A More Realistic Alternative to Inerrancy of the Bible
4 Huge Ways Believing the Bible Inerrant is Tremendously Harmful (Today’s Post)
How Legalism Stunts Our Spiritual Growth
How Should We Respond to Those who Teach Harmful Beliefs?
Photo Credit 2: Christian Evolution
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Have a great day! ~Tim