How Children are Led Astray into the Sin of “Biblical Literalism”

How Children are Led Astray into the Sin of “Biblical Literalism” January 22, 2018


This page from a children’s Bible, which a friend shared on Facebook, seems to me a perfect illustration of the distortion that so-called “biblical literalists” regularly engage in. They decide what the Bible is allowed to mean (in this example, “wine” or “grape juice”) in advance of their encounter with the text. They then interpret it as saying what they think it ought to, what they assumed all along that it must mean. Then, lo and behold, they claim scriptural authority for what are their own views, even having the audacity to claim that what they proclaim are not “mere opinions of human beings” but the very “Word of God.”

What they fail to realize is that they are in fact deifying themselves and their own opinions in this process. And worse still, by passing on these practices to children, they are causing little ones to stumble into the same sins that they commit.

And so the approach to the Bible and to ones own thinking that falls under the label of “biblical literalism” is not merely misguided, but downright sinful, a form of idolatry, an act of human hubris which is all the more heinous because, in the very act of setting themselves up as sources of divine truth, they claim to be achieving a superior level of submission to God than others have.

This is why I bristle whenever I hear someone refer to “biblical literalism,” even when they are referring to the views held by others and not by themselves. There are no genuine biblical literalists. That anyone has been persuaded otherwise is the result of a powerful and deceitful PR campaign by fundamentalists. And what bears the label “biblical literalism” is not only nothing of the sort, but is in direct defiance of the Bible’s teaching about humility vs. arrogance, submitting to and relying on God vs. leaning on one’s own understanding, and countless other themes and teachings that run all throughout the pages of the Bible, which “biblical literalists” in the best of cases ignore, and in the worst, deliberately disobey.

On the topic that this post began with see further my chapter “‘A Glutton and a Drunkard’: What Would Jesus Drink?” in the book Religion and Alcohol: Sobering Thoughts.

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  • John MacDonald

    Speaking of biblical literalism/inerrancy, I’ve been working my way through Josh and Sean McDowell’s magnum opus of apologetics, the 2017 fully revised and expanded edition of “Evidence That Demands A Verdict.” It has endorsement blurbs from such conservative scholars like Mike Licona, Craig Evans, and William Lane Craig. Here is a typical apologetic laugher from the book:

    “[O]ne of my associates had always wondered why the books of Matthew and Acts gave conflicting versions of the death of Judas Iscariot. Matthew relates that Judas died by hanging himself. But Acts says Judas fell headlong in a field, and he ‘burst open in the middle and all his entrails gushed out (Acts 1:18).’ My friend was perplexed as to how both accounts could be true. He theorized that Judas must have hanged himself off the side of a cliff, the rope gave way, and he fell headlong into the field below. It would be the only way a fall into a field could burst open a body. Sure enough, several years later on a trip to the Holy Land, my friend was shown the traditional site of Judas’ death: a field at the bottom of a cliff outside Jerusalem. (McDowell and McDowell, Evidence That Demands A Verdict, pg. 70, 2017).”

  • Gary

    Starting about 7 minutes into the podcast.

    Interesting post about whether Jesus was a moral teacher. Not to make society better in the long haul (not really “social justice” as we know it today). But to follow the “Law”, to get into the Kingdom coming shortly.

    It makes sense, in terms of “give everything away”, and “love your enemies”, if the “Kingdom” comes next week. Not so much, if nothing happens for 2000 years.

    I don’t view the modification of wine to grape juice much different.

    Religion is like a Chinese menu. You pick and choose what you like, and ignore what you don’t like. Applies to both conservatives and progressives.


    Mormons use water in communion.

    Methodists use grape juice in communion.

    Salvation Army throws up their hands, and eliminates communion.

    Not because they think biblical wine is actually water or grape juice. Just because, that is what they want to do. No drinking alcohol!

    Can’t have a children’s bible story about “Jesus and his 12 disciples walk into a bar…” if you are Mormon, Methodist, or TSA. Catholics, maybe not so much.

    • Gary

      I got rather tired of going to Mormon social functions. They didn’t even serve coffee or Diet Coke. Fruit punch and 7-Up gets pretty old, fast. No caffeine makes for a dull social gathering.

      • Gary

        Reading the article on “Religion and Alcohol”, I ran across “John the Baptist as ascetic and presumably not consuming alcohol”…
        Pretty much what I have always assumed. Eating only locust and honey. However, I am not so sure now. I ran across the fact that all you need to ferment honey was:
        1. Raw honey -the rawer the better..little chunks of honeycone and bugs adds to the fermentation.
        2. Warm weather (obviously a easy condition to come by in Israel.
        3. A little water (a common commodity for the Baptist, even if he wasn’t planning on adding it to the honey).

        So this might explain the reason he could live in the wilderness for so long.
        And swallow locust.

  • arcseconds

    Oh dear!

    I have used the phrase ‘biblical literalists’ before, on this very blog, so no doubt I am inadvertently guilty of causing bristling!

    Do scare quotes work?

    • I think the phrase is more appropriate when surrounded with scare quotes…

  • Myles

    Does this foolishness excuse christians brain-washing their children from birth in biblical truths requiring the fear of the eternal torture of hell if they fail to believe?
    What about religion is moral or decent or even basically honest?

    • It sounds like the latter is not a serious question. Can you really think of nothing whatsoever throughout the entire collection of different phenomena that fall under the heading of religion, that is either moral, or descent, or honest – or indeed all three? Have you found Paul Tillich, or Keith Ward, or Raymond Brown to be dishonest, just thinking of a few examples of theology, philosophy, and New Testament scholarship only within a Christian framework?

      • Myles

        What about religion is moral or decent or even basically honest?
        Proponents of religion are mis-lead or brain-washed and quite often pushed by their veniality.
        What is honest about gods? What is honest about protecting your livelihood at all costs? What is decent about using your immorality to oppress and deny freedom because not all have the same ideas and you can use your “authority” to keep them under your thumb?
        When your ideas result in assets of over seven hundred billion dollars, and you continue to claim need; yet you pay nothing to society: where is your right to claim morality?
        Saying and doing anything to keep the collection plates full really pushes your theology.
        Have you no shame?

        • Jesus mythicists are misled (note the spelling) and there is veniality in abundance, but should all atheists be tarred with that brush? Have you no shame yourself, when you point out immorality and then use it in a manner that mirrors the kinds of stereotyping at work among racists, sexists, and all others who use the worst examples in any category to justify despising everyone in that category?

          You cannot combat immorality through immoral means.

          • Myles

            How does your verbiage help stem the destruction of the world by religion?

          • How does your verbiage help stem the destruction of the world by bigotry, prejudice, and hatred?

          • Myles

            Since it all arises from religion, like all sensible people, I do anything and everything I can.

          • If you honestly believe what you wrote, and believe that there are no racists, misogynists, and other such individuals among atheists, then you really do have an extremely deluded view of the world. And so your declaration of yourself to be “sensible” is extremely sad.

          • Nick G

            That’s so plainly contrary to fact that I’m not surprised you don’t make any attempt to argue for it. There are and have been plenty of atheists in totalitarian movements.

          • Myles

            To the point-has religion ever been of any benefit to humanity, barring leeches; of course?

          • Neko

            Oh great. Friendly Atheist spills over into McGrath’s blog. Apparently there’s no escape.

          • Myles

            As long as the religious control the power humanity will suffer and the Earth will remain in danger.

          • It isn’t clear that the religious control the power on Earth in general. Nor is it clear that where it does, humanity consistently suffers and the Earth remains in danger. Certainly there are instances of the marriage of religious and political power that are of great concern. But what is the evidence that liberal religion having some kind of dominant influence causes problems?

          • Neko

            “As long as the religious control the power…” zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

          • John MacDonald

            What could be a problem would be a political leader who believes we are living in the end times, and he/she believes his/her actions can bring about the eschaton.

          • summers-lad

            Your comments seem to display bigotry and prejudice.

          • Myles

            Religion praises bigotry and prejudice.

          • Kindly demonstrate that all religion, at all times, praises bigotry and prejudice. Thanks.

          • Myles

            Kindly demonstrate that all religion, at all times, doesn’t praise bigotry and prejudice. Thanks.

          • Easy. I am a liberal Christian, and I adamantly oppose bigotry and prejudice – including but not limited to yours.

          • John MacDonald

            The issue is the moral compass of the believer, not the “demoni-ness” of the texts they are inspired by. I, for instance, learned a tremendous amount from Plato’s “Republic,” but that doesn’t mean I think a good and just society is only possible if we, to use Plato’s monstrous example, “wipe away” the old one. Plato writes

            “They’d take the city and the characters of human beings as their sketching slate, but first they’d wipe it clean––which isn’t at all an easy thing to do. And you should know that this is the plain difference between them and others, namely, that they refuse to take either an individual or a city in hand or to write laws unless they receive a clean slate or are allowed to clean it themselves. (Plato, Republic, (500c-501c).”

            . Would you include Plato side by side with theists on your list of deplorables?

      • Nick G

        While not agreeing with Myles’ blanket condemnation, as far as Tillich is concerned, the only work of his I’ve read, Dynamics of Faith is internally inconsistent, and, I would say, intellectually dishonest. And he appears to have been a serial adulterer and reportedly a sexual exploiter of women students:

        According to Richard Fox’s 1985 biography of Reinhold Niebuhr, for
        example, Tillich was “not just unfaithful to his wife, Hannah; he was
        exuberantly, compulsively promiscuous. Niebuhr once sent one of his
        female students to see Tillich during his office hours. He welcomed her
        warmly, closed the door, and began fondling her. She reported the
        episode to Niebuhr, who never forgave Tillich.”

        So he’s maybe not the best example you could have chosen.

        • I don’t find Dynamics of Faith in any way intellectually dishonest – and so I would be interested to know what you are referring to. But the abuse you refer to is reprehensible and so I plan to cease using Tillich as a go-to example in this way any longer. Thank you for drawing this to my attention!

          • John MacDonald

            The great thinkers are often dysfunctional in their everyday lives. They don’t see things in the usual way, so we shouldn’t be surprised when they don’t act in the usual way. Aristotle once asked, “Why is it that all those who have become eminent in philosophy or politics or poetry or the arts are clearly of an atrabilious [melancholic] temperament?” It is clear some of these geniuses aren’t satisfied with the everyday, so they seek out meaning beyond the everyday. Heraclitus said, somewhat condescendingly, that the aristoi pursue what is most noble, while the masses (the polloi) are like well fed cattle. The overall point seems to be that the thinkers are removed (distanced) from every day life, so they have perspective from which to see it clearly.

          • John MacDonald

            Also, creative types often lacking “closeness to life (being caught up in, and satisfied by, the everyday)” would also make sense of the disproportionate correlation between mental illness and addiction in creative types in comparison to the general population.

          • John MacDonald

            Just one last thought on what I’ve been talking about here. I wanted to share this beautiful song about how highly creative types often suffer their genius. It’s “Starry, Starry Night” by Don McLean (the guy who also sings “American Pie”):

          • Nick G

            They don’t see things in the usual way, so we shouldn’t be surprised when they don’t act in the usual way.

            That does not excuse them exploiting others, or attaching themselves to evil movements or ideologies. And it is quite clear that many “thinkers” have extremely distorted views of life.

          • John MacDonald

            So should we ignore the good contributions of the founding fathers because we are offended by their positions on slavery?

          • Nick G

            I linked to my critique of Tillich. I consider that the inconsistencies I describe there, in his treatment of “faith” and his definition of “God”, are incompatible with intellectual honesty – that is, an appropriately serious concern with the truth of the claims one is making.

          • Sorry if there’s a link and I am not spotting it. I know that we have different views when it comes to the appropriateness of speaking of transcendence and the use of symbolic language to do so. I assume you must consider my own views intellectually dishonest too, which is disappointing to learn.

        • John MacDonald

          Heidegger got caught up in the Nazi movement for a while, but later apologized when he gained perspective on what he was doing/thinking. Artistic types often gravitate toward “movements” and “experiences beyond the norm.” It fills the “hungry void” in their souls.

          • Nick G

            No, Heidegger did not apologise, and he was more than “caught up in the Nazi movement for a while”. He remained a Nazi party member until 1945, and references to Nazism continued to appear in his work. Post-war, he compared the Holocaust to industrialised farming. Read Hitler’s Philosophers by Yvonne Sherratt. I find it rather disgusting that you seek to palliate his crimes – and puzzling, too, since I did not mention him here, although I recall an exchange about him with you.

          • John MacDonald

            Nick said: “No, Heidegger did not apologise.”

            Yes, he did, as evidenced by his personal correspondence with Hanna Arendt about that time. See “Letters : 1925-1975 (Hardcover – December 1, 2003).” Much of the German population of that time was caught up in the Nazi movement.

  • arcseconds

    So, I can now expect if I turn up to a WWJD-person’s party for there to be at least 100 bottles of top quality wine, of a good vintage and age?

    Fantastic news!

    • NanaRuns55

      Quite possibly. Jesus created the best tasting wine of the party.

  • According to James Fowler’s ideas about the natural course of faith/spiritual development (which is an extension of Erik Erikson’s developmental stages and Laurence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, all of which we now also see correlate very neatly with current understanding of brain/cognitive development through the life span) we should expect that what Fowler calls the Mythic-Literal Stage (stage 3) is totally appropriate for children up to about age 12. In this stage, thought regarding faith and religious ideas are wrapped up conceptually in stories (narrative), which are especially important in developing thinking about life and relationships. The stories are apt to be understood very literally. If a young child were spouting Bultmannian demythologization, IOW, we would have plenty reason to question whether the child really knew what he/she were saying. The problem is not that religious literature aimed at children presentst stories literally. That is very age appropriate. The problem is with adults who have never moved beyond that stage of spiritual understanding. That clearly indicates stagnation.

  • Robert J Naumann

    I would be interested to know how the Children’s Bible explains adultery in the Ten Commandments.

  • Ruth O’Kelley

    I am most destressed with calling ideas that certain people disagree with as ‘liberalism’…change the Bible story any way you wish…but leave the labels off! This article implies that ‘liberalism’ is a disorder, that makes no sense.

  • Dredogg22

    Romans 1:18-25
    18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world,[g] in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

    24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

  • John J KevlockSr

    Grape juice? Really? At the marriage feast of Cana?

    This is not a good-faith translation of the Greek word for wine, real, alcoholic wine, which might have only been grape juice in some contexts, but at Cana was the real thing.

    How do we know that? After the Blessed Mother asked Our Lord to save the wedding feast about to be ruined for shortage of wine, Our Lord miraculously changed water to–to what? The Gospel has the answer. At the end of the feast, the master of ceremonies chided the groom for his extravagance in serving the best wine last, because the usual practice would have been to have put out the good stuff first, and then only when the guests have gotten themselves “pharmakoi” in the Greek text, blasted, “extremely intoxicated”, per Strong’s, serve that “of lesser vintage.” .

    If you make stuff up about the wine at Cana what else might you invent? Perhaps, the word “alone” might get stuck in after the word, “faith.”

    • Gary

      I’ve never heard of a wedding being spoiled by the lack of grape juice. Although, I’ve been to a Polish, Catholic, wedding reception that was almost spoiled by too much booze. But everyone did have fun.

      BTW, the article says to ignore the wedding at Cana, since it is probably not historic. But whatever? I think anyone’s guess is as good as anything.

  • arcseconds

    On a slightly more serious note:

    In the ancient world the only beverages available were water, milk, and those derived from fruit juices

    There was also, of course, beer, famous in mesopotamia and featuring prominently in myths, laws, etc. Ale women even had some standing in society. As you say about wine, it wouldn’t be recognisable as beer today, as it had the consistency of porridge.

    (I actually had a traditional beer in africa that was like this once.)

    Beer wasn’t anywhere near as popular as wine in the Greco-Roman world, but it wasn’t completely unknown. I have no idea about its availability in Palestine, but you suggest yourself that shekar might mean beer, and the proximity to mesopotamia (and the Bablyonian exile) suggests to me that Judeans had at least the opportunity to adopt the practice.

    distillation techniques were only developed much later

    I’ve always wondered why this would be so. I mean, it’s not like you need super-advanced materials or some startling insight into the nature of matter to do this. High quality ceramics or reasonable metallurgy and smithing would be enough, and the Greeks and Romans had both. You can almost discover distillation by observation. Sure, high-purity fractional distillation is something else, but if you’re happy with brandy you don’t need anything too flash.

    And there is some evidence that there was distillation techniques in this area within a couple of centuries of Jesus, but we’re only sure about distilling alcohol from the middle of the medieval period.

    • You’re quite right that there was beer. I drink a much wider array of beverages now than I did when I wrote that book chapter, and have learned more about them along the way too…

      • Gary

        And, fermented honey, I.e. mead. Nectar of the Gods. Oldest.
        Even bears partake of it. No labor required.

      • Thomas Hayes

        I am sorry if I am repeating someone else’s comment, but as far as I know the ancients had no way of sealing the expressed juice in air-tight containers, so there would only have been grape juice for a week or two after the grapes were picked, and then nature would start to take it course. I believe that many scholars see fermentation as the solution to the lack of a healthy, drinkable substance — even water not fresh from the well can go bad– during most of the year.

        • Gary

          After much research…

          Scene cut from”Life of Brian”:

          As John was baptizing the tourists from Jerusalem, his enterprising nephews, Nathan and Brian, were selling locust pancakes and honey mead from their concession stand on the Jordan boardwalk. Their business sign was “Nathan’s Famous Hot Locust Pancakes and Honey Mead Stand”.

          In the Ebionites text, the concession sign got shortened to “Pancakes and Honey”. The Greek texts shortened it to “Locust and Honey”.
          Either way, there was alcohol involved. How can tourists gather at a beach without it?

  • Ian Palmer

    I’m not a biblical literalist but I am a scientist, and sometimes its tricky to ascertain the level of truth in Bible stories. Many wrestle with whether the Bible is truth or fairy-tales or somewhere between. However there is one very old biblical story that has been shown to contain a great deal of truth. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah took place about 3,700 years ago. The ruins of the city of Sodom have been dug up and the archeological story is remarkably consistent with many aspects of the Bible story. See the book by Steven Collins “Discovering the City of Sodom”, or a summary of the book in
    At the very least this discovery (the story is way back in Genesis chapter 19) implies we have to be very careful before we consign old and very old Bible stories to myth or oral distortion or editorial distortion around 500 B.C.

    • Nick G

      There’s no proof at all that the site found by Collins is related to the Biblical story (he himself does not make the definite claim you do), nor is there any proof of how the city he found was destroyed. There are a number of other Sodom “candidates”, and no firm evidence for any of them. As with so many claims of archeology supposedly confirming biblical tales, the reality is considerably less impressive than the stories that are excitedly repeated from believer to believer.

  • Cyndi White

    I am positive that I am not as well read as you or probably the commenters on this blog , but I am failing to understanding how this story causes a child to sin. And I am also curious about how you would teach children this passage ? I am not defending fundamentalism . I have been very wounded from this culture and I am still trying to heal and come to my own terms of faith . I have beautiful friends who are still amoung this faith of fundamentalism who live their lives with love and integrity and some of whom have children who are upstanding citizens with big and gracious hearts . I want to be a person who has respect for others in their journey of faith no matter what that is . I do fail many times in this area at least in my thoughts where I can be judgemental . I have heard a quote recently that goes something like this …” tolerance works best when it goes both ways” . It seems to me whatever camp we are in the other is always wrong . Could it be possible that all of us are “literalist” in what we believe to be true no matter what that is ? And with that there is the possibility of intolerance or there is the possibility of trying to understand the motive and heart of where others are coming from. Most of us are out in this world just trying to do the best we can….. human, beautiful and somewhat flawed .

    • If one wishes to present the Bible to children in age-appropriate ways, one will inevitably distort this literature written with adults as the intended audience. David becomes a child standing up to a bully or a mythical monster and never cuts off Goliath’s head. Noah’s ark becomes a bathtub playset with cute animals. Commandments cease to mention things like adultery. The issue in those cases is the insistence that people remain with a childlike – or better, a childish – faith that fails to be open to revising its understanding through learning.

      But in the case of not allowing consumption of alcohol, this is a case in which adult interpreters writing for other adults twist the text, claiming that Jesus made unfermented grape juice at Cana. And it is that rewriting of the story, and embedding it in a Bible for children who will be raised to believe that these stories they know are “what the Bible teaches,” that I consider abhorrent, fostering at the same time a misperception of what the Bible says, and the belief that one adheres to it faithfully by sticking rigorously to those misperceptions.

      • Cyndi White

        Thankyou for your response! I appreciate it !

  • ashpenaz

    Also, there’s the idea that “God’s Son” means a superbeing with superpowers. Apparently, the writers of children’s Bibles don’t read Tillich or Barth.

  • arcseconds

    it is beyond the bounds of probability that Jesus was a teetotaler who was falsely accused

    This is surely an overstatement.

    A criticism like ‘glutton and drunkard’ most probably arises from Jesus’s involvement in social occasions that involve both eating and drinking.

    A teetotaler could quite easily earn such an accusation by turning up to such occasions, and his accusers making the assumption that he partakes of whatever most others partake of. We see this kind of assumption in our society all the time: if you attend raves, it’s often assumed you do drugs; if you’re a physicist you must love sci-fi; if you defend the historicity of Jesus you must be religious, etc.

    You already think the ‘drunkard’ accusation is false, so either the accusation is leveled by someone who has inaccurate information, or they don’t care for accuracy. If ignorance, prejudice or malice results in someone accusing someone who attends parties and drinks moderately of being a drunkard, then I can’t see why those same tendencies couldn’t also result in this being said of someone who attends parties and doesn’t drink at all.

    It seems to me to be really quite likely that the complaints are being made by ‘respectable’ members of society who don’t care for rabble-rousers like John or Jesus, who also don’t have anything to do with them personally, and are primarily interested in dismissing them, and not at all interested in accuracy or even whether their complaints are consistent. If he was a teetotaler who attended parties, then his accusers might not know about this, and even if they did they might simply dismiss it (‘well, they say he’s a nazarite, but how can that be when he goes to parties?’ Anyway, I’m quite sure there’s something funny about him, apparently he goes to parties so obviously he’s sloshed half the time’).

    I agree that on the whole it’s quite unlikey that Jesus was a teetotaler, especially as he doesn’t avoid social occasions where wine would have been present, but this criticism in itself doesn’t add much beyond the information that he attends parties in my view (although it seems to be an independent confirmation of this).

  • KateGladstone

    What’s the citation-data/Amazon page for the children’s Bible (or maybe it should be called a children’s “Bible”) in the photograph? I want to show this to others.