Pages 7-9: summer 1993
ONCE UPON A TIME....
Christian fundamentalists dismiss as liberal nonsense any interpretation of
scriptures that is based on the existence of myths and legends in the biblical
text, yet they themselves often take doctrinal positions that reflect a fairy-
tale view of the Bible.
An example would be the miracles-have-ceased doctrine that is taught by
all but the charismatic (Pentecostal and Holiness) churches. The New Testa-
ment describes a first-century church in which Christians could speak in
tongues, prophesy, heal the sick, and even raise the dead. Such char-
ismatic practices were apparently so commonplace in the early church that the
Apostle Paul saw the need to regulate them in 1 Corinthians 14.
Bible fundamentalists generally reject the claims of the charismatic groups
who teach that miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit still exist. No inerrantist
would say, however, that such gifts were not given to the early Christians;
they simply say that they no longer exist. They even have a scripture to
quote in support of their position: "Love never fails. But whether there are
prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; wheth-
er there is knowledge, it will vanish away. For we know in part and we
prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which
is in part will be done away" (1 Cor. 13:8-10). Fundamentalists who quote
this passage to prove the cessation of miraculous gifts would argue that "that
which is perfect" was the completely revealed word of God or New Testament,
which has now come, so the miraculous gifts present in the early church have
now ceased. In this, they betray their fairy-tale mentality, because they
believe that miraculous gifts existed once upon a time but that now they
Except for the charismatics who believe that miracles still exist, if a
modern day fundamentalist experiences an illness, he will seek medical advice.
However, this was not the way it was done in New Testament times. Jesus
went about casting out devils that presumably possessed people and caused all
kinds of physical and mental ailments. Those who were mute (Mt. 9:32), blind
(Mt. 12:22), epileptic (Mt. 17:14-18), and mentally ill (Mk. 5:1-16) were
thought to be demon-possessed, and Jesus healed them by casting out the
Again with the possible exception of ultraconservative charismatics, Chris-
tian fundamentalists today do not believe in demon possession. Few would
even consider taking a deaf, blind, or epileptic child to an exorcist to cast
out the devils causing the affliction. They do, however, believe that demons
were active in human affairs in New Testament times, a position they must
take or else risk making their blessed redeemer look pretty foolish. In this,
their fairy-tale mentality is very much in evidence again. Once upon a time,
devils possessed human beings but not anymore.
This hermeneutic approach to the Bible becomes a convenient catch-all
solution to many problem situations in the Bible. In Genesis 9:13-17, for
example, we are told that after the flood, God put a rainbow in the sky as a
sign of his promise never to destroy the world again by water. To the
prescientific minds of the time when this was written, it probably sounded
pretty convincing. We know today, however, that rainbows are caused by the
refraction of sunlight by rain or mist. Knowing this, the modern mind quite
naturally is inclined to ask how the rainbow in Genesis 9 could have in any
sense been understood as a sign of God's covenant with Noah, because many
rainbows must have been seen in the sky before the flood.
Bible fundamentalists have a once-upon-a-time explanation for this prob-
lem. They argue that it had never rained on the earth until the flood. How
then did crops grow and people obtain fresh drinking water? The answer is
in the Bible, they tell us. "There went up a mist from the earth and wa-
tered the whole face of the ground" (Gen. 2:6), but rain as we know it
simply didn't exist until the flood. So once upon a time, we are assured, it
didn't rain on the earth. One wonders just how the sun shined on the earth
for so long without causing that mist on the ground to evaporate and form
clouds that eventually brought rain, but to the fundamentalist this is nothing
to fret about, because anything can happen in fairy tales.
Modern medicine, despite all the progress it has made in recent years,
can give us a lifespan of only 70 some years. Just a relative few live beyond
the century mark. Biblical characters, however, routinely lived much longer
than the rare centenarians of our time. The patriarch Abraham lived to be
175 (Gen. 25:7), and his son Isaac 180 (Gen. 35:28). Jacob lived 147 years
(Gen. 47:28), Levi 137 (Ex. 6:16), Kohath 133 (Ex. 6:18), and the list could
go on and on. These ages, although incredibly long by modern standards,
were quite short compared to the ages that the Bible attributes to their
ancestors. The Genesis 5 genealogy contains a list of patriarchs who routinely
lived over 900 years. Methuselah, of course, lived 969 years (v:27), whereas
his son Lamech died a mere youngster at the age of 777 (v:31).
If you ask a Bible fundamentalist if these were literal ages, he will tell
you without even batting an eyelash that they were. In "The Bible, Science,
and the Age of Patriarchs," an article in the May 1992 issue of Reason &
Revelation, Dr. Bert Thompson discussed various attempts to assign figura-
tive interpretations to these ages but concluded that they were intended to be
understood as literal ages. Dr. Thompson didn't attempt to explain why
people lived so long in those days when it is a medical struggle for people in
modern times to live even a tenth as long, but this is apparently no problem
for the fundamentalist mind. Once upon a time, people routinely lived for 900
years; now they don't.
We have to consider too the frequent appearances that God made in bibli-
cal days. He was always dropping in unannounced to chew the fat with Abra-
ham (Gen. 15:1-17; 17:1-21; 18:1-32) and the other patriarchs (Gen. 28:10-
15; 35:1; 46:2-4) or even to do a little wrestling (32:24-30). God appeared to
Moses in a burning bush (Ex. 3:4) and again on Mt. Sinai (Ex. 19:20-22). If
we accept the Bible at face value, divine appearances in those days were
almost as common as dirt. We could fill a page with scripture citations that
tell us God appeared to so-and-so in a dream. If someone today claims that
God has appeared to him, we try to get psychiatric help for him. If someone
3,000 years ago claimed that God appeared to him, we believe him and call
him a prophet.
Inerrantists have a response to all this. They tell us that God had a plan
that he was working on in biblical times that required him to appear to people
but that now his plan is complete, so he doesn't need to do this anymore.
However, it all amounts to the same kind of fairy-tale hooey: once upon a
time God appeared to people but not anymore.
In an earlier article ("If It Walks Like a Duck..., The Skeptical Review,
Autumn 1991, pp. 2-6), I said in reference to the sons-of-God/daughters-of-
men issue in Genesis 6:1-4 that if a story looks like mythology, sounds like
mythology, and reads like mythology, one is safe in concluding that it is
mythology. The same principle is true of the once-upon-a-time mentality so
characteristic of fundamentalist attempts to explain away serious problems in
the Bible text. Once upon a time happens in fairy tales but not in real life.
We can only conclude, then, that much of the Bible does not reflect what
happened in the real life of the times that we read about in it. After all, if
the emissary of an allegedly inspired book like the Avesta, the Koran, or the
Book of Mormon could resolve contrary-to-fact problems in his "inspired" text
only by telling us that once upon a time it was this way but not anymore,
who in our society would believe him? Why then should we accept the same
intellectual insult from those who want to sell us the far-fetched idea of an
are almost always incredibly far-fetched.
Long-time readers of TSR have seen this approach over and over again in
the articles of fundamentalist writers seeking to rebut our claim that the Bible
contains errors. Sometimes these writers will confine themselves to the issues
and seek only to present their speculative, how-it-could-have-been scenarios,
but often they feel the need to pour at least a little poison into the well.
"The reason Mr. Till is a skeptic and not a saint today," wrote Steve Gunter,
"appears to be primarily due to a massive misreading of the text and too
much study of noninspired works" ("Much Ado about Nothing," Autumn 1991,
p. 7). "If Mr. Till spent half as much time trying to reconcile these 'so-
called' difficulties as he spends finding them," said Jerry McDonald, "he
would find far fewer difficulties in the Bible" ("The Blood of Jezreel," Spring
1991, p. 3). In a written debate yet to be published, Michael Hatcher said,
"Mr. Till is one who currently hates and despises God, the Bible and its
authors. Thus, he seeks to find discrepancies and contradictions and refuses
any and all explanations of differences within the sacred text" (first rebuttal,
p. 1). Such comments as these are obvious attempts to offer two sources of
water to the readers, the well of skepticism (somehow made synonymous with
hatred of God) or the well of sainthood and the "sacred text" of the Bible.
They do nothing to prove inerrancy, but admittedly they do impress those
who are already predisposed to believe that the Bible is "God's inspired
word." Bibliolaters know this, of course, and that is why they spend so
much time trying to poison the well of rationalism.
In addition to The Skeptical Review, Skepticism, Inc., publishes other
materials that might be useful to those wishing to hone their skills on the
subject of Bible inerrancy. The following booklets are available at $2.50
each, postage paid.
THE LAWS-TILL DEBATE, a 56-page unfinished debate with James Laws,
Jr., a professor of apologetics at Tennessee Bible College. Although Laws
challenged, he quit after only three manuscript exchanges and has since
refused to accept mail from Till.
JACKSON-TILL DEBATE, a 64-page debate on the issue of Bible inerrancy
with a Church-of-Christ preacher.
PROPHECIES: IMAGINARY AND UNFULFILLED, a 37-page booklet that
examines the most commonly claimed examples of prophecy fulfillment.
BACK ISSUES of TSR are also available (1990 to present) at $1 per copy.
FREE SUBSCRIPTION: A free one-year subscription to The Skeptical
Review can be obtained by writing to P. O. Box 617, Canton, IL 61520-0617.