I have written on the subject of the similarity in the interpretation style of atheists and fundamentalists, or more specifically, perhaps, young earth creationists. Probably several times or more in fact. But, I am not the only who has noticed the similarity.
Among others who have made this observation is Michael G. Strauss, professor at University of Oklahoma. Strauss has been a research physicist at the Stanford Linear Accelerator, the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, and more recently at CERN. Strauss has studied the interaction between quarks and gluons and the theory of Quantum Chromodynamics, and, most recently, the properties of the Higgs Boson and “the top quark”. Dr. Strauss is a pretty smart guy, and he is a Christian.
He writes in a blog article dated September 16, 2018, about A Shared Characteristic Between Atheists and Young Earth Creationists, observing that they interpret the Bible the same way. Both camps insist on a literal interpretation of the Bible, particularly the creation narrative in Genesis. It’s kind of like the person listening to the announcer giving the play-by-play of a baseball game on the radio when he says, “The runner is hugging the base at third.” Should we imagine that the runner is literally embracing third base in his arms?
Of course not, because we know from the context of our modern culture and language what the announcer is saying. While his words may convey a certain literal meaning, his actual meaning is different. We all know exactly what he means. He means that the runner is holding close to the base. We call this a “figure of speech” among other things.*
We don’t have to struggle to know when to take someone “literally” and when to grasp the nuance of metaphorical meaning. We don’t have to think very hard about it, usually, because we are immersed in the culture and intimately familiar with language usage that gives us clues from in the context of the statements.
We have to use that same approach with the Bible. The only difference is that we are not so immersed in the culture and familiar with ancient Hebrew that we can make those same “common sense” connections with the Bible without a little help. But, it’s not that difficult either.
With the example of the base hugger as a backdrop, Michael Strauss relates a discussion he had with an atheist that was the inspiration for the blog article:
I have recently had a dialogue on the internet with an atheist who made some of the same claims I hear from my young earth creationists friends, that the English translation of the original Hebrew text of Genesis seems to have a particular meaning and that if I try to interpret the text based on the culture and language of the original Hebrew writing then I am somehow distorting the text or trying to make it fit my preconceived ideas. How ironic that both of these ideologies that are so different, atheists and young earth creationists, want to determine meaning apart from the original language, context, and culture and then claim that anyone who appeals to those criteria is somehow “distorting” the text. I guess those people might also insist that the base runner is actually embracing the base with both arms wrapped around it because that is the literal meaning of “hugging the base” and if I were to propose that the base runner is really only standing close to the base then I am somehow distorting the announcer’s words.
In a previous blog article I wrote, I shared some things I learned recently about Young Earth Creationism. Specifically, it is a very modern position. Not that people didn’t interpret the Genesis account to mean literal, 24-hour days, in the past. Rather, the dogmatic and doctrinal nature of the position is new – as in 20th Century new.
People have disagreed on the subject going back to the first few centuries without much controversy. Young earth creationism has never been seen as a fundamental feature of Christian doctrine until very recently, and then only among a relatively small subset of evangelical Christianity – unless you also want to count Seventh Day Adventists in that group.
The doctrinal character of the position was first asserted as a Seventh Day Adventist position. It was inspired by visions of its founder. It wasn’t cemented into an Evangelical position until about 1960. You can read about it in the previous article and the sources I cite.
Interestingly, some of the top Hebrew scholars have interpreted Genesis much differently, even going back prior to the time of Darwin. Darwinian evolution, which has been perceived as a threat to the integrity of the Bible, took hold after Darwin’s Origin of Species, which was written in 1859. George Bush, a professor of Hebrew and Oriental Literature at New York City University, wrote a book published in 1838 in which he says:
“Now if this sense may be admitted in the present passage, to which we see no valid objection, the meaning will be that the evening and the morning constituted a certain, a special, a peculiar day, a day sui genesis; in other words, a period of time of indefinite length; for the Hebrew yom, ‘day,’ is repeatedly used in the indefinite sense of epic or period, no one will question who is at all acquainted with the scriptural idiom.” [italics in the original]
Reading the Hebrew word, yom, which we translate as “day”, in this way is not a distortion of the text, but the actual meaning of the text. Dr. Gleason Archer, perhaps the foremost Hebrew scholar of his generation, agreed with this interpretation. Dr. Archer was a principal translator of the New American Standard Bible, considered to be one of the most literal translations of the Bible ever published.
A friend of mine who was mentored by Dr. Archer shared with me that he left a team of translators who were working on another (very popular) translation of the Bible because they were too willing to stray from the original wording. This is a translation that is trusted and used throughout the Evangelical world. This same “purist” of Bible translators and world recognized Hebrew scholar interpreted the days in Genesis to mean periods of time, rather than 24-hour days.
I have been going through the New Testament in my daily reading recently. As I went through Matthew, I had been thinking about the ancient tendency to use metaphor and symbolic meaning. Perhaps, that is why I began to notice how often Jesus used “figures of speech” when Jesus spoke. In a follow up blog article to this piece, Metaphor for Heaven’s Sake (Literally!), I do a very cursory exploration of some of the metaphor and symbolism that Jesus used, including in his Old Testament interpretation. It doesn’t take long to see how much he relied on it!
We have to dig a little deeper below the surface to mine the meaning of the Scripture.
The bottom line is this: we can’t take the Bible in a rigid, wooden way, insisting that every word be taken literally – whatever that “literally” means. Jesus literally meant something other than a physical door when he said, “I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved. (John 10:9) The New Testament is filled with metaphor, and Jesus demonstrates that we must recognize and appreciate the metaphor in the Old Testament to understand it correctly.
 George Bush, Notes, Critical and Practical on the Book of Genesis (London, Thomas Ward and Co., 1838), p. 29.
* A figure of speech or rhetorical figure is figurative language in the form of a single word or phrase. It can be a special repetition, arrangement or omission of words with literal meaning, or a phrase with a specialized meaning not based on the literal meaning of the words. There are mainly five figures of speech: simile, metaphor, hyperbole, personification and synecdoche.