I have on several occasions over the course of this blog referred to Genesis 2:17, where God appears to tell Adam something that is literally not so. God tells Adam that in the same day he eats of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, he will die. Adam eats, and promptly dies nine hundred years later.
Christian apologists attempt to resolve this apparent contradiction by arguing that God was telling the truth, but in a non-literal fashion. That is, they will say that Adam died a spiritual death at that moment, though his body lived on and sired children and so on. Or they may say that prior to that moment, Adam was immortal, but eating of the tree made him mortal, so in a sense that was the day he was killed, even if it took took him 900 years to finally succumb to his wounds.
All of this rationalization is fine, and may well be true, but the very fact that it has to be undertaken at all only goes to illustrate the fundamental paradox of biblical literalism: in some sense, you still have to choose between God and the Bible. The New Testament itself says you cannot serve two masters, and here is a demonstration of why that is so: at the very least, you have to adopt different standards of truth for assessing the claims of each. At most one of the following two postulates can be true:
- The Bible is an accurate account of everything it addresses when interpreted literally.
- God's utterances are accurate on everything they address when interpreted literally.
Both postulates might well be false, or only one of them, but they cannot both be true. You have to accept, at a bare minimum, that at least one of God and the Bible should be interpreted figuratively or metaphorically. If the Genesis account is literally true, then God must be speaking figuratively when He says when Adam will die. If God's warning to Adam is to be understood as literally true, then either the Bible must be in some sense speaking figuratively when it exaggerates the last day of Adam's life into 900 years, or it was speaking figuratively when it described God as making that claim in the first place.
Now, I don't see anything wrong with figurative or metaphoric truth, so I don't think there's anything especially impious about trying to explain God's warning to Adam that way, and obviously, neither do the Christian apologists who do so. But I do find it very strange that they would hold God (who by definition is supposed to be divine perfection itself) to a lower standard of truth (one in which Bill Clinton's "I did not have sex with that woman!" gets a pass) than the Bible.
The apologists aren't really doing God any favours here by adopting a more relaxed, literary rather than literal standard of truth. Sure, it gets Him out of the charge of lying to Adam, but it also undermines His authority to say What Really Is, because it means that if God clearly says something we find hard (or even just inconvenient) to reconcile with other beliefs, well, we can go ahead and interpret it to fit those other beliefs as we like.
And they understand that concept just fine as soon as you suggest that maybe the Bible needs to be interpreted flexibly as a work of literature rather than divinely authoritative dictation. They're all too happy to zealously defend the Bible as the Word of God and above any human reinterpretation or excuse-making: it says what it means, dammit, and that's all there is to it!
Yet God doesn't? If the Bible says "God said 'Let there be light!'" then by gum, that's exactly what God said, four English syllables and there was light and it was good, and it's not open to debate that maybe what God said was "Hey, how about some light in here?"
The point I am making here is that literalism subjects God to the Bible, rather than vice versa. If the Bible says God lies, then God lies, but if God says the Bible lies, then God is either lying or must mean something else. Even as an atheist, I find that a profoundly impious, idolatrous and deeply offensive idea.
And you don't actually get away from that by pretending that God and the Bible are one and the same, that the Bible is just God's Word. Not only is that explicitly idolatrous, but it also entails God Himself saying that God lies, or at least that you shouldn't always take Him to be telling the literal truth. Either way, you're stuck with the conclusion that the Bible, either as a book with fallible human authors or as God's Very Owen Utterances, should not be taken as literal truth.