Posted by: Ken Brown | January 13, 2010

Reading Literally

My daughter (age three) was listening to some kid’s CD when she suddenly asked:

How does Jesus take us to heaven? How will he get down?  The sky is a long ways up! I don’t know how he gets all the way down here. He might need a really big ladder!

I muttered something about how it’s a story–heaven isn’t the sky but more like God’s goal for the world–and tried to avoid the whole subject of death. What would you have said?


  1. Tricky thing trying to explain these things to kids. Here’s an exchange between me and my daughter several months ago

  2. What seems really, really hard for us is really, really easy for him.

  3. That’s a good answer. I’ll save that one for next time! 😉

  4. I think your daughter knows Ancient Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography better than you do.

    See my chapter on “The Cosmology of the Bible” in the soon to be published book, The Christian Delusion. After you read that chapter you’ll understand my response above.

  5. Edward,

    Obviously, if I do not accept it as literal fact I must be ignorant of it!

    I don’t have to believe the sun runs round the earth to believe you when you say: “This morning when the sun came up…”

    The Psalms can describe creation as God’s victory over the monsters of chaos, but I don’t have to believe that such monsters actually exist to appreciate and even embrace the point such myths are making: that evil is a sinister and destructive force, that creation is a struggle, that order is not assured, and so on.

    Likewise, I don’t have to accept that heaven=the sky (even if some or all of the biblical authors accepted it) to understand and embrace the ways that image is used in scripture. If there is anything of theological significance that hinges upon that cosmological equation, I don’t know of it.

  6. Ken, There are many verses that demonstrate the ancient (and biblical) belief in a three-tier flat cosmos, with god/s above and shades in sheol below (even Paul in the NT adopts such a view, mentioning people/beings “beneath the earth,” and the “prince of the power of the air” above it, and God above that). The relative nearness of God and God’s heavenly home above the earth is evidenced clearly in Scripture, as well as objects, people angels, and God Himself either descending down from heaven or ascending upward to heaven. Such was the ancient Near Eastern view. It was coupled with a belief in the literal nearness of divinities above man’s head and their interest in what goes on down below, and that nearness and believe that deities were attentive right above their heads was what inspired the temples, sacrifices, attempts to ensure the safety and secure nature of peoples and kingdoms, and to obtain blessings and avoid curses. These heavenly beings held the cosmos securely in place too. Of course since none of that’s true, then the Bible begins and ends with myths, from Genesis 1 to the descent of the New Jerusalem in Revelation. And makes one wonder just what other other myths might not also lie in between those chapters.

    As for the Bible demonstrating that the creation of the cosms was a struggle, wsa it really? Or was it the working out of properties inherent in matter and energy? That’s how we study the doings of the cosmos today, not via ancient myths of struggle. It’s just the living things that have to struggle in this cosmos, to simply remain alive for whatever brief period this cosmos grants them. Humanity itself lives in a thin zone of habitation, on the shifting skin of one teensy lifeboat bobbing in space. Look to your left and right, Mars and Venus, not exactly successful lifeboats. Look up and down 5 miles from the skin on which we live, five miles up or down from this thin shifting skin and we freeze or burn. That’s the cosmos we live in, life in equilibrium with death. And all living things dying. And lifeboat earth a target for disasters from nature above and below. If an ancient mind could see the cosmos as we do with billions of ight-years of space stretching in every direction, and all the ages of suffering and death prior to the appearance of upright apes, and all the mass extinction events as well, and have to grasp it all in comparison with everything that that ancient mind had been taught 2000 years ago about the heaven above and earth below, his head would probably crack open. And NO, it’s not the same as the psalm about “what is man that thou art mindful of him?” Relatively speaking the ancient cosmos was large to ancient man, who had no idea how high the clouds were, or how long the horizon went on or what lay behond it, or beneath the earth, all such things appeared immeasureable to them, but they DID feel that God was up in heaven, a heaven that high flying birds could fly across the face of, and they did think they knew how to please that God and that He WAS mindful of them. Such temples and sacrifices were common in the ANE, based on their shared cosmology and religious views. We don’t live in that cosmos anymore. That’s all I’m saying. My chapter in the upcoming book says far more.

    So your daughter has the right idea, one straight from her limited perceptions and understanding, almost a recapitulation of what the ancient’s believed, and hence much closer to that of the ancient mind than the modern one. The Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics conducted a study during the 1980s on the mental sophistication of children and discovered that almost one-half of children aged ten years and younger in the United States and other countries believe the earth is flat. And those who say it is round picture “round” as a giant pancake or a curved sky covering a flat ground.

  7. Yes, I am quite aware of what ancient near-easterners believed about a three-tiered universe, seeing as my thesis is on temple theology and the divine enthronement myth.

    The mistake is in thinking this mythical worldview needs to be taken literally to be understood or accepted, and that question is quite apart from whether it was taken literally by those who wrote the Bible.

    Yes, many (most? all?) ancients, including many of the biblical authors, believed that God lives in the sk. Yes, they were wrong about that. But geography was never really the point, was it? The point was God’s transcendence, the belief that God is beyond us, that God is always near but never within our grasp. The mythic imagery wasn’t some abstract speculation or crude attempt at science, it was a way of expressing an experienced truth: God is simultaneously present to us and impossible to contain, and saying he is “up in heaven” is as good an image of that as any.

    Whether those who first used the image believed it was literally true is irrelevant; “I saw the sun come up this morning” is still true even if the person saying it actually does believe the sun revolves around a flat earth. I may know better, but I’d be a fool to deny that he saw the sun rise simply because the one reporting it interprets the event through a mistaken cosmology.

    BTW, I’m also well aware of the theological questions raised by a Vast universe, in case you were wondering.

  8. As you know the Bible says far more than just “the sun comes up.” The sun and stars are moved by God, God holds the earth firmly, stationary, and likewise demonstrates his power by occasionally shaking the otherwise stationary earth, again only something God can do. But it remained a far COZIER cosmos than the one astronomers have shown we inhabit. Sure the ancients had their own fears concerning what god/s might do to the cosmos, not holding it together, or that the god/s might send lightning, storms, invading armies to punish people, as least that was how they interpreted every major event on earth in those days. Direct intervention and all for a divine personal reason. The Egyptians, Mesopotamians (and Hebrews) interpreted major events in the same fashion. And praised their god/s for good harvests as well that they interpreted again a the result of personal favor of god/s. So they felt COZY AND SECURE in a world held solidly together by their god’s, the earth was solidly held in place by a peronal force, and they believed that following various “divine” laws (Shamash gave laws directly to King Hammurabi just as Moses as said to have rec’d his directly from Yahweh) would ensure certain blessings for the nation. But when things went wrong they found some scapegoat to blame rather than dump their theology and understanding of god/s. And god/s had to be appeased, preferable with blood and fiery sacrifices so the god/s could smell the soothing aroma. Hence the trail of blood in the ancient world and throughout the Bible. But is the life in the blood? No, it’s in the central nervous system including the brain.

    If you wish to interpret the Bible as poetry fine, the world is filled with poetry from Egypt, Mesopotamia to today, it all can inspire. But what good reason can you give a person for remaining a Christian if the Bible begins and ends with myths? Why exactly is the myth of a bloody jealous God so important to anyone today? You obvioulsy have interpreted away such depictions of God or forgotten about them. But you are doing the interpretation. Others, like conservative Calvinists interpret such verses differently, that’s for sure! How can you honestly convince yourself that the Bible is “all that and more,” and inspired above all collections of Scriptures on earth, and ought to be adhered to by all people? Why not simply enjoyed as literature and poetry along with a host of other books? Besides, anyone reading the Bible can come up with plenty of verses that seem questionable, or barbaric, not just beautiful and poetic. Or each person can look for the best in every book and every person. I think the later view makes more sense. I suspect fear of death and the need to find SOME connection with SOMETHING that seems secure is the reason many grad studetns wish to continue to promote a specific religion and its specific holy book, so that you can feel that you hold onto at least a mimicry of something firm in this crazy whirling cosmos.

    Lastly I agree with you that Stargate is interesting. But don’t you see that the science of astronomy and the uncertainties of existence in this cosmos as a whole has overshadowed the Bible for most viewers of Stargate, and that you are now trying to read some vague poetic “biblical ideas” back into this modern day cosmos instead of allowing the cosmos itself to speak to you mutely about its uncertainties and weirdness and blank stoical face?


    What fraction of stars in our Galaxy might play host to planets that can support multi-cellular life? Lineweaver and others have calculated the probable extent of hospitable space for complex life in the Galaxy, called the “Galactic habitable zone.” The criteria include distance from deadly supernovae, enough heavy elements to form terrestrial planets, and enough time for life to evolve. Based on these criteria, the Galactic habitable zone is an annular region between 7 to 9 kiloparsecs from the Galactic center and contains about 10% of the Milky Way stars with ages between 4 to 8 billion years old. [The Milky Way, like most of the 100 billion other galaxies in the cosmos, contains roughly a billion stars.]
    – Science, Vol. 303, Jan. 2, 2004

    Keeping in mind the above “odds,” there may be plenty of possible planets on which life might exist. But what does that imply about the Bible’s understanding of the cosmos as in Genesis and the New Testament? See the following quotations. . .


    According to the book of Revelation a “new earth” and a “new heaven” will be created after Jesus returns. Occupants of other planets throughout the hundred billion galaxies of our present “heaven” will no doubt be surprised to receive such an unearned favor, all because of what happens on our little world. Or is this simply another example of how the Hebrews viewed the earth as the flat firm foundation of creation with the heavens above created simply for the earth below?

    Though it is not a direct article of the Christian faith that the planet we inhabit is the only inhabited one in the cosmos, yet it is so worked up from what is called the Mosaic account of creation, the story of Eve and the forbidden fruit, and the counterpart of that story, the death of the Son of God–that to believe otherwise renders the Christian system of faith at once little and ridiculous, and scatters it in the mind like feathers in the air.

    Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason

    So long as people believed, as St. Paul himself did, in one week of creation and a past of 4,000 years–so long as people thought the stars were satellites of the earth and that animals were there to serve man–there was no difficulty in believing that a single man could have ruined everything, and that another man had saved everything.

    Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, “Fall, Redemption, and Geocentrism,”Christianity and Evolution

    Did Jesus die uniquely to save the sins of human beings on planet Earth, or is he being strung up somewhere in the universe on every Friday?

    Michael Ruse, “Booknotes,” Biology & Philosophy, Vol. 14, No. 1, Jan. 1999

  9. […]  conversation I’ve been enjoying with Edward Babinski in the comments (especially here, here, here and here). We’ve covered a lot of ground but one issue Edward keeps coming back […]

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