In Arguing with Friends I elaborate on a rhetorical tactic that I call “False Facts.” Some people will try to convince you something is true that isn’t. I hesitate to call it lying for the simple reason that most of the time when I run across this, the person propogating the false fact actually believes they are telling you the truth! This means they are not lying; they are not deliberately and knowingly telling you something untrue. I give examples in my book, like the false fact that ancient people thought the earth was flat. One incredibly common set of false facts are along the lines of “The Bible says…” followed by some false fact about what the Bible allegedly says. Some examples that I have seen, even recently, include:
- Bible prophecy foretells the coming of the Islamic prophet Mohammed.
- The Bible foretells the Book of Mormon.
- The Bible actually teaches New Age philosophy. (i.e. you are God, we all get reincarnated, etc)
- The Bible says, “God helps those who help themselves.”
- The Bible tells us “The mind is at enmity with God.” (used to justify an anti-intellectual blind faith)
- Jesus actually wants rich people to burn in Hell.
Most examples are based on some Biblical passage(s) that may appear, when read in a certain way, to support the proposed idea. However, if you take even a slightly closer look at the alleged Biblical data, especially within the context of the larger Biblical message, you find an entirely different story. Prophecies that are allegedly about Mohammed are actually pointing to Jesus or the Holy Spirit. Similarly, Ezekiel 37:19 allegedly foretells the joining together Ephraim and Judah which some Latter Day Saints interpret as a prophecy foretelling the joining of the Book of Mormon to the Bible. It is unclear why that passage should be understood to mean that instead of simply meaning that Ephraim and Judah would be joined back together, exactly as the text says. If it must also prophesy the joining of two books (it could be a prophecy with dual meanings) then it becomes unclear why it could not prophesy the joining of the New Testament to the Old Testament. Furthermore, if it simply must be a prophecy pertaining to the Book of Mormon, why do Pearl of Great Price and Doctrines and Covenants get excluded? The simplest and most probable meaning is still simply that Ephraim and Judah were to be reunited; there simply isn’t anything in the text to suggest a meaning beyond that.
One Bible passage I have heard that is supposed to support the New Age idea that we are “god” is Psalm 46:10 which reads, “Be still and know that I am God.” Apparently that is supposed to be understood, “I must be still and know that I am God,” i.e. the act of being still leads a person to the knowledge that they are “god.” Seriously? Read all of Psalm 46 and see if you come to the conclusion that “god” is identical to humans.
The Bible verse that reads, “God helps those who help themselves” is apparently a very popular Bible verse, but I have never found a reference for it. I’ve even read through the entire Bible twice (I’m almost done my third time through), and I have access to some excellent Bible study software that’s complete with search capabilities, cross-referencing tools and much more (E-sword - it’s free and I get a hefty commission for product placements!). Despite all my research I’ve never come across this verse. I’m not the only one having trouble finding it!
The claim that the Bible tells us that “the mind is at enmity with God” was in the context of a discussion about whether Christians should even bother with Apologetics. After all, it was claimed, Apologetics is an inherently intellectual activity, and the Bible encourages us toward Fideistic version of “faith” (i.e. blind, unintellectual, illogical, irrational faith). This is another one of those where you just need to search a little bit to find out how that mistake was made. I believe the verse that is being referenced is Romans 8:7 which actually reads, “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God…” (Rom 8:7 ESV) Even a cursory glance at the verse reveals it is not “the mind” in general – as in all human intellectual activity – but rather it is the mind that is “set on the flesh” that is hostile to God. That is a major distinction.
The last allegation I found particular telling because even a brief glance at the passage shows that the interpretation is flatly false. Matthew 19:23-24 does not say that Jesus desires rich people to burn in Hell; all it says is that rich people will have a far more difficult time entering the kingdom of God. It says nothing about Jesus’ desire on the matter either way. If we look elsewhere in the Bible we find that far from desiring anybody to enter Hell, Jesus wishes that all people would choose him and Heaven (1 Timothy 2:3-4, 2 Peter 3:9). In fact, 2 verses later (Matthew 19:26) Jesus fairly clearly explains, speaking in this specific context, that God can do the impossible; salvation is by no means witheld from the wealthy. To go from that passage (in its entirety) to the conclusion that Jesus actually wants rich people to burn in Hell is just irresponsible reading.
What’s the lesson here? Two lessons, actually. First, never blindly accept what anybody says about the Bible, or anything else for that matter. Don’t even blindly accept what your church authorities (pastors, priests, elders, Sunday school teachers, etc) tell you about the Bible. You should not even trust me, but you should look up the verses I listed above and check out the references for yourself. In brief, “think, and study, for yourself!” Don’t let anybody else do your hard work. Question everything. Even cross-reference different authorities on subjects you cannot personally investigate, to see if they agree with each other.
Second lesson? NEVER misrepresent the views of others! It is regretably common to have Biblical theology grotesquely misrepresented – especially by non-Christians but also by ill-informed Christians – so we need to get used to that and get used to correcting people (gently, of course). At the same time we need to make sure that we properly understand the views of others and always accurately represent their views to the best of our ability. That takes time and effort, but it is absolutely imperative that we invest both.
False facts is just one way that people can mislead others. I cover a few other ways in Arguing with Friends, but I also recommend the book Rulebook for Arguments by Anthony Weston. There are also a lot of pages on the web that describe various logical fallacies to be on the lookout for. There are many ways that people can (intentionally and accidentallly) misrepresent the truth; we need to keep a sharp eye out for these and be ready to politely point out such errors to our friends.