From fables to truth1
Published: 11 July 2013 (GMT+10)
“For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but … they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables.” 2 Timothy 4:3-42
Have you ever read Aesop’s Fables or perhaps the Greek myths about Perseus, Theseus, Hercules, and Jason and the Argonauts? When we refer to these as myths or fables, we mean that they are fictional, wild stories, flights of fancy. Most readers do not, for a moment, consider these stories will edify their souls.
But in the context of the New Testament (NT) epistles, the letters written by the Apostles, by men like Paul and Peter, John and Jude, ‘fable’ (or ‘myth’) is used in a far more serious light. As we shall see, ‘fables’/‘myths’ in the NT writings are synonymous with deceit, falsehood and lies—in other words, biblically speaking, a fable is anything that is the antithesis of truth. Fables of this sort take people away from God’s truth as found in His Word, the Bible, and as revealed to us in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ.
We see, then, that ‘fable’ is a very negative NT word, bespeaking error—which is why the Bible portrays fables as anti-Christian! The importance of spotting fables cannot be underestimated. For once false teaching infiltrates a church and takes hold of its people, great damage results: God’s name is in danger of being blasphemed and His glory is no longer evident among the Christian ‘flock’. If unchallenged, those who have imbibed fables end up leaving churches in their confusion, even falling away from the faith and forsaking God altogether!
It has been well said that the best way of spotting a forgery is to become very familiar with the genuine article—the real thing. In the same way, before we consider fables (doctrines that masquerade as truth), it is helpful to remind ourselves of what the Scriptures teach about the truth. In the verses that head this article, we note that fables are contrasted with truth. The Bible is clear that genuine Christians are those who know the truth. For instance, John writes, ‘I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and because no lie is of the truth’ (1 John 2:21). The Christian is identified as someone who knows the truth as it is in Jesus. So John goes on to say, ‘Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son’ (1 John 2:22). Certainly, the greatest fable of all is one which culminates in a denial of Jesus as the Messiah, whom God sent as the promised Saviour of sinners. Believing the truth means remaining true to the things Jesus taught: ‘Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son’ (2 John 9). In fact, this is so critical, that anything that could spoil our Christian testimony, or that could bring us confusion, should be avoided like the plague—Truth matters!
The danger of fables
The apostle Paul was at pains to warn Timothy, a godly young pastor, of some of the dangers and challenges of Christian ministry.3 He warned of a time to come when people would wilfully turn from the truth (which is rather like repentance in reverse!) and ‘be turned aside to fables’ (2 Timothy 4:4),4 embracing heresy. His solemn commission for his young protégé is highly relevant for all twenty-first century Christians: ‘I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths’ (2 Timothy 4:1-4).
In an earlier letter, Paul had already advised Timothy to reject (have nothing to do with) ‘profane and old wives’ fables’ (1 Timothy 4:7),5 advising him, instead, to exercise himself towards godly living. In his second letter, Paul built on that advice and gave Timothy the solemn responsibility of guarding the church against false teaching. False teaching is a constant threat to God’s people today too. Therefore it is vital that pastors, church leaders, indeed all of us as Christians, are on our guard—the battle for the truth, for people’s minds and hearts, never lets up.
As already mentioned, the turning from truth goes hand in hand with the embracing of myths and fables; and to depart from God’s truth is very serious indeed. There are similar warnings elsewhere in the pastoral epistles. For instance, Paul instructed Titus to rebuke those in the church of Crete who were becoming unsound in faith, exhorting them to avoid ‘Jewish myths (fables)’ and man-made rules of people who were turning away from the truth (Titus 1:13-14).
The apostle Peter (in his second epistle) was also careful to distinguish his preaching and teaching methods from the false teachers of his day: ‘For we have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ …’ (2 Peter 1:16, KJV). Peter contrasted the fables concocted by the false teachers to the sure, prophetic word of God, and the apostles’ eyewitness testimony of Jesus’ majesty. In the same letter, he pulled no punches, describing such ‘fable-mongers’ and ‘myth-makers’ as corrupt, deceitful and covetous people, concluding that ‘Forsaking the right way, they have gone astray’ (2 Peter 2:15).
In our own day, there are many purveyors of devilishly clever fables in society at large and also within the church. In fact, Peter had something important and relevant to say about ‘creation fables’ that would arise in the last days. He warned of false teachers—‘scoffers’—who would follow ‘their own sinful desires’, denying the second coming of the Lord Jesus (2 Peter 3:3-4) and mocking the biblical teaching on the future destruction of this world (2 Peter 3:7, 10). Specifically, he predicted that these mockers would deny that the world was created by God’s word; that this was made from water; and that the original world was destroyed in a watery deluge (2 Peter 3:5-6). It’s a view that is indistinguishable from the teachings of those who argue for evolution over millions of years (a modern-day creation fable); the evolutionists’ rejection of biblical creation and Noah’s Flood goes hand-in-hand with their insistence on secularist doctrine.
How would Peter have viewed such ideas? Taking his second letter as a whole (and remembering that he specifically addressed creation/Flood deniers), it is safe to conclude that he would have regarded the philosophy of deep-time evolution as ‘loud boasts of folly’ (2 Peter 2:18, ESV; or ‘great swelling words of vanity’, KJV)—that is to say, teaching that is ultimately void because it denies the historical nature of Genesis regarding Creation and the Flood. Alluring they may be, but fables and myths inevitably lead people into error. This is why CMI is concerned to combat the insidious influence of evolution and other creation compromises in today’s church. As an aside, it is heartening that even some avowed atheists are beginning to openly expose the modern evolutionary theory for the fable that it is. One such person is Thomas Nagel (a professor of philosophy at New York University) who recently published a book with this subtitle: Why the materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false.6 Needless to say, such dissent has drawn a lot of fire from doctrinaire evolutionists!
Fables, then, are a grave danger to the people of God. A person cannot embrace fables and at the same time keep a firm hold on truth! Embracing fables always goes hand-in-hand with a departure from God’s truth. To turn aside to consider fables is not merely a little unwise—it is to ‘wander off into myths’. Ultimately, it is to court disaster, because it is impossible to allow a fable to have a place in one’s mind without also rejecting biblical truth. Fables result only in bad fruit. Good cannot come from toying with this or that new teaching. It is generally safe to say that, given the many centuries in which God’s completed revelation has been available, including to many brilliant scholars, then especially for major Gospel-relevant doctrines like Creation and the Fall, if it’s new, it’s not true!
With these things in mind, it is time to ‘call a spade a spade’. According to the scriptural definition, those who espouse various kinds of fables are false teachers. So, for instance, John has no qualms about describing those who actively deny the incarnation of Jesus (that He was fully God and fully man) as ‘deceivers’; worse than that, such a person is an actually an ‘antichrist’ (2 John 7–8). Indeed, a careful consideration of all fables (as biblically defined) leads to the unavoidable conclusion that they have a spirit of antichrist about them. Of course, many of the cults that have proliferated in recent centuries fall into this category—not only do they deny the deity of the Lord Jesus Christ but they also teach many fables which they claim are on a par with biblical truth.
Jude talks of those who have infiltrated churches unnoticed. They have ‘crept in unnoticed’ and ‘deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ’ (Jude 4). That’s right! The unambiguous teaching here is that deceivers and Christ-deniers are not merely in society at large, but are inside today’s church! This is why the New Testament writers warn so strongly about false teachers: ‘These are spots in your love feasts, while they feast with you without fear, serving only themselves. They are clouds without water, carried about by the winds; late autumn trees without fruit, twice dead, pulled up by the roots; raging waves of the sea, foaming up their own shame; wandering stars for whom is reserved the blackness of darkness forever’ (Jude 12-13, NKJV). Jude finishes his brief discourse by describing such people as those who are focussed on what is ‘worldly’ (‘sensual’, KJV), causing divisions in the church because ‘they are devoid of the [Holy] Spirit’ (Jude 19)—that is to say, they are not believers at all.
The pressing need to discern truth from error (fables)
The Bible teaches clearly that genuine believers (those born of God) hear the truth and may discern it from error (1 John 4:5-6). Nevertheless, because of the infiltration of false teachers into churches (1 John 4:1) Christians are to be especially vigilant. Those who adhere to the Scriptures, praying for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, will not go far wrong. Coming back to our earlier reminder to abide in the truth of Scripture, listen to what Jesus says on the matter: ‘If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free’ (John 8:31-32). It is through regularly reading and studying the Bible that we discern between God’s truth and fables. Moreover, we will also be jealous guardians of the truth because we will see that the reputation and glory of God is at stake, as well as the eternal destiny of human beings. Jude says ‘I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints’ (Jude 3).
We are living in momentous days. All sorts of seductive, deceitful teachings are threatening to corrupt the glorious truth of God and to draw people away from Christ (see 1 Timothy 4:1). Here is excellent advice: ‘test everything; hold fast what is good’ (1 Thessalonians 5:21).
Our vision in CMI—through speaking ministry, magazines, books, DVDs and extensive web resources—is to glorify God by unmasking fables and promoting truth. We praise God for the many unsolicited testimonies of transformed lives that we receive each year—people whose eyes God has been pleased to open through being exposed to the truth of biblical creation and, most importantly of all, the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
- This is a slightly modified version of an article which appeared in CMI-UK/Europe’s Update, May 2013. Return to text.
- NKJV. Unless otherwise stated, the ESV is used in the remainder of the article (the KJV was used in the original; see ref. 1). Return to text.
- See 2 Timothy 3:16 – 4:8. Return to text.
- NKJV. The ESV of 2 Timothy 4:4 renders this: “wander off into myths”. Return to text.
- KJV. The ESV rendering of 1 Timothy 4:7 is “irreverent, silly myths.” Return to text.
- The main title is Mind & Cosmos, Oxford University Press, 2012. Return to text.
Hi Philip, I just want to say that I believe your team is somewhat making progress. I check your team's Facebook page daily and it now has over 25,000 fans. Slowly but surely its growing. So you and your team keep it up.
An incisive and sobering article challenging Christians to seriously consider what action to take when they are told that Genesis chapters 1 and 2 are myths and fables. This is especially so when there is so much information on this site giving facts to the contrary. We have no excuse for making such claims.
Great article! I love the image shown at the beginning of the article, "Unmasking Fables, Promoting Truth." I copied it to my computer. Is it available as a pin or medallion that could be worn? I think such a thing would open up many opportunities to discuss the issues and ultimately witness for Christ. I was thinking about adding it to my email signature with 2 Tim. 4:3-4. Do I have permission to do so? If you don't have such a medallion, you should consider doing so. Thank you for your great work.
The image was designed for a CMI conference in the UK earlier this year with that title but no merchandise was produced. With a link to CMI's website, you're welcome to add it to your e-mail signature.
Thankyou Philip for an enlightening article.
When I was young I was taught that the difference between Legend, Fable and Myth was/is that a myth is a truth in story form. A fable can be used to illustrate a moral dilemma and a legend is the stuff of heroes and mostly make believe.
Great article about fables and lies and deceit. Christ is the Truth and those who follow His teachings know the truth. I would like your opinion on Christian Writers and Christian Artists delving into the world of Fables and Fantasy.
I am a Christian and a comic book artist myself and I have created a story in a fantasy world grounded in Biblical teachings. I will set a disclaimer at the beginning stating the Truth and the Way that is Christ the Lord, but is even delving into the realm of fiction and fantasy cheapening the truthful message? Is it best to stick to realism, or is it more pleasing to God than fantasy could be?
Does fiction and fantasy cheapen the Christian message? This is an interesting question and I do not wish to start a blog discussion on this (other readers please note that further comments on this issue will not be posted here). However, let me offer a few thoughts (certainly not the last word).
I do not believe that fictional stories are intrinsically wrong and that these amount to myths and fables of the sort that I was discussing in this article; the key point there was that those false teachings take people away from the truth. Fiction may certainly be used to point people to the truth, and even to help expound and illustrate important truths; some of the most celebrated preachers of recent centuries made copious use of illustrations in their sermons. Arguably, even Christ used fiction when he taught in parables. One of the most popular Christian books aside from the Bible is John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, a fictional, allegorical story. His Holy War is also an allegory that some would say borders on fantasy.
Many Christians have greatly appreciated C. S. Lewis's Narnia books, fantasy stories that have allegorical components. Christians are not unanimous about the helpfulness of fantasy and allegory (some I know disapprove of the Narnia series for instance), but this should suffice to show that there is a pedigree for such Christian literature genres that goes back centuries. My own children have greatly appreciated the spiritual challenges and teaching of the wonderful books by master story-teller Hesba Stretton (1832 - 1911) who worked with Charles Dickens. For instance, when I read Jessica's First Prayer to my youngest children, I was taken aback and humbled by it, nearly to tears.
I think one's heart attitude and motive clearly is important; what fruit are we ultimately aiming to produce? Who, ultimately, will get the glory? Will it throw light on vital truths of Scripture in a God-honouring manner? We live in an entertainment-saturated culture where people often indulge in an excess of fantasy, to the point of escapism (whether books, TV programmes or movies). However, just because people sometimes eat to excess, it doesn't mean food is wrong, obiously. I trust these few thoughts are helpful. You might also appreciate reading How to write a good story.
It is good that you bring this subject up. I have noticed that there are some doctrines that Christians believe that don't correlate with what is in my Bible, or theirs for that matter! Your article shows that Paul was concerned with the unbiblical doctrines that the early church inherited from the Jews and some popular beliefs that came in from other sources. One of the 'beliefs' that I was recently confronted with, again, is 'the second chance'.
It seems that JH [Jehovah's Witnesses] believe that unbelievers get a second chance at the end of the 1000 years that you find in Rev. 20. Still others believe that Christians don't need a resurrection because the 'spirits' of the righteous automatically go to Heaven.
These are just two examples that I can name right off the top of my head, which don't seem to have as their source, the Bible. I'm sure there are others, however. By and large, this article is good and I'm praying that it will encourage people to do some digging in their Bible on their own for some other truths that are still hidden there. The fact that a 'false' doctrine, or doctrines, have found their way into the different Churches, should not be used as an excuse for not doing your 'homework'. Your inheritance (eternal life) is what's at stake. Satan wants Christians to take the easy way out. He wants people to get in the habit of letting the "Educated" tell them what to think, and not the Holy Spirit.
Good article, and following Jesus' example.
"For this reason the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil." 1John 3:8
I.e. lies and fables (John 8:44).
Philip are you stating categorically that you cannot be a Christian and born again/saved if you do accept evolution and a 4.55 billion year old Earth?
What about new Christians for whom it is the deal breaker - who can accept Christ but NEVER creationism? Would they point hem in the direction of theistic evolution? Or watch them walk away?
Or existing Christians for whom it is also the deal breaker. Who can and have willingly accepted Christ but will never accept creationism?
Would they prefer a person is saved and a theistic evolutionist, or an Atheist if they rejected YECism ?
I ask because it has become an issue in our church with several people leaving after a creationist pastor arrived. And many more unhappy at his creationism.
The short answer to your question is a definite "No. I am not stating (nor seeking to imply) that a person cannot be a true Christian while believing in evolution and a billions-of-years old earth." On the contrary, I often spell this out in my talks using my own personal testimony. I was once a committed Christian who held to theistic evolution; I was sincere but quite wrong, unaware of my 'blessed inconsistency'.
Hypothetically, if a person to whom I was witnessing said "I'll only accept Christ if I can keep my belief in evolution" (or words to that effect), this would indicate that she was merely considering adopting Christianity as a matter of rational, intellectual thought; but one cannot ignore the vital spiritual dimension. No true convert to Christ comes merely by a decision of his/her will (see John 1:13) but under deep conviction of personal sin and the need of salvation from sin's penalty and power. To put it another way, in coming to God, the pathway is repentance and faith in Jesus Christ and there can be no deal brokering with Him!
Whether potential Christian converts or existing Christians, Christ is the Truth. Therefore, a sign of true faith will inevitably and inexorably mean a move towards truth in a person's life (this being the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, John 16:13). If big-picture evolution is in fact false, a true believer will be exercised about this by the Holy Spirit Himself, increasingly, until his/her will is brought into submission to God's (c.f. 2 Corinthians 10:5).
Ultimately, salvation is not of man, but is of/from the Lord (see Jonah 2:9) so it is not really possible to answer your last hypothetical question. Is a person who is truly saved (having called with genuine faith upon the Lord, Romans 10:9, Romans 10:13) but believes in error better off than an God-rejecting atheist? Without a doubt; there is no starker difference than that between eternal life and the punishment of hell! But true Christians increasingly realise that they are under 'new ownership' (they are no longer their own; 1 Corinthians 3:16) and that a major purpose of their existence is consequently to glorify God (1 Corinthians 6:20); it is the Christian's duty to avoid and shun that which is false, as this article sought to demonstrate.