Folk theology describes beliefs, generally shared by a large group of people, which said adherents have rarely thought through in a critical way. These beliefs are normally inherited (passed on through rote teaching and tradition).

I present to you my list of the top 20 examples of folk theology. There are many more, but I narrowed the list, believing these present a good sample with which to begin. Some examples have very serious consequences; others are somewhat benign. I started with the least consequential, then progressed to the ones which carry the weightiest theological consequences. As you read through the list, be careful not to become too discouraged. Folk theology is a phenomenon affecting many, if not most of us, and leads us to myriad misunderstandings.

Let the countdown begin:

20. People become angels

This is a common misconception in popular culture, though it appears less frequently among Evangelical Christians. However, this niche of folk theology influences many through its presentation in popular songs and movies.  Many older cartoons’ narratives are liberally sprinkled with this folk theology (Think of what would happen to Tom every time he died in Tom and Jerry!).

19. Satan is red with horns and a tail

In a similar vein, this idea is not so much found among Bible-believing Christians as it is in pop culture. However, like other examples of folk theology, it frequently finds an extended audience in the secular populace. While Christians may not believe Satan actually looks this way, many subscribe to the point of view that his very appearance reflects his evil nature. In other words, most people believe Satan and demons to be hideous and foul looking creatures. However, this belief is not supported in Scripture.  Rather, Satan and his demons are depicted as appearing as stunningly beautiful creations of God, deceiving and distracting mankind from realizing their nature as agents of evil intent by using the guise of physical attractiveness. (2 Cor. 11:14).

18. Angels have wings

While it is true that Isaiah 6:6, Ezekiel 1:11, and Revelation 4:8 describe creatures worshiping God and having wings, this does not mean that every type of angel has wings. In no case do we find that their physical appearance resembles the depictions (looking like a man or woman with wings coming out of their backs) so commonly portrayed in our modern culture.

17. Hell is Satan’s domain

There are many synonyms for Hell used in the Bible. Some of these are more descriptive and intentional than others. However, when we think of Hell, we normally are speaking of the place of eternal punishment mentioned in the New Testament, described as the “lake of fire” in Revelation 20:15 (cf Rev. 19:20; 20:10, 14). In reality, not only is Hell not Satan’s domain, residence, or home, he has yet to even be there! In this sense, Hell is not presently “open for business,” since it is a place which exists explicitly for the execution of  divine judgement – and this greatest of all judgements has not yet taken place. So, all of those images of Satan being the king of Hell . . . forget them. Once he gets there, he will have no more authority than any other human or demon who calls the place home.

16. Satan’s name is Lucifer

Many people believe that “Lucifer” is Satan’s actual name. This is wrong for many reasons. First, the word from which we get “Lucifer” is the Hebrew helel. It occurs only once in Isaiah 14:12 and is not speaking of Satan, but of the king of Babylon. Later tradition saw a double reference here and believed that Satan was also in view. The Latin Vulgate translated “morning star” as “Lucifer.” The King James Version used this word in its translation. Hence, without justification, this name found its way into our tradition as the formal name of Satan.

15. Our resurrection bodies will be able to go through walls

People often think this because they believe Christ’s body went through walls (John 20:19). However, the passage does not speak to the nature of his resurrected body, but rather to his power. There is no reason to believe the physiology of our resurrected bodies will be any different than what it currently is. Remember, God is redeeming Plan A, not falling back to Plan B. Generally speaking, whatever Adam and Eve’s physiology was like before the fall will be what ours will be like after the resurrection. We will not be able to walk through walls, fly, or run as fast as Flash. And you know what? This is very good.

14. Revelation 22:19 teaches that the canon closed after the completion of Revelation

Many believe that Rev. 22:19 closes the canon of Scripture. But this is simply speaking about the book of Revelation and repeating a common biblical command protecting the sacredness of God’s word (see Deut. 4:2 and 12:32, or Prov. 30:6 – obviously the canon did not close after these books). I believe the canon of Scripture is complete, but not because of these verses.

(See here for more about this.)

13. Ninety-nine percent right theology and one percent wrong theology equals one hundred percent wrong 

I was taught this when I was very young and believed it for quite some time. But if this is true, we are all in trouble. First, any glance through church history reveals that no two Christians ever fully agreed about everything. Someone was right and someone was wrong. However, this folk theology would lead to the rather odd situation where there was only one person in all of history that was saved, since everyone else was one hundred percent wrong.

Moreover, this would mean that you and I are one hundred percent wrong, since we all have many issues with our theology. This is evidenced by periodic changes in perceptions and learning that lead believers to relinquish one viewpoint in favor of another.  Certainly, God could make us all united and right about everything.  However, apparently, this does not serve his purpose.

(See here for my theories why.)

12. God cannot exist in the presence of sin

This is not true. Yes, the Bible says that God’s holiness will not allow Him to approve of evil (Hab. 1:13).  However, God can most certainly exist in the presence of sin. After all, the Holy Spirit dwells in us, doesn’t he? Satan presented himself to God, didn’t he (Job 1:6)? Furthermore, and most importantly, the Second member of the Trinity lived among us, didn’t he (John 1:14)?

11. “Abraham’s Bosom” was a place between heaven and hell that Old Testament saints went to until Christ paid for their sins

This one is often related to the previous folk theology example. The idea is that since God cannot be in the presence of sin, he had to wait until after the cross to bring anyone to heaven. This is often thought to be evidenced in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. However, the reason why Christ speaks of Lazarus going to “Abraham’s Bosom” is not to teach us of some Old Testament “pit stop” between earth and heaven, but for rhetorical purposes. The Pharisees and religious leaders were convinced that there was no greater child of Abraham than a rich person, while poor people were the furthest away from him. Conversely, the poor man, in an ironic twist, was the one who was in deepest fellowship with Abraham, being at his bosom.

See here as I argue against the myth of Abraham’s Bosom

10. Heaven will be timeless

Many people believe that once we get to heaven, time will cease to exist. But there is no justification for such a belief, as it is theologically unnecessary and philosophically impossible. God’s creation will always experience a past, presence, and future. There will always be a succession of events and, therefore, a passing of time. Only God, in his essence, is timeless.

For more on this, see here.

9. Jesus suffered more than the cumulative sufferings of all of mankind

I am not certain as to the source of this position.  That said, I know I have heard this viewpoint in a lot of Christian theology. However, there is no reason to believe that Christ’s physical sufferings were worse than those which anyone has ever experienced, either in intensity or duration. While Christ’s physical suffering was beyond imagination, the Atonement did not require it to be worse than the cumulative sufferings of all mankind.

8. One sin will send you to hell for all eternity

This comes as an answer to the question, “Why is hell eternal?”  The answer people frequently give is that even the smallest of sins deserves eternal punishment. This is why everyone who goes to hell is there for all eternity. But there is no evidence for this in the Bible. Hell does seem to be eternal for everyone who goes there. However, its duration is not due to the commission of one sin. It is due to the eternal rebellion in which people participate, even while in hell. As C.S. Lewis once said, “The doors of hell are locked from the inside.” People are in hell forever because they eternally hate God.

For more on this, see here.

7. All we will do in heaven is bow down to God 24/7

This little gem of folk theology used to scare me to death. Though I gave it lip service by acting excited, I really did not want to go to a heaven where all I would do is sing and bow down. Later, I came to discover that this view (called Gnosticism) presented a distorted view of evil, its relation to the present world, and what it really means to worship God. Everything in Scripture says that we are going to be busy with many activities on the New Earth, just as it was intended from the beginning.

I cover this fairly extensively here.

6. Jesus turned water into grape juice

Many people have grown up in a culture so fearful of alcohol that they have changed the meaning of Scripture to facilitate a legalistic structure that justifies their teachings of total abstinence from alcohol. As well-meaning as this may be, it is not true. Jesus not only turned the water into alcoholic wine in Cana, but “the best” alcoholic wine (John 2:10). How do we know it was alcoholic? Because in praising Jesus, the waiter explicitly described the usual custom of serving the good wine first, thus reserving the  bad wine for later in the evening, when everyone was drunk. Instead, Jesus performed the miracle at a time during the ceremony which allowed the wedding guests to be served the good wine last.

Here are some extensive arguments that I make concerning this.

5. Money is the root of all evil

This is a fairly significant error. Most people quote 1 Timothy 6:10 just like this: “Money is the root of all evil.” But this is not what the verse says. It says, “For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil.” That changes the meaning quite a bit.

4. Asking Jesus into your heart

Many people use this phrase to talk about how they were saved. Asking Jesus into one’s heart is the primary means by which people are told to convert to Christianity. However, this presents a few significant problems. First, nowhere in Scripture are we told to ask Jesus into our hearts. Second, this implies that salvation can be said and done with no further implications concerning trust and devotion. The Bible tells us we are to trust in Christ. This has implications of repentance and belief that the simple request for Jesus to live in our hearts does not carry.

3. The most significant way to break the third commandment (“Do not take the Lord’s name in vain”) is by saying G*d D%*n

I am convinced that many people think they are going to heaven because they have never said G*d D%*n. For some, saying these words is the greatest sin one could ever commit. But, in reality, the third commandment has nothing to do with cursing, much less saying G*d D%*n. It is about protecting God’s reputation (i.e., name). It is about not trying to take away his reputation by smearing it with lies and self-gain. The most explicit way that I might be able to take his name in vain would be to say that God told me to tell you something when he really had not done so.

Find out more here.

2. Where two or three are gathered in prayer, Christ is in their presence

In my view, this folk theology causes serious misunderstanding among professing Christians. Many people believe that the presence of two or three other believers in a prayer meeting invokes Christ’s real presence, in a way that praying alone does not. This passage is taken from Matthew 18:20. But the passage does not speak of some special physical or spiritual presence of Christ that only comes during group prayer; rather, it speaks of Christ’s presence in judgement or approval of judgement. You see, the full context of the verse is Matthew 18:15-20. The subject is church discipline. When someone has sinned against you, you are to take “two or three” people with you to confront that person. If the process proceeds without the person’s repentance, judgment is to be decreed. So long as these instructions are followed, Christ is “with you” in judgment.

Think of what it would mean otherwise. If the presence of Christ is only there when we have many people praying, what does this mean when you pray alone? He is not there. Be careful with this one. It could easily send the wrong message.

I write about this more here.

1. All sins are equal in the sight of God

I believe this is the most incorrect and destructive folk theology we have in evangelical circles. I hear it all the time. However, it does not take long to deconstruct this view. All sins are not equal in the sight of God. All people are equally depraved, but not all sins are equal. After all, some things in the Bible are said to be an abomination to God. If all sins are equal, such a designation is meaningless. Christ tells the Pharisees that they strain out gnats and swallow camels (Matt. 23:24). If all sins are equal, they are either all gnats or all camels. And we could not get any more explicit than Christ’s words to Pilate, “He who handed me over to you is guilty of the greater sin.” (John 19:11)

The implications are severe. If all sins are equal to God, then you are asserting that God becomes just as angry with you for breaking the speed limit as he would with someone who rapes a six-year-old girl. If this is true, fine. We don’t make the rules. However, if one is going to teach this as fact, he better be very sure. That said, in my estimation, this is the worst example of  folk theology I have presented thus far.

I have written on this here.

Honorable mention:

There will not be sex in heaven (we can all dream!)

I hope you have benefited from this discussion.  Realizing that there are many other extant folk theologies, please, give me your feedback as to examples of folk theology which should have received attention here.

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

    81 replies to "Folk Theology: Twenty Urban Legends in Theology"

    • Daniel S.

      Carrie I Hope this insightful vid may help You with your question…blessings

    • […] Twenty Urban Legends in Theology — C. Michael Patton […]

    • Marv

      Here is the pitfall of writing on “folk theology” or “urban legends”: you can end up with a mixed bag of notions which really are not in the same category. CMP starts with the classic idea that we turn into angels when we die (a la Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life). The idea exists in the culture, but it isn’t at all what Christians teach.

      That’s legit “folk theology,” but some examples cited by CMP and others in this thread are more “things I disagree with.” They may in fact be wrong, but they are not at all in the same category.

      I cite CMP’s number 15, which I objected to earlier. Also his number 2.

      The issue referenced in comment 12 CMP himself points out in comment 13 is not in the “folk theology” category. It’s simply a theological proposition which the commenter disagrees with.

      Comment 57 is another, and possibly comment 29.

    • Carrie J

      @daniel s,

      Wow. Yes thats very insightful. So the issue becomes how does a person fix that within themselves?But t this is really another topic I suppose.

      Haha no worries!

    • David G. Pickett

      I trust there will be either great sex if I can enjoy it, or other joys so I will never miss it. Trust God.

    • John Metz

      An addition to #2: “Wherever two or three are gathered together in the Lord’s name, that is the church because of the Lord’s presence.” If that was the case, why would Matt. 18:17 instruct the two or three, “And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church…” If the two or three were the church why would they then have to tell the church!

      I once pointed this out to a brother who thought this was a trick of sophistry and should not interfere with what he knew to be true regardless of what the verses said!

    • Jay Altieri

      Dave Z- I like the way you think. I respect and appreciate the way you are taking extreme care with the semantics, grammar and exact words of Scripture. I’m having a similar discussion over on the Abraham’s Bosom blog, where they are interpreting the Hebrew prophet’s words about Sheol through the lens of a given paradigm, as opposed to as you suggest just receiving what is said. Here I am the one taking liberty with the text to fit my interpretational paradigm. The irony is not lost on me. I agree with your evoking of hyperbole especially when Jesus is talking: Poke out your eye (Mat 5:29), Cut off your hand(Mat 5:30), camels fitting through sewing supplies (Mk 10:25), must hate your parents (Lk 14:26), keep your hands away from each other (Mat 6:3), etc. Hyperbole is a common Semitic rhetorical device and may very well be involved in Mat 12:32. Somehow a balance needs to be found between the exact words “speak against the HS” vrs Pauline theology of no sin too big for Jesus’ blood.

    • C Michael Patton

      It would seem that many people are having problems with number 15. It is interesting that so many of us want our bodies in heaven or on the new earth to be different than they are now.

      But the burden would be on the person who would suggest that our bodies will be different on the earth. Seeing as how when God finished making man he said it was very good it seems reasonable to assume that this very good is going to be restored through the redemption which finally has its culmination in the resurrection.

      Is it possible that our bodies will be different on the new work that we may be able to walk through walls? Yes but again the burden of proof lies upon the person who would suggest such.

      Therefore, we have to leave it at that. We have to assume we will not be able to do things that are physiologically impossible now.

      But for most people this should be good news. We should understand the life that we have now is good. The major difference in our new bodies will be that they will not be infected with sin. But to assume that we can fly or walk through walls would be to assume that sin somehow caused us to lose this ability. The only other option is to say that God moved from plan A to plan B immediately after the fall. But once again, this does not fit the theological idea of redemption.

    • […] Folk Theology: Twenty Urban Legends in Theology – “Folk theology describes beliefs that are generally shared by a large group of people about which adherents have rarely thought through in a critical way. These beliefs are normally inherited, being passed on through rote teaching and tradition.” Parchment and Pen […]

    • […] “Folk Theology:  20 Urban Legends in Theology” by Thom Rainer […]

    • M Conner

      @Greg!! Tiribulus! (And anybody else who wants to answer but Greg’s first post on here made me figure out how to comment on here),
      I’m not so great at figuring out blogs, comments, etc. so if it’s already answered please just forward me to the post number?

      I noticed you insisted that the bite of fruit, trivial as it looks, was “The” first sin because Adam and Eve were told not to do it?

      What do you think of the idea that it wasn’t the moment that she ate the fruit, but that it was when, later down the line, when God asked what was up with the two, they *lied* to Him? It’s at that point that God gets angry at them. It’s at that point that they choose to be away and apart from God… that is, if I understand that part of Genesis correctly. My understanding is that, after the both of them had tasted what death and sin is and learned about it, now that they intrinsically knew better, and knew full well the gravity of what they were doing, they tried to hide it and keep what they did away from God?

      Whether or not this is the case is it something you have considered, and if there’s something wrong with this interpretation could you tell me? I want to know since I’m not experienced at poking around with doctrine and the Bible and, as they say, you don’t know what you don’t know. I’m sorry if it’s a tired issue.

      I think the sin was their act of _lying_ though because at least thematically the action goes along with what Satan was up to: choosing to be _apart_ from God. Avoiding him. Trying to fool him. In my opinion, anyway. It also doesn’t make sense to me to say “The fruit was it” when didn’t they not know the difference between good and evil, but Luke (I think) says that God’s not going to hold you unfairly accountable for an issue you are ignorant of. I know it’s in there SOMEWHERE. To the gist of, “If you don’t know any better, OK, but as soon as you do, you get the scissors and you cut that crap out.” Isn’t that…

    • […] C. Michael Patton: Twenty Urban Legends in Theology  […]

    • Jordan Coss

      Hey bro, I’ve got another one for you that I think is pretty significant: how about the popular belief that God the Father had to forsake Jesus on the cross based upon a surface reading of Jesus’ quote of Psalm 22:1, “my God my God, why have you forsaken me?” When in reality Jesus is saying the exact opposite when he quotes and has in mind the entirety of the psalm. Of which the resurrection is the evidence that the Father did not forsake him, but rather Jesus was unforsaken!
      P.s. love your understanding of the biblical teaching of what our resurrected bodies will actually be like in #15! It’s far too misunderstood to our chagrin.

    • Michael

      5. Money is the root of all evil

      This really is one of those things that many, many people think is a direct quote from the Bible and they use it as an excuse to live in poverty. They believe it’s somehow “more godly” to be poor, all based on this one misconception.

    • Jay Altieri

      Shalom M Conner: That is an interesting idea. I like your thinking out of the box. I think you are correct that Adam lied about it or at least tried to. Besides the obvious Gen3 text, consider Job 31:33. There was a cover-up. As we know from modern politics that only happens when people know deep in their conscience that they have already done something wrong. Point being cover ups happen after the dirty deed. So I think I agree with GregT- disobedience was the first sin.
      Gen 3:6 they disobey and eat, then very next verse Gen 3:7 eyes are opened. This is of course not literal. It is Hebrew idiom for became cognizant and aware, not always a bad thing. It is used a dozen times or more in Scripture for “become aware” (example Gen 21:19).

      An interesting question that I have no answer for (hope I’m not muddying water) why were Eve’s eyes not opened until Adam ate?

      I think the clincher for me is Gen 3:17, God says this curse you’re fixen to get is because you ate.
      Also consider in 2Cor 11:3 it specifically says that Eve was tricked by the serpent. Was the serpent even around when they are caught lying?

      If you want to hash around alternative ideas to illegal fruit diets being the first sin, there is a theory out there (and I mean out there) that eating fruit is idiom for having sex. Idea being that Eve had sex with Satan and offspring was Nephilim or some such foolishness. Google forbidden fruit satan sex or something similar. Warning: that theory is total rubbish, this info is for entertainment purposes only.

    • Jay Altieri

      Oh Crumb, ESV gives a lousy translation on Job 31:33
      Try NAS :“Have I covered my transgressions like Adam,
      By hiding my iniquity in my bosom.”
      The Hebrew word ‘adam’ could also very well be translated “mankind”, that is where ESV goes with the “as others” idea.

    • Michael Snow

      With regard to No. 2–what is church discipline? Never seen such a thing.
      New definitions of ‘love’ make it unpalatable.

      Another top contender would be that spirit depicted in Mark Twain’s “The War Prayer” that he only dared to have published after his death.

    • Daniel S

      CMP —

      For #15, is it safe to conclude that our resurrected bodies will be whole and complete, with the effects of sin removed (i.e. without any physical “defect” or even restoration of a body marred by an accident or tragedy in life).

      I also have had problems with the assumption that we will have “superpowers” or abilities that extend beyond the physical possibilities of our universe, but it seems like we can safely assume that our bodies will be at least “what-they-would-have-been-if-not-for-the-fall” bodies — and with renewed access to the tree of life.

    • Jay Altieri

      I think I agree with Marv in post62 that a true Urban Legend should not be a theological dispute or interpretational variation, but a popularly held notion that is not taught at church. An Urban Legend is commonly going around in our thoughts, but has absolutely no legitimate basis.
      So I’ve got one. How about blessing the food.
      When we say the blessing before lunch, you commonly hear “Dear God, Bless this food to our body.”
      No, no , no. To give a blessing means to give a gift. The food IS a blessing. It is a gift from God. But we don’t bless the blessing.
      God blesses people with gifts from above. We bless God. What gift do we render to the Creator? Our praise is our blessing upon Him. Biblically Scripture says that we are to return thanks or make eucharist (Grk for thanksgiving).
      Actually blessing the food itself seems to be sort of a pagan superstitious act, as if it might become poison if I forget to bless it.
      The appropriate behavior before eating lunch is to return thanks to the Lord for His gracious gifts (blessings) that he bestows upon us.
      No church that I’m aware of actually mis-teaches this. They just don’t discuss it at all. Hence I think it qualifies as Urban Legend.
      See link here:
      Bless God not the creation!

    • […] a list of 20 big pieces of folk theology. I’m on board with most of […]

    • […] our Folk Theology corner: Twenty theological urban legends. You may be guilty of accepting a few of these […]

    • […] C. Michael Patton: Twenty Urban Legends in Theology  […]

    • […] 20 Urban Legends in Theology. […]

    • C. Whatley

      As far as there being a “waiting place” before the dead can go to heaven, that flies in the face of Jesus telling one of the criminals crucified with him that he would be with Jesus in paradise today. Also the God described in many comments here is not a God of love but of retribution. Mu God is the one Jesus described in the Prodigal Son. A loving and forgiving God that forgave his son even before his son could say he was sorry for sinning against the Father.

    • Jay Altieri

      Shalom CWhatley, Agreed about no waiting places, except the grave before the resurrection.

      Thief on the cross is an excellent example of a believer in heaven during the intermediate period. However, I would make an adjustment to your comment, I do take issue with the traditional punctuation of today. No commas exist in the greek mss. I think it should properly read “Verily I say to you today, (this day that I hang on a cross, this day that I look like a criminal, this day that I am paying for humanity). You shall be with me in Paradise.” I punctuate it this way because Jesus did not go to Paradise that same day himself either.
      In John 20:17, he tells Mary that he had not yet been to heaven. Jesus was in the grave. Jesus was dead for those 3 days. Death is the penalty for sin and Jesus bore that for us. Thus Jesus died both physically and spiritually. Jesus had no consciousness himself for those 3 days. Jesus suffered the curse of death for us. Jesus +Thief were in the grave until Jesus was resurrected by God and then called His sheep (John 5:25).

      So I agree that after the resurrection of Jesus, there is no waiting place for the believer.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.