Should We Take the Bible Literally?

Should We Take the Bible Literally?

For some people, this question stirs up a lot of emotion.  Since they genuinely love the Bible, and base their lives on it, they become upset at the mere suggestion that it cannot be taken literally.  Some people believe that if we question the Bible, then we are questioning God or faith.  Others have a particular view of scripture that insists on a literal interpretation of it, and feel called to denounce the notion of a non-literal understanding in order to protect that viewpoint. 

First, let’s look at the question again: should we take the Bible literally? Please note that the question DOES NOT ask: should we take the Bible seriously? For some reason, people confuse the words “literally” and “seriously.”  They think to question the literalness of the Bible is akin to questioning its seriousness.  These are two completely different questions.  As a student of the Bible, I take it very seriously, and I believe any Christian would do so.  As a matter of fact, even critics who doubt much of what it says (i.e. The Jesus Seminar) take it seriously.

An example of the difference between serious and literal would be when a mother scolds her child by saying, “I will tan your hide the next time you walk across the carpeting with dirty shoes!”  No one would expect the mother to literally tan the child’s hide.  To tan a hide one must remove the hide, scrape it, and then leave it to dry in the sun.  It would involve the death of the child, and the mutilation of its corpse (sorry for the disgusting imagery).  I believe that the mother did not intend for the child to picture his murder and its grotesque aftermath.  In other words, her words were not spoken literally, nor were they intended to be taken literally.  But what about the meaning of her words; were they to be taken seriously?  Absolutely.  Any child would recognize the seriousness of the threat while at the same time dismissing the literalness of it.

I believe the Bible was written with various literary devices which might not always be taken literally (yet always seriously).

Some examples would be:

Matt 5:3, speaking of John the Baptist: Then Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around Jordan went out to him.  Are we to understand that the entire country of Judea and the complete region around the Jordan emptied out to see John?  Did no one stay behind to watch over their businesses and homes?

Matt 5:29: And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you…  Is Jesus insisting that we amputate ourselves if we have performed a sin with our hands? 

John 6:27: Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life.” Does this mean that Jesus forbids working for a living, or that no one should ever use the money they received from their labors to buy food?

Even Paul gets into the mix when he writes, pray without ceasing (1 Thess. 5:17).  If we are to take Paul literally, then we must never sleep again, or engage in any activity that might distract us from this command.

There are many other examples like these which can only be understood if we take them in a non-literal fashion.  To do otherwise would be to become nearly ridiculous in our understanding of the Bible or our application of it to our daily lives.

It is easy to see that not all statements in the Bible can be understood literally.  The problem, however, is in deciding which passages are literal, and which should be taken in another way.

In many cases I believe it is quite natural and easy to see where non-literal language is employed.  The verses mentioned above fall into this category.  We know that if we press them for a literal meaning that we will arrive at some absurdity, or we will be in direct conflict with another passage of scripture that states something different.

But not all passages are as easy to figure out.  They take a bit more care to discover, and often come only after we become more familiar with Scripture.  For example, in Matt 24:29, Jesus said, Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken.  Even though this passage begins with the disciples asking Jesus about the destruction of the temple, many Christians believe Jesus is no longer talking about the destruction that occurred in 70AD.  They believe since the sun and moon did not darken, and the stars did not fall during that time, then Jesus is talking about an event that is still future.

Although it is possible that Jesus is talking about a literal event that is still future, there is sufficient precedent to suspect otherwise.  We know that the Old Testament prophets commonly employed language like this whenever a nation fell.  For example:

  • In speaking of the fall of Babylon, Isaiah 13;10 records, For the stars of heaven and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be darkened in its going forth, and the moon will not cause its light to shine.
  • Speaking of the fall of Egypt, Ezek. 32:7 reports, While I put out your light, I will cover the heavens, and make its stars dark; I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon will not give her light.
  • When writing about a plague of locusts (or Babylon) coming to Israel, the prophet Joel writes, The earth quake before them, the heavens tremble; the sun and moon grow dark, and the stars diminish their brightness. (Joel 3:10)

None of these events literally came true.  We always take them in a non-literal way.

Since it is common for prophets to employ non-literal language regarding the lights in the heavens when a nation collapsed, why could we not assume Jesus is using the same type of language in his prophecy?  Why should we press Jesus’ words for a literal understanding when we did not press the Old Testament prophets who used the same figures of speech?

Another example of what I believe to be confusion over non-literal language can be found in the interpretation of Eph 2:5, which reads, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ…

Many Calvinists insist that Paul’s use of the word “dead” in describing our status before being saved reveals our inability to respond to the gospel call.  They might say, “a person who is dead cannot respond to the call of God because a dead person has not the power to do anything.”

Although this is perhaps what Paul means, there is evidence in the Bible that the word “dead” is not always used in a literal fashion.  For example, Jesus once described a physically dead girl as “not dead, but sleeping” (Luke 8:52).  In Luke 9:60, Jesus said, “let the dead bury their own dead.”  If a dead person cannot do anything, then a dead person cannot bury another dead person.  Obviously, Jesus is not using “dead” in a literal fashion in these passages.

Paul describes the Christian as someone who has “died to sin,” yet he is adamant that we should not continue to live in it (Rom 6:1).  If death to sin is taken by Paul to be literal, then he should know that we do not have the power to live in sin. 

If we take how the Bible uses the word dead in a non-literal way so many times, then we must ask why we should be so quick to impose it in a passage like Eph. 2:5.  Wouldn’t it be just as reasonable to assume that Paul is using it here in a figurative way? 

The task in deciding how language is used can be a difficult one.  I believe that the more familiar with Scripture we become, and the more open we are to the possibilities of figures of speech being used, the better we will be at interpreting the Bible.