My Bible is True…But Not Literally

May 14, 2010

How much of the Bible is “literally” true?

In my Baptist seminary, I think the third verse of our alma mater was something about the Bible being completely, literally true and accurate.  I could be mistaken, but I don’t think so.  It was pretty fun to get all riled up about some wiseguy with a big beard and a sweater vest who just published a book about how the Bible isn’t completely “literally” true.  The word “literally” is about as overused as “awesome,” I think.  And yes, I’m going to italicize “literally” every time I write it today.  Literally, every time.

Since then, I’ve talked with a lot of people who wouldn’t quite fit in at my Baptist seminary, both in person and through blogging.  Some of you out there believe there’s parts of the Bible that aren’t “literally” true.  There’s others of you who believe in “scientific” things that seem to contradict the Bible.  Things like evolution, and the Big Bang Theory, and the idea that the Earth is a bajillion years old.

It just got me wondering about just how “literal” we need the Bible to be…

Are we reading something that isn’t there?

One of my big pet peeves is people reading something I wrote, and then completely getting a different meaning out of it than I meant.  I could take part of the blame on this for faulty writing, typos, and bad grammar, but that’s not really my style.  It always feels like I’ve written as clearly as I can, and yet someone will read between the lines and then tell me I said something that takes me by surprise.

It kind of makes me wonder if we’ve done that with God.  Have we put a bunch of words into his mouth?  I’d say we probably do it everyday, most of all on Sundays.  How else do we take two sentences from Jesus and stretch it into a 45 minute sermon?  Or a sermon series?  We’d love for the Bible to say that God created the world in a literal six days, and God literally formed Adam out of the dirt, but it doesn’t.  That’s why we argue about whether it really happened that way.

People who like to argue with Christians often do the same thing with science.  They think science says much more than it does.  Let’s not do the same thing back to them.

What do we need to be literally true?

So if the Bible never says that everything in it is literally true, why are so often hung up on believing that it is? 

I think it’s because we’re just really bad at drawing the line.  If Genesis 1 isn’t literally true, then how do we know what else isn’t literally true?  So we start ranting about those dang humanists who tear pages out of the Bible, and say nothing in the Bible is literally true.  We build hedges around Genesis 1 by saying that God literally created the Earth in six days, and just to be sure we don’t cross that line, we’ll go ahead and say that the Earth is only 6,000 years old, just to be safe.

I’m going to pose an innocent question.  Say someone is curious about the Bible, but having trouble with the idea that God literally created the Earth in six days.  Is the additional argument that the Earth is only 6,000 years old going to help them in any way?  If you want to believe that, have at it.  But since the Bible doesn’t actually give the date of creation, and creationism can’t be proven anyway, I think you ought to just keep it to yourself.  Creationism gets enough flack as it is.

Jesus said it wasn’t all literal.

You know that story where Jesus warns the disciples to “watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees.”  The disciples take him at his word, and start worrying that they didn’t bring any bread.  This causes Jesus to literally give Peter a roundhouse kick to the face for taking everything so literally.  Then they understood that Jesus wasn’t really talking about bread.  I’d like someone to figure out what percent of the time in the Bible Jesus is speaking literally. 

I feel like Jesus may be telling us something.  Jesus actually criticized his disciples for a lack of faith because they took what he said too literally.  He wants us to have the common sense to know when something is literally true and when it’s an illustration.  If we need everything to be literally true before we can believe it, maybe it illustrates a lack of faith and understanding of what’s being said…

Not “literal” can still be true.

This is the big one.  This is my “get out of heretic jail” card.

Okay, so Jesus was only speaking literally, something like half the time.  Like talking about the camel and the needle, he’s not really talking about a camel.  A lot of people think the “needle” was a gate or something in Jerusalem that camels had to kneel under because it was built for midget camels.  Yeah, either that or Jesus isn’t speaking literally.  Does that mean what he’s saying is not true?  No.

Every time Jesus speaks figuratively, he’s pointing to a true reality in the world.  He’s just explaining it in a way that can be understood.  To me, it’s important that a lot of the Bible is literally true.  Jesus needs to have literally risen from the dead.  I believe just about everything in the Old Testament really did happen the way it’s written.  But not everything is a history book.  Some things are storybooks.  So what’s so bad about Genesis 1 being an illustration of a truth, an explanation that is true, just not literal?  To me, it’s obvious that Genesis is a great piece of, perhaps, non-literal writing that illustrates a literal truth: In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.

Then again, who am I to say what’s literally true, and what’s an illustration?

Well, that should stir the pot sufficiently.  Is the Bible completely, literally true, or completely, but somewhat non-literally true?  What can be non-literal for you?

47 responses to My Bible is True…But Not Literally

  1. If it makes sense just reading it on the page, it’s a good shout to take what it means literally. If not, chances are it’s in figurative language, so it’s OK to look under the hood for another meaning.

    I’m not usually one for easy cut-and-dried methods, but it seems a lot of theological “trouble” can be solved if people would not have fallen asleep in English class during their high school years.

  2. You know what’s really bad? While reading your post, in my Pharisee like mind, I was quoting scripture to combat everything you were saying. No wonder unbelievers think we’re so obnoxious!

    Anyways, I get what you’re saying. The thing is, who cares if there really was a flood? Who cares if there really was a tower of Babel? These things convey such vast amounts of information on who God is and what he thinks about our sinful nature. How did Moses remember all that stuff? Maybe instead of just saying, “God hates sin” he used a really powerful story about God wiping the slate clean via flood. Who knows? Paul talks about Noah, but there’s more implication than jut drowning people.

    You’re right Jesus talked figuratively a lot because he said to Nicodemus, “I have to speak of earthly things because if I spoke of heavenly things, you really wouldn’t get it.” Jesus was a story teller, plain and simple.

    I’m afraid though, that if they found what they thought was Jesus’s bones, then we Christians would say something like, “Well, he didn’t actually say he’d physically rise again, just spiritually.” It’d be game,set and match and we’d just LOL people in the face because there’s no way to falsify that. Personally and lately, I’m learning to just listen to people and have a decent conversation. Two years ago, listening to something like what you’ve written would have made me think you didn’t know your bible and we’re a strong Christian. Thank God I’m staying away from that yeast of the Pharisees :)

    nicodemusatnite.blogspot.com

    • All of those are great points! Actually, I do the same thing when I hear people talk about things that aren’t literal in the Bible, or how they believe in one scientific theory or another that isn’t strict creationism. I’m glad you kept reading all the way to the end. It’s not always important to me to blog about my personal viewpoints, but to share the conversations I’ve been having, and this is one of those cases.

      And I love the example of finding Jesus’ bones. I thought maybe Wednesday that would be the one thing that would make me stop being a Christian, but you’re right. We’d find a way to rationalize it.

  3. The reason that creation needs to have occurred in 7-24 hr days is this:
    – Evolution says that things died for millions of years prior to “Adam” rising from the primordial soup
    – The Bible says that death is a result of sin (which was committed by the first person)
    – If death came _BEFORE_ sin, then death is _NOT_ a result of sin
    – If death is _NOT_ a result of sin, then sin is _NOT_ what separates us from God and God is a liar.

    Other, somewhat less important points:
    – I’m no Hebrew scholar, but my understanding is that the word used in Genesis for “day” is consistently translated to mean 24 hrs.
    – Also, God was creating an entire universe, including time (and rest). During the creation week, he also created the _WEEK_…which isn’t the case if you’re talking millions of years.

    Now, should this necessarily be considered necessary belief for salvation? No…but to say that it’s ok to believe otherwise isn’t really kosher either.

    http://www.answersingenesis.org for the theological “proof” of creation
    http://www.icr.org for the scientific “proof” of creation

    • The Hebrew word, yom, is actually translated a lot of different ways in other parts of the Bible. It can mean from sunup to sundown, or vice-versa, or a 24-hour period, or a general time period (harvest time), or a non-specific time period(some future era).

      A few examples:
      Genesis 4:3 (yom=process of time)
      Genesis 30:14 (yom=wheat harvest time)
      Joshua 24:7 (yom=a long season)
      Proverbs 25:13 (yom=harvest time)
      Isaiah 4:2 (yom=a future era)
      Zechariah 14:8 (yom=summer + winter)

    • Those are all great explanations that came form a pre-scientific culture. They’re not gonna fly today.

      The Orthodox Church does just fine without that Augustinian understanding of sin. ‘Course that doesn’t mean anything if you don’t believe the Orthodox are really Christians–I obviously don’t know your opinion on that, one way or another.

      As for “proof,” of creation, the same onus is on Christians as so many smug Creationists level against scientists. Nobody is an eye witness, so there’s no “proof” either way. Ideally, scientists claim their “proof” from tested theories and empirical observation. Creationists claim their “proof” from collected oral tradition codified in a later prescientific bronze-age located in today’s middle east.

      Anyway, how do you have a day without a sun? Sure, light was invented on day one, but there was no sun until day 4. Good thing God set three leveled flat creation spinning at a rate of one revolution per 24 hours (If you want to get really literal, the earth is flat, the sky is a solid object above which God lives, and dead people hang out underground together).

      Imposing our modern understanding of the universe (which history will find as inadequate in a few thousand years as we find the understanding of long-past cultures) upon the writings of those ancient people is anachronistic and intellectual vice.

      Of course, none of what I’ve written stands if you approach the Bible from a dictationist heuristic.

  4. Stirring post Matt!

    Well, I went to a Anglican Cemetery (later known as Heresy Hill)and then a Baptist Bible school, and later on a Charismatic Ministry School. Therefore; I don’t really care what anyone says now. ;o)

    Science, culture, Satan and sin can easy affect our worldview – and laziness. The eternal nature of God can only be understood by the Spirit – the deep calling deep thing – not by intellectual debate.

    I guess that some things are important in terms of debate and faith – well maybe. Were Adam and Eve real folks? Was Jesus really born of a virgin? Where is the Valley of Decision? Everything is possible for him who believes. Stuff like that. The key appears to be acceptance of God’s word – not belief. I think the Bible is clear on how we process this stuff; both literally and figuratively…

    Proverbs 2
    1 My son, if you accept my words and store up my commands within you,
    2 turning your ear to wisdom and applying your heart to understanding,
    3 and if you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding,
    4 and if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure,
    5 then you will understand the fear of the LORD and find the knowledge of God.

    What matters is that we know God. The sheep know His voice – the rest is just specualtion.

    • Perhaps we share a kindred bond in not caring what people say! I’m a Metho-Episco-Presby-Mergent-Baptist.

      • I believe it is the same Blood line! I usually am referred to as a Baptocostalmatic. In the Anglican days I was just a crazy Charismatic – you know, robes, organ music, healing and tongues.

        I certainly do feel a kinship Matt. Keep up the great work.

  5. Rationalizing the historical claims of Christ would put an end to Christianity. In fact, you cannot claim a spiritual resurrection but deny a bodily resurrection and still be a Christian. Sounds harsh in this day and age, but the Bible doesn’t mince words or allow for colorful interpretation.

    1 Corinthians 15:17 (ESV) And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins

    • I respectfully disagree, Doug. You do not have the authority, right or responsibility to tell anyone what they must believe in order to be “Christian.” You are not God; you’re not even Jesus. Who are you to tell anyone what they must believe in order to be a Christian?

      Absolutist statements are part of the problem. “You can only be Christian if you think just like me.” That, as much as the rampant judgmentalism. is what drives people away from the faith. When we argue amongst ourselves, claiming the others are not Christian enough, it makes others wonder how they could every measure up — not in God’s eyes, but in the eyes of their fellow Man, who, by the way, is not supposed to judge.

      I am able to maintain my faith, and my connection to God, even if others do not believe exactly as I do. And I am able to read the Bible and understand that it is not all literal.

      But that’s just me. I don’t require others to adhere to my specific beliefs.

      In peace,

      Lane Baldwin

      • Hmm…I feel inspired…yes, I sense another blog post is afoot!

      • You said, “You do not have the authority, right or responsibility to tell anyone what they must believe in order to be ‘Christian.’ ”

        And as usual, I’ll interject the common response, “What gives you the authority, Lane, to say that Doug doesn’t have the authority? Isn’t your statement an absolutist statement?”

        See, in the end, absolutist statements are only part of the problem because people don’t agree on them, not because absolute statements in general are somehow bad.

        -Marshall Jones Jr.

    • Doug, while I can see that some things are “open to interpretation”, I am completely with you that Jesus physically rose from the dead. Thomas was invited to touch His wounds. He broke bread and ate fish with His disciples. It seems like it was important for Him to be recognized as not some ghost, but physically there.
      I find the idea of a “nonphysical” resurrection quite appalling. If He is merely a ghost, then He was merely a man, which means that I’d be better off to have never been born at all.

  6. I have been wrestling with this very thing for the last few years. It is so completely polarized that I’ve had an extremely difficult time finding anyone with a sensible, reasonable defense of a middle ground like you describe. Thank you for writing because it helps me sort things out just a little bit more.

    I ran into this passage this morning when I was reading the book of John: (From Chapter 5)

    36″I have testimony weightier than that of John. For the very work that the Father has given me to finish, and which I am doing, testifies that the Father has sent me. 37And the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me. You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, 38nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent. 39You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, 40yet you refuse to come to me to have life.

    41″I do not accept praise from men, 42but I know you. I know that you do not have the love of God in your hearts. 43I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not accept me; but if someone else comes in his own name, you will accept him. 44How can you believe if you accept praise from one another, yet make no effort to obtain the praise that comes from the only God?

    45″But do not think I will accuse you before the Father. Your accuser is Moses, on whom your hopes are set. 46If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. 47But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?”

    Verses 39-40 really got my attention. Isn’t that what literalists do? They deify the Bible, even the physical paper and binding (“I won’t put anything on top of my Bible”), and I think they get things out of balance. Jesus said the Bible is supposed to point us to him, not to be our god itself.

  7. This post is literally awesome.

    And I was pretty engaged in the comments, too. Many good points!

  8. I like this post. The part with the needle and the camel is little off though. That is taken literally as in a literal camel can’t fit through the eye of a literal needle (we just don’t like the interpretation that no wealthy people will enter the kingdom of heaven, so we try to explain it away). Do you think we should say “real” instead of “literal”. Literal just sounds funny when you say it a lot.

    The other thing that bothers me when people get into this debate is some of the terminology when it comes to science. We put the THEORY of evolution on the same level as the LAW of gravity. A lot of science is theory and requires a lot of faith to believe. The same goes with carbon dating something. How do you know for sure that they are correct when they say something is 1000 years old? You don’t. No one is around to verify that. You just have to accept that its true with faith and move on. I don’t have a problem with science. I just think sometimes theories are elevated to truth, when they are just theories.

    • The camel and the needle is a funny example, because people are trying to take it literally, thereby concealing Jesus’ real intention of speaking literally as an illustrative statement. I think you and I are on the same page.

      And right on about laws and theories.

    • I wouldn’t put too much stock in the semantic differences between scientific “law” and “theory” regarding their truth (with a small t). Physical laws simply state a property of the universe that seems to be true: ie, “Two objects with mass attract each other” (gravity) or “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction” (Newton’s laws of motion). Laws are not necessarily the immutable rules people often make them out to be — they can be changed if new evidence suggests they are wrong. For example, the so-called “law” of gravitation as Newton proposed it was amended by Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

      “Theories” can mean a lot of things, but in general they differ from laws in that they are explanations rather than simple statements. They are usually more complicated and require certain assumptions, but are not necessarily any less true than laws. They are also not necessarily universal; “survival of the fittest” could never be a “law” because on an individual scale it is often not true.

      An interesting sidenote in all of this is that while we have a generally accepted Law of Gravity, there is no good Theory of Gravity — that is, we don’t understand how gravity works the way it does.

      I’m not writing this comment to try and dissuade anyone from their beliefs, but I wanted to point out that making a big deal about the fact that evolution is called a “theory” is not a good argument to take up.

    • Brian, I totally agree with the laws vs. theories statement. Just wanted to point out that carbon dating can be verified. We just visited a tree ring lab at the Univ. of Arizona, and learned how they correlate carbon dating with tree ring counts, which also cross-check with one another, and with known events such as volcanic eruptions.

  9. 2 Timothy 3:16 — “ALL scripture is God-breathed…”
    That means ALL scripture is true.
    Not ALL scripture must be taken literally (God is not a literal bird — Psalm 91:4), but all scripture must be true.
    The problem is with our interpretation. Different genres (poetry, history, wisdom, etc.) must be interpreted differently. Otherwise we proof-text with passages that should not be used the way some use them. Things like historical and cultural context cannot be ignored. We interpret scripture with scripture (Peter, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, affirmed the flood by the way in 2 Peter 2) and we pray for understanding and illumination.
    Very thought-provoking post!

    • Even 2 Tim. 3:16 is a hard one to understand too- which scripture was he referring to, exactly? Given that at the time the passage was written many of the NT ‘books’ were still just letters or stories which were circulating, some weren’t written yet, and none of it would be ratified as ‘scripture’ until a few hundred years later. And what about the gospels and historical books that didn’t make it into the Bible as we know it today? Are they God-breathed too? Finally, did God breathe the forming of the council who ultimately decided what should go in the Bible, and if so, shouldn’t that have been recorded in scripture as well?

      I believe that the Bible is the Word of God and we can rely on its authority- but I’ve also come to many of the same conclusions as Matt because one thing the Bible’s not is ‘clear.’ Maybe God meant for it to be that way so that we would always be questioning and learning, and not just assuming that we can understand everything about the world and how it works. And, as many comments have mentioned, it makes us rely on the Holy Spirit to guide us.

      Personally I’m ok with the Bible not being entirely literal- it serves to remind me that God is God and is always going to be bigger than my own understanding. It probably helps that I was never that interested in science anyway 😛 Thanks for the great and thought-provoking post Matt!

      • Great comment Rachel. I want to share with you a couple of passages that may encourage you about what “scripture” is in the New Testament. It turns out that Paul himself believed that what he was writing was God’s word. 1Thess 2:13 says “when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe.” and he says, “If anybody thinks he is a prophet or spiritually gifted, let him acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord‘s command.” 1Cor 14:37.

        Peter actually goes one step further and refers to Paul’s writings as scripture: “Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.” 2Peter 3:15,16

        Pretty thought provoking to think these guys knew they were writing something new from God himself.

  10. True dat! Just to clarify myself a bit, I don’t take the entire Bible to be literal in the sense that every word is to be taken as historical fact. Song of Solomon, for example is a completely different genre than 2 Chronicles. We need to identify the literary type and remember that as we read.

    Also, it is a good idea to read the OT through the lens of the NT. Was Jonah literally swallowed by a fish, released alive after three days? Jesus took that literally. Perhaps I should as well.

    The Bible is a perfect document, but just like a tool in a workshop it is at it’s best when you use it properly. You can hammer a screw into a board if you try hard enough, but the screwdriver will give you a better result.

    • I keep hearing people say “Jesus believed…” so I do to. But most of the time I don’t think there is biblical documentation to back it up. Yes Jesus referenced the story of Jonah, but the text does not require that Jesus believed it was a literal story. (I happen to be fine with it as a literal story, but that is not my point.)

      Jesus also referenced the story of Lazarus and the Rich man. The Lazarus story is a retelling of a common Egyptian folk tale that most of the audience would have recognized. Did Jesus think that the Egyptian folk tale was literally true because he referenced it and talked about it? I don’t think so. I think we should read scripture through the lens of other scripture. But we should be very conservative in what it actually says.

    • That’s right. You can use the Bible to hammer people with your beliefs…or you can use the Bible to screw them with your beliefs 😉 Okay, that was bad, and I know your point was much better than mine.

  11. Thanks for this post. It’s something my husband and I have been discussing quite a bit lately, and it’s refreshing to see somebody else honestly wrestling with stuff.

    The truth is, the more I read my Bible (especially the Old Testament, but even the New), the more questions I have and the more I wonder how much of the stories and “truths” I’ve been told my entire life are really true. I have a solid bedrock, in that I am absolutely confident that man is fallen and sinful and in need of a savior, that Christ is who He said He was, that He died (physically) and rose again, and that He is the only way to be reconciled to God. Beyond that, everything else is a side issue. Important side issues worth discussing and debating, perhaps, but still side issues.

    There’s stuff in the bible that doesn’t always make sense when read literally (or even figuratively, for that matter). We shouldn’t have to turn off our brains to accept Christ–in fact, just the opposite.

    As far as the compatibility of science and faith–this is something about which I am passionate, because I think too often, by holding to a strictly literal translation of scripture, we alienate scientists and others from Christianity. I think the evidence points to an old earth, and I don’t have any problem reconciling that with Genesis 1. But, more importantly than that, I don’t think your opinion on the age of the earth matters when it comes to salvation.

    As a side note, the big bang theory actually supports the biblical view of things–that the universe has a beginning. It was first proposed by a priest. Also, a clarification–science doesn’t use the word “theory” in the same way that the rest of the world does. Theories have a great deal of scientific evidence to back them up (though that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re true). They’re just a collection of concepts and ideas that can’t necessarily be proven directly by experimentation. For example, Quantum Mechanics is a scientific theory that nearly all scientists accept as fact. There’s plenty of evidence for it, but it can’t be directly proven.

    • I do’nt tihnk that the Bible is completly in conflict with an old earth:

      Genesis 1:2 And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

      3 And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

      It doesn’t say how long the “void” was from “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved…”

      On the other hand, I think there is some so-called empirical evidence that is a load of turnips.

  12. I wasn’t sure where you were going at first, but I sure like where you wound up. I think the Bible is a rolling revelation of God, not just for one period in time, but for all time. So it was written to illuminate people where they were. Three thousand years from now, people will read it with a different perspective than we have, just as we have a different perspective of those who read the OT scriptures 3,000 years ago. But it works for every generation.

    What do we have to take literally? Good question. I always wonder how the disciples were to know when Jesus was being literal and when He was being figurative. It’s easy to look at those passages now, with the knowledge of the crucifixion and resurrection and think, “Yeah, sure, that’s what He’s talking about here. Why don’t they know that?”

    For me, the things I have to take literally are that God loves me, and He desires a relationship with me. The only way for that relationship to exist is through the grace of Jesus Christ, His only begotten Son, who gave His life as a living sacrifice, so that I might have eternal life. I have to believe the resurrection was literal, because without it, Christianity is just another religion. I have to believe in a Triune God that includes the Holy Spirit who can inhabit me, and guide me, truly as Christ in me.

    I have to take the fact that I am a sinner literally, and that I need that grace that Christ so freely offers. I must accept the need to confess my sins to God, and work to be more Christlike each and every day. I must believe the Great Commission and tell others about this love that will not let me go, so they too, will know the love and the grace of Jesus Christ.

    Why do I know that these are the parts I must take literally? Because all of the other things that we argue over point us to these truths. They point us to redemption. They point us to God’s love for us through Jesus Christ. The distractions that we debate aren’t there to provide our salvation. In and of themselves they are not important. What is important is that those scriptures are there to point us to the Truth of Jesus Christ.

  13. Jenn — I wasn’t saying there is no truth in theories. They are just not the same as facts.

    How does this relate to sharing the Gospel? What is intriguing is the fact that most people relate the Gospel through their own personal experience. They share their conversion experience. This is exactly the opposite of how the apostles shared the gospel. The apostles appealed to the fact that Jesus had risen from the dead, not their individual conversion experiences.

    Somethings must be taken as literal truths, not just a personal experience or what we think or feel is correct. When we base God on our personal feelings, that is creating God in our image (also known as idolatry).

  14. Matt, that was AWESOME. Literally.

    Sorry, couldn’t resist. :-)

    But seriously, excellent post. I just finished my final semester of college, and I’m thinking back on several moments in these past few months where I found myself in a situation where I was confronted by “haters spittin’ vapors,” as tobyMac would say. There’s a lot of stuff in this post that I could have used in dealing with both them and myself. I don’t often walk away from a blog post with tons to think about (though I always love everything I read in your blog, SCL, and a few others), but this is one of the few where I’ll be doing just that. Thanks man, God bless you.

  15. Does anybody else think that items 1 (Are we reading something that isn’t there?) and 3 (Jesus said it wasn’t all literal) contradict each other? No?, ok, me neither…just wondering.

  16. Oh – i’ve lots to say but not much time!

    I have NEVER gone to a church that is truly literal no matter what their doctrine claims. Because i’ve never gone to a church where folks have cut off hands & gouged out eyes. Isn’t that what Jesus said? “If your hand causes you to stumble . . .” ?

    Also, very few churches these days take literally the admonition from Paul for women to have their heads covered when praying.

    If we have accepted that some things in the Bible are illustrations to glean meaning from rather than to take literally & that some things written were cultural rather than literal, why do so many churches insist on this literal every word?

    It seems to me, as you said, that it becomes scary to know “where to draw the line.” It also seems to me that it is a matter of maturity. We are God’s children, but that doesn’t mean that we continue to be childish all of our lives. “When i was a child, i spoke as a child, but when i became a man . . . ” Even Paul speaks of spiritual maturity. It seems to me that spiritual maturity becomes the ability to discern what the scripture intended for us to take from it.

    I think insisting on the literal application of every aspect of the Bible is a form of immaturity & insisting that we relate to God as infant children rather than maturing children.

  17. Nice Post Matt. I’ll leave it at that. I’m gonna stay on my side of the line and let you be on yours :)

    • That’s fine! I hope you read where I commented that I don’t always share my own views very clearly – just the conversations I’ve been having. You and I might be much closer theologically than you think!

  18. Interesting debate for sure. I always think it’s good to remember that as events and things are described, especially of the God-infused and miraculous kind, that those who wrote it were inspired by the Holy Spirit but using their best language and point of reference. It’s “literally” trying to describe the indescribable. Some things are beyond the scope of language. There’s a lot I don’t know. I seek to learn and grow, but many mysteries persist and I’m all right with that…

  19. Anne-Marie Zack May 14, 2010 at 5:45 pm

    I agree completely. Jesus often spoke in parables, Proverbs is a book of probabilities not promises, Ecclesiastics tells us there is a time for everything, peace, war, love, hate etc. All of them may seem contradictory to some extent but that’s what the Holy Spirit is for. He speaks to each one of us in and out of season. What he is saying to me may not necessarily be what he is speaking to you. ie Love–Many messages on love but the holy Spirit speaks to me regarding guarding my heart because I am quick to love without wisdom. There are those who need to learn how to be more open and vulnerable so that’s where the Holy Spirit guides them.

  20. I found myself reading this post going “yeah, yeah, I see what you’re saying, yeah….” and then I read some of the comments. I love that you’re honest/humble enough to openly wrestle with the concepts of “what’s literal?”, at the same time, I hope that we, as Christians, are careful of not making the Bible say what we want. To throw out the idea as one commentator has that Jesus was NOT physically raised from the dead and just spiritually raised is to deny the Truth. For those who said it’s not for us to judge, I agree, we shouldn’t say that anyone is damned to hell for that belief, but as Christians, it’s certainly our responsibility to point out when another Christian is denying the Truth about the Scripture, no? Jesus’s physical resurrection is not up for interpretation. Period. Unless of course you don’t believe in the Bible. This isn’t a story of wheat and harvest…this is THE story. Let’s not tickle one another’s ears in an attempt to be politically correct. 2 Timothy 4:3

  21. There was a time when I would have insisted that I believed in the Bible literally. That was before I met some folks who really believe in it literally, like demanding that creation had to be in 7 24-hour days. I think that Loren made a good point about the context helping us see if something is meant to be literal and that if literal is impossible (like the camel through a needle example you give) that it must be figurative. However, it’s not always so easy to tell, with some Bible accounts it is not so clear if they are literal or figurative. An example would be the story Jesus told that’s recorded in Luke 16:19-35 about the rich man in hell; I can remember that when I was in Bible college I kind argued with my NT professor because he thought I was niave to think it was an actual account verses a figurative story – I still don’t think it’s all that clear as to which it is, but I lean toward literal.

  22. Them’s fighting words–not really.

    If people took everything in the Bible literally, 100% of Christians would be blind in at least one eye and missing a hand or two.

    I also believe that the Bible is the Word of God. However, because of our limited, sin-infested brains, we need the Holy Spirit to help us really understand it. Misunderstandings are common and anyone who claims to understand it all has pride issues bordering on delusion. I wonder if Isaiah or Daniel or even David REALLY understood all of what they were writing? Did they ever finish writing a piece of scripture and say “Now what is THAT about, God?”

  23. The idea that the Bible can be “Truth” (ordained by God for our instruction) without every word being “truth” (historical/biological fact) gave me great peace when I was trying to figure out whether or not I should tell my other Christian friends that I believed in evolution.

    EVERYTHING in the Bible is useful and inspired by the Holy Spirit, just as 2 Tim 3:16 tells us it is. I don’t have to believe that Adam was literally formed from dirt before the other animals and Eve from his rib to know with certainty that we live in a fallen world, but God planned to redeem us from the beginning. Those last two points are what I consider “Truth” from the creation story, for example.

  24. Literally.

    Great points, Matt! It’s important to keep context and style in mind. I think that will help a little with figuring out what is literally true and what just so happens to be true nonetheless [smile].

    ~Luke

  25. I have been a Christian my entire life, or at least since I was brain-washed into it by my parents when I was a kid. (I’m only half kidding, but not in a bad way:)
    I battled for years with the contradiction of the literal interpretation of Genesis and the scientific evidence for the ‘old earth’ thingy. I reasoned that if God wanted to create a universe in 7 days and make it look like he had taken millions of years, then he could. My question was “Why would he do that?” It felt like a big lie, either the universe was lying or the bible was not literally true.
    Funny thing is that this conundrum was not part of my parents ‘brain-washing’ (they feel the same way I do today, which is to agree with what you wrote here).
    I read a book (that my Dad lent me) called “And God Said What?” that explores the Literary forms of the bible.
    Huge eye opener. Suddenly I can trust God again.

    Great post!

  26. This was a fun blog.

    One of the great ironies is that a “literal” interpretation of the Bible (everything is factual, historical, as advertised) depends on a belief that “fact” is the gold-standard of truth, which is a relatively modern value.

    But if you’ve got “facts” that show the age of the earth, well, those aren’t “facts.” “Fact” is described circularly as that which supports a factual claim in the Bible. Ouch.

    In order to claim the gold-standard “Fact” for scripture, you first have to empty the word “fact” of any meaning or power.

  27. Thank you so much for this post, Matt! Reading your thoughts as well as the thoughtful comments posted here have been such a blessing. I am a long-time believer who is struggling with doubt, and getting past literal vs. figurative understanding of parts of the Bible has been a tremendous barrier for me. When “every” Christian I know is adamant that the creation account must be taken as 100% literal, it makes me feel very insecure as a Christian, and that there must be something wrong with me for understanding it in another way. Thank you for giving me a spark of hope as I work through these issues. Maybe my faith is not as weak as I thought it was.