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?