Should we take the Bible literally?
What does it mean to take something literally? The Dictionary says
it means to take something in its strict sense, actually; without exaggeration or
inaccuracy. Should we take everything in the Christian Bible literally?
Actually, almost everyone will agree that there are certain parts of the Bible that
are not literal; they are poetic and use metaphors. A metaphor is an comparison showing
the similarity between two objects or ideas, as opposed to a simile which does the
same but uses "like" or "as". The book of Psalms is an example of poetry in the Bible.
Here is a verse from Psalms that is clearly a metaphor, not to be taken literally:
"Let the rivers clap their hands, Let the mountains sing together for joy;" Psalm
No one would suggest that rivers have hands that can clap, or mountains are able to
sing. It is clear that this verse is a metaphor for the idea that the world, meaning
the people in it, should "Sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things..."
As we look at other verses in the Bible, there will be some who will insist that they
be read literally, and that everyone should believe or follow the commandment or idea
expressed by the literal meaning of the words. We will start by looking at some Old
Testament commandments from God.
35:2 says, "For six days, work is to be done, but the seventh day shall be
your holy day, a Sabbath of rest to the LORD. Whoever does any work on it must be
put to death." This is the larger context, which shows that this is something God
commanded the whole Isrealite community to do: "1 Moses assembled the whole Israelite
community and said to them, 'These are the things the LORD has commanded you to do:
2 For six days, work is to be done, but the seventh day shall be your holy day, a
Sabbath of rest to the LORD. Whoever does any work on it must be put to death. 3 Do
not light a fire in any of your dwellings on the Sabbath day.'"
Another example of the Lord punishing someone with death for not following a commandment
is from Genesis
38:8-10, "8 Then Judah said to Onan, 'Lie with your brother's wife and fulfill
your duty to her as a brother-in-law to produce offspring for your brother.' 9 But
Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so whenever he lay with his brother's
wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from producing offspring for his
brother. 10 What he did was wicked in the LORD's sight; so he put him to death also."
Does anyone today think that someone who worked on Sunday, or someone who refuses to have sex with his sister-in-law, should be killed? Some will say that these Old Testament verses only applied to the
Isrealites and only during the Biblical time period. But Jesus said in Matthew
5:17-20, "17Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am
not come to destroy, but to fulfil. 18For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth
pass, one jot or one tittle shall
in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. 19Whosoever therefore shall break
one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least
in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be
called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I say unto you, That except your righteousness
shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter
into the kingdom of heaven.
Before we get into what might arguably be the most important council one could learn
from the Bible - how to get into heaven - as mentioned in the last part of that quote,
I'll list a few more verses from the Old Testament that touch on the concepts of Biblical
inerrancy and statements that are against what we know from science.
An entire article could be written about Biblical inerrancy and infallibility,
so in this article I'll just site a few examples of things in the Bible that science
contradicts. "The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved." (See here and here and here)
and "He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved." Psalm
104:5 and "The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises." Ecclessiastes
These verses are clearly metaphors. We know today that the Earth does move, it orbits
the sun. We also know that the sun does not hurry back around the Earth to rise again
in the morning - the Earth rotates on its axis once a day which creates the effect
of sunrise and sunset.
Some say that the Bible correctly describes the Earth as round, not flat as many believed
at the time the Bible was written. Isaiah
40:22 says, "He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people
are like grasshoppers. He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them
out like a tent to live in." But a circle is not a sphere. A canopy is a covering
that serves as a roof to shelter an area from the weather; the heavens are a volume,
not a surface. Also, there are verses that speak of the "four
corners" of the Earth - a circle, or a sphere, has no corners. Does the
Earth literally have four corners?
11:7 says, "The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox." This may be literally impossible as a bear
is a carnivore and would eat the cow, and lions are also carnivores and don't have
the physiology to eat straw. Yes, cats can eat plants to some degree, but they need
meat to live a healthy life and it is apparent from their teeth, claws, digestive
system and entire body design that they were made for eating animals. Perhaps it is
easier to understand this verse as a metaphor for a more perfect future where death
and suffering do not occur.
The Bible exists to tell us God's thoughts and one of the most important things that
Christians want to know from God is, "How can I have eternal life?" or "How can I
get into Heaven?" The Bible provides contradicting or seemingly impossible instructions,
so some might be metaphorical and not literal. For example, Jesus (who is God according
to Christians) is asked about this in Luke
10:25-28 "25On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus.
"Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" 26"What is written
in the Law?" he replied. "How do you read it?" 27He answered: " 'Love the Lord your
God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with
all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'" 28"You have answered correctly,"
Jesus replied. "Do this and you will live."
But in Luke
18:18-22 Jesus is asked the same thing but answers differently: 18A certain
ruler asked him, "Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" 19"Why do
you call me good?" Jesus answered. "No one is good-except God alone. 20You know the
commandments: 'Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false
testimony, honor your father and mother.'" 21"All these I have kept since I was a
boy," he said. 22When Jesus heard this, he said to him, "You still lack one thing.
Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.
Then come, follow me." Sell everything and give to the poor? Then you
will be poor! This seems impossible to do.
Then in Luke
14:25-26 we see this: 25Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning
to them he said: 26"If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother,
his wife and children, his brothers and sisters-yes, even his own life-he cannot be
Perhaps one of these answers is a metaphor; could they all be literal? Doesn't
the third passage contradict the first one? How can one love their neighbor, who is
everyone according to the rest of the Good Samaritan parable, and yet hate your father
and mother? The second passage says you have to honor your father and mother. Perhaps
there is a metaphor in here, and this is not all literal.
For more on the verses about how to get into heaven, watch this video:
As you read your Bible, think about what you are reading and perhaps you will decide
that some verses are meant to be taken metaphorically and not literally. Consider
this - Jesus used parables to teach certain ideas to his listeners. Wikipedia says
a Parable is "A parable is a brief, succinct story, in prose or verse, that illustrates
a moral or religious lesson. ... It is a type of analogy." An analogy is another word
for metaphor. If Jesus used metaphors rather than literal explanations at times, and
if Jesus is God, then doesn't it follow that the word of God as written in the Bible
might also contain metaphors rather than literal explanations of things?