Christian Research Institute

What does it mean to interpret the Bible literally?

For more than a decade popular TV personality Bill Maher has made a cottage industry out of ridiculing Christianity. Maher has gone so far as to dogmatically pontificate that the Bible was “written in parables. It’s the idiots today who take it literally.” Even a cursory reading reveals that Scripture is a treasury replete with a wide variety of literary styles ranging from poetry, proverbs, and psalms to historical narratives, didactic epistles, and apocalyptic revelations. To dogmatically assert that the Bible was written in parables and that those who read it literally must be “idiots” is at best an idiosyncratic form of fundamentalism and at worst a serious misunderstanding of the literal principle of biblical interpretation. In order to read the Bible for all its worth, it is crucial that we interpret it just as we would other forms of communication-in its most obvious and natural sense. As such, we must read it as literature, paying close attention to form, figurative language, and fantasy imagery.

First, in order to interpret the Bible literally we must pay special attention to what is known as form or genre. In other words, to interpret the Bible as literature, it is crucial to consider the kind of literature we are interpreting. Just as a legal brief differs in form from a prophetic oracle, so too there is a difference in genre between Leviticus and Revelation. This is particularly important when considering writings that are difficult to categorize, such as Genesis, which is largely a historical narrative interlaced with symbolism and repetitive poetic structure. If Genesis were reduced to an allegory conveying merely abstract ideas about temptation, sin, and redemption devoid of any correlation with actual events in history, the very foundation of Christianity would be destroyed. If the historical Adam and Eve did not eat the forbidden fruit and descend into a life of habitual sin resulting in death, there is no need for redemption. On the other hand, if we consider Satan to be a slithering snake, we would not only misunderstand the nature of fallen angels but we might also suppose that Jesus triumphed over the work of the devil by stepping on the head of a serpent (Genesis 3:15) rather than through his passion on the cross (Colossians 2:15). A literalistic method of interpretation often does as much violence to the text as does a spiritualized interpretation that empties the text of objective meaning. A “literal-at-all-costs” method of interpretation is particularly troublesome when it comes to books of the Bible in which visionary imagery is the governing genre. For example, in Revelation the apostle John sees an apocalyptic vision in which an angel swinging a sharp sickle gathers grapes into “the great winepress of the wrath of God.” The blood flowing out of the winepress rises as high as “the horse bridles, by the space of a thousand and six hundred furlongs” (Revelation 14:19-20). Interpreting apocalyptic imagery in a woodenly literal sense inevitably leads to absurdity.

Furthermore, it is crucial to recognize that Scripture-particularly apocalyptic portions of Scripture-is replete with figurative language. Such language differs from literal language, in which words mean exactly what they say. Figurative language requires readers to use their imagination in order to comprehend what the author is driving at. Such imaginative leaps are the rule rather than the exception in that virtually every genre of literature contains metaphorical language. In point of fact, we might well say that figurative language is the principal means by which God communicates spiritual realities to his children. In other words, God communicates spiritual realities through means of earthly, empirically perceptible events, persons, or objects-what might best be described as living metaphors. A metaphor is an implied comparison that identifies a word or phrase with something that it does not literally represent. Far from minimizing biblical truth, metaphors serve as magnifying glasses that identify truth we might otherwise miss. This identification creates a meaning that lies beyond a woodenly literal interpretation and thus requires an imaginative leap in order to grasp what is meant. For example, when Jesus said, “I am the bread of life” (John 6:48), he obviously was not saying that he was literally the “staff of life” (i.e., physical bread). Rather he was metaphorically communicating that he is the “stuff of life” (i.e., the essence of true life). Biblical metaphors are never to be regarded as vacuous occasions for subjective flights of fantasy. On the contrary, biblical metaphors are always objectively meaningful, authoritative, and true. Hyperbole is another figure of speech particularly prevalent in prophetic passages. In essence hyperbole employs exaggeration for effect or emphasis. If you step onto a scale and exclaim, “O my goodness, I weigh a ton” you are obviously not intending to say that you literally weigh two thousand pounds.

Similarly, when an NBA commentator looks up at the clock, sees a minute left and says, “There’s a world of time left in this game” he is using hyperbole to communicate that in the NBA a lot can happen in sixty seconds. While hyperbole is commonly used in our culture, it is ubiquitous in the Bible. This is particularly true of prophetic passages. The prophet Isaiah used hyperbolic language when he predicted judgment on Babylon: “See, the day of the Lord is coming-a cruel day, with wrath and fierce anger-to make the land desolate and destroy the sinners within it. The stars of heaven and their constellations will not show their light. The rising sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light” (Isaiah 13:9-10, emphasis added). To those unfamiliar with biblical language these words may well be taken to mean that the end of the world was at hand. In reality, Isaiah was prophesying that the Medes were about to put an end to the glories of the Babylonian empire.

In evidence one need only read the preceding verses which are packed with prophetic hyperbole: “Wail for the day of the Lord is near; it will come like destruction from the Almighty. Because of this, all hands will go limp, every man’s heart will melt. Terror will seize them, pain and anguish will grip them; they will writhe like a woman in labor. They will look aghast at each other, their faces aflame” (vv. 6-8, emphasis added). Even the most pedantic literalist intuitively recognizes that Isaiah is not literally intending to infer that all hands will literally go limp and that every heart will literally melt. Nor is he literalistically predicting that every Babylonian face will be on fire any more than John is using wooden literalism to prophesy that the two witnesses in Revelation will literally emit flames of fire from their mouths (Revelation 11:5).

Finally, it is crucial to correctly interpret fantasy imagery in apocalyptic passages-such as an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns (Revelation 12:3); locusts with human faces, women’s hair, and lions’ teeth (9:7); and a beast that resembled a leopard, but with feet like a bear and a mouth like a lion (13:2). What is distinct about such fantasy images is that they do not correspond to anything in the real world. But while fantasy images are unreal, they provide a realistic means by which to ponder reality. Fantasy imagery, of course, is fraught with danger. That danger, however, lies not in its use but in its abuse. In Revelation 12 the apostle John describes “an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on his heads. His tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth” (vv. 3-4). Many Christians abuse such imagery by interpreting it in a woodenly literalistic fashion, thus missing the point of the passage. Not only would a single star-let alone a third of the stars-obliterate earth, but dragons are the stuff of mythology not theology. Thus, the danger does not lie in the use of fantasy imagery but in uncritically impregnating these images with unbiblical notions. While the Scriptures must indeed be read as literature, you and I must ever be mindful that the Bible is also far more than literature. Instead, the Scriptures are uniquely inspired by the Spirit. As Peter put it, “no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Spirit” (2 Peter 1:20-21). We must therefore fervently pray that the Spirit, who inspired the Scriptures, illumines our minds to what is in the text.

For further study, see Hank Hanegraaff, The Apocalypse Code (Nashville: W Publishing Group, 2007).

“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.”
2 Timothy 2:15