Why We Must Not Read All of Scripture Literally

This sponsored post features a video by Rebecca McLaughlin, author of Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion (Crossway).

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The Meaning of Metaphor

The first thing I would say to someone who asks me, “How could I take the Bible literally?” is “Have you ever had your heart broken?” Now if they’re over the age of fifteen, their answer will almost certainly be *yes*. And then I would ask them to examine what they meant when they said that and to realize that they’re not reporting on a cardiac arrest or a physical heart condition. They’re communicating a profound truth through a metaphor.

The Bible is full of those metaphors. Jesus, in particular, was a master of metaphors. So Jesus is the Good Shepherd, he is the Light of the World, he is the True Vine, he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, he is the source of Living Water. If you read just Jesus’s own words in the Bible, (like in a red letter Bible) you are focusing on Jesus’s words. Just look at those words, and you will find metaphor after metaphor. You’ll find multiple occasions where Jesus uses a metaphor, people take him literally, and they completely miss his point.

Distinguish the Difference

So as we come to the Bible, just as we come to any conversation or any text, we need to distinguish between what is true and what is literal because they’re not interchangeable. I could tell you that my father is a medical doctor. I’m making a literal statement and it happens to be untrue. Or I can tell you that God is my father, and I’m making a metaphorical statement but it is one of the most profoundly true things I could say about myself.

The really exciting thing about a biblical metaphor is that unlike me, or any other human being, when we’re looking to develop a metaphor, we look around ourselves and we think, “Oh this is a little bit like that.” God starts one whole step back. He doesn’t look around and find things to compare to each other, he actually creates metaphors.

One example is that of parenthood. God didn’t look at human parents and say, “Oh, they really love those little children and those babies and those young people. My love is a bit like that, so I’m going to use that as a metaphor to express my love.” God actually created parenthood so that we would get a glimpse at his love. And if you take the biblical metaphor seriously, so much of the fabric of our lives is actually an embodied metaphor to help us get a glimpse of God’s love and God’s glory.

Don’t Excuse the Hard Parts

Some people will say, “If we start taking parts of the Bible non-literally, does that mean we can explain away all the hard passages, the challenging teachings of the Scriptures?” Absolutely not. Jesus, for example, said, “Enter through the narrow gate, for wide is the gate and broad is the path that leads to destruction and many find it.”

That is an extremely challenging teaching and it is expressed through a metaphor. At the same time, the gospel writers and the New Testament authors are at great pains to make clear that they are claiming that Jesus literally rose from the dead—flesh, bones, wounds, and all. There is no way to say this was just a metaphorical rising that happened in the disciples’ hearts. So whereas we must be very attentive to the metaphors in the Bible—wherever possible, trying to read the Bible faithfully, understanding and taking those metaphors to heart—we also can’t use this as a blanket excuse to rub out any parts of the Scriptures that we find inconvenient. Because actually, many of the inconvenient truths are expressed through metaphor and the Bible is painfully clear on a number of other inconvenient truths that we need to take straight up literally.

Rebecca McLaughlin (PhD, Cambridge University) is the co-founder of Vocable Communications, a communications consulting and training firm. She is also a regular contributor to the Gospel Coalition and previously spent nine years working with top academics at the Veritas Forum, which hosts forums on college campuses with conversations that pursue answers to life’s hardest questions.