Should the Bible be interpreted literally?Skeptics of the Bible often ask Christians: "You don't take the Bible literally do you…??!" The question reveals an attitude of disbelief, an incredulity that anyone could actually believe that the Bible should be read as nonfiction literature.
If the questioner knows anything about the Bible, sometimes he'll try to bolster his case by asking follow-up questions like, "In John, Jesus says, 'I am the door' – is Jesus really a door?" or "In Psalms, the writer asks to take shelter under God's wings – is God a bird, then?" This line of argumentation is known in logic as reductio ad absurdum, in which a proposition (or set of propositions) is refuted by showing that it leads to a logically absurd consequence.
However, the fact of the matter is the literal-historical-grammatical method of biblical interpretation is the most logical. Its aim is to discover the meaning of the passage as the original author would have intended and what the original hearers would have understood. This interpretive approach embraces the fact that the Bible includes various genres (narrative, poetry, didactic teaching, etc.) and literary techniques (metaphors, hyperbole, etc.), but states that such things do not take away from the literalness of the Bible at all. In fact, these techniques are standard fare in nonfiction literature and used in everyday language to communicate truth.
For example, the Bible uses what is called phenomenological language to describe everyday things in common speech. A case in point is found in the book of Joshua: "But at the time of the going down of the sun, Joshua commanded, and they took them down from the trees and threw them into the cave where they had hidden themselves, and they set large stones against the mouth of the cave, which remain to this very day" (Joshua 10:27). When the Bible mentions "sunset," it doesn't mean that the sun actually went down from a scientific perspective. Even today, meteorologists don't say that "tomorrow's earth rotation will make the sun disappear at 9 P.M.," but speak of the "sunset."
The Bible also uses hyperbole–an obvious and intentional exaggeration–to communicate literal truth. An instance of hyperbole is found in the book of John: "So the Pharisees said to one another, 'You see that you are gaining nothing. Look, the world has gone after him.'" (John 12:19). The literal truth behind this statement is that large numbers were following Jesus, a fact not hard to understand from reading the text.
The Bible is also full of metaphors, figures of speech in which a term or phrase is applied to something to which it is not woodenly applicable in order to suggest a resemblance. For instance, Moses calls God "The Rock!" in Deuteronomy 32:3. Jesus calling Himself the door in John 10:9 is another illustration. His point was not that He was flat, rectangular, or swung on hinges, but that He was the way of entrance into the kingdom of God.
Additionally, Scripture uses anthropomorphisms, which represent God in another form, or with other living attributes and affections: "Let me dwell in your tent forever! Let me take refuge under the shelter of your wings! Selah" (Psalm 61:4).
The Bible also makes use of personification, which assigns a personal attribute to inanimate objects or abstract notions: "For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands" (Isaiah 55:12).
Perhaps the most common literary technique causing some to reject its literalness involves symbolism. A couple examples of symbolism are found in this passage in Revelation: "In his [Jesus'] right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength" (Revelation 1:16). Is Jesus really holding stars in His hand, and is there really a sword in His mouth?
Most times, the Bible explains its own symbolism. In the above case, the explanation is given of the seven stars a few verses later: "The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches" (Revelation 1:20). The thing to remember is that the symbol points to a literal object behind the figurative language.
When the above truths are understood, it becomes much easier to embrace the fact that the literal-historical-grammatical method of biblical interpretation is the best and most obvious way to read and understand the Bible. The fact that figures of speech and other literary devices are used in Scripture in no way takes away from its nonfiction message.
How does the Bible use symbolism?
Are Bible miracles literal events?
How is the Bible inspired? What does it mean for the Bible to be inspired?
Why should we study the Bible?
Is the Bible still relevant today?
Truth about the Bible