Have you ever been asked if the Bible is literally true? I remember the first time I was asked this question. It was in middle school. Reflecting back on that experience, it reminds me of a scene from the Return of the Jedi Starwars movie. There is this place towards the end when Admiral Ackbar says, “It’s a trap.” The way he said it is quite memorable. There have been different memes made about it.
That’s how I felt when I was asked this question, “Is the Bible literally true or not?” I quickly realized after I said yes that that maybe wasn’t the best answer, because, that’s the same type of question as, “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?” Not to make light of that circumstance, but if you say yes, what are you saying? “Yes, I’ve stopped beating my wife.” That means you used to beat your wife. If you say no, you’re saying, “No, I haven’t stopped beating my wife.”
This is one of those questions where a yes or no answer is not appropriate, because the Bible contains different types of statements. It says things like this, in Matthew 5:29, “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away.” Is that literally true? If we say yes, then pretty much every single Christian out there is living in disobedience, because we all have our right eyes. In the same passage, Jesus says, “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.” We’ve all got our hands.
That passage would lean towards us saying, “Well, the Bible is not literally true.” Then we have John 15:5, which says, “I am the vine, and you are the branches.” I really like Jesus, and I guess, I like a woody-earthy-viney Jesus. No, that doesn’t make sense, right? Is that verse literally true? Is Jesus literally a vine, the same type of thing that’s growing in a garden? No. What’s he describing? He is a source of life. He is something that we become grafted into, like you could do with different branches from other vines. You could graft them into a main vine.
What about John 10:9? Is that literally true when Jesus says, “He is a door?” Which side are His hinges on? These statements are funny and comical, and all of that, but what they illustrate is you can’t say all of the Bible is literally true in the same way. When someone says, “Is the Bible literally true,” they’re probably getting to these types of statements, “So Jesus is a door really? Why do you have your right eye?” We can’t say a wholehearted, “Yes, the Bible is all literally true,” because there is figurative language in the Bible, metaphor, and simile, and hyperbole, and all of these things.
We’ve looked at three of those types of passages. At the same time, we can’t say, “No, the bible is not literally true.” Neither option is available to us, because there are passages like Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” There’s not a figurative way for God to claim that He created everything. Maybe we disagree on the timing and things like that, but either God created everything or He didn’t. That’s much less equivocal than Him saying, “I’m a vine, or I’m a door.”
In the say way, in Matthew 28:6, when we have the claim made in scripture, where they say, “Jesus is not here. He has risen just as He said.” The wholehearted affirmation of Christianity is that that statement is not figurative. It is literally true that Jesus rose bodily from the grave. We have looked at in just a handful of statements, statements that are literal, and statements that are not literal.
How should we respond when someone asks if we take the bible literally? I can’t say yes. I can’t say no. What I am going to say is: like any document and collection of documents, I seek to understand it in its context. That’s a mouthful, but it actually does the Bible justice. Even if the Bible were just a literature, and we didn’t think there is anything supernatural at all, it would be just totally intellectually dishonest to try and interpret it all the same way.
Go to the library. Get 66 books by over 40 authors that were written over a 1500 year period on different continents and different languages, and then ask someone to read them all exactly the same way, and not expect them to be written in different genres and not have different styles. That’s laughable. We wouldn’t do that. In fact, even our high school and middle school educational systems teach students that you interpret the Declaration of Independence a different way than you interpret the Odyssey than you interpret poetry and on and on and on.
We understand that different genres have different styles of communicating. It’s the reason why when we open the sports page, and it says that FSU killed the other team, we don’t call the police and ask how the mass murder investigation is going. What we understand is most likely (hey, we are talking about FSU…) it’s hyperbole when we say that they killed the other team. If we were reading about some criminal trial, and it said that so and so killed a bunch of people, we wouldn’t think that that was figurative. We wouldn’t think that it was just describing the triumph of one team over another team, where both teams were still alive at the end of the day.
What we understand is that genre and context dictates how we understand certain statements. It’s the same way when we come to the Bible. Even if you take God and spirituality out of it, which I don’t think is a good idea, you’re still left with saying, “In order to understand what this passage in the Bible means, I have to read it in its context. I can’t seek to shove a round pig in a square hole from a literary perspective.” You don’t read poetry like it’s a list of kitchen supplies. They’re different. They have different interpretive needs.
We should exercise the same concern when we come to the Bible. Is the Bible literally true? I’m also going to ask the person what they mean by “literally true.” This could create an interesting conversation. Who knows where they’re coming from? I do think this is a term that’s generally understood, but what I am going to try and get at is: the Bible communicates at every point things that are true about the way the world really is, but the question becomes, “What is the truth being communicated in each of these passages we’ve looked at, or at any given passage in scripture?”
“The cut out your eye if it causes you to sin”, or the “I am a vine”, or the “I am a door passage”, are these literally true? As we’ve looked at, the words as they’re written right there are not what we would consider a literal propositional statement that is actually true. Jesus is not a door. However, every single thing that scripture says communicates a literal truth, and this is important to understand. We can’t just say it exists in some other type of interpretive world, where it’s not telling us things that are true, where it’s just telling us things that are true for us, or it’s telling us how people feel.
No, everything in scripture, from the beginning to the end, everything God has inspired and breathed out to us communicates things that are literally true. “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out. Throw it away. What is the truth being communicated here?” That sin is so much more important than we think it is, that we should take it so much more seriously than we do. More than that, in this specific passage, what Jesus is getting at is what we look at and how we think, and how we believe in our intentions, and our motivations.
They’re more important than the Jews thought they were. They were very concerned with actions, and Jesus is getting at the heart and what you look at, and what your motivations are. It’s communicating a literal truth that sin is a really big deal, that rebellion against God is a huge deal, and we should take it, and treat it as seriously as it is.
We’ve already briefly talked about John 15:5, where Jesus says, “I am the vine, and you are the branches.” Well, I don’t feel like a branch, but what I understand through scripture is this communicates the literal truth that as a Christian, as someone who has repented of my sins, and trusted in Jesus for my salvation, I have been grafted in, in the same way one branch may be grafted into a vine.
What about Jesus being a door? No, He doesn’t have hinges, or perhaps when He cleared the temple, the gospel writers would have said, “He became unhinged.” (Yes, that’s a bad pun.)
My point is He’s not a door. We all know that. No one thinks He’s a door, but the literal truth being communicated in this verse is that in the same way that a door is the entry to a room, Jesus is the entry, the only entry to the kingdom of God. In John 14:6, He says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the father, but by me.” He is the door through which every man must enter, and every woman must enter in order to receive salvation.
When we looked at Matthew 28:6, and it says, “He is not here. He has risen just as He said,” what we cannot do is say it’s a metaphorical resurrection. It’s not bodily. It means that in a spiritual we can triumph over the adversity and oppression of the systems of today. We can’t say things like that, because Christianity is based on preaching the foolishness of the cross that there was a literal Jesus who lived a literal sinless life, and was literally crucified and was literally resurrected bodily from the literal dead.
What this hopefully conveys is that we can’t just say yes or no to the question, “Do you take the bible literally?” What we need to do is understand it in its context. This is a difficult thing to do. Some passages are very clear. Some are a little more difficult to deal with, but the first step is realizing there is a concern, there’s a question of how we interpret individual passages. We can’t interpret them all woodenly or literally if they weren’t meant to be interpreted that way, if that was not the intent the original author and the Holy Spirit had in mind.
At the same time, we need to understand that everything in scripture communicates a literal truth, but that doesn’t mean all the words are literally true. There is a truth all throughout scripture. There is truth in every verse, and it is literal, objective truth. It’s not different for different people. The words have a meaning. They convey something that is accurate and true about the way the world really is. And that should be our goal when we go to scripture: to understand what the God of the universe has communicated to us through his infallible and true word.