(Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in a modified form here.)
By Andy White
I am often asked, when discussing religion, if I take the Bible literally. People intend different things by this question, and a terse answer may not always hit the mark. In fact, even the definition of “literally” may be somewhat controversial, so I find it best to use the question as an opportunity to explore the matter further.
I believe that God has spoken (indeed, is speaking) to us, through the Bible. As the word says, “all scripture is God-breathed.” This itself is a stunning declaration. The timeless, almighty, transcendent God has spoken to us little humans, in human language!
“God is not a man, that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent: hath he said, and shall he not do it? or hath he spoken, and shall he not make it good?” (Numbers 23:19)
Christians call the Bible “God’s word,” acknowledging that he speaks and that, moreover, he speaks truth. If the Bible is true, then it follows that I should take it exactly as it intends to be taken. Another way to say this is, of course I ought to take it literally, which includes accounting for style, genre and context.
For example, when I am asked this question, I like to go straight to the gospel: I believe that Jesus was literally born of a virgin, that he actually performed miracles, that he really died on a cross, and truly rose again the third day and ascended to heaven.
The early Christians took the gospel literally in this way. The Apostles’ Creed, for example, does not merely state abstract theological truths, but grounds the faith in real historical events. “I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again;” etc.
On the other hand, the Bible contains plenty of figurative language and symbolism. What do you do with a passage like this?
“And I stood upon the sand of the sea, and saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy.” (Revelation 13:1)
Revelation contains John’s prophecy of “things which much shortly come to pass,” so should John’s early listeners have expected a literal seven-headed ten-horned beast to rise out of the sea? The answer, in this case, is actually not that complicated. The Bible itself tells us to interpret John’s visions here as symbols. When the book of Revelation begins, it specifies that the prophecy was signified (“the meaning or idea expressed by a sign, as distinct from the physical form in which it is expressed,” Oxford English Dictionary).
Therefore, taking the Bible literally in this example means believing that John literally saw a vision of a seven-headed beast and that the vision actually and truly symbolized a reality that God intended to convey using the symbol. To expect a physical seven-headed beast, in this case, is actually not taking the text as it is written.
Interpreting the Bible can be challenging. Nevertheless, the core message is clear and straightforward to understand. Moreover, if we read the Bible with faith and seek to take it as it is intended, we will be well on our way toward greater understanding of this glorious text.