A recent report from Pew tells us that only 39 percent of Christians take the Bible literally. This is very bad news for believers’ fidelity to Scripture, but not for the reason you might think. It’s also a poor reflection on the good folks at Pew.
Why? It’s quite simple: Literally no one takes the Bible literally. NO ONE. But otherwise intelligent pollsters and journalists continue to ask the question as a gauge for who really takes the Bible seriously—or too seriously. And Christians continue to play along.
Here, here and here are just a few examples of this. It all shows an embarrassing ignorance of how billions of Christians and Jews approach this important and world-changing book hermeneutically. This is unacceptable.
I’ll Prove It in Ten Seconds
All one need do is open a Bible to any random page. I’ve just slipped my thumb into my closed Bible as I write this and aimlessly opened to Ecclesiastes 10:2, where we read: “The heart of the wise inclines to the right, but the heart of the fool to the left.”
If I say I take Scripture literally, then I must believe my heart—this four-chambered, muscular organ beating in my chest—physically inclines to the left part of my chest cavity because I’m a fool. If I were ever to become wise, it will physically shift toward the right side. My cardiologist would be amazed.
However, if I take these words as true, authoritative, and reliable, rather than literally, they mean my internal self—who I really am—is inclined in a direction exactly opposite of one who is wise. Scripture’s lesson for me? Being wise or a fool has dramatic and polar opposite consequences and affects us internally and externally, right down to our deepest depths.
Let’s do it again for confirmation. I randomly flip over a few books and find myself in Psalm 62. I read here, in verse two, that God is my rock, my salvation, and my fortress. This is good news indeed.
Taken literally, it raises the question as to what kind of rock God is: igneous, sedimentary, or metamorphic? God says he’s my fortress. Is he stone, wooden, or steel? How tall are his walls? What’s his configuration? Am I being disrespectful with such questions? It seems like it, and that’s the point. If anyone actually took the Bible literally, these would be perfectly reasonable questions for any serious student.
What People Really Mean by the Question
Of course, when we answer “Do you take the Bible literally?” we are simply taking it as short-hand for “Do you take the Bible as truth?” But the faithful student should have long ago dispelled such misinformed assumptions, correcting the questioner with, “You don’t really understand much about Christianity or the Bible, do you?” The serious student of Dante or Shakespeare wouldn’t tolerate such ignorance of their beloved texts. We shouldn’t either.
In the same way, we do not take all of Christ’s words literally, even as the faithful Christian takes every one as divine and practically true. Consider John 10:7 and 9: “Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep… I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.”
“Very truly I tell you.” Do we believe that Jesus is speaking truthfully to us here? If we take Jesus seriously we must.
“I am the gate for the sheep…” Is Jesus literally a sheep’s gate? Are his hinges on the top or the side? Does he open to the left or right? Is he made of wood or iron? Does he squeak? If we do indeed take Jesus’ words literally, these are very appropriate questions about the Nazarene, are they not?
Even the unbeliever or smallest child knows Jesus is speaking metaphorically, as he often does. But he is speaking truthfully. He is the means by which we enter salvation. Faithful Jews, Christians, and intelligent students of the Bible know it communicates the story of God in multiple ways. It does so:
- Literally: Abraham actually existed. He had a real child with Hagar, his wife’s handmaiden. Jesus is God’s son, died on a Roman cross, physically rose from the grave, bodily ascended to the Father and will return, literally.
- Poetically: As in much of Psalms and Song of Solomon, even in Christ’s teaching.
- Metaphorically: Many of Jesus’ parables and illustrations.
- Rhetorically: Acts 1:18-19. Did every last bit of Judas’ intestines spill out as he killed himself? Did every last person in Jerusalem hear about this? Or is Luke speaking in truthful generality?
- Descriptively: Joseph’s jealous brothers threw him and his brightly colored coat into a deep hole and left him for dead. At Cana, Jesus said to the servants, “Fill these jars with water so they filled them to the brim.”
God’s word is completely true, but not literal. No faith tradition, even the most fundamentalist, has ever read the Scriptures this way. This is obvious to anyone who takes ten seconds to think about it. Why then, do we allow it to be described in such a sloppy and inaccurate way? Why do intelligent believers let the question stand, much less answer it?
One’s fidelity to the text and integrity of Scripture—including the generally well-educated non-believer—requires we correct this error when it arises, putting it out of it misery once and for all.