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Dr Paul Marston: "To be a real Christian do I have to take the whole Bible literally?" Printer friendly version

No one takes the whole Bible literally

Actually, although the media often speak of “biblical literalists”, no one at all takes the whole of the Bible literally. Looking just at Jesus’ sayings: there are few one-eyed literalists (Matthew 5:29) few who suggest we should really “hate” all our relatives (Luke 14:26), and even fewer who think that Jesus was literally a vine even though he plainly said he was (John 15:1). Looking at the creation passages, one of the very first statements is And God said “let there be light” – but few suppose that this means God spoke using literal sound waves before he even made an atmosphere. People who set out with bold claims to be biblical “literalists” really aren’t. Thus eg in a postscript below we look at Henry Morris, a key figure in establishing the supposed “literalist” movement, and find that, in practice, in ten key points he interpreted the Bible’s creation passages figuratively. This is inevitable. No one can be a total literalist.

Real ChristiansJesus

So just how “literalist” should real Christians be? Is it good to take as much literally as possible?

Well, a real Christ-ian must surely be a follower of Jesus, accepting that he was “the Christ” or anointed one of God. Jesus did not call people simply to believe certain things about God, but to follow him in an intimate faith-based relationship with God the father. A person can believe in marriage without having a wife or husband, and likewise someone can believe all the right things about God without have a relationship with him. A Christian is someone who has personally accepted Christ as Saviour and Lord, and has a relationship with him. But a Christian also follows what Jesus taught, and should begin by asking how Jesus approached language and the Bible.

Jesus and Language

So how did Jesus use language? Strikingly, his friends as well as critics so often “took him literally” when he was speaking in symbol and metaphor. The things of which Jesus spoke were, of course real, but they were neither literal nor physical. He spoke of destroying and rebuilding the Temple (John 2:19) – but was not speaking about literal building. He spoke of eating his body (John 6:52; Matthew 26:26) and of having unknown food and drink (John 4:32) – but was not describing literal diet. NicodemusHe spoke about giving living water but was not teaching the science of hydrostatics (John 4:13-14). He spoke about being born again (John 3:3) but was not teaching pediatrics, even though the seeking person (Nicodemas) to whom he spoke thought he might be!

We must note three key points about this:

(i) What Jesus said was absolute TRUTH, it is not myth or legend - he really did offer the woman “living water”. It is a fundamental mistake of modern “literalists” – misled by the materialism of our times – to mistake the literal and physical to be the most real things, rather than things that are passing away (1 Corinthians 7:31)

(ii) We should never speak of “mere symbolism” – to do so is to insult the Christ who chose to use symbolic language for his most profound spiritual teaching

(iii) If the mark of Jesus’ teaching was this constant use of symbolic language to communicate spiritual truth, then Christians have a paramount need for sensitivity to the symbols used in spiritual teaching.

When Jesus himself came to interpret the words his Father had set in the biblical creation stories, he applied the same principles.

Literalism and Biblical Authority

It should also be noted that the issue of “literalism” is quite distinct from that of the authority and inspiration of the Bible. Jesus plainly believed that the Old Testament was both inspired and authoritative [1]– he did not believe that it merely had some nice stories and some inspirational bits (like Aesop’s fables or The Lord of the Rings). But to believe that something is inspired and accurate need not imply one takes it literally. Thus eg we may believe that John was absolutely accurate and inspired in recording that Jesus said “I am the vine” – but this does not mean that we take it literally. Jesus definitely believed the whole Old Testament (his Bible) was inspired, but did he take it literally?

Jesus’ Approach to the Old Testament Creation Passages

Genesis 1 pictures God as resting on the seventh day, though very Jew knew that God actually never wearies or needs rest (Isaiah 40:28). But did Jesus think it meant God rested for a day and then, perhaps, did something else? No. Jesus said God still is still working “even until now” though this was effectively in God’s “Sabbath”, so it is therefore not a literal day (John 5:17). So if Jesus did not take the seventh “day” of Genesis ch 1 as literal, why should the other “days” be literal? Notably the greatest Christian teachers in early church history, like Augustine and Origen, followed Jesus in a non-literal understanding of the “seventh day”, and explicitly extended it to the other “days” too. Jesus, also, plainly said “God is spirit” (John 4:24), and was well aware as a Jew that it was because they had seen no form for God (Deut 4:17) that no graven image of a human could be made to represent God. No Jew would have taken literally the picture of God walking noisily in the garden unable to locate Adam and Eve (Gen 3:8-9)

Again, Genesis 3:15 prophesies to the “serpent” in Eden, a continuing enmity between the serpent’s brood and the offsping of the woman, that will culminate in the serpent being crushed by the woman’s descendant. Jesus clearly alludes to Satan as the serpent – the father of lies and liar at the beginning (John 8:44) – and refers to his human opponents as the “brood of vipers” (Matt 12:34; 26:33).  legged snalke It is not about literal snakes. Jesus “crushed Satan’s head” on the cross, but there were no pulverized snakes brains involved. The Genesis story of the serpent is not about biology, but about real spiritual conflict.

In Genesis 1-3, the creation account in ch 1 gives events in a completely different order from the second account in chs 2-3 (although the tenses in the original language are the same). Critics of Christianity, taking these to be bungled human attempts at science, have suggested this is contradiction. To Jesus (and his followers), in contrast, both accounts are the absolutely inspired word of God. They are, however, no more intended to teach us cosmology, genetics, and the order of events, than being “born again” in John ch 3 teaches us about pediatrics or “living water” in John 4 about hydrostatics; they are about God’s intentions for us and his created universe. Questioned about divorce, Jesus refers to the first Genesis account to say that God intended marriage to be male-female (Matt 19:4 quoting Gen 1:27), and the second account to say that God intended it to be a permanent one-man one-woman bond (Matt 19:5 quoting Gen 2:24). Jesus did not use them to teach us about science, but about the intentions of God. First century Jews (like eg Philo) never took the account of the taking of the “side” of man to make woman to be about biology (he noted that men are not lopsided) – but about God’s intentions for partnership in marriage.

In any language, the context tells us whether a word is meant figuratively or literally. The word body, for example, is used 47 times in the gospels, nearly always literally. The fact that they literally “found not the body” (Luke 24:23) of Jesus in the tomb is central to our Christian faith. Yet when Jesus said “take, eat, this is my body…” (Luke 22:19 ) supposed modern Protestant “literalists” do not take him literally, any more than when Paul later described the church as the “body of Christ”. The context decides when a word is literal.

Historically, until some more recent literalistic fads amongst some Christians, leading Christian teachers took many features of Genesis 1-3 as symbolic. Actually, Jesus says to Nicodemas that a failure to understand when someone is speaking in metaphor means an inability to understand even earthly spiritual things – let alone heavenly ones! (John 3:10). This is almost self-evident, because spiritual mysteries can be expressed to us only in symbolic language; so if we don’t grasp this we don’t understand them. The Biblical book of “Revelation”, for example, teaches spiritual truth in pictures of a lamb vs the beast, the harlot vs the bride, Babylon vs Jerusalem, a river and tree of life etc – and failure to understand these are not “literal” means failure to understand the spiritual truths. The “tree of Life” in Revelation 22:2, 14 &19, like the one in Genesis 2:9, is not a literal tree, but a symbol. In the garden of Eden ‘the man” (= “ādām”) had a choice between the experiential knowledge of good and evil, and the life that is in Christ. God could have put a fence around a literal tree to save all the trouble, but the “forbidden tree” is a symbol that represents the freewill choice and moral responsibility that God made central to a humanity made in his own image. To omit such choice would have been to make a different being entirely. In Genesis 2-3, in Revelation 22, and in the teaching of Christ, spiritual truth is conveyed in symbolic terms. To call these “mere symbols” would be an insult to Christ, because the spiritual realities described are more real than the merely physical world around us which will pass away.

Literal and Symbolic?

So could we, as some have suggested, take the terms in Genesis to be both literal and metaphorical? There is, for example, a Christian website that asks about the meaning of the “tree of life” (concluding, rightly, it is the life in Christ), but then affirms that there was also a literal tree. So were there, then, two of everything: a literal and spiritual tree, a literal snake and spiritual serpent Satan etc? Well, there are obvious problems with this. It would be like saying that Jesus gave the woman both physical and spiritual living water, that Nicodemas had to be both spiritually and literally physically reborn, and that Jesus would rebuild both the Temple of his body and the literal physical Temple in Jerusalem! But all this would be absurd. Genesis 3 does not speak of two snakes – a literal and a spiritual one – it speaks of only one. It is this one serpent that is intelligent, has relational language, and is morally responsible – divine image features which we suppose limited to angels and humans. It is to this one serpent that God addresses his prophecy, and saw it fulfilled through the life and death of Christ. To try to make it to be all about physical snake biology as well as about spiritual truth is like trying to make John 3-4 about gynecology and hydrostatics as well as the truths of spiritual rebirth and living water.



Being a real Christian, then, means being in relationship with and following Jesus. This involves believing certain parts of the Bible to be literal. Jesus was literally born of Mary, literally grew up, literally healed real people, was literally nailed to a literal cross, and rose again from a literal tomb. But other parts of the Bible are clearly intended to be symbolic and metaphorical language. Following the historical Jesus means recognizing that eg the “day” and “serpent” in the creation accounts were never intended “literally” and to take them to be so would be to depart from his teaching. Leading Christian teachers throughout history (including Origen, Augustine, the medieval scholars, etc) have recognized the authority and inspiration of the Bible, but in general have taken a lot of elements in the creation passages to be symbolic.


A Postscript Note: Henry Morris on Interpreting the Creation Accounts

On the question of whether anyone really can take the biblical creation accounts wholly literally is interesting to look at Henry Morris. It was Henry Morris whose joint book The Genesis Flood in 1961, first helped spread to the general evangelical public the supposed “literalism” or “plain reading” of young-earth creationism ie the view that the earth was just a few thousand years old and made in 144 literal hours. Morris claimed:

the Scriptures, in fact, do not need to be “interpreted” at all, for God is well able to say exactly what he means. [2]

However, in his book The Genesis Record (1976) we find that he is in fact “interpreting” the creation passages for us, and that actually he believes that ten important points are not literal or the “plain meaning” but figurative. These are:

(1) Waters above the skies (1:7)

Morris takes this as a water vapour canopy which is steam not water.

(2) Dominion (1:28)

These are, Morris says, “military terms - first conquer, and then rule. In context, however, there is no actual conflict suggested.”

(3) The ‘Day’ (2:4)

Morris allows the word ‘day’ in Gen 2:4 to mean ‘the whole period of creation’ i.e. six days, even though elsewhere he says that the word ‘never’ means a ‘definite period of time with a specific beginning and ending’. [3]

(4) The Rib (2:21)

Morris emphasises that the ‘rib’ is really a ‘side’, but emphasises its immediate and ultimate spiritual interpretations rather than suppose Adam thereafter lopsided.

(5) “In the day you eat… dying you shall die” (2:17)

Morris has insisted, of course, that the word “day” is 24 hours throughout the passage. He also takes the prophesied “death” as physical. Logically, then, Adam should have physically died within 24 hours of his sin. Morris does not believe this, saying Adam: “died both spiritually and (in principle) physically the very day he ...disobeyed.” To say “in principle” is not a literal or plain understanding – the text says nothing about “in principle”.

(6) The Snake (3:14)

The curse of the snake Morris takes as “more than a reference to the physical enmity between men and snakes’. Why does he do this when nothing more is specifically mentioned?

(7) Dust (3:14)

On the snake’s gastronomic preferences Morris remarks: “It ‘would not “eat dust” in a literal sense, of course ... the expression is mainly a graphic figure of speech.”

(8) Seed (3:15)

In reference to the seed of the serpent’ and ‘seed of the woman’ Morris says: “The term “seed” of course has a biological connotation, but this is not strictly possible here. Neither Satan, who is a spirit, nor the woman would be able to produce actual seed.” Why not? Physical snakes have biological offspring and so do women. Morris says the serpent’s seed is those who ‘knowingly and willingly set themselves at enmity’ with the people of God. This is a right interpretation but is not “plain” or literal at all.

(9) The Blood (4:10)

Morris appears not to interpret literally Gen 4.10: ‘the voice of his brother’s blood cries unto me from the ground.’ Elsewhere he adds: ‘The blood of animals could only figuratively cover sins, of course.’

(10) Places (2:10 etc)

Morris does not take the plain sense of the biblical use of the place names before the flood, but thinks them ‘carried over’ and reapplied to entirely different post flood locations.

So if even Henry Morris cannot follow through the supposed “literalism” approach consistently, how could anyone else?


[1] See also John Wenham "Christ and the Bible" (1993)

[2] Morris A :Biblical Basis for Modern Science: (1984) p. 47.

[3] Morris H M (2nd Edn.) "The Beginning of the World" (1977) p. 24;
Morris H M "A Biblical Basis for Modern Science" (1984)p. 127.
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