The Bible Is Not To Be Taken Literally

The Bible Is Not To Be Taken Literally

Taking scripture at face value is the same as believing that challenging the scripture for some truth will only weaken it. But if the scripture is so weak that it can’t withstand a few legitimate questions, then can it truly be of God?

For many US Christians, this is a difficult concept to wrap one’s head around. A lot of us come into the church, where we’re subsequently taught to believe that we must hold fast to a highly literalistic interpretation of the Bible that contradicts so many commonly known facts it’s hard to wrap one’s head around it all. There was a global flood that lasted 40 days and 40 nights. The Earth was created in six days. Evolution is a lie. The list goes on.

I know; I used to be one of those people.

For those unfamiliar with the mentality, let me show you how it works.

2 Timothy 3:16, NIV says that All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.

We also have 2 Peter 1:20, NIV, which tells us that Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things.

These are the verses I most often hear being used to justify the literalistic point of view. All scripture comes from God, not from the fallible man who penned the thing, essentially it was God himself who wrote through the prophet. Since it came from God, it must be infallible. Therefore, all scripture is the unerring, infallible, perfect word of God. Therefore, it must be true. It follows from there that in order to be saved, you must believe in your heart that Jesus died on the cross and was resurrected. And what is the measure of faith if not the belief in things not understood?

I can attest that faith is a very powerful thing. A lot of times in my own life I’ve found myself believing in something that seemed impossible, that appeared to run contrary to everything else the world was telling me, only to be proven right in the end. So to exercise one’s faith in something that seems absurd when the world tries to show you otherwise is quite a thing. This is why when a scientist tells one of these hard-core Christians that the world took longer to make than six days, they are talking to a brick wall. Indeed, when a Christian is successfully unswayed by all those facts and logic, they most often find themselves more resolved than ever.

But therein lies the trap.

The problem is that the Bible doesn’t ask for blind faith. There’s a very interesting read, On Bullshit that really summarizes the problems inherent in this kind of blind faith. Asking followers to defend the indefensible, to uphold an obvious lie, is proof of loyalty, and this is a tactic often employed by President Trump. It’s actually no different than asking Christ-followers to believe in things like a six-day creation. It’s proof of faith.

But God doesn’t need our loyalty.

To begin with, the Bible never asks to be taken literally. Go back and read those verses again and see if you can spot the idea that all scripture is to be taken as literal truth. You can’t, because it’s not there. Even if the Bible did say it was meant to be a literal truth, that in itself would be a falsehood — it would be akin to me saying “I wouldn’t lie to you, therefore you can trust me. You know you can trust me because I told you I wouldn’t lie to you. And you know I wouldn’t lie to you because I told you I wouldn’t, and you can trust me.”

But there’s also a precedent to the contrary: Jesus himself taught in parables. He taught in metaphor, in fact most of his sermons were metaphor. Even his staunchest enemies accepted he was extremely well-versed in the Jewish laws. A scholar among scholars. He understood the power of metaphor not only in teaching a concept, but in making a concept extensible — that is, applying it to a variety of circumstances where the details may vary, but the core principle is the same.

This is the first fallacy in a literalistic interpretation on the Bible. If we assume that all stories are simply true as written, then we miss the point entirely. Christians like to blame Charles Darwin for being the first to poke holes in the Bible-centered worldview, but even Maimonides wrote that there were parts of Genesis, specifically in the creation account, that didn’t make any sense literally, but only made sense from a metaphorical point of view. This was a well-respected Jewish scholar who published this belief without controversy, seven-hundred years before Darwin came along. He understood that taking Genesis literally omits the metaphorical value in those stories.

But beyond this, it’s lazy. If we hold fast to this belief that all of knowledge is contained within the pages of the Bible, then there’s no incentive to look. After all, what’s the point of seeking if we already have all the answers? But even the bible tells us that we are to seek him, for, it is the act of seeking him that brings righteousness. Here’s 85 verses from the bible that tell us we are to seek him, such as Acts 17:27 — that they would seek God…, 1 Chronicles 16:11 — Seek the LORD and His strength; Seek His face continually, Psalm 14:2 — who seek after God, Hebrews 11:16 — he is a rewarder of those who seek him, Isaiah 55:6 — Seek the Lord…, Proverbs 8:17 — And those who diligently seek me will find me. If you look at other world religions, such as Islam or Buddism, or even Judaism, those scriptures are fully intact. We have the Qur’an as it was issued out my Muhammed. We have the intact teachings of Budda, more or less, and pretty much every teaching from every prophet of the Old Testament we have. But if you look at the teachings of Christ, it’s gone. At best, we have the gospels, all of which were written down decades after his ministry ended and none of it was composed by him. But his original teaching, in its entirety, is forever lost to this world. That unto itself is a message: that we are meant to seek him out. One cannot know God; he is unknowable. To believe we know him is the beginning of fallacy; Solomon understood this by asking for wisdom – if he believed himself wise, he wouldn’t have asked for wisdom.

In this way, taking the biblical stories literally, which is to take them at face value, shirks our individual responsibility to seek out knowledge and understanding by assuming the face value of the scripture is all there is to understand.

It’s also dangerous. If we go back to Genesis, everyone knows the story of Adam and Eve, eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. This is often billed as a bold defiance against the will of God, and taken literally, means we’re punished for this sin. But look at this same story metaphorically, and there’s a message here: that we know the difference between good and evil, independent of anything else God puts into a scripture — a concept that not only places the responsibility for acting right squarely upon us without excuses, but also leaves no room for adhering to something we know to be inherently wrong ‘as an exercise of faith.’ For example, under Mosaic Law, when a girl is raped, she has to marry the guy who rapes her… if you interpret the verse literally. Now, it doesn’t take a biblical scholar to tell you that this is not only wrong, but a disgusting perversion of justice, and it’s one heck of a stretch to think this is some kind of infallible law of a benevolent, loving God. The inheriting of that ‘original sin’ is enough to teach us that this is wrong. In other words, we’re born knowing this. Yet even still, religious nuts have in fact used this exact verse literally over the centuries. Strip away the metaphorical value of Genesis and take all of Mosaic law literally, and you have modern girls, victims of rape, actually marrying their rapists because they’ve been brainwashed into believing this verse is the complete, literal, and infallible word of God.

This, and many other verses are often used to justify the most heinous things, all in the name of this literalistic interpretation of the Bible.

But God doesn’t want blind obedience. For me, it goes back to Judges 6:13, a truly beautiful piece of scripture. Gideon is called to rescue the Israelites from the Midianites by a pair of angels, but he replies by saying “if God is with us, where the f..k is he?” When I first brought this to my wife, I told her what I saw: that God didn’t smite Gideon for questioning the almighty, but rather patiently entertained his doubtfulness. My wife saw something different: that God was telling Gideon to do something, and Gideon needed proof he could count on God’s support. Either way, it’s a fair thing. What God does NOT say, is “if you truly believed, you wouldn’t question me, are you an unbeliever?” And neither does Jesus. If you read through the stories of his ministry, he taught alongside the performing of miracles; he didn’t just teach and ask people to take his word for it, he offered proof.

And, it’s a terrible detriment to faith. Think on this: how many people might come unto God, only to be told they’re supposed to believe in a six-day creation, else their faith doesn’t count? No. To live under God is to seek the truth, to cultivate a relationship with the truth, and to try and force yourself to believe in something that deep down, you know you don’t believe in, is a lie. It’s not fair to expect someone to espouse a belief in something when everything else contradicts that belief. Rather, asking God for proof and expecting it is a righteous act, not a blasphemous one. The act of seeking wisdom and a deeper understanding of what’s written, beyond the simple words, this is faith.

Taking scripture at face value is the same as believing that challenging the scripture for some truth will only weaken it. But if the scripture is so weak that it can’t withstand a few legitimate questions, then can it truly be of God?

Taking the Bible literally shows a profound lack of faith.

Michael Patrick Lewis is a teacher, and bestselling author of Edge Of God, and for a limited time, Preferred Rewards is free to download on

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  1. says

    Admittedly, God is not really a chicken (Psalm 91:4). Yet, if we don’t look for the most literal interpretation that we can possibly find, the Bible becomes little more than a collection of folklore and fairy tales.

  2. Michael Patrick Lewis says

    Barry – I disagree. For one, how can you say “the most literal interpretation?” What, exactly, do you mean by that, if not to support the idea that at least some parts are to be taken as parable? For me, the Bible is so much more than a collection fo fairy tales and folklore, but it didn’t become so until after I stepped away from this literal interpretation.

    Nikki – *know you’re

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