Examining the literal approach to reading the Bible [False ideas Christians believe about…the Bible. Part 4]

7 Mar

Did you ever hear the phrase that we need to read the Bible literally? In part 3 of this series we saw that a literal reading of some parts of the Bible leads to very bizarre results. Maybe the concept of reading the Bible literally should mean something else?

Take Jesus.  Jesus was a master of creating stories to teach principles.  We call them parables.  Some literalists will say that Jesus was telling true stories.  But that viewpoint is absolutely unnecessary, and in some cases odd, when you look at the details of the stories Jesus told.  Some of the details are purposefully exaggerated or fictional or even impossible.

For example, Jesus tells the story of the rich man and Lazarus, and how the rich man went to hell and Lazarus when to heaven with Abraham, and get this, they could see each other.  Can you see from heaven into hell?  The literalists say, “Yes, because that is the precise detail that Jesus mentioned.”  But nowhere else in biblical descriptions of heaven and hell is there anything like this.  So it is much more likely that Jesus was teaching an important principle through a story.

And that is okay.  We tell stories like this all time.  Fairy tales and fables.  No one believes Star Wars is real, but that doesn’t matter.  Even though every Star Wars film begins with “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away,” those movies are not about real historical events. What’s more, the author doesn’t want us to believe it is real.  Instead, the author creates a fictional story through which we can still learn about good and evil.  This happens frequently in literature and film, and we have no problem with that.

The Bible, too, has many such fictional stories. 

“But, Joel,” you might say, “that is a slippery slope. What about the story of creation in Genesis 1-3, or the stories of Job and Jonah.  Are you saying these parables?  Don’t they have to be history?”  Some say that unless we believe in the historical viability of every single story in the Bible, then we are going down a slippery slope that will lead to throwing the whole Bible in the trash.  That’s why some people feel way more comfortable saying that it is best to just read the whole Bible literally.  It can be hard work doing the research and investigation to determine if a particular part of the Bible is fiction or non-fiction.  I submit to you, however, that doing the work is worth it.  Not just a little bit worth it either. It is preeminently important because if God, inspiring human authors, meant for a particular part or book of Scripture to be fiction, then we should want to know that.  We do not need to be afraid of that.

Take Jonah.  I know that in our church there are actually disagreements about the genre of Jonah.  Some think Jonah is history.  Some think it is parable.  There is good biblical evidence for each. 

Here’s what I tell people in the end:  This is not a question of God’s power.   Can God make a big fish swallow a guy, keep that guy alive for 3 days inside the fish, and then spit him out?  If we believe in the resurrection of Jesus, then we have to believe in the power of God to do everything described in Jonah.  No question there.  God could easily have done it.

But did God do it?  This gets to the question of whether the story of Jonah is history or parable? While there is evidence for both sides of the argument, we have to admit that we may never definitely know.

Either way, parable or history, we can still learn the same things about God and his heart!  That takes us back to the question:  What is the author trying to say?  What does God want us to know through the story of Jonah? God can communicate what he wants using either fiction or non-fiction. So let us do the work of looking at the evidence, weighing the options, but ultimately seeking for God’s heart in the process. That is an important method for reading the Bible. Next in part 5 of this series, we’ll look at more important methods for reading the Bible.

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