Missing the Point

Must the Truth Be Literal?

One of the biggest areas of controversy in modern Christianity lies in the interpretation of miracles, signs, and wonders. Was the world really created in only seven days? Did the Flood really cover all of planet Earth? Did Moses really part the Red Sea? Did Jesus really rise from the dead? Or were all these things really just metaphors intended to teach spiritual lessons?

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Many Christians display some disturbingly non-Christian attitudes when their views regarding these events are challenged. We err when we begin to judge others by our own criteria (especially if we attempt to judge their salvation), and that’s an all-too-easy trap to fall into. Let’s examine both sides of the controversy for a moment…

Some believe that the literal interpretation of every word in scripture is absolutely indispensible. The argument states that if these miraculous events didn’t really happen exactly as described in the Bible, then there would be no reason to trust anything which is in the Bible.

For example, consider the creation story from Genesis, Chapter 1. Some have argued that the validity of the entire Bible rests upon the acceptance of a literal seven day creation week. The argument goes on to imply (or state outright) that any Christian who does not believe that God completed His work and rested over the course of seven 24-hour days (calculated the same way we measure time today) is no Christian at all. This same type of literalism must also be applied to every other out-of-the-ordinary event recorded in scripture. For some, failure to adhere to the literal interpretation of such passages is tantamount to heresy, and an indication that such an individual cannot really be a Christian. Salvation itself becomes dependent upon believing every word in a literal sense.

On the other side of the coin, we have those who see the passages in question all as purely symbolic. These people view the creation story, the flood, and (in extreme cases) even Jesus’ resurrection and ascension as nothing more than poetic imagery. Those who cling to the literal interpretations are often viewed as weak-minded and unenlightened.

Regarding Genesis 1, adherents to the symbolic interpretation turn to scientific evidence which indicates that the universe has been around for billions of years. Carbon dating, the fossil record, and Darwinian evolution are all seen as valid evidence which repudiates the literalist view. They believe that only by interpreting difficult Biblical passages as symbolic can the Bible be reconciled with science, and that this reconciliation is vital if the church hopes to remain relevant in an increasingly secular society. Symbolists argue that the old-fashioned notion that creation happened in 192 hours is a backwards-thinking point of view. In their minds, such literalism keeps potential converts (particularly highly-educated intellectuals) from ever experiencing salvation and coming into the church.

So the question inevitably arises: “Who is right?”

A little background before I try to answer that: I did not grow up in a churchgoing home, and I was a self-declared agnostic until the age of 26. One of my reasons for being skeptical of Christianity throughout my youth was my love for science, though I never was able to say for sure that God was just an imaginary grandfather in the sky, either. Even after my salvation by God’s grace, I continued to struggle with miraculous events as portrayed in the Bible. It wasn’t until I was around 40 years old that I finally began to realize that the problem was not the Bible, nor was it science.

The question of “who is right?” is, in and of itself, the problem.

But how can that be? Shouldn’t we try to understand the Bible? Are you saying it’s not important to determine what is true or what is false?

That is most definitely NOT what I’m saying! I certainly believe that the truth of the Bible is of the utmost importance. But we are imperfect beings, and we have to realize that we are not going to fully grasp the Truth until we stand before His throne. God’s ways are not our ways, nor are our thoughts His thoughts (see Isaiah 55:8). Indeed, now we only dimly understand the Lord and his ways (see 1Corinthians 13:12). No matter how much we study, meditate, pray, and submit to God, we will continue to be challenged by a wall of our own misunderstanding until this life is over.

The first passage of scripture that REALLY cracked through my personal wall of confusion was Proverbs 3:5-6…

Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
And lean not on your own understanding;
In all your ways acknowledge Him,
And He shall direct your paths
.  (NKJV)

Trusting the Lord is the most important thing. You see, my personal stance on whether Genesis 1 is literal or symbolic is not important. If your take-away regarding this chapter is an understanding of the process of creation (whether literal or symbolic), then you have missed the point altogether. The important fact is stated clearly in the first sentence: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Acknowledging that the universe around us is something which God created (rather than something to be worshiped on its own or something which just randomly came into existence because of a cosmic accident) is important. Crediting God with what He has done is important. Whether I (or you) view the subsequent verses as literal or symbolic is hardly worth noting. Furthermore, my faith in God is not threatened by the possibility that I might misunderstand certain passages of scripture. That’s actually why I need Jesus to begin with: I am imperfect, and I don’t understand everything.

Do you believe that it took God seven of our 24-hour days to finish creation? That’s fine. How does it affect your life? What difference has it made in you? How does it make you more like Christ?

Do you believe that it took God billions of years to create our universe and that the seven days of creation are metaphorical? That’s fine. How does it affect your life? What difference has it made in you? How does it make you more like Christ?

If you answer either of those questions with something other than “There is a God who created all things, including myself, and He alone has the right to choose what He does with His creations, including me, and therefore it behooves me to serve Him rather than myself,” (or some similar conclusion which exalts God above all else) then you have missed the point.

Most of the passages which describe miraculous events can be viewed in the same way, insofar as the spiritual lesson which is taught is of far greater importance than the retelling of the historical event (see Romans 15:4). Indeed, the Bible would be of very limited importance to us if the point of it all was to be nothing more than a historical record (although great evidence has accumulated to support much of the historical content presented therein).

There is, however, one miraculous event which we, as Christians, must simply take at face value. 1 Corinthians 15:14-16 states plainly that Christ’s resurrection is an indispensible fact of our faith. If Jesus did not literally rise from the dead, then according to the apostle Paul, everything we believe about Him is in vain. If Jesus was not literally raised from the dead, as stated multiple times in the New Testament by multiple sources, then Christianity is a sham. It would be humanity’s greatest and longest-believed lie. Christ’s resurrection is not something a Christian can categorize as simple metaphor. It is “un-do-without-able,” not because I believe it, but because the Bible explicitly singles out this one miracle as being the central fact of Christianity.

In the end, Christianity can be boiled down to a series of short statements:
  • There is a God.
  • He created everything.
  • Humans brought sin into the world by disobeying God.
  • Payment for sin requires a death.
  • Jesus died in our place to pay for our sins.
  • Jesus defeated death by His resurrection.
  • Because we trust in Jesus, we will share in His eternal life when our mortal life is over.

Always seek to understand the truths of the Bible, but beware of judging what other Christians believe based on your own understanding. Yes, we are definitely supposed to be on the lookout for false teachings, but that is another topic altogether. The point of Christianity is to transform Jesus’ followers so that we may glorify Him as we become more like Him. The point is that Jesus changes us (meaning me, and meaning you), up to and including what we believe to be true regarding Him, God the Father, the Holy Spirit, and the Word of God - our Bible.

Please… Don’t miss the point.

1 comment:

  1. The Bible is the only authority to the truth of the Word of God, however, most scientist of the world never heard of Isaiah 55:8-9; which states; “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

    From this point, this post is from an essay I wrote in 2005; Problems with science will always remain in the mind of mankind. Why?

    Well, there are several reasons, but one is the fact that scientific reasoning and scientific observation can only hold good so long and in so far as the Law of Causality holds good. We must assume a pre-existing state of affairs which has given rise to the observed effect; we must assume that this observed effect is itself antecedent to a subsequent state of affairs. These facts also includes the beliefs of the Creationist. Neither their science nor any science of mankind can go back to the absolute beginnings of things, or forward to the absolute ends of things. It cannot reason about the way matter and energy came into existence, or how they might cease to exist; it cannot reason about time or space, as such, but only in the relations of these to phenomena that can be observed. It does not deal with things themselves, but only with the relations between things.

    Since under these conditions science can afford no information, it is not to be wondered at that the hypotheses that have been framed from time to time to “explain” the first chapter of Genesis, or to express it in scientific terms, are not wholly satisfactory. At one time the chapter was interpreted to mean that the entire universe was called into existence about 6,000 years ago, in six days of twenty-four hours each. Later it was recognized that both geology and astronomy seemed to indicate the existence of matter for untold millions of years instead of some six thousand. It was then pointed out that, so far as the narrative was concerned, there was more than likely a period of duration that is impossible for man to examine between its first verse and its fourth; and some have suggested that the six days of creation were six days of twenty-four hours each, in which, after some great cataclysm of time between each ended 6,000 years ago, in which God shaped the face of the earth and replenished it for the habitation of man, the preceding geological ages being left entirely unnoticed. However, we have proof that say man was in parts of the world more than 6,000 years ago.

    Some writers have confined the cataclysm and renewal to a small portion of the earth’s surface to “Eden,” and its neighborhood. Other commentators have laid stress on the truth revealed in Scripture that “one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day,” and have urged the argument that the six days of creation were really vast periods of time, during which the earth’s geological changes and the evolution of its varied forms of life were running their course. Others, again, have urged that the six days of creation were six literal days, but instead of being consecutive were, as stated above, separated by long ages. And yet again, as no man was present during any part of the creation period, save Adam, it has been suggested that the Divine revelation of it was given to Moses in seven successive visions or dreams, which constituted the “six days” in which the chief facts of creation were set forth, and a seventh day on which God rested.

    Conclusion, until we can answer the above questions with facts instead of assumptions, we will never be able to completely understand the global warming and cooling that brings Ice ages, any more than we can understand the ways of God (Isaiah 55:8-9). All I can say with any known certainty is that God never changes (Malachi 3:6), but man is always chasing Change.


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