Should We Read the Bible Literally?

Post Author:  Bill Pratt

My seminary professor, Norm Geisler, used to say, “Everything the Bible affirms is literally true, but not true, literally.”  What he meant by this is that we cannot read the Bible in a wooden, “literal” way when it is clearly using figurative language.

A good Catholic friend of mine once asked me how I interpreted Bible passages.  I answered, “I try to understand what the author’s intended meaning was in the historical context in which he wrote.”  She answered, “Oh, well that’s exactly how I interpret the Bible.  I thought that evangelicals interpreted everything literally.”

Clearly we have a failure to communicate!  There seem to be at least two ways that the word literal is used.  First, literal can mean interpreting language in a way that does not allow for any symbolism or figures of speech.  If someone said, “I have traveled to the four corners of the earth,” a literalist in this sense would assume that the earth must be a flat, four sided shape, and that I actually did travel to each corner of this geometric shape.

Second, literal can mean interpreting language in the exact way it was intended by the author without unduly introducing symbolism or figurative language where it was never intended.  This is what most evangelicals mean when we say that you should interpret the Bible “literally.”  We do not mean that there is no use of figurative language in the Bible.  There obviously is.  As Bill Foster says in his book, Meet the Skeptic, “Informed Christians recognize that the Bible is full of literary devices and figurative language such as metaphor, simile, metonymy, typology, allegory, personification, and so forth.”

The reason conservative Christians tend to emphasize reading the Bible literally is because some readers do tend to interpret passages in the Bible that seem to be written in a non-figurative way as figurative.  There are those that claim that the resurrection of Jesus should be taken figuratively, for example.  Traditional Christians point out that the authors of the New Testament clearly meant the resurrection accounts to be taken literally, not figuratively.  Jesus Christ actually rose from the dead in a physical body.

So, yes, we should read the Bible literally, as long as we agree on what literal means.

  • I think you made good points there about how we should be appropriately literal in our interpretation of the Bible.

    However, it is also important to question if the Bible has any inherent biases / inaccuracies that are the result of limited knowledge of the world at that point of time.

    I think its important also to note that the Bible was written in an era before the advent of modern science and empiricism. Lastly, we also need to consider the limits of the Bible as a Holy Text, by virtue of the limits of written language that is inherent.

    Putting all these together, we should serious reconsider if the Bible is as infallible as it claimed to be. Divinely inspired? Perhaps. Perfect? Maybe not.

  • James Rountree

    When we say that the Bible is written with “limited knowledge of the world”, it diminishes God. Either you believe in the Christian God that is all powerful, all knowing and all present; or you believe in your version of God. The Bible is clear about the attributes of God.

    This simple truth is that belief in God, as presented in the Bible, is a stumbling block for so many people. I fear that they will be told on judgment day by God “you did not know me” (I am not God and so I can not know anyone’s salvation but my own).

    I believe that if you study the Bible and learn how accurate and specific that it is about history, the world and God, you can not help but believe. However, if you rely on the falsehoods that are told about the Bible by people who choose to be non-believers or think they know a book they have not read; then you are indeed at risk to be greatly mistaken about God and the world.

    Look for your specific reason that the Bible is fallible and present it in comment to this blog and I can assure you that you will be shown the truth.

    This blog makes it painfully clear that non-believers tend to make arguments based on feelings rather than provable facts. If you open your heart and read with open eyes, you will be amazed to find that the verses that are held up as examples of the Bible’s failings are read out of context and with limited knowledge. It is certainly clear that man (not God) has been on a journey to better understand the world and God the creator. It is also clear that the Bible records man’s short comings (inadequacies). However, it also clearly records God’s constant and unchanging message (Old and New Testaments). I pray that each of us will take the time to learn the truths of the Bible by reading the Bible and seeking the truth about God.

    God Bless,

  • Raphael


    1) No, saying that the Bible was written with “limited knowledge of the world” does not diminish God. On the contrary, it serves to show how great God is, that He is able to communicate to men through the words of other men, imperfect though they may be. The Bible is inspired by God, thus its meanings and stances are infallible; but it is written with the agency of man, thus each of the texts of the Bible appropriate the Divine Meanings in the worldview of the Sacred Author.

    In fact, on the contrary, your version of God demeans God, because it reduces man – part of God’s creation – to the status of robots, implying that God cannot create Intelligent Life.

    2) And likewise, He will ask you that question.

    3) And Jesus also says, “Before you take out the splinter from your brother’s eyes, take out the plank from your own.”

    4) While I would have roughly the same view as you on Terence’s statement, nonetheless I have to disagree with you on the unnecessarily wide ambit you give to “infallibility”. The Bible is Infallible in the Truth it is designed to convey: Moral and Spiritual Truth. It is not a science textbook, or a historical record (in the modern sense) or anything else. The Bible is not the Manual of Everything, and was not intended to be so by God or the Sacred Writers either.

    God did not provide Moses with the Theory of Relativity, even though He could have.

    God Bless,

  • Raphael


    2) If they are of the “pre-scientific” kind, then it is immaterial. Although it would be helpful, I concede, to pick out instances of Jewish Nationalism in the Bible.

    3) The limits of written language are the limits of man, not the limits of God. But it is incredible nonetheless how much meaning one can find the Bible if you read it with an open mind and heart.

    4) And in the end, we can argue over what “perfect” is.