Taking the Bible Literally

If there is a buzz phrase in the evolution/creation controversy, the title of our article has to be a number one contender. The Does God Exist? program has contended for nearly forty years that science and faith are friends and not enemies, and that looking at the Bible literally and looking at what is known in science will always produce agreement and mutual support for these two areas of concern. This position is attacked by many creationists, because they see their denominational creeds threatened by some well-supported evidence in science. It is also attacked by atheists who view science as their private domain and want to use science to support their belief system without any fear that those who believe in God may be able to use science to support faith in God.

The bottom line in this problem is that if there is a God, and if that God is the God who gave us the Bible, then there cannot possibly be a real conflict between the Bible and science. Both science and the Bible have the same author, so they cannot conflict in their message. They may convey different messages about different things, but they have to be fundamentally in accord. If there is a factual conflict then we either have bad science, bad theology, or both. The lesson of history is that there has been a lot of both, and no scientist or theologian is exempt from having misunderstandings or needing to be better informed about the issues of life. Albert Einstein said it well "Unless science and religion work together, they are both worthless" (Science and Spirit, June 2004, page 1).

When someone says that they "take the Bible literally," I always ask them what they mean by that statement. Do they mean that they take a particular translation in English of the Bible out of context and determine what it says by values and standards of the twentieth or twenty-first century? That is NOT taking the Bible literally. To take the Bible literally means that you look at who wrote the passage, who they wrote it to, why they wrote it, when they wrote it, how they wrote it, and how we got it. What we would like to do in this article, is to look at each of these processes and talk about some practical applications of each of these methods of taking the Bible literally.


It makes a difference whether the passage you are reading was written by a prophet, a king, or an evangelist. Prophets wrote about things that God wanted the people to know about the future and how they would be impacted in the future by what they did now. The books of Daniel and Revelation are frequently misunderstood because they are taken as books of law givers and rulers. People interpret these books as discussions of political rulers in the past and the future which is what Kings do. All Bible prophets are primarily concerned with man's relationship to God and what man needs to do to improve that relationship. The prophets of the Bible, especially the New Testament, are not concerned with nations or political goals. Even Old Testament prophets were primarily concerned with bringing the Nation of Israel back to God--not with achieving world power status.

In the New Testament, letters to groups like the Corinthians, the Ephesians, or the Philippians were letters addressing local situations and problems. While these problems may have existed elsewhere, the letters were written about the local situation. When Paul tells the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 5-7 about sexual matters, he writes as a man who was celibate. It is important to know this as you read the chapters about the problems the Corinthians were having. The fact that Luke wrote the book of Acts helps us in our understanding of the book, since Luke was a medical doctor and would be a special kind of observer of the things that happened. Taking the Bible literally means knowing who wrote the book, what his background was, and how his personal situation would impact the things that he wrote.


Equally important is knowing who the book was written to. If a New Testament book was written to a group of Gentiles, it will; be much different in its expression than if it were written to a group of Hebrews. The books of Hebrews and Revelation especially radiate the Hebrew heritage of the people that they were addressed to. People have butchered the concept of 666 and the antichrist by not understanding how the Hebrews understood these terms.


The reason for writing a book or letter has a lot to do with how you understand its message. This is especially true of the New Testament. If you don't understand that the purpose of Hebrews and Revelation was to encourage Christians who were being persecuted to the point of death, then you will not understand these books. Some of the bizarre teachings about end times so prevalent today in religious circles come out of not understanding this. People who find UFOs and aliens in biblical passages are not taking the Bible literally. When you read a book like 1 or 2 Corinthians, you have to understand that unlike Hebrews, the book was written to Gentile Christians who had come out of paganism and bizarre heathen practices and morality. Their needs and the instructions given to them are different because they were from a different background.


An incredible number of people in the world do not understand the difference between the New Testament and the Old Testament. This is a problem that is not limited to atheists, but is also true of many religionists. The Old Testament is about the Hebrew people and their relationship to God. It gives the setting of the arrival of Jesus Christ into the world, and records history--the good and the bad. The New Testament tells of God's gift of Jesus to save the world from their estrangement from God and bring them back to God. Jesus said clearly that he fulfilled the Old Testament and nailed its legalistic unworkable laws to His cross (Colossians 2:14). We do not sacrifice animals or live by an eye-for-an-eye because Jesus has given us a better way, and a way that we can live by. No one can read Matthew 5-7 and not see the contrast between the old law and the new. Not understanding that and quoting Old Testament commandments and practices as binding on people living in the twenty-first century is not taking the Bible literally. You have to look at when the passage is written to know how it should be applied. The Bible tells us to "rightly divide the word of truth" (2 Timothy 2:15) and at least part of that instruction involves the dividing of the old and new will of God.


The messages in the Bible are given by different ways of writing. Some of the Bible is history, some is poetry, some is apocalyptic literature, some is wisdom literature, and some are professional letters. Frequently when people think they have a contradiction in the Bible, it is because they have not looked at how the material is written. If a passage is written in apocalyptic writing, then the message is given in pictures and symbols indigenous to the culture in which it is written. One of the reasons that there is so much nonsense promoted by protestant denominations about the end times is because they are not taking the books of Revelation and Daniel literally. These are apocalyptic works, and so numbers like 7, 1,000, and 144,000 have meaning that is not numerical but rather theological in nature. It takes some study to understand these things, and they have nothing to do with the basic message of the Bible so they are not of monumental importance. The problem is, however, that when attention is not paid to the apocalyptic type of writing involved, the whole purpose and message of the writing is lost.

In the biblical narratives of Genesis 1 and 2 we have another example of errors produced by not taking the Bible literally by not looking at how it is written. Skeptics love to point out that the sequence of life in Genesis 1 is different than in chapter two, with man being created last in chapter one and first in chapter two. The fact is, however, that chapter one is historic in purpose, and chapter two is social in purpose. What I mean by that is that at the end of each chapter there is a statement that tells us what the purpose of the chapter was. At the end of chapter 1 we read "Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them" (Genesis 2:1). At the end of chapter two we read "Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh" (verse 24). The author makes it clear that chapter two had the purpose of showing the relationship of man to woman, and was not a restatement of chapter one which is stated to be a historic chapter giving the sequence of the creation. When skeptics try to maintain that the two chapters contradict each other, they are not taking the Bible literally. They also are assuming that the author deliberately restated in chapter two what he had stated in chapter one rather than the fact that the author would logically assume that whoever read chapter two would have read chapter one first. Even the choice for the word God in these two chapters shows this. In chapter one the word Elohim is used for God, while in chapter two the word chosen is Yahweh. Because they did not take the Bible literally there have been scholars who have maintained that the two chapters had different authors and thus used different words. It you take the chapters literally in terms of what their purpose of writing was, then the use of Elohim which conveys the power and majesty of God is appropriate for chapter one, while Yahweh which emphasizes the promises of God is appropriate for chapter two. Not taking the Bible this literally causes a person to miss the meaning and purpose of the chapters.


We are not so interested in canonicity in this discussion as we are in translation. The study of how we got the Bible, and how we know we have the right books with no books left out or included that should not be, is an interesting study. A thorough investigation of this subject matter will convince an open-minded student that we do not have an incomplete or overwritten Bible. All of the tabloid mentality that wants to add books or challenge books does not change the fact that the Bible we have is well supported academically as being complete and with nothing included that should not be.

What we are talking about in this discussion is the matter of translation and how we got the Bible in English. I have friends who speak fluent Hebrew and other friends who speak fluent Greek who tell me that the language of the Old and New Testament respectively has to be understood to fully appreciate and understand the Bible. I can appreciate the fact that we miss things by not being fluent in the original languages, but I am also sure that the basic message of scripture shines through without a knowledge of these languages. The problem comes up when a subject is explored in scripture that is complex. The Greeks, for example, had five words for love, and each word conveys a different aspect or a different kind of love. The Greek word eros focuses on sexual connotations of love and has nothing to do with agape which conveys a self-sacrificial love and has nothing to do with sex. When Jesus asked Peter repeatedly in John 21:15-17 if he loved Jesus, Peter kept responding with phileo referring to a friendly kind of love instead of the agape kind of love that Jesus was calling him to. If you do not take the time to study this word difference, you miss the whole point of the discussion.

There is rarely a time when you have to go this deep into the meaning of words and how they are translated, but a concordance or lexicon is a necessary tool when deep subjects and the meat of the gospel message to Christians are involved. Translations sometimes miss these things, and in fact can be totally in error. In Genesis 6:1-5 the King James translation totally misses the meaning of the word nephilim in Hebrew. In verse four where the word is used, the King James uses the word "giant" for the Hebrew word nephilim. The reason this happens is that the King James translation of Genesis 6 came from the Vulgate (Latin) translation of the Hebrew. For whatever reason, the Vulgate took the word nephilim and translated it gigantus in Latin. The King James translators did not know what to do with gigantus so they just brought it across to English as giant. The word actually refers to someone or something that is opposed to God, and the context tells us that the message is about man's rejection of God and the resulting flood of Noah. The story has nothing to do with giants and taking it as a giant would not be taking the Bible literally. Taylor's paraphrase Bible, The Living Word, translates the word nephilim as spirit creature, and comes up with the bizarre notion that spirit creatures had sexual affairs with mortal women. This violates our discussion made earlier of looking at who the material was written about. It is true that angels can and have rejected God, but that is not what chapter six is about. That again, is not taking the Bible literally.

Denominational creationists are fond of claiming they take the Genesis account literally. The fact of the matter is that they interpret Genesis in a way that violates most of what we have written thus far in this article. There is good evidence that Genesis 1 was written in Hebrew by Moses. The style of writing is poetic and it is written in nonscientific terms to simply establish the one God as the creator of the cosmos. The first three verses clearly identify one God, one beginning, and a process that is unique to God. There is no attempt to establish methodology, time, or process. These verses are not stated as a summary of the following verses, but are a simple and brief history of the creation process. The creation week (which begins in verse five) is a brief summary of the creation sequence of the animals that man was familiar with. Every Hebrew word used refers to an animal familiar to Moses--cattle, sheep, goats, chickens, ducks, etc. Forcing dinosaurs, platypuses, viruses, etc., into these verses is not taking the Bible literally. Trying to make words like leviathan (Job 41:1) or behemoth (Job 40:15) refer to dinosaurs is a massive violation of using reasonable methods to understand what the Bible is telling us. Job is a book with a purpose that does not involve taxonomy or biology, written by a man who is talking about the major theological issue of good and evil,

2 Timothy 3:16 tells us the value and proper use of scripture. "All scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness. That the man of God may be complete, furnished completely unto every good work." Taking the Bible literally allows this to happen, but when humans apply creeds and shallow approaches to specific passages they end up creating conflict between the Bible and reality. This is teaching the traditions of man in substitute for God's will in its very worst form--and the consequences are catastrophic.

--John N. Clayton

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