There are many Christians who claim that their method of interpreting the Bible is to take it literally. They don’t qualify this in any way. They just say that they interpret the Bible literally.
Those who make this claim usually mean well. They want to stand by what Scripture is teaching. And they are rightly opposed to unwarranted spiritualising interpretations that deny biblical truth.
However, there are two big problems with claiming to interpret the Bible literally without qualifying this.
A strange definition of ‘literal’
The first problem is that Christians who say they interpret Scripture literally are using the words ‘literal’ and ‘literally’ in a very strange way.
Like all believers, these Christians accept that the Bible contains many figures of speech, including numerous examples of metaphor. A metaphor is a rhetorical figure of speech in which something is said to be a thing that in reality it is not.
For example, in Psalm 18:2 David says:
‘The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my high tower.’
This verse is full of metaphors. David metaphorically describes God as a rock, a fortress, a shield, a horn and a high tower.
Every Christian would agree that these are metaphors. No believer would claim, for example, that David thought the LORD was actually made out of rock, whether limestone, granite or whatever. Instead, every Christian would accept that this is a metaphor.
Christians who say that they take a literal interpretation of Scripture are including metaphors like those in Psalm 18:2 under the heading of what they mean by ‘literal’. However, for English speakers generally, literal means that the thing in question really is what it is said to be, and that there is no figure of speech involved. In other words, for the vast majority of English speakers, to use a metaphor is precisely not to speak literally, and to speak literally is precisely not to use a metaphor or other figure of speech.
For Christians to use the words ‘literal’ and ‘literally’ in a very different way from how everyone else uses them is just going to lead to confusion. It can also help make the Christian faith seem inaccessible to non-Christians. We should therefore use these words in the same way that everyone else does.
Those Christians who say that they take a literal interpretation of the Bible really mean that they take a plain-sense interpretation. They mean that they don’t interpret passages symbolically if there is a more straightforward way of taking the words. This plain sense will usually be literal (in the proper sense of ‘literal’), but at other times it will be metaphorical or will involve another figure of speech.
It would be a step in the right direction if everyone who says that they take a literal interpretation of Scripture said instead that they take a plain-sense interpretation of Scripture.
No one always interprets Scripture in the plain sense
A second problem with Christians saying that they interpret the Bible literally (by which they mean that they interpret it in the plain sense, as I have just explained) is that no Christian does in fact consistently take a plain-sense interpretation of Scripture. There are biblical prophecies which are so obviously not supposed to be interpreted in the plain sense, that no one who knows of them would claim that they should be interpreted in the plain sense.
A good example of this can be found in John 2:19-21, where Jesus gives a prophecy while in the temple courts in
‘19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
20 The Jews then said, “It took forty-six years to build this temple, and are you going to raise it up in three days?”
21 But He was speaking about the temple of His body.’
Note here that the Jews listening to Jesus take His prophecy in the plain sense. They pour scorn on His supposed claim to be able to build such a magnificent structure as the temple in three days. As v. 21 makes clear, however, Jesus’ prophecy was actually symbolic and had to do with His body. By interpreting the prophecy in the plain sense, His hearers had misunderstood it.
It is true that Jesus’ words may have some kind of secondary level of meaning that refers to the actual temple, and scholars debate this. Nevertheless, even if there is a secondary level to the saying, the primary level of meaning is still highly symbolic. Furthermore, any secondary reference to the temple in the plain sense certainly does not include the plain sense of raising up in three days.
No Christian, therefore, interprets Jesus’ words in John 2:19 in the plain sense of the words.
Another example of a prophecy that cannot be interpreted in the plain sense is found in Matthew’s Gospel, in Matthew 12:40, where Jesus states:
‘For just as Jonah was in the sea monster’s stomach for three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights.’
Being in the heart of the earth is a reference to the time between Jesus’ death and resurrection. And the plain sense of three days and three nights is approximately 72 hours. Yet this same Gospel portrays the time between Jesus’ death and resurrection as approximately 36 hours (Matthew 27:46-28:7)!
There is a remarkable lack of precision in Jesus’ words here that seems strange to modern Westerners but which would have been at home in first century Jewish culture.
Jesus’ reference to being in the earth for three days and three nights in Matthew is not symbolic in the way that His prophecy in John is. Nevertheless, it is clearly not supposed to be understood in the plain sense.
For two reasons, then, those who say that they take a literal interpretation of the Bible are making a mistake. When they say ‘literal’, they really mean ‘in the plain sense’. And they have failed to recognise that no Christian does in fact consistently take a plain-sense interpretation of biblical prophecies.
There are many Christians who would readily accept the points I have made so far, but who nevertheless always insist that biblical end-times prophecies should be interpreted in the plain sense. They don’t stop to consider if a more symbolic interpretation of an end-times prophecy might be the correct one.
Those who do this are motivated in part by their opposition to the wrongful spiritualising of biblical prophecies found in some heretical circles.
For example, there are people who spiritualise the prophecies of Jesus’ return by saying that these prophecies really just symbolise His victory over evil. They say that we should therefore not expect Him to visibly return to earth at some point in the future.
It is right to vigorously oppose illegitimate spiritualising interpretations like these. However, it is a big over-reaction to insist, without further consideration, that all end-times prophecies must be interpreted in the plain sense. This is a classic case of opposing one extreme by going to the other extreme.
When Scripture itself interprets its own prophecies, the interpretations range from the strictly literal to the highly symbolic. As far as end-times prophecies are concerned, therefore, we would most probably expect the same to be true. This means that unless it is immediately obvious that we should interpret a given prophecy in the plain sense, we should be cautious and open to either a plain-sense or non-plain-sense fulfilment. Any other approach fails to do justice to what we find in the Bible itself.