Some people urge Christians to take the Bible literally. I don’t think taking the Bible literally is taking the Bible seriously enough. I think it’s a far more important matter to take the Bible seriously.
Consider John 1:1-3
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.
John Lennox, the brilliant Oxford mathematician, relates a conversation he had with Peter Atkins, the prolific atheist scholar. When Lennox referred Atkins to John, Chapter 1, Atkins called Lennox naïve to believe that God has lungs, a voice box and a voice. Of course, that isn’t how Lennox (or anyone who takes the Bible seriously) understands those words at all.
I find it interesting that both atheists and fundamentalists tend to adhere to a literal reading of the Bible. The only difference between them is that one believes all of it, and the other believes none of it.
A literal reading of John 1:1-3 clearly misses the point. No one believes that God has lungs, a voice box and a voice. Rather, God is so “Other” from us that we must use devices, like metaphors, to conceptualize God. Metaphor conveys meaning in ways that meaning cannot be conveyed literally.
People often misunderstand what it means to read something “literally”. Lennox suggests that understanding the metaphor is reading the Bible literally. The metaphor is the literal meaning that is intended.
We have to take the Bible very seriously in order to understand this and to see the actual meaning that is there. When we read the Bible always “literally”, we are not taking the Bible seriously enough! (Not to mention that no one actually read every verse of the Bible literally, not even the literalists!)
Another example, of which there are many, is when Jesus said, “I am the door….” (John 10:7). Lennox retorts, “Should we ask what kind of wood Jesus is made out of?”
That would be ridiculous! No one taking the Bible seriously would think to ask that question. Why? Because we understand that Jesus is using metaphor.
Jesus is not claiming to be a literal door. Jesus is telling us that he is like a door in some way (a metaphorical door, if you like). Jesus is the way to God, but not like a literal, wooden (or metal or whatever) door. Jesus uses the example of a physical door to help us understand what he means: He is the entry into eternal life and relationship with God.
We often have to take the Bible more seriously than its literal meaning in order to understand its actual meaning.
This is not to say that we should never take the Bible literally. If we are going to take the Bible seriously, we should take the Bible literally when it is meant to be taken literally. To do this, we have to let the Bible inform us how it should be read. We understand the meaning of the Bible from its own context and its own clues to us.
For instance, one point on which we must take the Bible literally is regarding the resurrection of Jesus. Scripture doesn’t really give us another choice. A great percentage of the four Gospels are devoted to the details of the betrayal, death and resurrection of Jesus, and throughout the rest of the New Testament, the death and resurrection of Jesus is treated as historical fact.
Paul goes to great lengths to anchor the resurrection in the historical facts of the lives and experience of the followers of Jesus, including Paul himself, when he said:
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas [Peter], and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also…. (1 Corinthians 15:3-8)
Lest his audience miss the point, Paul makes it clear: “if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” (1 Corinthians 15:14) And to drive the point home, Paul says it again: “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 15:17-19)
Taking the Bible seriously means reading it carefully to determine what it actually means, and that requires us to determine when the intended meaning is literal, when the intended meaning is metaphorical, and when it might even be both. We can’t approach the Bible in a wooden, rigid way, insisting that it talk to us only the way we want to receive it. Both atheists and fundamentalists make this mistake. Maybe this is why Jesus insisted that his followers wait for the Holy Spirit who would guide them:
“But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” (John 14:26)