Why do you have to be so literal?

In our day of doubt and skepticism, compromise seems to many to be a necessary virtue. Nobody questions whether compromise in personal relationships is useful and important because obviously it is. Recently I was involved in a discussion about the story of Jonah, the city of Ninevah, and the great fish prepared by God. It is my persuasion that the people of the Bible were people just like you and me. They experienced the same fear, stress, loneliness, emptiness, isolation, frustration, and sense of loss that we do. As I voiced that opinion and mentioned my empathy for Jonah, there were two dissenting views. One was that Jonah was a chosen man of God and thus did not have the problems that we have. The other view was that the whole story is an Old Testament fable and is not to be taken as a real event. After the discussion, I was asked "Why do you have to be so literal when you study the Bible?" The more I think about that question, the more I understand its importance.

There are two types of situations in our study of the Bible to which this question needs to be applied. The first of these is the question of miracles. When we read of a situation where the Bible identifies an event or a situation as miraculous, there is a great literalness that the Bible itself attaches to the account. By identifying something as a miracle, the Bible is pointing out that the event could not occur by natural means. Many biblical situations fall into this classification, including the birth and resurrection of Christ. In Jonah's case, the claim is made that a great fish was specially prepared for this event.

What we end up doing in this situation is deciding whether or not we believe that miracles ever could have taken place. If we admit miracles are possible in any way, then those events described as miraculous can be believed to have happened. If we deny that miracles could have ever taken place, then we really deny the existence of God--at least a personal God who can do anything at all.

The second type of situation involves situations that are not miraculous. These are either natural processes or events of an historical nature. Events like the flood of Noah are historical events. Many of the things described in the Genesis account are events that lend themselves to scientific verification. That verification can either be positive or negative--either confirming or denying that the event did take place.

Many times we find that biblical scholars are divided on the question of what verification can be accomplished. If you doubt verification is possible, then you start looking for other ways to explain the biblical narratives. One thing you may do is to deny the events all together and maintain that the biblical stories are fables--stories thought up to teach a lesson, but not descriptions of real people and real events. The fable is explained in terms of the culture and the conditions at the time the fable was written. This does not minimize the value of the story, but it does remove the Bible from being accepted as a God-breathed totally correct guide for our lives.

The problem is that, if the Bible contains fables with proper names and geographical sites that are untrue, how do we know what is a fable and what is true? If the flood is not historical, why should I believe that the virgin birth or the resurrection is historical. Even the establishment of the Church and the events of Pentecost can be viewed as fables designed to promote certain ideals. To a great extent, the denominational world has bought into this very point, and this is why a growing number of people with religious titles classify themselves as atheists.

Fables do not contain verifiable evidence. A fable is the product of a man's imagination. When we look at events like the Creation and see how Genesis 1 describes it, we see considerable evidence that the description is true. When we look at the flood, we see evidence from several disciplines that it really took place. Not only is it vital that we take the Bible literally rather than leave it as a collection of fables so that we do not erode our entire belief system, but also so that we are willing to accept the extraordinary amount of evidence that is available that the Bible is in fact true.

In 2 Timothy 3:16-17, the Bible makes the claim that God has miraculously seen to it that we have a reliable book. Its power in our lives and in the world testify to us that it is a living expression of God's wisdom and care. It is written for all men of all ages, races, cultures, and economics. Let us not deny God's capacity to change and mold our lives through his powerful, eloquent, and truthful word.


Back to Contents Does God Exist?, Sep/Oct 1996