Have you ever had your heart broken?  I have.  I could tell you what happened.  But instead I’m going to tell you what didn’t happen.  No one called an ambulance.  No one checked my blood pressure.  No one attempted CPR.

Is it true that my heart was broken, when my blood was still pumping?  Is the pain of a broken heart with no medical implications any less than the pain of a cardiac arrest?  If you’ve ever been brokenhearted, you’ll know that true and literal are not interchangeable concepts.

Our metaphorical mindset

Our lives are littered with metaphors.  We bust our gut working.  We make each other sick.  We literally die of embarrassment.  Recent research in communication studies has verified what poets have known for millennia: our brains are wired for metaphors.  We find them more memorable and persuasive than literal statements.  Like a common language or a private joke, metaphors forge connection by appealing to shared experience.  It’s why lovers write poetry.  

But somehow, we forget this when it comes to scripture.

Should you take the Bible literally?

In a 2014 Gallup survey, pastors were asked which of the following statements most accurately reflected their view of the Bible.  

  • “The Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word” (28%)
  • “The Bible is the inspired word of God, but not everything in it should be taken literally” (47%)
  • “The Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history and moral precepts recorded by man.” (21%)

We assume these statements categorize pastors in descending order of how seriously they take the Bible.  But if you pick up a gospel and read the words of Jesus, you’ll realize that to take the Bible “literally, word for word” is often to miss the point.  When Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd,” it’s pretty clear that we should not take him literally.  When Jesus says, “I am the true vine,” we know he’s not claiming to be a plant!  And when Jesus tells the story of the good Samaritan (who bandaged and cared for a man left robbed and beaten by the side of a road) few of us think he’s reporting on a crime scene.  Christians believe that Jesus speaks the “actual word of God.” But not that he should be “taken literally, word for word.”

Jesus corrects people for taking him literally!

People frequently misunderstood Jesus precisely because they took him literally.  In John’s gospel, Jesus clears money changers out of the temple and challenges his shocked audience, “Destroy this temple and I will raise it up again in three days!”  “It’s taken 46 years to build this temple,” they respond, “How can you raise it up again in three days?”  The gospel writer explains: Jesus was talking about his body – the true temple, where the ultimate sacrifice would be made (John 2:19-20).  In the next chapter, a highly educated Jewish leader called Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night.  Jesus tells Nicodemus that he has to be born again.  “How can a man be born when he is old?” asks Nicodemus, “Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb?” (John 3:3-4).  Then Jesus breaks race and gender barriers to ask a Samaritan woman for a drink and then tells her that he can give her living water.  She takes him literally, and misses his point (John 4:7-20).  His disciples come back and offer him food.  But Jesus says he’s already eaten: his food is to do the will of God (John 4:34).  The list goes on.

So you shouldn’t take the Bible literally?

Does this mean the Bible is not intended to be taken literally?  Not at all!  As in our day-to-day conversations, some parts are intended literally (“I’ll meet you at 4.30pm”) and others are not (“it took forever to get here”).  Usually, it isn’t too hard to tell.  While it is clear that Jesus is not literally the “lamb” of God, the New Testament writers emphasize that Jesus was literally raised from the dead – bones, flesh, and wounds.  Some texts are ambiguous and people who seek to take the Bible seriously disagree.  Is this statement literal or metaphorical?  Is that story history or a parable?  But we know from Jesus’s own words that the literal reading isn’t always the true meaning.

Attending to the powerful metaphors that circulate throughout the scriptures doesn’t for one second reduce the radical claims the Bible makes: claims of real miracles, everlasting truth, and life-and-death decisions.  True and literal just aren’t the same thing.  If I tell you my father is a medical doctor, that’s a literal statement that happens to be false.  If I tell you that God is my father, that’s a metaphorical claim – and one of the most true statements I could make.

But there is an important sense in which Biblical metaphors are not like the metaphors we use.

The difference with biblical metaphors

When we humans make metaphors, we’re noticing connections.  Love is a sickness. Life is a marathon. Parents can be helicopters.  But if the message of the Bible is true – if there is a God who created the universe  – then biblical metaphors are different.

God did not notice how human fathers love their children and decide to call himself our Father (e.g. Isaiah 63:16, Matthew 6:9).  Rather, God created fatherhood, so that the best of human fathers could give us some small glimpse of how he loves us.  God did not notice how nursing mothers love their infants and decide to compare himself to a nursing mother (e.g. Isaiah 49:15).  God created breastfeeding so that we would get some small glimpse of His sacrificial, nurturing love.  God did not notice the profound intimacy of sex and marriage and decide to call Jesus the bridegroom and the church his bride (e.g. Ephesians 5:25).  Rather, God created marriage so that the best of marriages might give us a taste of what it means to be in relationship with Him.

God’s love-language

John’s gospel starts with a stunning statement: “In the beginning was the Word” (John 1:1)  To the first readers, this would have conjured up the Bible’s beginning, when God created the universe simply by speaking.  John claims that in Jesus this “Word” became flesh, and he goes on to explore Jesus through metaphor after metaphor: the light of the world, the lamb of God, the bread of life, the temple, the door of the sheep, the good shepherd, the true vine.  Metaphors aren’t just a human invention.  They are the love-language of God.

So if you’ve ever been heartbroken, but not needed an ambulance, try reading the Bible.  You might just find the passionate words you need, to know that you are truly loved.

Rebecca McLaughlin is Vice President of Content for The Veritas Forum.  She holds a Ph.D. in English Literature from Cambridge University and a first class theology degree from Oak Hill Theological College.  Rebecca speaks and writes on topics ranging from science to sexuality and from psychology to pluralism.

What to read next…

10 ways modern psychology aligns with biblical wisdom