To interpret literally or liberally?

I was raised to believe that everything the Bible says is literally true, and as a nonbeliever I still tend to interpret the Bible pretty literally. Here’s why:

Literalism is the natural form of religion that results from reading the scriptures. When people read the Bible with no preconceived ideas about what it should say, they will tend to assume it means exactly what it says. I wouldn’t expect it to even occur to anyone that the Bible might not simply mean what it says, unless someone else told them to think that. Or unless they were unable to accept what they were reading because they already had other, more strongly-held beliefs that were incompatible with the Bible.

Non-literalist religion is a self-deceptive phenomenon that results when people consider themselves religious, but also have beliefs and values that conflict with the scriptures. If they don’t want to outright reject the Bible or admit that their values don’t come from their religion, they have to make up metaphorical interpretations of the Bible that agree with what they already believe, and ignore what the Bible actually says.1

In a lot of cases, what the Bible says was meant completely literally, and was originally interpreted literally, and no one saw a problem with that. But as humanity’s knowledge of the world and standards of morality have improved over time, it has become increasingly clear to most people that what the Bible says literally is absurdly wrong. So those who can’t admit that the Bible is wrong have had to increasingly reinterpret it figuratively. Some take it so far that they’re basically atheists in denial.

Even literalists are now so used to thinking of certain concepts and expressions used in the Bible as figurative that it might not even occur to them that those things might have once been meant literally. But compared to what the writers intended, literalists aren’t literal enough! Like most people in ancient times, the writers of the Bible actually believed that people literally thought with their hearts. And their kidneys.2

Some non-literal interpretations that don’t work

“The Bible doesn’t really mean that people used to live hundreds of years. That’s just a confusion caused by the switch from a lunar calendar to a solar calendar. It should be read as months, not years. Which brings Methuselah’s lifespan down to a realistic 80 years.”

That would mean Methuselah was born when his father was five. And it gets worse when the lifespans get shorter later on: Abraham’s father would have been born when his father was two. Not so realistic. And what about the rest of the Biblical timeline? The Bible suggests that the world is about 6000 years old, which is already way too short. But according to this interpretation, the world must be only 500 years old! How about we try expanding the timeline instead…

“The six days of creation could have actually been much longer periods of time, because a thousand years are like a day to God. It can’t mean six literal 24-hour cycles of day and night, since the sun didn’t even exist until halfway through the creation process. So the Bible isn’t incompatible with what scientists have learned about the history of the universe after all.”

There are a few problems with that idea:

  • It doesn’t matter if God experiences time differently. He’s not the Bible’s target audience. The Bible was written for humans, and for a human, a day is very different from a thousand years. Saying a day when it means a thousand years would be very misleading.
  • The Bible says even when there was no sun, there was light. And it does indeed specifically say there was a cycle of evening and morning right from the beginning. That may not make much sense, but it’s what the Bible says.
  • Turning each day into a thousand years isn’t anywhere near sufficient to make the creation timeline scientifically accurate. It puts the origin of plants and animals just a few thousand years after the origin of the earth, rather than a few billion years. It puts the beginning of humanity only a few thousand years after the beginning of the universe, instead of over 13 billion years. And it doesn’t address the fact that the Bible gets things out of order. The Bible claims the earth existed before the sun and stars, which doesn’t fit with what we know about how planets form. It even has plants growing when there’s no sun to fuel them.
  • If each day of creation was 24 hours, it’s more plausible that the plants could survive for a day while they’re waiting for God to get around to making the sun. It’s not so believable if they had to wait a thousand years.
  • If Adam and Eve were created on the 6th “day” and didn’t sin till some time after the Sabbath “day”, they would be over a thousand years old by the time they left the garden of Eden. But the Bible says Adam only lived 930 years. Or should that be interpreted as 339 million years?
  • If a day means a thousand years, does that mean Moses actually fasted for 40,000 years?3 Or am I only supposed to interpret a day as a thousand years when it’s convenient for trying to make the Bible say something closer to what I already believe?
  • Even if the Bible doesn’t always mean the same thing by a day, surely it means the same thing regarding the creation week and the Sabbath, since it says we are to rest on the seventh day of the week just like God did. So does that mean we’re supposed to work for 6000 years and then rest for 1000 years? More likely it just means the creation week is meant to be an actual week.

“That’s all still too literal… There was no real creation week. The whole Adam and Eve story is just an allegory that was written to promote celibacy. The tempting forbidden fruit represents sex; the tree of knowledge is knowledge in the biblical sense.”

No, God can’t have wanted Adam and Eve to abstain from sex in that story. The first thing he does after creating them is command them to reproduce!

And if Genesis isn’t literally true, what do we need Jesus for? Wasn’t his mission supposed to be to save humanity from the mess Adam and Eve got us into?

Is there any reason not to interpret literally?

Of course, those of us who don’t understand the languages the Bible was originally written in have to rely on flawed translations. So most people aren’t actually going to be able to interpret the Bible as saying exactly what it says, because they’re not even able to read exactly what the Bible really says. But you’re not likely to get any closer to the original intent by making up your own much looser interpretation of an already flawed translation. So that doesn’t work as an argument for figurative interpretation.

A better argument might be to note that the Bible sometimes interprets itself figuratively. On the other hand, it also sometimes interprets itself very literally. So God’s word isn’t giving us a clear, consistent example to follow either way.

What about the example set by Christians of the past? Which way was the Bible generally interpreted throughout the history of Christianity? Some people say figurative interpretations were rare historically, and others say literal interpretations were rare historically. I don’t know who’s right about that, but it really doesn’t matter. Traditional acceptance of an idea doesn’t make it right.

Does the Bible tell us how we should interpret it? It does say “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” That could be understood to mean it’s better not to interpret the Bible literally. But only if you interpret that verse figuratively. And only if you ignore the context that makes it clear that it’s talking about something completely different. The Bible also says “Do not go beyond what is written.

Some people prefer symbolic interpretations because that way the Bible is more meaningful, not so obviously wrong, and easier for people to take seriously. I’d say that’s kind of backwards. Don’t you need to establish what the Bible is saying before you can determine whether it’s right and should be taken seriously? And it’s pretty meaningless to say the Bible is right if you’re committed to rejecting any interpretation that doesn’t make it seem like the Bible is right.

Anyway, even if you think literalism is the wrong way for believers to interpret the Bible, that’s no reason for anti-theists like me not to focus on literal interpretations. People who think the Bible is literally true tend to cause more harm than those who interpret it figuratively, so literal belief in the Bible is what most needs to be criticized.

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