Should the Bible Be Interpreted Allegorically or Literally?
There is a schism in Christendom over how the Bible should be interpreted. The liturgical, modern, liberal, and fringe churches tend to interpret the Bible in a very loose and allegorical way. The fundamentalist, evangelical, and Bible churches tend to take it more literally, although even they allegorize some passages beyond the passages that are obviously allegorical such as parables and visions. So who is right? Is there any way to determine how God intended us to interpret the Bible?
First of all, this argument is really only for those who say they believe in God. Atheists, no matter what, have decided to reject God, so it is a matter of complete indifference to them how we choose to interpret it. As a believer in God though, it becomes a matter of extreme importance, although many do not realize that it is, nor do they understand why it is. It makes all the difference in how you understand who God is, and what kind of relationship you have with Him.
To begin with it is necessary to understand exactly how the two views differ. The allegorical interpretation says that the Scriptures were not meant to be taken literally, but symbolically represent some spiritual application. One of the most infamous preachers of this type of interpretation is the presently attention getting Harold Camping. This view is hard to pin down, as the meaning of any passage is at the mercy of the person interpreting it. There is no absolute meaning to anything in the Scriptures with this method. As a result, it means whatever anybody wants it to mean, and any meaning that God may have intended is completely lost in the multitude of interpretations. The history is treated as anything from myth to a partially factual representation of some historical events. People and places may represent ideas or concepts, or even other people. The important thing though is that nothing is taken at a virtual literal level. For instance, the reference to a temple is viewed as being a symbolic way of referring to a person who believes in God. So any passages using the word temple are then reinterpreted to be speaking about a person who believes in God, not a physical building.
The literal interpretation, while sounding easy, is the more difficult to comprehend in its totality. First everything in the Bible from Genesis to Jude is taken as being actual historical events. Revelation is generally viewed within these churches as being part historical and mostly futuristic. In addition, within almost every one of these books are also prophecies. Most have seen their historical fulfillment, some are seen as having dual fulfillments (past and future) and some have yet to be fulfilled. There are also parables, which are explained, visions, which are also explained, and parts of speech such as metaphors, anthropomorphisms, and the like. Then on top of all that, there is the secondary level of understanding which is where the allegorical interpretation comes in. This is where things get a little more difficult to understand. For instance, the feasts of God were not only given to be observed as holidays, but they had a symbolic meaning for which they stood. The spring feasts all had to do with the first coming of Christ. The fall feasts all have to do with the second coming of Christ. Joseph was not only a real person, but symbolically was a representation of Christ, as was King David. In fact, a great deal of the people, events, ceremonies, etc. have a symbolic connection somehow to Christ, as the entire Bible is supposed to be a picture of Christ. The main difference in this allegorical interpretation from just plain allegorical interpretation is that it overlays a literal interpretation and does not stand on its own. This means that it cannot be made to mean anything someone wants it to, which is what tends to be the problem when someone approaches the Scriptures from simply an allegorical standpoint. It cannot negate a literal interpretation in any way, which restricts the ability to twist it around to mean whatever one chooses.
So which way is right? Well there is a simple answer for that. Let us take a look at an allegorical approach that says that Genesis is simply an allegorical tale of mankind realizing he has a spiritual nature and is capable of bad and good acts. So what is the problem with this? Well, first of all if Adam and Eve were not real people, there was no real fall from grace and sin entering the world. If there is no such thing as a break with God through sin, there is no need for a redeemer, which negates the whole idea of that for which Christ stood – our redemption from sin through His shed blood. For those who take this approach, that too does not become a problem, as they do not truly believe Christ was God incarnate and that His death was necessary for our salvation. Instead they see Him as a good man who gave us an example of righteous living that we should emulate. The whole idea of sin is rejected in favor of living a good life, which then gets you into heaven. So again, what is the problem with that? The problem lies in Christ. There are three things Christ could be. He was 1) either what He said He was, the Son of God, the living incarnation of God Himself, who came to take our sins upon Himself, so that we through accepting His sacrifice may then be forgiven and come back into a relationship with God, or 2) a liar, as all the things just mentioned were what He claimed, and if they are not true, then He is a liar, or 3) He was insane, a madman. There is no choice that He was a good man, a good teacher. Why not? Because if He was only a man, He was either insane for what He claimed, or He was a great con artist and liar. There is no other choice. So if He is not the Son of God and not telling the truth, He is a con artist and liar. If that is true, and Scriptures are also allegorical, then atheists are right and why on earth is anyone bothering with religion? Without sin, and without the Son of God actually shedding His blood to redeem us, there is no point to the Bible and religion. Now, if you cannot accept that Christ was a liar or madman, then the only other option is that He was telling the truth. So now the problem becomes, if He was truthful, then all the things He said are true. And what are some things He said? Well, first of all He made it quite clear that the story of Adam and Eve is true and historical, not allegorical. How is that? He stated that Abel, their son, was a real person. Matthew 23:35 “That upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar.” Luke 11:51 “From the blood of Abel unto the blood of Zacharias, which perished between the altar and the temple: verily I say unto you, It shall be required of this generation.”
Not only Jesus said that Abel was a real person, but so does the writer of Hebrews - 11:4,12:24 “By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, by which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts: and by it he being dead yet speaketh.... “And to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel.”
And Paul tells us that Adam was a very real man. It is because of Adam's sin that Yeshua had to come and die for us. Without that sin, we render the cross null and void. Romans 5:14 “Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over them that had not sinned after the similitude of Adam's transgression, who is the figure of him that was to come.” 1 Corinthians 15:22, 45 “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive....And so it is written, The first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam was made a quickening spirit.” 1 Timothy 2:13-14 “For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.” And Jude also tells us Adam was a real person. Jude 14 “And Enoch also, the seventh from Adam, prophesied of these, saying, Behold, the Lord cometh with ten thousands of his saints.”
Then Jesus' genealogy is traced back to Adam. Luke 3:23-38 “And Jesus himself began to be about thirty years of age, being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph, which was the son of Heli, Which was the son of Matthat, which was the son of Levi, which was the son of Melchi, which was the son of Janna, which was the son of Joseph, Which was the son of Mattathias, which was the son of Amos, which was the son of Naum, which was the son of Esli, which was the son of Nagge, Which was the son of Maath, which was the son of Mattathias, which was the son of Semei, which was the son of Joseph, which was the son of Juda, Which was the son of Joanna, which was the son of Rhesa, which was the son of Zorobabel, which was the son of Salathiel, which was the son of Neri, Which was the son of Melchi, which was the son of Addi, which was the son of Cosam, which was the son of Elmodam, which was the son of Er, Which was the son of Jose, which was the son of Eliezer, which was the son of Jorim, which was the son of Matthat, which was the son of Levi, Which was the son of Simeon, which was the son of Juda, which was the son of Joseph, which was the son of Jonan, which was the son of Eliakim, Which was the son of Melea, which was the son of Menan, which was the son of Mattatha, which was the son of Nathan, which was the son of David, Which was the son of Jesse, which was the son of Obed, which was the son of Booz, which was the son of Salmon, which was the son of Naasson, Which was the son of Aminadab, which was the son of Aram, which was the son of Esrom, which was the son of Phares, which was the son of Juda, Which was the son of Jacob, which was the son of Isaac, which was the son of Abraham, which was the son of Thara, which was the son of Nachor, Which was the son of Saruch, which was the son of Ragau, which was the son of Phalec, which was the son of Heber, which was the son of Sala, Which was the son of Cainan, which was the son of Arphaxad, which was the son of Sem, which was the son of Noe, which was the son of Lamech, Which was the son of Mathusala, which was the son of Enoch, which was the son of Jared, which was the son of Maleleel, which was the son of Cainan, Which was the son of Enos, which was the son of Seth, which was the son of Adam, which was the son of God.” This is not an allegory, this is a genealogy which was very important for all Jewish people to preserve.
So now we have the dilemma that Christ not only stated that Abel was a real person, but His genealogy is traced back to Seth, Abel's brother and Adam and Eve's son. Thus this verifies from Christ's and God's (through Luke, Paul, and Jude) mouth that Adam and Eve were not an allegory, but real people. Their fall was real. Sin is real. So now either we accept that He is being truthful about this, and everything else He says, and the Bible must be taken literally on its historical narration, or we must conclude that Jesus is a liar or crazy and the apostles were liars too. Again, if we choose anything but Christ telling us the truth, (as well as the others) we negate everything in the Bible, and render it a completely useless book for anything except literature studies. Christianity is a farce under this interpretation.
But what if you do believe Jesus and the apostles are truthful? Well, then you are stuck with the concept that the Bible must be taken literally, which then throws allegorical interpretation out the window, except for the aforementioned allegorical understandings that overlay the literal and do not negate the literal. Well, how can a person accept the Bible as literal you ask, when science shows us that the world is infinitely older than the Bible says it is? And therein lies the problem that is the obstacle for most people. They can't reconcile the Bible with what science claims. What most people do not realize is that evolutionary science and creation science work off the same exact evidence, but that it is a matter of interpretation of that evidence that leads to two completely different conclusions. As the debate between evolution and creationism is a very lengthy one, I will have to do a separate article on that issue. To do your own research please go to answersingenesis.org or icr.org or creationevidence.org. As a spoiler, there is more than ample scientific evidence to prove a six-day creation. The evidence is found in realizing that Noah's Flood was a real, global catastrophe. This Flood gave us all the fossil evidence, etc. that evolutionists use to claim vast ages. Peter confirmed this. 2 Peter 3:3-6 “Knowing this first, that there shall come in the last days scoffers, walking after their own lusts, And saying, Where is the promise of his coming? for since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation. For this they willingly are ignorant of, that by the word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of the water and in the water: Whereby the world that then was, being overflowed with water, perished.” This verse says that in the last days (which are now) there will be scoffers of the Second Coming, who say that from the beginning of time there has been uniformitarianism (an evolutionary theory). For they will willingly and willfully be ignorant of the Word of God which tells us how the world was created and how the Flood left a catastrophic burial ground behind, which is now our fossil record.
For now, you the reader have to decide whether you will choose to accept that Jesus was truthful, a liar, or a madman. If you accept the first, then a literal interpretation is the only logical and viable interpretation that you can accept. Remember the first lie that Satan told Eve? Basically he said, “Has God really said? His whole agenda was to get Eve to doubt that God literally meant what He said. As a consequence of not believing that He did, she brought sin upon all of mankind. Satan still uses the same lie. “Does God literally mean what He says?” A huge element of Christianity says that He does not. That it is all allegorical and really only understood by scholars. That we need these overseers (the ones telling us it is too difficult to understand) to tell us what it means. What did Christ say about the Nicolaitanes in the letters in Revelation? (“Nikko” meaning “over” and “laity” meaning the “people.”) He said that He hates them. Revelation 2:6,15 “But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitanes, which I also hate....So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes, which thing I hate.” One of these doctrines is that the regular person cannot comprehend the great mysteries of the Bible. Ridiculous! The Bible was meant to be taken at face value and understood. How else is God supposed to communicate with people of such lesser intelligence than Himself? It was never His intention that people have to go through scholars. He uses the foolish of the world, not the wise. 1 Corinthians 1:27 “But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty;” God does not like those who think they are better than others. We are also told that Scripture cannot be discerned or understood by those who do not have a personal relationship with Him, as understanding comes from the Holy Spirit. The vast majority of Bible scholars are not Christians, and their interpretations are not spiritually discerned. Discerning things spiritually does not mean putting an allegorical or “spiritual” spin on them. It means that the literal meaning will be veiled from their understanding as they are not spiritually born again. And looking at the teachings of people like Harold Camping, Joseph Smith, Ellen White, Charles Taze Russell, etc., it is easy to see how people can read a simple verse that is easily understandable and not see at all what it says. 1 Corinthians 2:14 “But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” 1 Corinthians 2:9-14 “But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him. But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God. For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God. Which things also we speak, not in the words which man's wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual. But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” So we see that the Bible should be taken literally, or it is pointless to take it at all. Lastly, Revelation is also a literal book, which then should concern any Christian, as not only are the contents pretty awful, but there are several blessings attached to that book for reading, heeding, and keeping the prophecies contained therein. It is the only book in the Bible with such blessings, which shows just how important God considered it for our survival, both spiritual and physical. Remember, forewarned is forearmed.
*It may take a while to do a thorough article on creationism vs. evolution, but it will be forthcoming.