Should we read the Bible as Metaphor or Literally?

by Dave on April 28, 2012

in General, Theology

I have written before (A New Universalism, No One is going to Heaven) about the relationship between heaven and our life after death.  In that post I came down quite clearly on the side that heaven is not a place where we are going to go, but is the place where god lives.  I also supported that through an analysis of every verse in the New Testament where heaven is mentioned.

But, many people look at the thief on the cross and believe that Jesus is indeed referring to heaven when he says “today you will be with me in paradise”.  This says a couple of things.  First, it says that it will be today  and second that Jesus will be wherever this place is located.

N.T. Wright has discussed his view of life after life after death on many occasions and most notably (for common folks like us) in his book Surprised by Hope which I highly recommend.  In there he does refer to this life after death as being in paradise, and in being with Jesus.  I believe that Wright comes down on the side that it is still a bit of a mystery since all we have are sign posts pointing to what that future will be like, and no clear pictures of the actual location.

I also watched this video N.T. Wright – Rethinking Life After Death today.

In it Wright again discussed his view on heaven, hell, the resurrection and what the core beliefs about these subjects for Christians today.  I recommend that as the best summary I have seen on the subject.  But there is something else he discusses that I found quite useful.

Literal or Metaphor?

In the video, starting at about 12:30, he discusses the use of the words metaphorical and literal as it relates to the bible and interpretation.  I find myself regularly debating the meaning of various parts of the bible and find that much of the controversy comes down to whether people think they should be interpreting a particular part as metaphor or literally.  Wright says:

“There is a problem with those words, literal and metaphoric, those are words about the way words work.  If we want to talk about the actual realities we ought to talk about concrete and abstract.  Things are either concrete, in the sense that they are actually there, solid, or they’re abstract, in which case they are ideas.”

Now that offers a bit different perspective on the debate because it gives us new vocabulary to use about the contents of particular passages.  He uses the example of Daniel 7 that has a part where 4 monsters will come out of the sea and Danial discusses what these monsters are like.  Clearly everyone would read that and recognize that there will not be 4 actual monsters coming out of the sea, those are not concrete parts of the metaphor.  But the fact that there are four of them is something that we would start to believe refers to four actual things.

People get hung up on stating that something is metaphor or literal.  This gets particularly nasty when someone refers to something like Genesis 1 as poetry.  There are many who will argue that Genesis 1 does not fit the definition of what poetry looks like in ancient Hebrew.  And I think they may be right.  But they go on to say, therefore, it cannot be metaphor and must be read literally.  At that point I disagree and Wright helps me with the language he uses in this video.

Genesis 1 is largely abstract representations of concrete happenings, in my view.  It may not be poetry, and it may be inappropriate to refer to it as only metaphor, but it seems that the concrete and abstract language applies wonderfully.

Wright does not use Genesis as the example in the video, he uses the rapture text.  He clearly feels the Thessalonians text is talking about an abstract idea, not something concrete.

I hope that this language can help.

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