The literalist wants his streets of gold in heaven but will not repent of wrong belief; he wants his city, the New Jerusalem to descend out of heaven as a perfect cube, (don’t forget: wearing a wedding dress) but he does not gouge his eye out when it causes him to sin, unless he is a lunatic. On second thoughts, at least the one who gouges his eye out is not disconnected from his belief system, perhaps he is the only sane one among us. Literalism is a belief system regarding the Bible. His statement of faith would include something like: “I believe in the literal truth of the Bible”.
Literalism literally means strict adherence to the basic meaning of a word as it is given. In other words, it makes no room for implied meaning, idiom, symbolism or hidden meanings. There is no room for interpretation and it does not take into account different literary or verbal forms, such as poetry, vision, allegory or even parable. On of the most important criteria for interpreting Scripture is consistency. Unless we take into account the varying kinds of literature, or the intended reader; unless we can understand the place of the different covenants, or recognize hyperbole (a deliberate overstatement to make a point) we will end up with contradictory beliefs. So, for example, the literalist wants to believe that Christians will be taken up to heaven in a rapture, in order to escape the wrath to come, leaving unbelievers on the earth. Incidentally the passages that speak of being left behind don’t actually say that Christians go up and unbelievers are left but that’s another story (Mat.24:41). Compare the words of Jesus in His prayer,
“My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.” (John 17:15 NIV).
Clearly, the intent of Jesus was for believers to remain in the world, to overcome the trials of life. Further, we note that in the parable of the wheat and the weeds, both unbelievers and believers continue together until the end of the age when, at that time, a separation is made which results in hell or heaven (Mat.13:24-30,36-43). Then there’s the illustration that Jesus gave about the camel and the eye of a needle (Luke 18:18-27). The literalist has to make the words “eye of a needle” a real object, a gate in the city walls. A whole story is constructed around it, so that the city is closed at night and entrance has to be made through this eye of a needle. The gate is small and the camel can only get through by unloading its burden and struggling through the small aperture. It’s a nice story but its only urban legend. Here’s the real problem with the story, Jesus was using hyperbole to demonstrate that it was impossible for a rich man to enter heaven, not a struggle. In fact the story tells us that it is impossible for any one of us to enter heaven on our own merits but with God anything becomes possible. Jesus was addressing an issue of belief system. It was commonly believed that if some were rich it was because they were righteous and God’s favour was upon them. The literalist ends up contradicting the whole point of Jesus’ illustration.
Many Christians who describe themselves as Protestant, would say that the Roman Catholic mass is blasphemous when it says that the wine becomes the blood of Jesus and the bread becomes His flesh; that is the doctrine of transubstantiation. The Protestant may well be right but, at least the Roman Catholic position is consistent with literalism. Let’s take a look at the words of Jesus,
“I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I am in him” (John 6:53-56, NIV my italics) .
Here’s the problem, Jesus doesn’t explain what He means, so the literalist should take His words at face value; so why doesn’t he? Do the words of Jesus have to mean something else because the literal meaning is unpalatable? In other words, the literalist chooses the passages he wants to interpret literally, on the basis of another subjective worldview. Without doubt, much of the Bible is intended to be understood literally. When Joshua surrounded Jericho with the people of Israel and the walls fell down, that’s exactly what happened. When Luke recorded the events of the Day of Pentecost, they happened as he said they did. When Jesus claimed to be one with the Father, we are meant to take that at face value. When the Gospels record the death, burial, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, that’s exactly the way that it was. When Paul tells us that the written code (the Sinai Covenant) has been cancelled, we are supposed to believe what he said. The challenge that we have before us is to interpret the Bible accurately, with integrity, making distinctions between literal and other kinds of writings. Above all, we are supposed to discover truth, which sometimes takes us behind the words as they are presented. Did not Jesus use this method, Himself, when He told parables? The parables were a means of communicating truth but only to those who had ears to hear, that is genuine truth seekers. To others, all they were, were some kind of nice story with a moral.
There was one of those fads in certain sectors of the Church that seem to come from time to time. You may remember it? Drunkenness in the Spirit. This is how it came about. Someone on the Day of Pentecost said that the followers of Jesus looked drunk. There’s no reason to believe that they did look drunk but the literalist takes the word of an unbelieving mocker and decides that to be filled with the Spirit, you have to look and behave like a drunk. The mocking unbeliever takes a manifestation of the Holy Spirit of God, downgrades it and makes an accusation. Peter was filled with the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost; his sermon doesn’t sound like a drunk to me. I heard about one preacher that was “drunk” for over ten years. It sounds more like the effects of wobbly juice than a work of God’s Holy Spirit. Jesus went out into the desert for forty days. While He was there, Satan came to Him and showed Him the kingdoms of the world. He said to Jesus,
“So if you worship me, it will all be yours”. (Luke 4:7 NIV).
The literalist says that if is in the Bible it must be true. So when the Psalmist says concerning the Lord,
“for the world is mine, and all that is in it”. (Psalm.50:12b NIV).
Whom do we believe? A whole belief system has grown up around Satan’s lying words, giving him all kinds of rights that are not his. To give credibility to the position that the Bible is God’s Word and can be trusted, we must take care to expound it well. Then and only then can we claim,
“Your word is a lamp to my feet
And a light to my path”. (Psalm.119:105 NAS).