Literal vs. Allegorical

A friend, Lisa, posted this on Facebook the other day.

“I recently was presented yet again with the teaching that not all Scripture is meant to be taken literally. The idea is that creation is allegorical rather than historical; Hell is separation from God rather than a location; the description of Heaven is not meant to be an accurate representation; certain events weren’t actual occurrences, etc. Now I’ve taken the Bible college classes. I’ve read Josh McDowell, C.S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, and the other brilliant scholars on the topic of Biblical infallibility and inerrancy. But, being a simpleminded gal, my questions are far more basic.

~Who gets to choose which parts are real and which are not?

~If creation is too unbelievable and unscientific and therefore allegorical, why isn’t the virgin birth allegorical?

~If Heaven is a real place, why isn’t Hell?

~If God’s Word tells us it is true but part of it isn’t really, why should we believe any of it?

~If everyone goes to Heaven, what makes it better than here?

~Since the Bible makes a point of telling us when a story is a parable, why would it not tell us if a story were indeed allegorical?

~Most importantly, if I can’t believe everything in God’s Word to us, why would I trust mere human people to tell me what He “really” demands?”

Thus ends Lisa’s post.

The following was my response.

I appreciate Lisa’s commitment to the inerrancy of Scripture. Certainly, this is a concept which has come under intense fire during these times. However, I feel that there are some gaps in logic and some exegetical fallacies left hanging by some of the comments in this conversation. So I’m going to play the party pooper and explore this topic of allegorical vs. literal interpretation a little bit, because, frankly, misconceptions leading to presumptions on this topic have been known to be my pet peeve.

Understand, going in, that I bear no animosity or ill will toward anyone who has honestly expressed their opinion on this thread. Break out your tar and feathers if you need to, but my only interest is a true and more complete understanding of the treasure we have in God’s written Word.

It is important to understand that God speaks in symbols. From Genesis 1:2 where the Spirit of God “hovers”* over the “face”** of the abyss, to Revelation 22:17 where the Spirit and the “bride” say, Come…take the “water of life” freely, Scripture bursts with symbolism.

*(Hebrew: רָחַף râchaph raw-khaf’ “flutters or broods” like the eagle who stirs up her nest over her young in Deuteronomy 32:11)

**(Hebrew פָנִים panim or paneh “countenance, visage”)

In fact, the ancient Hebrew in which the Old Testament was written is literally a language of metaphors. Just like in Chinese and ancient Egyptian, every Hebrew word is a visual illustration, formed by adding individual letter pictographs together to “paint” or illustrate the meaning of the word.

For instance, the Hebrew word “Yeshua” is depicted by the following pictographs:

Yud (An arm and hand. This symbolizes strength, work, worship, throw or simply a hand, depending on context)

Shin (Two front teeth. This symbolizes sharp, eat, consume, separate or destroy, depending on context and time period)

Vav (A tent peg or nail. This symbolizes joining, hooking, securing or simply a nail)

Ayin (An eye. This symbolizes knowledge, understanding or physical vision)

Together they form the Name of our Savior which paints the powerful imagery of “See how a hand will save or separate by a nail”. Yeshua also is the compound of “Ya” (“God”, or Behold the Strong one) and “Shua” (“to rescue”, or Watch me separate you from the destroyer by securing you unto myself.)

As you can see, rather than weakening the message of Scripture, these images, symbols, allegories or whatever you want to call them, actually enrich and deepen the meaning of the words. But it takes a little work, humility and imagination on our part to unpack the treasure.

It is important to understand that the Bible was written by people whose minds worked like this. They thought in images and symbols. The idioms they spoke sparkled with analogy. Even those who spoke Aramaic and wrote in Koine Greek were still immersed enough in the Hebrew culture to think like a Hebrew.

They learned by pondering, meditating and masticating the multi-layered imagery of their world, rather than by capturing sound bites from a designated expert, taking notes and memorizing the expert’s organized system of thinking and doing.

Not that there were no honored teachers. But the best Rabbis didn’t get behind a podium, deliver a lecture and then shoo everyone away. Rather, they lived, ate and slept with their disciples, sharing tools and clothing, acclaim and persecution, heartaches and laughter.

They led by example. “Watch me. Now you try it. Here, let me help. That’s right, Good Job!” And all the while, they told stories. Imaginative stories. Creative stories. Believable stories. Relevant stories. Empathetic stories. Fiction stories. Historical stories. Personal stories. Poignant stories. Hilarious stories. Disquieting stories. Uncomfortable stories. Allegorical stories.

Jesus certainly ministered in allegory. The thirteenth chapter of Matthew makes this clear. Verse 34 tells us that He spoke all these things to the crowd in parables and he did not say anything to them without using a parable. When questioned about why he did that rather than using what was at that time the popular and trendy Greek style of teaching (logical, rational, authoritarian and didactic vs. the Hebrew, relational, experiential, intuitive, and example-setting), Jesus responded,

“Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given . . . . And in them the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled, which says: ‘Hearing you will hear and shall not understand, and seeing you will see and not perceive, for the heart of this people has grown dull. Their ears are hard of hearing, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, lest they should understand with their heart and turn, so that I should heal them’” (Matthew 13:11,14,15).

I can understand why some sincere Christians hate it when a particular doctrine that they cherish as literal is characterized as allegorical. But allegorical is not synonymous with heretical. The world needs more allegory.

You see, what happened in the first couple of hundred years after Christ is that the church came under the influence of Greek thought. Hellenizers snuck, bought, bullied and negotiated their way into positions of influence in the early church. They became bishops and writers. They started schools which influenced developing creeds and systematic theology, but more than anything, they shifted our mentality to a Greek style of teaching and learning.

Logic and reason became sacrosanct. Symbolism, intuition and the gut-level indescribable spirit link between the human and the Divine became subservient to the Gnostic, information-based reign of the fleshly soul. That which was literal, tangible, researchable, provable, recorded, concrete, data-driven and time-space based was considered credible. That which was intangible, mystical, spiritual, intuitive, experiential, quantum and abstract, while reluctantly held in reserve as theoretically possible, was viewed with skepticism and strongly discouraged.

This led to works-based religious performance eclipsing faith-based spiritual life. It led to a clergy-dominant authoritative church infrastructure shouldering aside the unity of the spirit in the body of Christ where all are members one of another and the leaders are those who are the servants of all.

I have run into this mindset over the decades that I have written Christian stage plays. Some Christians don’t think that fiction or drama even have a legitimate place in ministry. Because imaginative story telling isn’t “true”, they consider it to be fake or superficial at best and deceiving at worst.

The thing is, that I layer my original fiction plots with symbolism and allegory. I try to have something that everyone can appreciate. If you simply want an entertaining, feel-good story with positive family values, you get that. If you want some deep theology to chew on, you’ll get that. If you want some subtle references to quantum physics or provocative thinking points on controversial contemporary issues and current events, you’ll find that, if you’re paying attention.

Yet it never ceases to amaze me how many people simply don’t get allegory. It’s like they have been trained that allegory is a work of Satan.

I struggle to understand how people can read the Bible and not relish symbolism or analogy. Do they think that Jesus is actually made of wood with hinges and a doorknob, while at the same time being composed of pure photons, while at the same time being a good loaf of artisan sourdough, while at the same time eating grass and bleating, while at the same time shaking his tawny mane and roaring, while at the same time being the granite foundation stone for a literal physical temple, while at the same time… You get the point.

With all due respect, I don’t think their issue is with symbolism at all. Anyone who is a serious student of scripture has symbolism in their DNA. I think what this argument is really about is my theology vs. your theology. In my theology, I accept certain symbolism as a given. Duh. But when the other guy decides that my favorite literal passage is symbolic, he’s a heretic and an enemy of the faith!

Okay, well, he might be. But not because he believes in symbolism and allegory. Because that’s the language God speaks. Just sayin’.

All right, let me take a stab at answering some of Lisa’s questions.

Q. “Who gets to choose which parts are real and which are not?”

A. The Holy Spirit. Not a scholar. Not a creed. Not a doctrine. If you don’t know how to have a two-way conversation with God, than stop trying to be an authority on what He meant by what He said.

Q. “If creation is too unbelievable and unscientific and therefore allegorical, why isn’t the virgin birth allegorical?”

A. Everything has an element of allegory to it. Even historical narratives have symbolic applications to us today. “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come.” (1 Corinthians 10:11) “[The earthly tabernacle and its furniture and rituals] …serve unto the example and shadow of heavenly things, as Moses was admonished of God when he was about to make the tabernacle: for, See, saith he, that thou make all things according to the pattern shewed to thee in the mount.” (Hebrews 8:5) The virgin birth prophesied by Isaiah was clearly allegorical, because it had a double interpretation. One during Isaiah’s time and a future Messianic one. In fact, the Hebrew word used by Isaiah doesn’t even specify virginity. It could indicate any young woman, virgin or not. That doesn’t mean that Jesus wasn’t born of a virgin. It simply means that Isaiah’s prophecy was allegorical.

Q. “If Heaven is a real place, why isn’t Hell?”

A. Too big of a topic to properly cover in this post. Both Heaven and Hell have both literal and allegorical elements.

Q. “If God’s Word tells us it is true but part of it isn’t really, why should we believe any of it?”

A. Faulty premise. Allegorical is not synonymous with untrue. I hope I have covered that above.

Q. “If everyone goes to Heaven, what makes it better than here?”

A. Nothing in scripture suggests that Earth is just as good as Heaven. Rather, Heaven is depicted as possessing the qualities of perfect righteousness, holiness, joy and peace forever. Even those evangelical Christians who believe in the ultimate reconciliation of all creation do not claim that in the end people will end up in heaven unchanged from their sinful ways. They would claim, rather, that no one can enter the presence of God without being changed.

Q. “Since the Bible makes a point of telling us when a story is a parable, why would it not tell us if a story were indeed allegorical?”

A. Do you always tell people “That was a pun” or “I was being sarcastic” or “That was a slang expression I just used right there”? A lot of the understanding of language usage is cultural. If you aren’t brushed up on near middle eastern history or third temple eschatology or Semitic idioms, don’t jump to the conclusion that God is being disingenuous.

Q. “Most importantly, if I can’t believe everything in God’s Word to us, why would I trust mere human people to tell me what He “really” demands?”

A. You can trust and believe everything in God’s Word. Just understand that it wasn’t written by 21st century American Christian Evangelical Protestants. So don’t trust 21st century American Christian Evangelical Protestants to tell you what He really demands. Ask the Holy Spirit. He’s the one who wrote it. He probably knows what He meant.

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