Does It Matter If The Resurrection Is A Metaphor?

Does it matter if the resurrection was literal? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

Wednesday night, I was at the debate between my father-in-law, Mike Licona, and John Dominic Crossan about who the historical Jesus was and how he saw himself. I hate to say it, but it really wasn’t much of a debate because I don’t think anyone really understood what Crossan was arguing. Crossan was putting practically everything into the world of metaphor and saying that the message was a metaphor and that he would die for a metaphor and if the resurrection is literal, what difference would it make? The real question is are we living resurrected lives.

When I got up to ask a question, I said my wife and I enjoy being married. Still, we wonder what will happen when our time comes. Will we be together forever? I replied that a literal resurrection can assure us that we will be. What hope can a metaphor give us?

The reply was something along the lines of how the message was not the resurrection of individuals but that the human race would overcome. The violence of Rome would be overthrown by non-violence. This is supposedly the good news of Jesus.

There are a number of things I wonder about this, such as how this Jesus got crucified. Despite that, there is one thing I want to focus on. The resurrection. Does it make a difference if it’s a metaphor or literal?

I’m not going to go into making a whole case for the resurrection. That has been done plenty of times elsewhere. I am going to be emphasizing the difference it makes and to be fair, it is easy to miss this many times.

One big difference is that we live in a world where death is a reality. We see it all around us. We know that when the game over comes for someone, it really is game over barring a miracle. It’s a sad reality. When we bury a loved one, they are dead, and the relationship is not the same.

Will it ever be? Is that it?

We live in a world of injustice. Recently here in Atlanta, we had a police officer shot who died from that and his killer was found within 48 hours and also died when he pulled out a weapon on police officers. There are many crimes that take place and sadly, the culprit is never found. Some people seem to go free.

Will there ever be justice?

Sometimes people die from disease. Our friend, Nabeel Qureshi, died from stomach cancer at an extremely young age. Just today in my Facebook memories I saw something about a friend who passed away last year. She was an older lady, but it’s still hard to see.

Will this ever be righted?

What about our universe itself? Some of you out there I am sure believe we are responsible for some climate change. We live in a world there does seem to be a lot of destruction. We want to colonize other planets, but even if we do, the universe is destined to die a cold death and take us with it.

Is there any point?

What about our bodies themselves? Do they matter? Are human beings just objects. Does it matter what I do with my body? Does it matter how I behave sexually or how my diet is?

What difference does it make?

This is why the resurrection matters? Will we live again and see each other again? Yes. Will evil be judged and good rewarded? Yes. Will lives be redeemed that died from tragic disease? Yes. Will the Earth and the universe be renewed and made eternal paradises? Yes. Do our bodies matter and how we treat them? Yes.

The resurrection matters.

It matters that it’s literal.

I think I’ll stick with the literal resurrection. That’s the good news that overcame the Earth. Christianity isn’t just a nice story. It’s a reality about the world and everything in it.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Those interested in the debate can listen to it here.

The Hang-Up Of Literalism

Can literalism be ┬ádanger? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

Often times in debate, I am charged by atheists with ignoring the literal meaning of the text. Many Christians meanwhile think it’s a virtue to take very text as literally as possible. It’s ironic that both groups read the text the same way. All that differs really is the allegiance.

When we say literal, most often, people mean a straightforward idea. The text means what it says and says what it means. Of course, there are texts like that out there. There are also texts that are not like that. You know what other work of literature out there contains some pieces that are straightforward literal and some that are not?

Nearly every single other one that exists.

When I spoke of the Christian and the atheist above, both of these groups often forget the Bible is literature. Whatever else you think it is, be it you think it’s the Word of God or be it you think it is the “Buy-bull” as some atheists say, it is still a work of literature and should be treated as such. That means you will use many of the same techniques you use when reading other works of literature to read the Bible.

I once wrote a blog post where I went through the Gospel of John and showed that Jesus had immense difficulties with people who interpreted his text literally. Given that this was such a problem, perhaps we should not read Scripture that way. Yet as soon as I say that, there rises up an immediate question.

“How do you know which pieces are literal and which are not?”

Well, how do you do that with other literature?

There’s no magic bullet rule. Really. There isn’t. Most writers assume that their audience does not consist of fools. In fact, most of us assume some background knowledge on the part of the author. For instance, in my writing this series, for the most part I have not defined a single word. That might seem like a blatantly obvious point, but I also haven’t gone through saying “This is literal” or “This is hyperbole” or “This is a metaphor” or anything like that. I tend to leave it to you, the reader, to find out because I frankly don’t want to assume you don’t know how to read.

The Biblical writers were the same way with an important difference. First off, most anyone who could read their text had to be educated since literacy was not as abundant as it is today. Second, many of their texts would be read by the readers and would also be read to an audience. Often times, especially in the NT, this could include having commentary. When Phoebe delivers the letter to the Romans, chances are, she explained it as well.

Unfortunately, we in the West often think the Bible was written to us in our time and culture and language and place and can be totally separated from its own time and culture and language and place. No. It can’t. That background is different from ours very often. We can have a tendency to read our own ideas into the text.

One key example of this is when the Old Testament talks about slavery. Most people over here in the West today will think of the Civil War. Is that what the writer had in mind? Maybe. Maybe not. If you want to know what he had in mind, you have to study slavery in the Ancient Near East. That requires work. I’m not going to go into detail on it now. That will leave some work for you to do, but if you care about what the text means, it’s something you’ll likely do.

In fact, literal is itself misunderstood. The word really means “According to the intent of the author.” It requires work to try to get into the mind of the author, but that is work worth doing. As we continue looking at hermeneutics, we’ll learn some questions to ask and how to do the research.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Book Plunge: Language for God in Patristic Tradition

What do I think about Mark Sheridan’s book published by IVP? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

How do you interpret a text of Scripture? The ways it’s done throughout history have changed and this book by Mark Sheridan is a fascinating look at the earliest interpreters. Today, we often have an idea that we have to get at the “literal” meaning of the text, but a look at the church fathers shows they were quite different. In fact, it looks like many times the last thing they wanted to do was to take the text “literally.” The first point was to take the text in a manner that was fitting to God. This would mean that you had to avoid things that would seem like emotional outbursts on the part of the deity. If the text said God was angry, you had to interpret that differently because the deity does not get angry. While I agree with that point, it is irrelevant to the thesis of the book as well. You can say that fathers were wrong in that belief, but the reality is that is still how they interpreted the text.

It wasn’t just them. They got this also from Philo who before Christianity followed the same kind of path with looking at the work we call the Old Testament today, even to the point of thinking philosophers like Plato had read Moses. Philo wanted to make sure the text was also being read in a way that was fitting to God and this would often mean a strong allegorical interpretation. The church fathers followed in suit with the allegory and sometimes, it looks quite amazing. We can look at what the church fathers said in their day and wonder how it could be that someone would come to that interpretation.

For instance, consider Psalm 137 where we are told about Babylon that happy is he who takes your infants and dashes them against the rocks. It’s not just moderns today who have a hard time interpreting the passage. The ancients did too. Their viewpoint was that the children of Babylon are the sins that we struggle with. The rock that the babies then were dashed against was Christ. The message the Psalmist was giving then was that we should take our sins and dash them against the rock of Christ so that they could be destroyed. Most of us today look at that and say “Huh?”, but in the time of the Fathers, this would have been seen as a valid interpretation.

Other passages were also troubling to them. What about what Abraham did with Hagar? What are we to do with that? What about the imprecatory Psalms? What are we to do with those? What about the conquest of Canaan? How do we handle that? The ancients struggled with this just like we do. Sheridan takes us through many of the church fathers to see how they interpreted these passages. In the end then, he takes us up to our modern era to show how we handle them today. Do we necessarily have a clear interpretation? Maybe not, but it is important to see how this has gone on throughout history and to realize that our hang-up on literalism is really a more modern one than anything else.

I do encourage those interested in the history of interpretation to read Sheridan’s book. You’ll quite likely disagree with your Christian ancestors, but it will be well worth the read.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Reading The Bible As Literature

Is there a reason so many debates about the Bible just miss the point? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

Okay. We get it in the atheism/theism debates. Some people believe the Bible is reliable. Some do not. That’s fine and until the return of Christ, that’s not going to change. Yet I have been pondering lately that the way we talk about the Bible is part of the problem, and this isn’t just how atheists talk about it, but also how theists talk about it.

It seems while we speak about if the claims of the Bible are true, which we should, there is a lack of the recognition that the Bible is a piece of literature. It speaks with allegory, hyperbole, metaphor, simile, etc. It uses poetry and narrative and proverbs and apocalypses to make its point. The Bible exists in one book, but it is itself a collection of many books, books written by different authors in different times and locations.

Considering all of this, the Bible is not going to be an easy book to understand! Add in that it comes from languages different from our own, a culture different from our own, a time different from our own, and a place different from our own.

I started pondering this the most recent time I saw someone describe the Bible as a book of fairy tales. This is a common claim, but quite frankly a strange one. Fairy tales are really wonderful works of literature that show a richness of imagination and insight into the human predicament. What kind of person would laugh at a fairy tale for being a fairy tale? Yet this kind of statement is not an insult to the Bible alone, but it is also a lowering of the kind of writing that is a fairy tale.

Now why do many atheists say this? I suspect it’s because our culture has been heavily influenced by scientism. We have this idea that all truth should be amenable to the sciences and that science is the highest way of knowing anything if not the only way of knowing anything. We expect then the Bible to speak in scientific language because we are a scientific people.

It doesn’t, and that’s not because the Bible is anti-science. Many of us are not anti-science and we don’t speak in scientific language. The Bible has a totally different purpose. Even if you don’t think it is from God, the authors at least were really trying to make a message about God and they did not have to do it in a way that is convenient to modern listeners. They would write in ways their immediate audience would understand.

Besides, how many of us would really like to have many events described in scientific language? Consider for instance the union of man and woman in the act of sex. Which account would you rather here to describe what happens in the event? Would you prefer a purely scientific account or would you prefer to get an account perhaps from the lovers themselves? (Naturally after they’re done. There won’t be much desire to explain in the midst of the act.)

If you choose the first one, I pity you. I really do.

What needs to be done is to wrestle with the literary forms of the Bible and see if maybe our modern ideas of what the text means are wrong. Perhaps the Bible is not interested in the questions we are interested in. Perhaps one really needs to wrestle with the text to understand it. Still want to disbelieve it? Fine. At least do your part to really try to understand it as a text.

I’ve spoken about the atheists, but frankly, I think the theists are just as guilty. In fact, in many ways, I think my fellow theists are more guilty than the atheists are because we’ve set the standard that the atheist will follow.

For us, it really boils down to one word.

Literal.

Immediately, some people reading this who are Christians are going into a defensive stance because I have just made a statement that is going to dare to suggest that we don’t take the Bible literally. Why I must just be a liberal Christian who rejects miracles and inerrancy and everything else.

On the contrary, I believe we should ALWAYS take the Bible literally.

Why?

Because literal really means “According to the intent of the author.” If the author meant the text to be taken straight forwardly, then do so. If he meant it to be a narrative, then do so. If he meant it to be a metaphor or an apocalypse or a generality, then take it that way as well.

Too often, we have taken literal to mean something more like a wooden reading of the text. That’s not what a literal meaning is. That’s why in today’s parlance if I was asked if the Bible is the Word of God to be interpreted literally, I would say no, because sometimes the Bible is not straight forward.

Why should this surprise us? Jesus told his own parables in a confusing manner. In fact, he did so purposely. Job in his book talked about the search for wisdom and compared it to mining and digging deep for great wealth. It would not be easy to understand and considering all we’ve said about the Bible, why should it be?

Thus, when we hear Christians talk about the literal interpretation, too often it sets up atheists who think that this is always the way the Bible should be read and when read in that sense, they reject most of it as nonsense, and who can blame them? In fact, none of us take it that way or else in reading the words of Jesus, we’d all be blind and have no hands. (Too many people heavy into inerrancy fall into this trap of literal interpretation.)

In fact, when I put a short form of this up on Facebook, what happened immediately but a debate started about Genesis 1, which shows the problem! It’s immediately jumped to that Genesis 1 must be read in scientific terms! Surely this is what the author of the text meant to convey!

But maybe it wasn’t! Could it be someone like John Walton is right with his interpretation of Genesis One. Of course he could be wrong, but isn’t it worth listening to to consider first instead of assuming our presupposition is correct?

The theist, you see, is often guilty of not treating the Bible as literature as well and not really being able to wrestle with the text and ask the hard questions of the text. Some of us have this idea that we should not question the Bible. I disagree entirely. We should question the Bible with every question we can bring to it. In doing so, we can best find out what it is the text is saying.

Ironically, the two sides mentioned both have similar mindsets. Both of them tend to view the Bible always in a straight forward sense and both assume the Bible was written in a way that is directly fitted for modern 20th and 21st century people in a Western civilization.

Maybe it isn’t.

That’s not the fault of the Bible then. That’s the fault of us for wrestling with the text.

If you are on a debate site and you are arguing about the Bible, then for this part, it doesn’t really matter what side you’re on. You owe it to yourself to wrestle with the text as literature and seek to find out what it means and why you think it means what it means. If someone questions that, then it’s up to you to defend your position and if you can’t, be open to changing your mind.

Will we still disagree about the truth claims of the Bible? Absolutely! Yet if we follow a procedure like this, hopefully some of us will have instead better informed disagreements as to the nature of the text and what it is saying rather than a quick dismissal of it all or a quick embrace of it all.

In Christ,
Nick Peters