By Ben Owens | February 17, 2023
In a recent conversation, a skeptic posed the objection to me that Christians make more out of the Bible than was ever intended. On this view, we Christians go wrong by taking the Jesus story literally. We mistakenly proclaim Jesus as the Savior in whom we must all believe when it was actually intended to be taken allegorically, just a vehicle for teaching good morals like any number of other religions.
This gentleman asked for my response, the substance of which (having been lightly edited) is reproduced below.
To assume that none of the Bible is to be taken literally is to beg the question. On the merits of the historical evidence, it is now beyond dispute—even among secular historians—that Jesus was a real historical figure and that the apostles were real men, operating in the first-century.
The apostle Paul, for instance, is still regarded as one of the great minds of the ancient world. Furthermore, in the New Testament, we have the writings of these apostles and their eyewitness record of the preaching ministry of Jesus—the source material for the “principles” you rightly commend.
The trouble is, the words of Jesus and the teachings of the apostles are manifestly irreconcilable with your view of them as merely “the same principles in many religions.”
Jesus claimed that He came to die for our sins and proclaimed that we must trust in Him as our Savior to be forgiven: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45) “Therefore I said to you that you will die in your sins; for if you do not believe that I am He, you will die in your sins.” (John 8:24)
Similarly, the apostles spent their lives proclaiming the Good News that we can be forgiven of our sin by trusting in Jesus and His perfect sacrifice:
Peter: “Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)
Paul: “Therefore let it be known to you, brethren, that through this Man is preached to you the forgiveness of sins; and by Him everyone who believes is justified from all things from which you could not be justified by the law of Moses.” (Acts 13:38-39)
John: “And this is the testimony: that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life. These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life.” (I John 5:11-13)
Of these last three quotations, the first two are excerpted from sermons. The first, was delivered by Peter in Jerusalem c. AD 30 at the feast of Pentecost. Paul’s sermon was given in a synagogue in Psidian Antioch around the spring of AD 48. Both excerpts are from the writings of Luke, a trained physician who declared His purpose for writing: “Inasmuch as many have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed.” (Luke 1:1-4)
The final excerpt is from one of John’s personal letters, written near the end of the first-century to encourage believers in their faith.
This is not allegory. To take these quotations as allegorical is a hermeneutical error. If I receive a jury summons requiring me to appear at the district court on Monday, I could dismiss it as an allegorical encouragement to try to be a good neighbor. That may help me feel better about staying home on Monday.
But it would be an error. I’d be confusing one genre of literature with another. And my mistake would have real-world consequences.
Interpreting within genre is fundamental to good Bible interpretation. No serious Christian denies that the Bible contains poetry, figurative language, wordplay etc. We don’t seek to apply a woodenly literal interpretation to expressions which were obviously not intended to be taken literally.
But figurative language from historical figures is not the same thing as allegory. Figures of speech are intended to communicate literal truth. Over the course of His ministry, Jesus spoke of Himself as “the Door”, “the Way”, “The Bread of Life”, and “The Light of the World”.
What’s striking is that—in context—these expressions are clearly figurative ways of expressing what Jesus and the apostles so plainly and unanimously expressed in their preaching: Jesus is the Savior in whom we must believe for salvation.
All of the Bible is united in this message. An unbiased reading of the New Testament reveals this truth. This is why we encourage everyone to come with an open mind and read it for themselves.