How to Respond When People Say the Bible Is Metaphorical
How would you respond if someone said to you, “The Bible is only metaphorical. You can’t take it literally.” Chances are, you’d be stumped, tongue-tied, and at a loss for how to answer. But the answer is both yes and no.
First off, the Bible in its entirety is the literal, authentic story of God: of Him creating the world and all its inhabitants—both animal and human—of man’s unfortunate fall, and of God’s redemptive plan for saving mankind. Yet, within that macro-literal story are hundreds of micro-stories, many of which contain beautiful and illustrative metaphors.
What Is a Metaphor?
A metaphor is a literary device used to compare two things that are unalike. They are strategically used by writers to help explain or expound upon a deeper, richer idea or truth. For instance, the phrase “Life is a highway.” We know that life is not a literal highway, but it aptly illustrates how an individual’s journey in this world includes twists and turns, ups and downs, curves and straight stretches. The comparison of life to a highway isn’t meant to be taken literally.
This same principle applies to the metaphors in Scripture. Metaphors are just one of the many literary devices God used to connect with us, to teach us, and to invite us into a deeper understanding of Himself and His Word.
Examples of Scriptural Metaphors
When someone says that the Bible is just metaphorical, they are both right and wrong. The rightness of their opinion is supported by two specific Scriptures: Psalm 119:105 and Hebrews 4:12: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path,” and “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”
We know God’s Word is not a literal lamp or a sharp implement. Yet, these two metaphors paint vivid mental pictures of how God’s truths illuminate and guide our faith and sharpen our minds. The words path and sword encompass the entire Bible. So yes, in this way, the entire Bible is indeed metaphorical. And you can absolutely agree with the one who makes that statement.
We can also agree with them that the Bible is rife with hundreds of micro metaphors. Jesus himself relied heavily on them when talking about himself. “I am the bread of life,” Jesus said in John 6:35. The Jews knew that bread was a vital life sustenance in that ancient culture. The body could not function with it. Jesus appropriated that idea of bread as sustenance and applied it to himself, as the sustains our spiritual lives.
He purposefully used language that the common man—many of which at that time were unlearned, like the disciples—could understand, relate to, and easily identify with. It is this type of language that invited curiosity and contemplation. And still does.
“Metaphors have the power to capture imagination. Metaphors have the power to capture an image and communicate a message to the hearers that forces them to think and respond,” says Dr. Claude Mariottini, Professor of Old Testament at Northern Baptist Seminary. “The benefit of using metaphors in speech is that the metaphorical language uses both the mind and the emotions to communicate a message thus helping the hearers understand the message through the use of the metaphor. When the speaker uses a metaphor to communicate a truth, the understanding of the meaning of the metaphor opens a window for the proper understanding of content of the message.”
Here are a few more examples:
- “I am the Door of the sheep” (John 10:7)
- “I am the Light of the world” (John 8:12)
- “I am the Vine” (John 15:1, 5)
Again, we know Jesus is not a literal door or a light or a vine. He simply appropriated those images to demonstrate that he is the way to eternal salvation and enduring sustenance.
Metaphors were also employed by the psalmists, the prophets, and the apostles, alike.
- Israel as a harlot (Ezekiel 16:15; the entire Book of Hosea)
- Believers running a race (Galatians 5:7a, 1 Corinthians 9:24)
- The Church as the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27)
- Satan as a roaring lion (1 Peter 5:8)
Metaphors as Instructive
Metaphors also help us to see the varied nuances and facets of our Father and his Son, Jesus. In some ways, they are instructive, conjuring up images of God and Jesus we wouldn’t have necessarily assigned to them, seeing them in a different light, a true light. These images bring us comfort, joy, hope, and strength, and they help us to connect with God in ways another literary device would have failed.
Says Rev. Michael J. Glodo, Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, FL, “Metaphors introduce tension into ideas or concepts that cause us to open our eyes wider. And, they appeal to the whole person more, to the emotions as well as to the intellect. We can identify with metaphorical language because they connect concepts to sensory experience, whether it’s sight, sound, smell, and so forth.”
- God as a sun and a shield (Psalm 84:11)
- God with sheltering wings (Psalm 91:4)
- God as a rock and a fortress (Isaiah 64:8, 2 Samuel 22:2, Psalm 18:2)
- Jesus as a shepherd (Psalm 23:1, Ezekiel 34:15-16)
- Jesus as high priest (Hebrews 4:14-16)
- Jesus’ sacrifice, a fragrant offering (Ephesians 5:2)
We see from this list, too, that there is not one specific metaphor we can apply to God or to Jesus. They are all of them, all at once, all the time. And these wonderful descriptive metaphors often offer us comfort and compassion, strength and sustenance, hope and healing.
Photo Credit: Unsplash.com/timothy-eberly
Metaphors as Gospel Tools
Metaphors can be used as significant aids when communicating the Gospel, since they profoundly illustrate truths the average person (even children) can understand. When we are presented with a divine opportunity to speak on behalf of God—as “fishers of men” (Mark 1:17—God gave us several marvelous metaphors to use when describing His Son, so as to make Him attractive and intriguing, and which should invite a response on the hearer’s part—hopefully, acceptance.
Jesus as the Lamb of God: In times past, God required the sacrifice of a perfect animal to atone for a person’s sins. Jesus became that once-for-all atoning sacrifice, as the perfect Lamb who satisfied God’s wrath. Because of this, we’re no longer required to offer our own sacrifices. We only need to accept Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf, through belief and faith. When we do, we avoid God’s wrath of eternal punishment and damnation.
Jesus as the Light of the world: Jesus’ sinless life shone in and through the darkness of this evil world, illuminating sin and exposing it as separating us from God. Jesus alone is the exclusive source of salvation. No other “light”—however attractive—can accomplish what Jesus already did for us. Once we appropriate the Light, we ourselves become miniature, but impactful, “lights” to the world (Matthew 5:14-16).
Salvation as a covenant, with an inheritance: Through salvation, we make a reciprocal covenant (agreement) with God that involves faith (trust) on our part and unconditional commitment on His. The result is that we receive an inheritance (eternity), one that can neither be revoked nor rescinded.
Believers as adopted children: Before Christ, we were children under the influence of the evil one, living our lives in licentiousness and lawlessness. After appropriating the free gift of grace through faith in Jesus, though, we were forgiven of all our sins, redeemed, and wonderfully adopted into a new (though still flawed) family, known as the Church, the Body and Bride of Christ. Through our spiritual adoption, we now enjoy special blessings and benefits found only in this Family.
There are other metaphors that refer to salvation, too: Kingdom of God (Matthew 5:3), strangers and aliens (1 Peter 2:11), sheep (Matthew 25:32), salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16), to name a few. All of these images individually represent one aspect of salvation, seen from a different perspective. Taken together, though, they create a broader, more complete picture. We need all of them to get a comprehensive and proper view of the Gospel message and salvation.
Metaphors as Prayers
Metaphors can also impact our prayers. Picturing God as a mighty king, a rock, or a strong tower/fortress, or Jesus as a gentle shepherd or a warrior high priest strongly and vividly influences our images of them, how we perceive them. While we understand that God is not a literal fortress or rock, these “metaphors often inform us what God can do, not what He is. They often describe His abilities, not His attributes. Thus, He is like a strong tower or shield that can protect us, or He has wings that can hold us up, etc… Metaphors communicate what God is like in an indirect and non-literal way…They are also evocative, even though they are not literally descriptive,” says theologian Norman Geisler in his book, Systematic Theology, Vol. 2, God/Creation.
As we visually engage with each image in our prayers and medications, they invite a particular response to God and Jesus, accordingly, whether it is with confidence or humility or gratefulness.
The Bible, for many people, is difficult to grasp, both intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. The many metaphors in Scripture are just one means God sovereignly used to help us understand Him in all His facets and Being, His Word—which also includes the use of a variety of genres, other figures of speech, and imagery—and His plans and purposes for mankind.
I know that was a bit of a circuitous way to answer that initial question, but I hope and pray the points above give you sufficient (though not exhaustive) spiritual “ammunition” when discussing this topic with someone.
Photo Credit: ©Getty Images/Pamela D McAdams
Denise is a former newspaper reporter and current freelance writer. She has been published in numerous online and print publications. She is also a former Women's Bible Study teacher. Denise's passion is to use her writing to bless, encourage, and inform others. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and two children (another has grown and flown). You can find Denise at denisekohlmeyer.com.