A significant number of Christians, especially in the Evangelical community, embrace a literal interpretation of the Bible. They believe God means exactly what His Word says and refuse to entertain any idea that some passages in Scripture employ literary devices such as metaphors, hyperbole, and allegories. Convinced of their position, they demand church doctrine align with a literal view; all other perspectives are heresy.
For example, literalists read Genesis and insist that God created the world in six 24-hour days. They read Revelation and contend that exactly one-third of the grass is burned (and not a blade more) when the first trumpet sounds, exactly two hundred million soldiers are saddled at the River Euphrates (and not one less) when the sixth trumpet sounds, and exactly a quarter of mankind is killed with the opening of the fourth seal (no more and no less). For them, orthodoxy requires rigid adherence to every dotted ‘i’ and crossed ‘t’.
Curiously, Bible literalists often ignore other Bible passages where a literal interpretation inconveniences them or disrupts their lifestyle. They employ a literal view of Scripture on an inconsistent basis. Let’s look at three such passages often disregarded by Bible literalists.
Jesus tells his followers, “When you give a dinner or a supper, do not ask your friends, your brothers, your relatives, nor your rich neighbors, lest they also invite you back, and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind. And you will be blessed because they cannot repay you, for you shall be repaid at the resurrection of the just” (Luke 14:12-14, NKJV).
The literal interpretation of this verse is quite clear. Yet, I wonder how many of those who claim to follow the Bible literally have obeyed this verse? How many have invited the homeless, destitute, and diseased into their homes and celebrated with a dinner party, social event, or celebration? We can all come up with excuses for why we don’t. It’s too dangerous. They’ll steal my stuff. No poor or homeless people live near me. They smell bad and behave boorishly. But Jesus doesn’t condition our obedience on convenience or safety. If you follow the Bible literally, then the next dinner or social event you host should include lots of strangers marginalized by society, not friends and family.
Some will argue that their church sponsors something similar during Thanksgiving, inviting the homeless and poor into the fellowship hall for a meal. Others will explain that they visit a homeless shelter once a month to help serve meals. And that’s all well and good, but it does not represent a literal application of Scripture. Those who claim to believe the Bible literally must invite “the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind” into their home the next time they host a social or family event. That’s literally what Jesus taught.
On another occasion Jesus told His disciples, “Assuredly, I say to you that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:23-24, NKJV). The literal interpretation is clear. It is difficult for the rich to enter heaven. That’s a very straightforward and easy to understand message. Yet, I wonder how many Bible literalists strive to be rich, or are rich? If your goal is to spend eternity with Jesus why make things hard on yourself by being rich?
I’ve heard this passage taught dozens of times by pastors and church leaders across the country. Curiously, the focus is almost always on what Jesus isn’t saying rather than on what he is. Ministers tell their congregations that Jesus isn’t telling us it’s wrong to be rich. He isn’t telling us that wealth is bad. He isn’t telling us that no one who is wealthy can make it into heaven. And so on, and so on. They want their flocks to understand that they can continue living prosperous lives of comfort, luxury, and excess and still experience eternity with Christ. They use the passage to teach the exact opposite message of what Jesus is communicating to His followers: Quit wasting your time pursuing wealth and the things of this world. Why? Because those who do become distracted from following Him and their faith never blossoms. Anyone serious about following Scripture literally will have a much different understanding and application of this passage than what we hear from the majority of pulpits on Sunday. Jesus’ words could not be clearer. Literally.
Finally, Jesus also informed His disciples, “You will be hated by all for My name’s sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 10:22, NKJV). Too often we hear that following Jesus will make things easier in life. Jesus rebukes that nonsense here and explains that things will actually get tougher. People will hate us for no other reason than our love for Him. To experience salvation, though, we must endure to the end. It is not enough to make a profession of faith and then succumb to the temptations of the world or renounce our faith in the face of persecution. Jesus declared we must endure. Only then will we enjoy eternity with Him. Too often we hear that as long as someone professes faith in Christ, he or she is guaranteed eternal salvation. But that is not what Jesus teaches here, or in any other passage. If we really believe the inerrancy and literal interpretation of the Bible, we must recognize that God calls us to remain faithful until the end.
Sadly, few Christians embrace the literal (and intended) interpretation of the above passages. Instead, most of us perform all sorts of intellectual gyrations to avoid arriving at the application Jesus intended when He taught His disciples these truths. Surprisingly, even Bible literalists reject the literal (and obvious) message of Jesus’ teachings because doing so will burden or inconvenience them. It will force them to live lives they have no interest in living and follow a faith they cannot reconcile with their current lifestyles. So to ensure their doctrinal purity they proclaim themselves defenders of Bible truth and insist on a literal interpretation of the Bible – but only when it’s an intellectual exercise that doesn’t disrupt their daily routine. But that’s not Bible literalism, that’s hypocrisy.
I’m not suggesting a literal interpretation of Scripture is wrong. Generally, I take that approach myself, except when it is clear a literary device is being used. However, when Bible literalists apply their rigid interpretation only to verses that require nothing more than intellectual assent and refuse to apply it to verses that inconvenience, discomfort, or disrupt their lives and lifestyle, then that is not only wrong, it is dangerous duplicity. And that could cost them in the end.