King James Cosmology

Figurative, Relative, and Symbolic Language in the Bible

Do You Believe?

Among those who deem themselves Bible Believers, "Biblicists," or even "Evangelical" there is a common claim, "I believe every word of the Bible and take it all literally" or just "I take the Bible literally." Some will go as far to say something like, "I believe in the verbal, plenary inspiration of the Scriptures and take every word literally." Though these words may sound "orthodox" and true to Bible doctrine, they can state more than what is actually true. Some may have not considered it, but having a literal approach to the Bible and taking it "ALL literally" are two different things as we will explain below.

Those who demand the "all literal" treatment of the Scriptures see their view as a type of "litmus text"  concerning whether a person is "sound in the faith." Most of these hard line literalists have disdain and even contempt for those who don't agree with them. They are considered "liberal" or "modernistic." Actually, your author has found that many who make such claims don't actually realize what they are saying. They equate taking all the words of the Bible literally with taking it as truth, but again, these concepts are not the same.

When one confronts many of these literalists with some of the obvious figurative language in the Bible they begin to "crawfish." "Well..." they say, "there is some figurative language in the Bible, but I take every word as literal except where it is impossible to do so."  Sometimes they won't face the figurative language all the while still insisting they receive the "whole Bible." Trying to get some of them to even admit certain passages are figurative is like "pulling teeth" because of the implications involving some of their pet doctrines. These doctrines are built on taking certain words as "wooden literal," and where proof is shown that the words are obviously figurative, they resist to the point of ignoring that part of Scripture completely. Instead of being the big, bold believers of the "whole counsel of God" they like to think they are, they selectively ignore certain parts of Scripture that do not support their doctrine. Some act as if their doctrine must survive regardless what the Scriptures actually say.

The simple fact is the Scriptures "are full" of figurative language. It is all through them from the Garden of Eden to the Great White Throne. Often figurative language is the preferred method the Lord uses to communicate with man, and figurative or representative words can sometimes be more effective in revealing truth than sterile, literal terms. The Lord can write His Bible however He wants, and He chose to use a lot of non-literal language to do it.

A Dearth of Material

It is interesting to observe that among the Bible Believing crowd there is almost no material on the study of figurative language in the Bible. This very important topic that deals with many words in the Scriptures is essentially ignored. Bible Believers have rightly emphasized the literal approach to the Scriptures (as opposed to the allegorical approach) for so long they have failed to realize that significant parts of them are not to be taken strictly literal. Some of the brethren (who may have even been in the ministry for years)  don't have the slightest idea how to determine figurative language or deal with it once they have found it. For instance, in Rev. 20 John sees an angel with a chain and key who descends to earth to bind Satan. Those who treat the chapter as allegorical (Amillennialists, etc) insist every thing is figurative, the key, the chain, and the 1000 year period (Millennium), etc. They will confront the literalist with "How can a spiritual creature be bound with a literal chain" and because of his ignorance of how to deal with figurative language the literalist often has no convincing (or even sensible) answer. (See below for more on Satan's Chain)

What does it mean when one says he "takes the Bible literally"? Does he really realize what he is saying? Your author is convinced some use the phrase simply because they want to be counted among "the faithful" while realizing that many parts of the Bible cannot be taken strictly literal. They use the accepted "lingo" but with reservations. Others who are less informed don't seem to know what the word "literal" even means and use it ignorantly. In this chapter we will look into this issue.

"Biblical Literalism" and the Scriptures

There are generally two senses to what is called "Biblical Literalism." The first defines "literalism" as "adherence to the exact letter or the literal sense" where literal means "in accordance with, involving, or being the primary or strict meaning of the word or words; not figurative or metaphorical." That is, all the Bible's words must be read in the most strictly literal sense unless absolutely impossible.

The second view is known as the "Historical-Grammatical Method" which is just a a fancy way of saying the reader "strives to discover the Biblical authors' original intended meaning in the text." This method not only takes into account the actual words but it does not ignore "the relevance of literary aspects, genre, or figures of speech within the text." Both views can be said to approach the Bible "literally," but the second considers the context words are found in and how the words are used throughout the context and Scripture as a whole.

It may come as a surprise to some but today's Biblical Literalism is a fairly new concept, not much more than 100 years old. Before then the Bible was generally accepted, by unbelievers as well as believers, as simply the authoritative word of God. It was considered God's very words given to man and essentially all treated it as such. Whether to take the words "literally" or not was not an issue. However, with the rise of "rationalism" and later "liberalism" and "modernism" during the 18th and 19th centuries, some began to view the Bible as "allegorical" or "symbolical" and treated it as just another historical book.

Around the turn of the 20th century a movement among true believers arose to combat modernism which became known as "Fundamentalism." Fundamentalism's key goal was to promote the "inerrancy of the Bible" and emphasize the literal nature of biblical accounts such as Christ's virgin birth, His miracles, His resurrection, and bodily return. Thus, in contrast to the Modernists and Liberals who mostly deny these truths, the Fundamentalists became known as "literalists" who emphasize Biblical Literalism.

The type of literalism of those who started the Fundamentalist movement was of the second type mentioned above; the Historical-Grammatical Method. Men such as R. A. Torrey, C. I. Scofield, Arthur T. Pierson, James Orr, G. Campbell Morgan, Charles T. Studd, Philip Mauro, A. C. Dixon, and James M. Gray were staunch defenders of the inspiration of the Scriptures and insisted "the Bible plainly teaches that inspiration extends to its words," but they were not strict literalists insisting the Bible's words could ONLY be understood through "wooden literalism." They believed the Scriptures also reveal truth through figurative language and can express truths using man's earthly, human perspective. A Bible word's context and biblical usage were a key aid in conveying the intended meaning. This is still the position of the majority of Fundamentalists and most Evangelicals today.

However, there are still those who claim to adhere to strict literalism, and many claim to be King James Bible Believers. They spout off of how they take every word of the Bible absolutely literally whenever possible, but in such statements they reveal their ignorance.

Take The Bible As "Literal" Or Take It As Truth?

The term "literal" in any form is not found in the Bible, yet the term "figure" is. Adam is a figure of Christ (Rom 5:14); the tabernacle a figure of the "more perfect tabernacle" (Heb 9:11); and baptism a figure of salvation (1Pet 3:21). "Similitude" is a term much like a figure. It is used referring to the prophets speaking in a parable or comparison like manner. The Scriptures do not spend time using words like "literal" or "figurative" to describe its words; it uses much more weighty and meaningful words like "truth." Consider these passages,
"Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth." (Joh 17:17)
"But he said, I am not mad, most noble Festus; but speak forth the words of truth and soberness." (Act 26:25)
"By the word of truth, by the power of God, by the armour of righteousness on the right hand and on the left," (2Co 6:7)
"In whom ye also trusted, after that ye heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation..." (Eph 1:13)
"whereof ye heard before in the word of the truth of the gospel;" (Col 1:5)
"...when ye received the word of God which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God," (1Th 2:13)
"...rightly dividing the word of truth." (2Ti 2:15)
"Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth..." (Jam 1:18)
All is clear. The primary way one is to treat the Scriptures is as the very words of God consisting of TRUTH. If the words are to be taken as literal they are TRUTH. If they are to be taken as figurative, such as the parables, etc., they are still to be received as TRUTH, even if the words themselves are not to be taken as strictly literal. For instance, Jesus said plainly,
"I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me." (John 14:6)
but He also said,
"I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved,..." (John 10:9)
Is either statement less true than the other? Even though one uses figurative language and cannot be taken verbally literal? Absolutely not! Both statements are Scripture and TRUTH and express very similar concepts. That the latter uses figurative language does not weaken its power or veracity at all. Since it is quite clear that the figurative expression ("door") is meant to be understood as a figure, then understanding it that way is actually approaching the text literally and as intended! That is, one is taking the Bible as literal "TRUTH" even when many of its words express the truth in a non-literal manner.

To expand upon our introductory comments above,  in this day and age of rationalism and liberalism a question is often asked in surveys and such, "Do you believe the Bible literally?" That is a rather ambivalent question. Actually, the person is not really asking if one takes every word of the Bible as literal. They are asking if one believes the Bible is actually true as opposed to allegorical or symbolic. The key concept is that of TRUTH; is the Bible true. Did God really create the heaven and earth, did He send a world-wide flood, did He part the Red Sea, was Jesus Christ really God manifest in the flesh, did He really rise from the dead, etc., etc. Any believer who believes the Scriptures are the true words of God and receives them as they are intended is taking them as actual TRUTH even though some of its truths are expressed in non-literal language.

Again, so you will remember, when the Lord said He is "the door," that is the literal TRUTH expressed in figurative words. God's words are ALL TRUTH but not all His words are to be taken "literally." There are many, many similar instances of this type of language. Think about that a while. Maybe some of you should reconsider how you explain your approach to the Scriptures. As for your author, he contends all the words are TRUTH, literal or not.

The "Human" Attributes of God

Since in the Scriptures the Lord is speaking to men on earth, He often uses human "speech" peppered with human attributes to describe Himself. Christ said "God is a spirit," but what do physical men who rely on their God-given senses know about immaterial spirits? How would a man interact with a spirit or how would a spirit describe Himself to a mortal man without using words and concepts man can fathom? God knows we are merely flesh and finite creatures and thus often speaks with us as if He has our fleshly, finite attributes. From the physical perspective God is said to have a face (Leviticus 20:6); (Numbers 6:25); a hand (with tattoos!, Isa 49:16!) which He can stretch out (Exodus 7:5; Isaiah 23:11), a strong arm (Psalm 89:10). He “stoops down to look on the heavens and the earth” (Psalm 113:6). He “keeps his eye” on the land (Deut 11:12), He smells (Gen 8:21), holds His tongue (Hab 1:13), and the earth is said to be His “footstool” (Isaiah 66:1). Does a spirit inherently and literally have these attributes? Not at all. The Lord is accommodating us so we can understand Him. The fancy name for these descriptions is "anthropomorphism."

Some Geocentrists will claim God actually does have the "form" of these physical features. He does have hands, feet, face, etc., even though He is a spirit. They feel compelled to claim this because if these descriptions of God are figurative, then the descriptions of the heavens may be figurative also. Gerardus Bouw insists in his book "A Geocentric Primer," "Most assuredly, God has hands and feet." Bouw is not referring to the instances in the Scriptures where the Lord would appear to people in human form (Genesis 12:7-9; 18:1-33; 32:22-30), He is referring to God's essence or form as a spirit.

Nowhere in the Bible is God said to have a "spirit body" (a contradiction) nor does it say a spirit has any kind of human like form. It says God is invisible (Col 1:15) and omnipresent. Omnipresence does not speak of or even allow any kind of "form," material or otherwise. Of course, He can appear in a corporeal body, but that is far different than saying he has bodily parts in His essence.

There are basically only two groups of people who claim God has a body of some form: the Mormons and some Charismatics (Dake, etc.). Historically, this has not been a view held by "orthodox" believers. They have always insisted "God is a spirit" and "a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have. (Luke 24:39)
God Puts His "Finger" On It

Another common anthropomorphic description of God refers to his "finger(s)." The term "finger of God" is found several times. David says the heavens with the moon and stars are the work of God's "fingers" (Psa 8:3)  When the magicians in Egypt couldn't duplicate one of Moses' miracles, they said it was because "the finger of God" was responsible (Exo 8:16-18). Even the ten commandments were "written with the finger of God" (Exo 3:18). In the NT Jesus said He cast out devils with "the finger of God." Do all these accounts mean God has literal, fleshly fingers? Not at all. God's fingers represent his working in power. Every one of them show God doing something only He can do. You may say, "But Jesus has fingers." Yes, He does, but He did not say "With my finger I cast out devils," He said "with the finger of God" He cast them out—with God's power. No actual "fingers" are involved.

That the Scriptures commonly and routinely use human attributes to figuratively describe the Lord is acknowledged by nearly all believers. Dr. Peter Ruckman (who no one can deny being a King James Bible Believer) in his commentary on Luke 11:20 says,
"An expression like “the finger of God” is what is known as an “anthropomorphism.” It is ascribing the physical characteristics of man to God. “God is a Spirit” (John 4:24), so outside of the incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ, He has no physical hands or fingers or heart or legs or feet or nose or eyes, etc. But when relating to His creation, God speaks of Himself in men’s terms. In the Old Testament, the Lord appears in the form of a man (the Angel of the Lord), and when He shows up in the New Testament, He takes the form of a man (His Son). So even though “the finger of God” is a figurative expression, we understand its meaning."
Not only do the Scriptures describe the Lord with human attributes, they also use attributes of animals to describe Him. In several places God is said to have wings!
"Keep me as the apple of the eye, hide me under the shadow of thy wings," (Psa 17:8)
"...the children of men put their trust under the shadow of thy wings." (Psa 36:7)
"...yea, in the shadow of thy wings will I make my refuge" (Psa 57:1)
"...I will trust in the covert of thy wings. Selah." (Psa 61:4)
"He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust..." (Psa 91:4)
Obviously, wings (made of feathers!) are not a feature of a spirit, yet some Hyper-Literal Geocentrists will insist God has them, feathers and all, so they can appear to legitimately present geocentric claims. All the passages above from the Psalms are clearly poetic and figurative. They are the affectionate words of the Psalmist showing his confidence in his God's protection, safety, and care. To claim that the words must be taken absolutely literally is an overreach of desperation.
The Lord Jesus Christ even likened Himself to a bird—a hen chicken (Matt 23:27)! His usage of a mother hen protecting her young points right back to the usage of "wings" in the Old Testament.
However, the "wings" found in the Psalms are not the Geocentrists major concern. It is the "wings" in Mal 4:2 that are the most disturbing,
"But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings; and ye shall go forth, and grow up as calves of the stall."
Notice how "Sun" is capitalized. This personifies the sun as a type of Christ. Also notice how the Sun "arises." The Geocentrists use this passage to connect the resurrection of Christ from the dead to the rising of the literal sun every morning. They insist if the sun doesn't literally rise then Christ didn't either...but those "inconvenient" wings have to appear and mess things up.
Do they actually want to condition belief in the resurrection of Christ on such as flimsy contention as sunrise? Do they actually believe one cannot believe one without believing the other? This is not only desperate but dangerous. The resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ stands on its own merit and is presented with "many infallible proofs." It should not be tied to literal belief in sunrise or sunset or any other arbitrary and ambiguous condition.
How is it that the Lord Jesus Christ could be born as a man, live among men 33 years, and die likely naked on a cross and no one see His wings? How is it that when He was "transfigured" on the mount and in His glorified body that no one made mention of His wings? How is it that after His arose from the grave in His resurrection body of righteousness that no one saw wings then either? Because HE DOESN'T HAVE WINGS! They are FIGURATIVE; they are a similitude,
I have also spoken by the prophets, and I have multiplied visions, and used similitudes, by the ministry of the prophets. (Hos 12:10)
A "similitude" is a "likeness" or "resemblance;" a "comparison." God's "wings" as well as the physical human attributes that are associated with Him are just that, similitudes for God's care, concern, and actions. Again, in describing Himself with human and animal attributes the Lord is using terms and analogies that men across the ages can easily identify with. He speaks with man's earthly perspective in mind. The same for essentially all the figures of speech in the Scriptures.

God's "Human" Emotions

Besides the physical anthropomorphic expressions made about God in the Scriptures, there are other "human traits" attributed to Him that many don't seem to realize are also figurative. For instance, the Bible speaks of God changing His mind, regretting, or "repenting" about something He did (Gen 6:6). It also speaks of Him as learning or gaining knowledge He didn't have before (Gen 22:12). There are verses that state the Lord was surprised when certain things happened (Isa 5:3-7), and seems to be unsure of some future events (Exo 4:9, 13:7). Furthermore, there are many verses if taken literally that indicate God exists in a linear, sequential, time based reality just like we humans. That is, the Lord dwells within time and reacts to the changing states that time brings.

Consider the many places where the Lord's passions or emotions are said to change. For example, the Bible emphatically states the Lord's wrath increases under certain circumstances (Exod 32:11). It is said to His wrath can "wax hot," be "kindled," be "provoked," etc. (Num 11:33, etc.). For His wrath to increase under certain circumstances, it must be less under other circumstances, thus the Lord emotionally changes within time if these words are taken literally. The same can be said about God's favor or grace towards certain people or nations. If taken literally these Scriptures present God as dwelling within time, changing with the progress of time, and in some ways even subject to time.

If a Hyper-Literal Bible Believer insists one take these passages showing God changing emotional states literally, he will quickly conjure up a God that may appear to be Scripturally "defensible" but who is foreign to the actual truth. It is contrary to the Scriptures and the concept of an almighty and infinite God that has existed from the beginning. Consider the ramifications, if these verse are taken literally and God is subject to time,
  • He can actually change His mind when circumstances change (Exod. 32:14; Num. 14:12–20; Deut. 9:13–14, etc.).
  • He can regret actions He had previously taken (Gen. 6:5–6; 1 Sam. 15:10, 35; Ezek. 22:29–31).
  • He may not know all the future holds and can be surprised by actions people may take (Isa. 5:3–7; Jer. 3:6-7; 19–20).
  • He would have to test individuals to see what is in their heart (Gen. 22:12; Exod. 16:4; Deut. 8:2; 13:1–3; Jdg 2:20–3:5).
  • The Lord sometimes asks non-rhetorical questions about the future (Num. 14:11; Hos. 8:5) and speaks to people in terms of what may or may not happen (Exod. 3:18–4:9; 13:17; Jer. 38:17–18, 20–21, 23; Ezek. 12:1–3)
This presents a view of God that is drastically different from the traditional view, and this doctrine can be "proved" by simply taking the above Bible passages literal, and there is a rather recent group or movement that does that very thing—the "Open Theists."

Taking Literal To The Extreme

"Open Theism" is a relatively new doctrine that teaches that the future is open ended. That is, since the future has not yet happened, it is unknown to all, even to God. They promote a God who is subject to time and dwells within it and thus cannot "know every detail about what will come to pass." He has to wait and see what the future holds just like everyone else. They claim God cannot know the future because it is "unknowable" and does not yet exist even in God's foreknowledge. (This theology seems to be designed to counteract the Calvinist argument that God has completely predestinated the future.) Like Calvinism, Open Theism is more of a philosophy than a theology since it develops its main arguments from "logic" and human reasoning embellished with out of context or figurative Scripture rather than what Scripture actually says as a whole.

Obviously, the Open Theism concept of God is a clear departure from the Judaeo/Christian concept. It is not a historical position and was unknown by the apostles and the saints who came immediately after them.  It is a perfect example of wresting the Scriptures to one's own destruction because it drastically changes the very nature of God from an all-knowing sovereign to an ignorant, impotent deity. If God is not powerful enough to reign over time, how could any of His promises be sure? If he doesn't know what time has in store, how can He guarantee what He cannot foresee or control?

On the contrary, in spite of the figurative Scriptures appealed to, the Scriptures plainly say God is the creator of all things (which includes time, Col 1:16-17), is almighty and all powerful (has power over time, Isa 44:24), and dwells in eternity (in contrast to time, Isa 57:15). The Bible proclaims God as omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. He is not subject to His creation and exists apart from it. He is no more subject to time than He is subject to gravity, and when something occurs in time, He is not surprised by it nor does He only then react to it. He by nature doesn't change even though the figurative "anthropomorphical" passages indicate that He does. The very nature of God is in question depending on how one approaches these verses.

Some may have trouble reconciling the concept of an infinite God who created and transcends time (who can see all of time at once like a person in an airplane can see a whole moving train at once) with the concept of God most often presented in the Scriptures. This latter concept describes a God who interacts with man within time, makes covenants with man based on events that occur in time, and appears to flow along with time. However, an infinite God who is omnipresent (omnipresent throughout time as well as throughout all places) and omnipotent can easily interact with man within time. He can be the infinite God of heaven and also present Himself as the personal, interactive God of man.

Geocentrists and other Hyper-Literal brethren will have a hard time effectively dealing with Open Theists and others who take verses literally that are meant to be taken figuratively. One group does much the same as the other only with different verses "proving" different doctrines.

Satan's Chain

One passage of Scripture that is often used to either confirm or deny a literal approach to the Bible is in Rev. 20 where Satan is said to be bound. Those who take an allegorical approach to the Scriptures say the chain used to bind Satan is not literal but figurative, and if the chain is not literal then the 1000 year Millennium mentioned six times in the same chapter is not literal either. On the other hand the literalists demand the chain is literal yet concede it may not be physical. They insist that even though Satan is a spirit and cannot be bound with a physical chain, the Lord can make some type of chain that can hold him...but is Satan actually said to be bound with any type of chain? The answer will reveal another literary device used by the Scriptures, inference or implication.

Few seem to realize that Revelation 20 does NOT "literally" say Satan is bound with a chain. Consider the passage,
And I saw an angel come down from heaven, having the key of the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand.
And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years,
And cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal upon him, that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years should be fulfilled: and after that he must be loosed a little season. (Rev 20:1-3)
Notice the verses state John saw a vision of an angel with a key and chain come down from heaven and then the angel laid hold of and bound the dragon. However, it does not specifically say that he binds the dragon with the chain or even opens the pit with the key! At the most these actions are only implied. The vision of the chain is likely an object lesson used to drive home to John (and us) the extent of Satan's binding and not the actual means. The thrust of the passage is not HOW Satan is bound but the fact that he IS literally bound in some way and hindered from deceiving the nations of the world for a specific period of time.

How could any kind of chain whether physical or non physical actually restrain a spirit from influencing others through their mind or spirit? Even if Satan is bound with some sort of mystical, ethereal, non-material chain, how would that keep him from continuing to operate in the minds of men as he has done since Eden? The vision of a chain is for our benefit so we can better understand what the Lord is doing because men equate chains with strength and binding. Also, consider that chains are a human invention! There are no chains mentioned in heaven. It is fitting that God used the image of a human invention to bind things to show man that He was going to bind Satan. Thus what John saw in his visions does not necessarily have to match in every detail of what will literally happen when the events occur, but each vision does reveal specific and literal truths the Lord is showing with the vision.

Another example of this is sort of revelation is John's visions of the "beasts" in Revelation chapters 13 and 17. By definition a beast is a four footed animal of some sort, not a human, but even the most strict, Hyper-Literal believer will insist these beasts are not true beasts at all but actually men, specifically the "man of sin" or the Antichrist. Furthermore, the "sea" the beast comes out of is not a literal, watery ocean but actually the sea of nations or humanity. The key lesson is the future events don't have to literally match what John saw in his visions to be true. There is a "beast" coming, but he won't really be a seven headed beast like John saw. He will be a man with a seven-fold aspect of some sort.

Using symbols and figurative language in prophecy to reveal a specific literal truth is a very frequent practice of the Scriptures. The chain in Revelation chapter 20 does not have to speak of a literal chain but of Satan being literally bound, the beast of Rev 13 speaks not of a literal beast but of a literal human Antichrist, and the key to the bottomless pit speaks not of an actual key and gate but of literal access to hell.

Before we move on, we mentioned how the Scriptures do not actually state that Satan is bound with a chain but only imply it. This is a frequent device of the Scriptures. Take the beloved passage in John 14 where Christ says His Father's house has "many mansions,"
Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also. (Joh 14:1-3)
The passage states the fact of the existence of "many mansions," but nowhere does it explicitly state that the mansions are FOR the disciples or that THEY will live in them! This is only implied. Furthermore, if the mansions ARE for the disciples, then WHY does Christ have to "prepare a place" for them since the mansions already exist? Situations like this demand one study context to try and determine the subjects and objects of a passage, but that is still no substitute for an explicit statement which is REQUIRED to PROVE a doctrine. This passage only suggests through context that the mansions are for the disciples. Furthermore, to claim that the promise of a mansion extends to all believers is not even hinted in the context. Christ was only speaking to the disciples, and all the promises of John chapters 14-16 were made only to the disciples. Other believers, like us, are not mentioned until John 17:20! Think about that a week or two. Many believers assume too much.