One of the things that sometimes divides what we might call “conservative” Christianity from “liberal” Christianity has to do with whether or not someone claims to believe in the “literal” meaning of the Bible. This is an incredibly misleading concept and we all need to stop getting hung-up on it. The real question is not what the “literal” meaning of a passage is but whether or not the “literal” meaning is the intended meaning.
There’s a difference between the meaning an author intends to communicate and the way he or she goes about communicating it. An author might use plain or figurative language – or both! – to communicate a meaning, but it’s this intended meaning that matters most.
The Bible uses both kinds of language. At one point in his ministry, Jesus told his disciples that their sick friend, Lazarus had “fallen asleep” and his disciples, taking this literally, said “If Lazarus has fallen asleep, that’s good…that means he’ll get better!” But that’s not what Jesus meant, so he had to stop speaking figuratively and resort to plain language to get across his intended meaning. “Lazarus is dead,” he told them, probably while rolling his eyes.
So is this passage literal or not? Yes…I mean, no…I mean, is that even the right question? The passage has both literal and figurative language, but both kinds of language communicate the same intended meaning: that Lazarus was no longer alive…which was literally true.
It’s important that we recognize when the Bible is using figurative language and when it’s using plain language. When we fail to do that, we’ll almost certainly misunderstand God’s intended meaning of a passage. But it’s even more important to remember that our ultimate focus needs to be on that intended meaning being communicated by those different kinds of language.
No one – no matter how “conservative” they are – really believes that the Bible is always supposed to be understood as being 100% literal, nor does anyone – no matter how “liberal” they are – really believe that the Bible is 100% figurative. Everyone recognizes that there’s a mix of both kinds of language in the Bible. The debate is really about whether particular passages are using figurative or plain language. Ironically, reading the Bible “literally” where it is using figurative language is just as dis-honoring to God and His Word as reading it “figuratively” when it is speaking literally.