Not every statement in the Holy Scriptures must be taken literally. We don’t do this in everyday life either. A traffic sign which says “STOP” has to be understood literally. But when the car in front of you has a sign on the back saying “red bull”, you woudn’t think there’s a wild animal on board.
When we read the Bible, we always ask questions concerning the text such as: What is the context of the statement? What did it mean for the original audience? Are there parallel passages which supply us with more explanations? This helps to understand the text for us today and to distinguish between literal text passages and symbolic ones. Let’s illustrate this principle with an example:
“At that time, certain Pharisees came to him and said, Go away from this place, because Herod’s purpose is to put you to death. And he said, Go and say to that fox, I send out evil spirits and do works of mercy today and tomorrow, and on the third day my work will be complete.”Luke 13:31-32
We understand that Jesus did not talk about a literal fox, but about a morally corrupt politician (see Luke 3:19-20). Much later on, after his arrest there was a short encounter between Jesus and Herod:
“Now when Herod saw Jesus he was very glad, having for a long time had a desire to see him, for he had had accounts of him, and was hoping to see some wonders done by him. And he put a great number of questions to him, but he said nothing.”Luke 23:8-9
Herod would have liked to see one of Jesus’ miracles, but this was denied to him. At the same time he had heard many of the stories about the man from Nazareth. If certain theologians of today were right by saying that miracles in the Bible are just elements of ancient storytelling, Herod’s wish remains an unexplanable mystery. The signs and miracles of Jesus are more than mere stories. They need to be understood as real events.
In the above words from Luke 13, Jesus hinted at the greatest miracle as well: his resurrection from death after three days. Any sort of Christian faith which cannot affirm this in a literal way would truly be miserable. The apostle Paul wrote this:
“But if there is no coming back from the dead, then Christ has not come back from the dead: And if Christ did not come again from the dead, then our good news and your faith in it are of no effect. Yes, and we are seen to be false witnesses of God; because we gave witness of God that by his power Christ came again from the dead: which is not true if there is no coming back from the dead. For if it is not possible for the dead to come to life again, then Christ has not come to life again: And if that is so, your faith is of no effect; you are still in your sins.”1st Corinthians 15:13-17
Summary: There are indeed many Bible texts with symbolic meaning – yet by and large it talks about how God literally entered the affairs of human history. We must and we want to take this message serious. Anything else would be useless faith.