In my post Is Genesis Metaphorical or Historical?, commenter Floss asked the question that forms the title of this post. Here’s my short answer.

1. It is important to interpret literature according to its literary type

If I read, for instance, a parable or metaphor as historical fact, I will totally miss the point. When, for example, Jesus says “A sower went out into the field to sow,” he’s not talking about an actual person – he wants the listener to understand the metaphor, not try to figure out the importance of some specific person.

Conversely, if I read historical narrative only as metaphor (e.g. George Washington or Jesus didn’t really exist, but their lives are merely to be understood as positive metaphors), I again am missing something true and important, namely that these people were real and impacted human history.

2. If Jesus did not actually rise from the dead, then Christianity is a lie and useless.

Even Paul the Apostle said so – if the resurrection of both Christ and individuals is not literally true, then we are fools.

1 Corinthians 15:14-17
And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is worth nothing, and your faith is worth nothing. And also, we are guilty of lying about God, because we testified of him that he raised Christ from the dead. But if people are not raised from the dead, then God never raised Christ. If the dead are not raised, Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, then your faith has nothing to it; you are still guilty of your sins.

3. It would contradict internal biblical logic to metaphorize things which are considered historic.

For example, we believe that Jesus *literally* forgives sins, and *literally*, not just figuratively restores us to God.

And in the same way, we belive that all humans *literally* fell in Adam – it can’t be literal with Jesus and figurative with Adam.

Romans 5:18-19
So as one sin of Adam brought the punishment of death to all people, one good act that Christ did makes all people right with God. And that brings true life for all.19 One man disobeyed God, and many became sinners. In the same way, one man obeyed God, and many will be made right.

4. There is a danger of hyper-literalism

Along with interpreting according to literary type, we must also be aware of idioms – interpreting idioms or hyperboles literally is a mistake that some literalists make.

For example, in Deuteronomy 20 it says

“Only in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall not leave alive anything that breathes. But you shall utterly destroy them”.

If you take this literally, you might conclude we’ve got a genocide going on. However, later in scripture we see that the Cannanites still existed as a people. Why? Paul Copan explains:

“This stereotypical ancient Near East language of ‘all’ people describes attacks on what turn out to be military forts or garrisons containing combatants – not a general population that includes women and children. We have no archaeological evidence of civilian populations at Jericho or Ai (6:21; 8:25).8 The word ‘city [‘ir]’ during this time in Canaan was where the (military) king, the army, and the priesthood resided. So for Joshua, mentioning ‘women’ and ‘young and old’ turns out to be stock ancient Near East language that he could have used even if ‘women’ and ‘young and old’ were not living there. The language of ‘all’ (‘men and women’) at Jericho and Ai is a ‘stereotypical expression for the destruction of all human life in the fort, presumably composed entirely of combatants.'”

For more on that example, see How Could God Command Killing the Canaanites?


Literalism is called for when the text is historical narrative. But even then, we must understand the use of idioms or metaphor that are interspersed in a diverse work like the Bible.  Both hyper-literalism and hyper-metaphorism will lead us to misunderstand the text.