Literalism Versus Symbolism

Boyd Purcell

On August 14, 2011, I heard the Reverend Dr. John Hagee, a self-confessed literalist, preaching on national TV. He stated that The Holy Bible must be taken literally. He thus received applause from his mega-church congregation. He then went on preaching and declared, in regard to the beauty of Jesus, that He is the “Lily of the Valley,” the “Rose of Sharon,” the “Bright Morning Star,” and the “Alpha and the Omega!” I thought, “Rev. Hagee, did you not hear or not believe what you just preached—that the Bible must be taken literally? Jesus is not literally a flower, a star in the sky, nor the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet.”

Literalists say that every word in the Bible is literally true. They obviously do not understand symbolic language, of which there is much in the Bible, or else they would not be literalists. Anthropomorphically [ascribing human characteristics to God or inanimate things], will mountains sing and trees clap their hands (Isa. 55:12)? And will mountains skip like rams and hills skip like lambs (Psalm 114:4)? Hyperbolically [gross exaggeration for humor], since Jesus castigated the Pharisees, the literalists and legalists of his day, by chiding, “You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel,” has anyone, even the biggest man, ever swallowed a very small camel (Mt. 23:24)? Metaphorically [one thing representing another], is God, who is a consuming fire (Deut. 4:24; Heb. 12:29), on fire? Allegorically [an extended metaphor], was Jonah literally swallowed by a whale [actually a big fish] (1:17)? A literalist stated that he would believe the Bible even if it should have said that Jonah swallowed the whale! I marvel at such blind and mindless slavery to literalism! These examples are obviously literary devices which no person, who has not been spiritually terrorized and who has at least an ounce of commonsense, takes literally.

Praying and Asking in Jesus’ Name

Some have a “name it and claim it” theology which means that true believers just need to name the healing they want and claim it in Jesus’ name and be healed. Diabetics have thus started acting like they have been healed by stopping their medication and have gone into insulin shock or coma, and some have died due to this kind of “faith healing”—blind faith and spiritual insanity.

Dr. Rocco Errico explained, in the Aramaic Language which Jesus spoke, the meaning of praying and asking in Jesus’ name as He instructed His followers to do. Errico said it is not a magic formula by which one simply says the words “in Jesus’ name” and what one desires and asks God for miraculously happens.

He used this example: Einstein split the atom with a very precise mathematical formula. If a very well-meaning believer in Einstein were to say to an atom, “Atom, split in the name of Einstein!” do you think the atom would split? Not a chance! But when scientists today use Einstein’s formula, the atom splits. “In the name of Jesus” means to live like Jesus lived, love how Jesus loved, and give of oneself as Jesus gave of himself. Thus, healing may be through the formula of modern medicine.

God Hating and Christians Hating Others?

Even though world religions as a whole characterize God as being love, there are problematic passages in sacred writings which superficially appear to contradict this truth. In the Holy Bible some things may, on the surface, appear to be contradictions. For example, God said to the people of Israel, through Jeremiah the prophet, that He loved them with everlasting love. He, therefore, had drawn them with lovingkindness (31:3). Thus, God’s love would appear to be unconditional and everlasting. Yet the Torah records that God also said that He had loved Jacob but hated Isau (Mal. 1:1-3). This was in regard to Esau bartering his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of soup. Granted, this was a thoughtless act, but did it warrant God’s love turning to hate? Love never fails (I Cor. 13:8). It is, therefore, impossible for God’s love to fail. It is also impossible to hate one’s family as well as oneself, in order to be Jesus’ disciple (Luke 14:26), and then love others as oneself (Mt. 22:34-40). Biblical commands to hate are not to be taken literally.

Dr. Rocco Errico, who has devoted his life to studying the Aramaic Language which Jesus spoke, ordained by the Unity Church, has written several books. Two of Errico’s books are: And There Was Light and Let There Be Light, both of which are excellent. In Let There Be Light he explained that in Aramaic the word “hate” has multiple meanings. Depending on the context, it can mean a strong dislike or to “put to one side.” The latter appears to be the meaning in regard to God “hating” Esau. After selling his birthright to his brother Jacob, God put him aside [due to Esau putting himself aside], out of the messianic lineage, and Jacob became the line through whom the Messiah would come. I stated in Spiritual Terrorism that God did not treat Esau badly. In fact, as Esau testified years later at his homecoming with Jacob, God had blessed him in having an abundance of material things (Gen. 33:9).

In the Holy Bible we have the same problem of understanding God’s love. Even the definition “God is love” appears to be contradicted by the multiple reasons for which people will be cast into hell fire if the doctrine of eternal punishment is true: “He who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son. But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur” (Rev. 21:7, 8 the New International Version [NIV]). God’s infinite mercy and eternal torture in hell is an oxymoron: the “O” in the alphabetic acrostic “A-Z.”

This inherent contradiction can easily be resolved by simply understanding that fire and brimstone/burning sulfur symbolize purification—disinfection and healing from sin. Please note that the best-selling modern translation of the Bible, the NIV, translated the symbolism in Revelation 20:10; 21:7-8, as “the lake of burning sulfur” and “the fiery lake of burning sulfur,” respectively. A doctoral chemist told me that, theoretically, a sulfur compound could be made that would cure any sin infection. So could not God, who is omniscient, make a sulfur compound, i.e., the lake of burning sulfur, to cure any bodily infection? Since sulfur was the wonder drug in the ancient world as penicillin is today, a modern medicinal analogy would be a fiery lake of penicillin to cure sin infection.

Mild Accuracy Weakness

Dr. Rocco Errico, a scholar in Aramaic, said in his excellent book, And There Was Light that an Aramaic speaker’s purpose was not to deliver the message in scientifically accurate terms. “He piles up his metaphors and superlatives, reinforced by a theatrical display of gestures and facial expression in order to make the hearer feel his meaning. He speaks as it were in pictures…It is also because he loves to speak in pictures and to subordinate literal accuracy to the total impression of an utterance, that he makes such extensive use of figurative language…he is fond of metaphor, exaggeration, and positiveness in speech. To him mild accuracy is weakness.”

This understanding of the Aramaic language and culture explains exactly why Jesus used all these strong-picture words in general and, especially in regard to hell—weeping, wailing, gnashing of teeth, cutting off one’s hands and feet and gouging out one’s eyes, unquenchable fire, being salted with fire, etc., because He needed to communicate in the manner His audience would have readily understood. They would not have taken such word pictures literally. On the other hand, they would have considered mild accuracy weakness! If Jesus had spoken in a mild manner, He may have lost his audience as they became bored and walked away. Even if they had not walked away, they may have missed His point if He were speaking in a style unfamiliar to them.

When trying to correct the inconsistency between what the Pharisees taught and what they did, Jesus could have said in our Western-world abstract style, “Your teachings and your behavior are incongruent.” But Jesus, as an excellent Aramaic speaker, exclaimed, “blind guides,” “child of hell,” “fools,” “hypocrites,” “serpents and generation of vipers,” “strain out a gnat and swallow a camel,” “whitewashed tombs” [clean on the outside but a stench on the inside], and “How can you escape the damnation of hell” (Mt. 23:13-33)?

Doubtlessly, Jesus deliberately mixed the metaphors of fire and salt to make it impossible for literalists to logically interpret this metaphorical language literally: the “A” in the alphabetic acrostic. Of course, it is impossible to literally salt anyone or anything with fire. Literalists, locked into a mindset of literalism, still interpret Jesus’ words literally. This is a major cause of spiritual abuse/terrorism/insanity. Some victims of spiritual insanity become spiritually and mentally insane and homicidal and/or suicidal!

The Symbolism of Fire Revealed in the Holy Bible A Thru Z

Those who identify themselves as “Bible-believing Christians” say The Holy Bible is literally true. Preachers threaten hell is literal fire forever, preaching that not believing The Bible is literally true means not being a true Christian, and, therefore, at the Final Judgment, being condemned by God, WHO IS LOVE, to eternal conscious torment/torture [ECT] in literal fire of hell! This is spiritual abuse/terrorism/insanity, since The Bible is one of the most highly metaphorical/symbolic books in the world! As a youngster, I asked a literalist-preaching pastor, “Could the fire of hell could be a different kind of fire?” I did not know the word “metaphorical,” but symbolism was what I was asking about. That pastor’s quick retort terrorized me, “No! The Bible says fire, and I believe it means fire!”

Here are some additional crystal-clear examples of Biblical metaphors: Jesus’ followers: salt of the earth/light of the world (Mt. 5:13-14). Legalists: are blind guides (Mt. 23:16). Pharisees: are whitewashed tombs (Mt. 23:27-29). Hypocrites: serpents/vipers (Mt. 23:33). Disciples: wise as serpents and harmless as doves (Mt. 10:16). False prophets: wolves (Mt. 7:15). Speech, according to the apostle Paul, is to be, seasoned with salt (Col. 4:6). Jesus: hen/bread/wine/blood/word/light/lamb/water/door/shepherd/way/truth/life/vine/alpha/omega/sun (Mt. 23:37; 26:26-28; John 1:1-14, 29; 4:10-14; 10:7-14; 14:6; 15:1; Rev. 1:11-16), etc.

In regard to fire in the Bible, verses in A-Z should convince people, even those threatened with ECT to believe Biblical literalism, that the fire symbolizes purification as surely as the sky is blue and grass is green! This truth reveals that Jesus will draw all to himself, all will live in Christ, God will be all in all, and all shall worship God eternally (John 12:32; I Cor. 15:22, 28; Rev. 5:13).

A-ll in Gehenna [hell, *KJV] “salted with fire” [“purified,” Good News Bible] (Mark 9:49).
B-uilding Christ’s church that will destroy [ram down the gates] Hades [*hell] (Mt. 16:18).
C-hrist baptizes with Holy Spirit and fire [Christians sing , “Fill me with fire…”] (Mt. 3:11).
D-evouring fire and brimstone/burning sulfur are like tongue and breath of God (Isa. 30:27, 33).
E-very believer’s works/deeds will be tested/refined by fire (I Cor. 3:10-14; II Cor. 5:10).
F-aith is tried/tested by fire: [various, at times painful] fiery trials of life (I Pet. 1:7; 4:12).
G-od is a consuming fire [consuming sin, purifying/perfecting sinners] (Dt. 4:24; Heb. 12:29).
H-oly Spirit sat upon apostles on the day of Pentecost like/as tongues of fire (Acts 2:1-3).
I-sraelites, enslaved in an iron furnace, God, in pillar of fire, led to freedom (Dt. 4:20; Ex. 13:21).
J-esus sending fire on earth burning chaff/sin with unquenchable fire (Mt. 3:12; Lk. 12:49).
K-now that God was in the burning bush, speaking to Moses, making the ground holy (Ex. 3:1-5).
L-ove: God is love and fire [purifying/perfecting all in perfect love] (Heb. 12:29; I John 4:8, 16-18).
M-essiah/Christ’s refining fire will purify, as gold/silver, the Jewish people (Mal. 3:1-3).
N-ote: **fire and brimstone/burning sulfur symbolize disinfection/healing from sin (Rev. 20:10-15).
0-xymoron: eternal torture in literal fire of hell and God’s infinite *mercy (Ps. 136:1-26).
P-ersons: angels/messengers/ministers of God are flames of fire (Hebrews 1:7).
Q-uality of life on earth transformed by sinful works/chaff burned up (II Peter 3:10-13).
R-iver/stream of fire flows from God’s fiery throne and fiery presence of God (Dan. 7:9-10).
S-heol: God is even present in *hell due to being omnipresent love/fire in universe (Ps.139:7-8).
T-ime in burning sulfur, ***day and night, proof not forever (Jude 6-13; Rev. 20:10; 21:25; 22:5).
U-nquenchable fire burns out as all fires do (Jer. 17:27; Ez. 20:47-48; Mk. 9:43-48).
V-erily, the seven lamps/torches/flames are the seven spirits of God (Rev. 4:5).
W-ord of God is like/as fire and burns in human hearts (Jer. 23:29; Luke 24:32).
X-[Chi in Greek]: first two letters of “Christ” whose eyes are as a flame of fire (Rev. 1:14).
Y-es, believers saved [behavior refined] thru fire at Judgment Seat of Christ (I Cor. 3:15).
Z-echariah prophesied the Lord will be a [protective] wall of fire around Jerusalem (2:5).

*affixed to certain words as translated in the KJV.

**a modern medicinal analogy: a fiery lake of penicillin to cure sin infection

***heaven: no night/hell: no day; “forever,” mistranslation.


Boyd C. Purcell, Ph.D., author of books: Spiritual Terrorism: Spiritual Abuse from the Womb to the Tomb and Christianity Without Insanity: For Optimal Mental/Emotional/Physical Health Website: ChristianityWithoutInsanity.com; email: dr.boydpurcell@gmail.com

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