Author Greg Koukl
Published on 01/23/2023

The Bible Is Not Just Metaphor

Amy and Greg show how to use the Columbo tactic to respond to someone who says the Bible is only metaphorical.


Question: What would you say to someone who says Jesus, the stories in the Bible, and its ideas of Heaven and Hell are metaphorical? When pressed why missionaries would risk their life for a metaphor, my friend gives me examples of people who die for ideas every day.

Greg: The question I would ask is, what makes you think that these are all metaphors, first, and they’re not descriptions of reality? And, even if they’re metaphors—and this is a really important one—what are they metaphors of? Because even metaphors are meant to communicate some literal truth. They’re communicating something true. If I say to my wife, “Honey, you are a fragrant aroma. You are a breath of fresh air. You are sunshine in my life.” These are all figures of speech, but what am I communicating? I’m communicating something about the pleasure and the satisfaction and the sweetness that she brings into my life. Those are the real things I’m describing with the metaphor.

So, if Heaven and Hell are metaphors, first, I would want to know why someone thinks that, given the writings that these terms are found in. So, when the text says, “where there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth,” I don’t take that literally. Let’s just say that’s a metaphor. It’s a metaphor of absolute and extreme agony. So, the wailing and gnashing of teeth may be a figure of speech, but what the point is trying to convey is the agony of Hell. Now, why would you take Hell as a metaphor when we have these kinds of terms that are meant to describe it and we are being warned about it? Don’t fear him who can kill the body and not the soul—Matthew 10; fear him who can throw both body and soul into Hell. So, Hell’s not real. Oh, it’s not? No, it’s just a metaphor. Okay. What are we supposed to be afraid of? Jesus says we should be fearful of, not people who can kill us, but someone else who can do worse. What’s the metaphor signifying? I never get this appeal. Oh, that’s just metaphoric. That’s just metaphoric. Of what? And why would you think that’s just a mere metaphor and not signifying—in the case of Hell—that Hell is a real place, a real state of existence, if you will. This is talking about a state of existence. Why would that not be really unpleasant? You don’t want to be in that state of existence, given the record.

So, here is the key: In this particular challenge—at least the first part of it, that it’s just a metaphor—it’s their job to demonstrate it’s a metaphor. It’s not our job to prove it’s not, because they’re making the claims. This is the second step of the Columbo game plan. The person who makes the claim bears the burden of proof. That’s why I want to go and say, “Why do you think it’s a metaphor? Let’s go to the text. Why would you think this is not speaking about some real feature of the world?” All right, it’s a metaphor. What’s it a metaphor of? That’s your second step. And, by the way, that’s just another clarification question. That’s still Colombo #1. Tell me more. Tell me more. Tell me more. It’s not even a rationale. So, the burden is on them.

Amy: I think those two questions are really crucial here. What do you mean by that? How did you come to that conclusion? Because, until you know that, I don’t even know where I would take this, exactly. It depends on what they say. I like your question asking, “Have you ever read the documents?” Because I think, once you do that, you can see it’s not written like a fairy tale. They didn’t write detailed fictional novels back then. It just wasn’t a thing.

Greg: When C.S. Lewis read the New Testament, all of a sudden he was saying, this is not the same thing. It’s not the same kind of literature. He said, I know mythology. He made that point, and the point was regarding the genre. Now, whether it’s true or not—accurate—that’s another question, but he’s saying you can’t just dismiss this as mythology. It’s ancient biography. Now, maybe it’s not accurate. That’s another question. But it’s not mythology. It’s not a metaphor.

Guillaume Bignon—who wrote the book “Confessions of a French Atheist”—this was a feature of his own testimony, because he decided he was trying to disprove Christianity so that he could get the girl, basically, who was a Christian, and so he began to read the New Testament and the Gospels, and first thing that occurred to him is, this is history. I’m reading history. I know what that looks like. The second thing that occurred to him is that Jesus was really smart. He’s a pretty clever guy.

But this other point of even metaphor is meant to commit a literal truth, metaphors have to be understood in their literal meaning before they can be leveraged into a figure of speech. So, I’ll make an application. So, in Genesis Chapter 1, it says “and the first day,” “and the second day,” “and the third day,” “and the fourth day,” or “morning and evening,” “morning and evening,” “morning and evening.” Well, people want to say, that’s a literal solar day. How could it be anything else? A day is a day. Saying what the word “day” means literally doesn’t answer the question of whether this word is being pressed into service as a figure of speech, because first you must understand the literal sense of the word before it’s useful. So, I mentioned about my wife being a ray of sunshine. Well, if you don’t understand what a ray of sunshine actually is in its literal sense, you cannot see the figurative way it’s being used in this sentence. So, just looking at the word and saying “literal” doesn’t answer the interpretive problem. You have to see how the word is being used in the flow of thought and in the context of a passage.

Now, people could still dispute my take on that. That’s not the point. I do think this point, though, that I just made, is often overlooked in discussions on things like Genesis Chapter 2. What is the nature of the language there? What is the structure of that first chapter? And are we being instructed to take it as a historical account in a straightforward fashion? Or does it seem, maybe, something else is being done there? And just saying the word “yom” means “day” doesn’t solve the problem. You’ve got to see how that word is being used in the context, and if it’s being pressed into service as a figure of speech or not.