100 percent of all respondents in a recent poll indicated they trust wholeheartedly in the reliability of polls. Do you believe that one? If not, good. Because I just made it up. But that doesn’t stop people from throwing out poll numbers as “proof” of their cause or an attempt to shape public opinion. Sometimes polls are spot on, other times they are way off. Just ask House majority leader Rep. Eric Cantor who was purportedly leading in the polls by 32 points days before he lost his reelection campaign last week to a Tea Party challenger—by 11 points.
So much for the reliability of polls, huh?
Despite our public obsession with poll numbers (there’s seemingly a poll for everything), the conclusions aren’t always what they seem. There might be something beyond what the experts tell us the poll numbers indicate. I was reminded of this when I came across this news story from Politico that included this line:
“A recent Gallup poll found just 28 percent of American adults believe the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally.”
If taken by itself, this statement can be quite disturbing. It might just lead one to believe that roughly only one-quarter of all Americans believe the Bible is the product of God. So much for a Christian nation, huh? However, what the article failed to point out clearly was that the same Gallup poll reported 75 percent of all Americans view the Bible as the Word of God. Now that’s a big difference if you ask me.
But even within those who profess to believe the Bible is “inspired” by God, there is a disconnect among believers. Gallup posed three statements, and people were asked to choose one. They were:
The Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word
The Bible is inspired by God but not everything in the Bible should be taken literally
The Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by man
28 percent of those polled agreed the Bible should be taken literally, word for word, while 47 percent agreed not everything should be taken literally. Just 21 percent responded that the Bible is an ancient book of fables.
The problem with Gallup’s questions is that there are elements of truth in each statement. And, depending on how one interprets the statement, it could be true. For instance, the Bible is indeed an ancient collection of books recording history, poems, notable Jewish fables of the time (e.g., the Rich Man and Lazarus), and moral precepts. So, in one sense, a Bible-believing Christian could affirm that final statement.
As well, we are to take the Bible literally, because it is God communicating to us. So, that too would be a correct choice. But that is not to say we interpret the Bible in a hyper-literalistic way that the context would never permit. For instance, God is said to have physical characteristics like human beings, yet He is a Spirit (John 4:24)—and Spirits do not have physical features like a head, ears, eyes, and a mouth.
Then there are those passages that, if taken literally, would give us license to perform self-mutilation by cutting off limbs and plucking out eyes. But these verses do not suggest that. Instead, the author is attempting to communicate a far greater point (like dealing radically with sin).
So we are not to take all things literally true in a way that would violate the context and meaning the author intended. But having said that, neither does that mean we have the freedom to pick and choose which doctrines we want to believe and discard the rest. So either the first or second statement could be affirmed if qualified properly.
So who’s correct?
The best answer I might offer is that the literal statements contained in the Bible are to be taken literally, and the figurative statements in the Bible are to be taken as such. We employ both types in our everyday speech and have little difficulty differentiating between the two. For instance, my four-year-old son tells me just about every day he “is starving.” Should I take that to mean he is suffering or about to die from lack of food as Merriam-Webster would tell us the literal definition of starvation is? Or, do I understand his statement to mean he is really hungry and wants food now? Of course, it’s the latter and everyone would understand the statement as hyperbole to make a point—that he is hungry.
The same holds true for God. He knows how to communicate truth to us using our language. He communicated to us on our terms so we might learn something true about Him. And it is our responsibility to use sound principles to interpret God’s Word properly so that we “hear” what He intended to communicate to us.
Any of the three choices would be correct, but with these few caveats—God spoke; His message is authoritative because of its very nature; and, that we are to believe and affirm all of His revelation, not just parts we deem tolerable.