Is the Bible historical or is it spiritual allegory? Of course, parts of the Bible are history, while other parts are not. So then, how can we determine the historical from the non-historical? Well, if we take the Bible seriously, we try to determine how the Bible regards it various writings. We compare Scripture with Scripture.
Let’s start with the Book of Jonah. Is it historical? Did a fish actually swallow Jonah and vomit him up on a beach after three days? One way to answer this question is to see how Jesus answered it. Evidently, Jesus regarded Jonah as history:
- He answered, "A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here.” (Matthew 12:39-41; Mat 16:4; Luke 11:29-30)
Perhaps Jesus was referring to Jonah as an allegory? This doesn’t seem possible. If Jesus believed that Jonah had not actually been three days in a fish, then, to maintain the parallel, He didn’t believe that He too would actually be three days “in the heart of the earth.”
Besides, Jesus doesn’t say, “According to the tale, Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish.” Instead, He speaks as if this actually happened.
Jesus also warned Israel that “Nineveh will stand up at the judgment” of them. However, if all knew that Jonah was simply parabolic or allegorical, they would have scorned Jesus: “As it is fiction that Nineveh repented, so too is it fiction that Nineveh ‘will stand in judgment.’”
However, there was no such retort, as appropriate as this retort would have been had Jonah been regarded as a mere allegory or parable. Therefore, it seems that even the scholars at Jesus’ time had also regarded Jonah as history.
Jesus regarded the Book of Jonah as history. If we are followers of Jesus, then we are constrained to also be followers of His thinking and reasoning. He regarded Scripture as the undefiled Word of God (Matthew 5:16-18) and submitted to it in all regards. Quoting Deuteronomy 8, He responded to Satan:
- “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God." (Matthew 4:4)
This means that we too must live by “every word” and to understand them as Jesus did. If He regarded the first several chapters of Genesis as history – and we find that the Apostles also regarded these chapters as history – then we too are constrained to regard them as history.
How did Jesus regard the Creation Account? As historical? Evidently! He based His teaching on marriage and divorce on the historicity of Genesis 1 and 2:
- "Haven't you read," he replied, "that at the beginning the Creator 'made them male and female' [Gen. 1:26-27] and said, 'For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh' [Gen. 2:24]? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate." (Matthew 19:4-6)
Jesus’ entire argument is based upon the history of God’s work:
- He created them,
- He made them one flesh,
- And “joined [them] together.”
If God had only figuratively (not historically) created and joined them, then we would have every right to actually divorce as long as we don’t figuratively divorce. Therefore, one who is contemplating divorce could reason that, “I’ll divorce my wife, but I’ll remain married to her figuratively, in my heart.” Of course, this is absurd, but this is because a non-historical understanding of Jesus’ words is also absurd. Instead, Jesus’ clear intent was to demonstrate that divorce is wrong and that the Pharisees were wrong for justifying divorce.
Jesus built His case on the common understanding that Genesis is history. If Genesis hadn’t been widely regarded as history, the Pharisees could easily have retorted, “Well, God didn’t actually join them together, so we are not prohibited from actually divorcing our wives!” in which case, Jesus’ argument would have completely collapsed.
This is not to deny that Genesis 1 and 2 are difficult to interpret. However, if we start with the conclusion that these chapters are not history – and also that the New Testament’s interpretation of them shouldn’t guide our interpretation (Scripture interpreting Scripture) - then we consequently reject our most important interpretive guidelines and constraints. Operating with this interpretive “freedom,” the door is opened to just about any interpretation we’d like to paste on Genesis.
Did Paul regard these chapters as teaching history (even if they use poetry and theology)? Certainly, he understood that Adam was actually and historically created first (1 Cor. 11:8-9), that it was the woman who had been deceived (1 Timothy 2:13-14, referring to Genesis 3 as history), and that Jesus was the Second Adam (1 Cor. 15:22). Had Adam been a myth, then this would suggest that Jesus also had been a myth.
Is it important to know that Genesis teaches history? Of course, not only is this question critical to interpretation, it is also critical to theology. Why? History and theology are inseparable. If we take away history, we also take away the theology based upon it. If Jesus hadn’t historically died on the Cross, we could have no theology of the Cross and of redemption. If Adam and Eve hadn’t actually rebelled against God causing the Fall, then God’s evolutionary program of creation would have been the problem and not our rebellion, undermining the theology of the entire Bible.
Theistic evolutionists argue that it is only because they have been able to “reconcile” evolution with the Bible that many educated “Christians” have remained in the Church. However, this suggests that God prefers a watered-down faith to no faith at all. However, this faulty answer reminds us of His Letter to the Church at Laodicea:
- “‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” (Revelation 3:15-17)
Is the Book of Job purely allegorical/figurative or is it also historical? Again, to answer this question, we need to see how the Bible itself answers this question. Once again, the Bible regards the Book of Job as history:
- “Even if these three men--Noah, Daniel and Job--were in it, they could save only themselves by their righteousness,” declares the Sovereign LORD…”as surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, even if these three men were in it, they could not save their own sons or daughters. They alone would be saved, but the land would be desolate.” (Ezekiel 14:14-16)
God regarded Job as an actual, historical person, just as much as Daniel and Noah. James also regarded him as historical:
- As you know, we consider blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job's perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy. (James 5:11)
James understood that God’s mercy to Job was a clear demonstration of the fact that “The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.” If the Book of Job had not been a matter of history, then this allegory would not have provided evidence of the mercy of God. Allegories do not provide evidence but illustration.
Many deny the historicity of a worldwide flood that had destroyed all mankind apart from Noah and his family. However, this account and the subsequent commentary bear all the signs of actual history:
- The waters prevailed above the mountains, covering them fifteen cubits deep. And all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, livestock, beasts, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all mankind. Everything on the dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died. He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens. They were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those who were with him in the ark. (Genesis 7:20-23)
How does the rest of the Bible regard the historicity of this account? We have already seen that Ezekiel regarded Noah as a real person. Jesus also regarded the account of the worldwide flood as history:
- “For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” (Matthew 24:37-39; Luke 17:27)
If Noah was a mere allegory, then Jesus’ return was also nothing more than allegory. The Book of Hebrews also regards Noah and the flood as history:
- By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith. (Hebrews 11:7)
Hebrews upholds Noah as an exemplar of the faith. Had this account been just a myth, “Noah” could not be upheld along with Abraham, Isaac, and Moses.
Peter invokes Noah and the flood as history and theology to prove that we must take seriously God’s promise of a future judgment:
- For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment; if he did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly; if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly…then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment. (2 Peter 2:4-9)
Had these not been actual and historical events but rather myths, Peter’s reasoning would have fallen apart. If these events were merely empty myths about a judging God, then the future judgment should also be regarded as a myth. However, Peter clearly believed that these events really took place. He therefore concluded: “then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment.” Peter couldn’t have possibly drawn such a conclusion from myths.
An historical worldwide flood teaches important theological truths:
- God judges.
- God rescues those who are His.
- We must become reconciled to Him and not to the philosophies of this day that offer their own variety of hope.
However, such theology is distasteful. Instead, many of today’s “Christians” assuage their conscience with the belief that these are just myths and that a loving God would never do such things to His creation. However, we need only open our eyes to human history to observe that our omnipotent God allows all manner of horrors to occur.
Let us therefore humble ourselves before the God of the Bible and walk in His light.