I will take the example of Christianity, but my question applies to any other religious material

The majority of christians seems to accept that parts of the Bible are metaphors that should not be read literally (e.g. the genesis for some christians). There is even a branch of study (Biblical hermeneutics) aimed at understanding what should be interpreted in the Bible.

However, I have never heard of any christian that accepts the idea that God itself in the Bible could be a metaphor (e.g. for Nature, the universe, etc.) and may not really exist.

Once one accepts that part of a scripture is a metaphor, and thus did not really happen, shouldn't the following stance logically be to accept that absolutely everything in said scripture can be a metaphor?

  • 2
    The is a branch of Christianity variously called Biblical Literalism, Fundamentalism, or Evangelicalism, which holds precisely this position. They say that only the parts of the Bible which are explicitly (in-text) indicated to be metaphorical, such as Jesus' parables (like the Prodigal Son), be taken metaphorically. Everything else is to be taken literally, as the inerrant word of God. They worry any other methodology is to second-guess the word of God and defeats the purpose of having a Scripture. But then they go ahead and ignore the majority of the OT, esp the inconvenient parts, anyway.
    – Dan Bron
    Jun 14, 2016 at 13:16
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    Oh yeah, for sure. There are plenty of New Age sects of Christianity which believe the bible is only trying to express universal human truths. Some of them even mash up Christianity with Buddhism, for example.
    – Dan Bron
    Jun 14, 2016 at 13:19
  • 10
    You have to understand that people who interpret parts of a text, he Bible or any other, as metaphorical, adopt a specific methodology for choosing those particular passages. They have a justification. So to determine whether the exercise is intellectually honest or not, you have to engage with that specific justification. Otherwise, simply asserting "it's not possible that a text be partially metaphorical" is, itself, intellectually dishonest. You're just handwaving around your preexisting belief that the bible is hogwash. It's hypocritical.
    – Dan Bron
    Jun 14, 2016 at 13:23
  • 1
    Disclaimer: I am not Christian and do not believe any meaningful proportion of the Bible is literally true. In fact I'm an atheist (apatheist). But I do believe the Bible and its attendant analysis over the millennia does offer profound insights into human nature, and is in that way valuable to humanity. I think most people who try to justify it, partially or wholly, do so ex-post-facto, based on their pre-existing beliefs and biases arising not from scripture but from he broader parts of their faith and culture, but that does not dilute that value, but rather reinforces it.
    – Dan Bron
    Jun 14, 2016 at 13:29
  • 4
    If I am right, are you saying that because some part of a text is metaphor, that logically necessitates that all of it is a metaphor? I am not sure how that follows.
    – IsThatTrue
    Jun 14, 2016 at 13:37

6 Answers 6


Metaphors are usually used in following ways -

  1. They can be used when the author cannot describe an event using known words as they fail to be an accurate description. So he uses a word that best fits the description and conveys what he wants to convey.

  2. When author wants to instill a poetic feel or playfulness in text to make it more entertaining or enriching

  3. They are used to create a strong imagery with a particular object whose main properties, the writer wants readers to acknowledge in the object or event that author is "metaphorising"

  4. A piece of text is linked to another piece of text. Then one of them can be thought of as metaphor describing the other event by means of less conspicuous analogy.

As metaphor has some distinct qualities, not everything has an equal chance of being a metaphor. The text thus can be analysed in a following manner, in my opinion -

  1. If an event or object is difficult to be described in normal words, that might be a good candidate for metaphor. For example, ice pick headaches.

  2. It can be checked whether the piece of text has been imbibed with some sort of poetic feel. Simple running sentences that are focused less on conveying of emotions, more on facts are often devoid of any imagery or literary device for the simple reason that author does not write those texts for enjoyment of reader but for passing on information. Both context and purpose are important tools for this distinction. For example, his soul was captured in the painting will probably be a metaphorical text, if appearing in a book of fiction, but a fact or factual claim if appearing in a book by a paranormal investigator. Similarly, his soul was captured in the painting, the colours aptly showing the suffering of a man, witness and victim of depravity of life is clearly a metaphor-laden attempt. Terseness, parallelism and imagery are indicators of a poetry or poetic prose.

  3. There are some objects that are specifically associated with certain properties such that either they uniquely identify those properties or properties uniquely identify them. These metaphors can also be identified by the culture and the imagery strong at the point of time of writing. This is because when an author writes a metaphorical statement, he intends that readers know the association and grasp the imagery. For example, I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life". Important thing to notice is that often the object being "metaphorised" is vastly different than the object it is being "metaphorised" into, so it can be easily seen that comparison is not a factual claim.

  4. This is perhaps hardest to distinguish. A piece of text may be written exclusively to set up a ground for the subsequent text (which not may be immediately subsequent). The aim is to draw a parallelism or analogy. Example may be the story of Abraham and Isaac. Parallelism can be identified if the two stories have a similarity (hidden or conspicuous) that is striking, appealing and suggestive of a parallel. Also if a piece of text is directly lifted off from one place and applied to another, then if it appears to have a deeper meaning and relates two portions, it might be a metaphor (analogy or parallel).

Now while it may be hard to identify what may be a metaphor, it can be identified what isn't.

  1. If the text is assumed to be factual from the time of author, it is probably not a metaphor, as author did not try to clarify as such nor was successful in making people understand the purpose and content of text. If the text is widely popular during that time, then it probably would have undergone this criticism.

  2. This might appear dishonest but actually whether text is right or not is good way of determining whether it is a metaphor. "With the scriptures it is a matter of treating about the faith. For that reason, as I have noted repeatedly, if anyone, not understanding the mode of divine eloquence, should find something about these matters [about the physical universe] in our books, or hear of the same from those books, of such a kind that it seems to be at variance with the perceptions of his own rational faculties, let him believe that these other things are in no way necessary to the admonitions or accounts or predictions of the scriptures. In short, it must be said that our authors knew the truth about the nature of the skies, but it was not the intention of the Spirit of God, who spoke through them, to teach men anything that would not be of use to them for their salvation." (St. Augustine - De Genesi ad literam, 2:9)

This is for same reason as St. Augustine writes. Just like something that might be considered a "metaphor" might be recognised as a fact, if it is found that the thing said is true, it might also be that a statement that is found to be false was just a metaphor by the author if that statement is not essential to the belief and the purpose of the author was not to pass information about that matter but for example, lead people to salvation.

  1. If the metaphor contradicts the belief of early propagators, believers, authorities on that matter, then probably the statement in question is a fact.

  2. If what is considered to be a metaphor is used widely in other contexts where the metaphor-justification does not apply and also in different text and writing styles, it probably is a fact because metaphor is used for special purposes and not common usage.

  3. If a statement has no purpose except to act as statement of fact and does not relate to anything else, then probably it along with object it talks about is not a metaphor. This is because that statement has no hidden meaning nor any poetic utility that justifies usage of a metaphor.

Now let us compare Genesis and God.

  1. Genesis describes a creation account. It can be argued that as author does not provide complete description of the creation and just quickly mentions them, he might be using terms to condense his views in small paras. It may be a simple account of a complex thing. God, has attributes that do not seem to simplify things. God may be used in some instances to simplify explanations (like in a teleological argument of sort) but in Bible he is not always presented as such. 'Thus says the Lord GOD, "Are you the one of whom I spoke in former days through My servants the prophets of Israel, who prophesied in those days for many years that I would bring you against them? (Ezekiel 38:17) Here God is not being used to explain or account an event that can happen without him. The main thing to notice is that author is not using God to explain an event but God apparently talks to Gog, and tells him that he is the one who has been prophesied by his will.

  2. Genesis is poetic according to some, a form of Hebrew Parallelism. God is not used in many contexts as a poetic aid.

  3. Considering God as a metaphor means that not only God is a metaphor but sacrifice of Jesus, story of Abraham and Job, and probably whole account of twelve apostles is a metaphor. But of what? It is surprising that author does not clear that anywhere. It is a metaphor that "metaphorises" something that is not known.

  4. Didn't early Christians who faced persecution know that the God is just a metaphor? If they didn't think that God was metaphor (because they faced a lot for him), it means either authors were unsuccessful in delivering their thoughts properly or wanted to troll people deliberately. There were several authors from different time periods and if they felt that people were getting wrong impression, why didn't they correct it later on? And the troll part is rather a stretch to believe.

  5. Some would say that it is essential to believe in God to be a "Christian" but not in truth of creation account. To believe people erred on fundamental belief is less obvious than to believe it was a lie. The Bible loses its whole purpose if God is considered a metaphor, many events lose importance. Like why Jew accused him of blasphemy and wanted to stone him? Was Jesus claiming to be a metaphor, nature or Universe?


It might be hard to correctly say what is a metaphor and what isn't. But there can be justifications given as to why a piece of text is considered metaphor and this decision is not arbitrary. I just scratched the surface of the debate that happens among Christians over it. You can easily find in-depth analyses on the net. However, your question is hardly a concern because even if large parts are deemed metaphorical while keeping smaller parts as literal, it does mean that the parts that are found to be metaphorical are not exactly true and accepted to be as such. So if a person is not deliberately (and arbitrarily) classifying some parts as literal and others as metaphor, it should not be viewed as dishonesty because he is not claiming that to be true what he knows to be false. It should be viewed at best (or worst) as a frantic attempt at shielding core beliefs which is not different than refining a scientific theory by chipping away parts that are unconvincing.

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    I apologise if I gave that impression but I never implied that in my answer.
    – IsThatTrue
    Jun 14, 2016 at 18:25
  • Isn't that true though? I mean, a large number of people do not believe in creation account as outlined in Genesis and still identify as Christians. Even YEC organisations like CMI accept that it is not necessary to believe that creation account is literal to be a Christian. I wasn't stating my opinion, just arguing from perspective of people who believe Genesis account is not literal. However, I would edit my answer to make it clear that I am not stating my opinion there;)
    – IsThatTrue
    Jun 14, 2016 at 19:10
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    There are two definite additional uses of metaphor, which are more important here than any of your 4. -- 5. When what is being expressed transcends clear expression and can only be captured by allusion or 6. In 'roman a clef', when what is being expressed is dangerous to say clearly and must be expressed through forms that usually mean something else. Kabbalah takes much of the Bible as a case of 5. Gnosticism takes much of it as a case of 6. The qualities of the resulting metaphors are different from the ones you enumerate for your cases. So this construction is just misleading.
    – user9166
    Jun 14, 2016 at 20:09
  • While I think most of 5 is similar to my 1, I understand your criticism. But I was writing the answer from the assumption that author is not compromising with text in any way and is free to write what he wants. Your observation in 6. is good but that can be said to be just a "wild-goose chase" as anything then can be said to be a result of fear. As the question was not about what individual sects believe but whether it was dishonest to accept such metaphors, I began from assumption that author wrote with the most accuracy that was possible so that the decision to part away from such writing...
    – IsThatTrue
    Jun 14, 2016 at 20:29
  • ...can be analysed in most critical way possible. Other options question author and bring in several other factors in play like acceptability during time of author etc. In my opinion that seems to very particular and cannot be deduced just from texts. It also does not seem that inclusion or exclusion of those points change my answer's content in any significant way.
    – IsThatTrue
    Jun 14, 2016 at 20:36

Then there is a thread in Christianity of which you have never heard.

Unitarian-Universalism (http://www.uusc.org/) and certain forms of (Hicksite) Quakerism (e.g. most of the Friends General Conference http://www.fgcquaker.org/explore/quaker-way) are Christian sects that primarily interpret God as metaphorical, as do many forms of Liberation Theology (e.g. George Pixley's "God's Kingdom" https://www.amazon.com/Gods-Kingdom-Guide-Biblical-Study/dp/088344156X).

(These are traditional sects, the former arising out of Congregationalism, the second out of the crisis caused by the English split from Rome, and the latter out of Roman Catholicism proper. They are all established, and I would avoid @DanBron's characterization of any of them as 'New Age'.)

They do not carefully outline their beliefs in contrast to theism, because they wish to accord respect to more traditional Christians. But the first of these sees God as the Universe (hence the name), and the latter two see God as a transcendental aspect of humanity (The Inner Light) or a process in human history (basically Marx's or Hegel's evolution).

More broadly, this thread runs through a lot of individual Christians' beliefs, even if it does not qualify as orthodox part of most sects.

If 'God is Love', that is a metaphor. And that is the basic framing for a lot of Liberal Christians, who may doubt or discard scripture and tradition, but accept an inclination toward morality that feels like it comes from outside them, even if they do not deeply believe that it does. They retain the practices that encourage that inclination, and reflection on the formational documents of European culture is included among those practices.


To me, the main goal of hermeneutics is to derive the meaning of the text as it was originally intended by the author. So, no, we do not have to necessarily say that just because one part is a metaphor, or is meant to be taken allegorically, that it follows the rest be taken in a similar fashion, for it may have been the case the original author intended only part of their writing to be taken metaphorically, while other parts to be taken literally. If the original author didn't, or couldn't have intended a certain part as a metaphor, I see no reason taking that part to be one as valid, so it isn't the case that one must say just because one part is a metaphor, it is a valid position to take the rest as a metaphor.

Another problem is assuming that it must be taken exclusively as literal or metaphorical. Multiple rabbis and church fathers thought it was both, and had a dual significance. For example, Ramban in his commentary to Genesis 3 wrote this:

“You should know that and believe that the Garden of Eden is a real place on earth, and that there are still in it the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge...”

But in the same comment, he later wrote:

“...Now, if the Tree of Knowledge was 'good for man, for eating and desirable for him as a means of awareness (3:6)', why did God withhold it from him? For God is good and benevolent; “He does not withhold good from those who walk in innocence! (Psalms 84:12) Furthermore, the serpent today has no “soul of speech”, so how was it able to speak in the manner that it did? And if you say that it did originally have the power of speech, but that power was removed as part of its punishment, scripture should have mentioned in the description of the curse that his mouth would now be silenced, for this would be the most severe of all the curses! Rather, all of these events in the story have dual significance, and both the apparent and hidden meanings in them are true.”

Also, it is hard to determine exactly where we draw the line for what constitutes a metaphor and what doesn't. For example, does idiomatic language constitute a metaphor? If it does, then the Bible has to be taken metaphorically to some extent, since both Koine Greek and Biblical Hebrew were highly idiomatic languages. An example of this could be in Genesis 4:1, where it says:

“והאדם את חוה אשתו”

“And the man knew his wife”

Taken literally, the verse makes little sense, since it should already be clear that Adam knew his wife. But, given the juxtaposition between “conceived” and “bore”, and the fact that it is used in other verses to mean “have sexual relations with”, we can reasonably assume it means the same thing here.

Another example that's used fairly commonly is one as in Exodus 32:19, where it says:

“יחר אף משה”

“And the anger of Moses burned.”

This literally doesn't mean there was, in a literal sense, the “anger of Moses”, which literally burned with literal fire. It means he was mad.

A last example could be בני מת “sons of death.” It is not used to mean literally that there are literal sons of someone named “death”, but that the people being talked about are sure to die.

If these constitute metaphors, then it isn't even possible to take the Bible literally and have it make sense.

If it isn't the case that you take idiomatic language to be a metaphor, saying something like even though the idiom is not to be read at face value, once the meaning of it is derived, that is to be taken literally, then I think we can still make a case that it isn't inconsistent to take part of the anthology of books we have as a metaphor, while taking other parts literally. The question I think we should always ask is what the intent of the author was, and how should we understand what we're examining, given the culture and time it was written in. Giving a general answer to this question is very hard, so I will use the case of the Genesis account.

Many think the Genesis account has similarities with Near Eastern Cosmogonies.

For example, It was common among those of the Near East to think the primordial substance was water, and the primordial substance in the Genesis account is water.

It was also common in the Near East to see serpents as objects of fear and worship, and so it is an object of fear in this story. In the tradition of the Sumerians, we have the myth of Enki and Ninhursag, which talks about paradise lang similar to the garden of Eden. Furthermore, some have maintained that the garden itself was an already established tradition, in order to explain the problems we come across when dealing with the verse in Ezekiel which talks about the “garden of God.”

We also have the use of “sea monsters” in Genesis, which were common devices as well, and we have different accounts of creation where God fights giant sea monsters in order to create the earth (which was the theme of stories like the Enuma Elish). In order to see this, check Psalms 74:13 and Isaiah 51:9 or Proverbs 8:22 – 31.

Another motif is the tree of life, which can be seen to be similar as the “plant of life” in Babylonian Mythology.

There is also the fact that man was created from the ground only after it rains in Genesis 2:5, and the fact that similar substances were used to create humans in other cultures. In Egypt, the God Khnum made living creatures on a potter's wheel, and in Babylon the wild man Enkidu was made from clay.

If someone was combining various existing traditions, it is hard to see how they'd understand what they made as literal in any sense. So, most people take this as an indicator that the account we have is a statement of faith, which common motifs to express theological beliefs. If true, we have evidence not to take it metaphorically, and since it is a statement of faith, God is not a metaphor in it.

This is a debatable point though, so I don't think it's sufficient enough to establish a case. If someone disagrees with this point, I think we can still make a case using internal evidence.

The first thing we notice is the repetition. In every verse we have,

"ויאמר אלוהים יהי

"and God said let there be"

"ויהי כן

"and it was so"

"ויברא אלוהים’

"and God created"

"וירא אליהים כי טוב’

"and God saw that it was good"

We do not see this in historical accounts.

We also have multiple verses using synonymous parallelism, which is used in Hebrew poetry. It is when two words are used in conjunction to refer to the same idea. Here are some examples outside of Genesis:

"יהוה הצילה נפשי משפת–שקר לשין רמיה"

"Save me Lord, from lying lips and deceitful tongues" – Psalms 120:2

This is an instance of synonymous parallelism. "Lying lips" and "deceitful tongues" refer to the same thing.

Another instance is the famous passage in Isaiah 53.

"והיא מחלל מףשענו מדכא מעונורינו"

"He was wounded from our transgressions, and was crushed from our iniquities." Yet again, "wounded from our transgressions" and "crushed from our iniquities" are both referring to the same thing, so this is an instance of synonymous parallelism.

Keeping this in mind, we can read the text in Genesis and see multiple instances where this occurs:

"והארץ היתה תהו ובהו"

"and the earth was formless and void" - Genesis 1:2

"ויאמר אלוהים תדשא הארץ דשא עשב מזריע זרא"

"Let the earth bring forth vegetation, plants sowing seed" - Genesis 1:11

"ויברך אתם אלוחים לאמר פרו ורבו"

"Be fruitful and multiply" - Genesis 1:22

"ויאמר אלוהים נעשה אדם מצלמנו וכדמותנו"

"And God said, 'Let us make man in our image, after our likeness" - Genesis 1:26

"ויכל אלוהם ביום תשביעי מלאכתו אשר עשה וישבת ביום השביעי מכל מלאכתו"

"On the seventh day God completed the work that he had done, and on the seventh day he rested from all the work that he had done" - Genesis 2:2

"ויברך אלוחים את יום השביעי ויקדש"

"He blessed the seventh day and sanctified it" - Genesis 2:3

"זאת הפעם עצם מעצמט ובשר מבשר"

"This time it is bone from my bones and flesh from my flesh" - Genesis 2: 23

We can also take note of the fact that there are a couple of verses, which can be seen as having intentional poetic wordplay.

In Genesis, 2:25, the text says:

"ויהיו שניהם ערימים"

"and both of them were naked"

The Hebrew word for "naked" is ערם and shares the same root as the word for "cunning" in Genesis 3:1. Many have thought it to be poetic wordplay.

We also have a similar instance in Genesis 3:20:

"ויקרא האדם שם אשתו חוה כי הוא היתה אם כל חי"

"The man called the name of his wife 'Eve', for she was the mother of all living"

Eve in Hebrew is חוה (chavah), which is derived from the verb "to live", and "living" here is חי (chay), which comes form the same root. She is called chavah as poetic set up to establish chay later in the verse.

As a matter of fact, the Septuagint (a famous Greek translation of the old testament) translates the verse like this:

“και εκαλεσεν Αδαμ το ονομα τησ γυναικοσ Ζωη, οτι αυτη ματηρ παντων των ζωντων”

“And Adam called the name of his wife “life”, for she was the mother of all living.

We can also make a similar case for Adam's name, since אדם "Man (adam)” shares the same root as אדמה "ground (adamah)” and he “was formed from the dust of the ground.”

Lastly, they are never called definite names. The story consistently refers to the characters as האדם "the man” and האשח "the woman.” The verses which are usually translated as calling them definite names can be seen as poetic wordplay.

From this, I think at the least, it is reasonable to suppose that some of this account was intended to be taken allegorically. Assuming it is taken metaphorically, with the use of poetic language and common motifs, the question becomes to what extent we take it metaphorically. This requires putting it further into its context, since it would be hard to make a case that an ancient text has concept x when concept x wasn't even developed during the time it was written. We have no evidence to suppose God was worshipped as a metaphor, we have ancient civilizations who relied on the worship of their god(gods usually) to influence the world around them, to bring about rain, to bring a good harvest, and so on. That assumes that they are real character with a real influence on the real world. It would be hard for us to make the case to suppose that “God can be taken as a metaphor, if some of the text is taken as a metaphor”, when “God as a metaphor” wasn't a coherent concept at the time it was written (or at least, there is no evidence I know of that it was one). However, if we take into account the language and concepts used, we can see some of it was not meant to be taken literally.

So no, it is not dishonest to take only part of a story as literal or as metaphorical, so long as you have a valid criteria to distinguish where to draw the line. In this case, I think we do have one. The only time it becomes dishonest is when you are not consistent in doing so, or consciously denying evidence which leads you to the opposite conclusion you are holding.


Sects that do not go all the way in this direction can still be reasonable and honest.

Your basic premise that if any part of a work is metaphor, every other part might also be metaphor is a bit strange. It contradicts ordinary experience.

We all accept parts of biographical accounts as being reconstructions that capture the essence of the central characters, as seen through the eyes of the biographer or of historical interpretation, rather than statements of literal fact. Those fictional actions are metaphors for character traits.

At the same time, we presume some part of a biography should be factual, or it would no longer be a biography. It should contain some history, and not all of it can be metaphors. And we expect the non-metaphorical parts to contain the core of the story. (Oliver Stone notwithstanding.)

So yes, it is perfectly logical to take large parts of a story as being metaphorical, while a central core remains literal.

The Bible purports in large part to be a collection of historical biographies. (Even the parts directly about God are biographies of God, there is no major part of the Bible written in the first person.) So this is the kind of interpretation we should expect.


A metaphor by whom?

If there's no God, then that means the Bible isn't divinely inspired, and therefore doesn't have a single author to have intended things to be metaphors or not. Nor is there any reason to assume that parts which suggest that Earth is 6000 years old (for example) or is flat aren't simply mistaken, since it is only that they supposedly come from God that means one can't simply reject them outright as the flawed beliefs of primitive peoples.

Their belief that God is real doesn't come from the Bible, they believe the other things in the Bible (and have to justify anything they don't accept as literally true as metaphors) because they believe that God exists, and that he had a direct hand in controlling what ended up in the present-day text of the Bible, and that he would not put lies in it.


Even the most orthodox traditionalist accepts that the Bible in particular is a consensus anthology of religious texts compiled over the course of hundreds or thousands of years, and comprising work created by the hand of many different human authors (with divine guidance assumed for both the writing and the selection process).

Within the larger work, some sections are generally considered primarily concerned with laws (i.e. Leviticus), others with history (I Kings), others with values (Proverbs), others with philosophy (Ecclesiastes), others are poetic (Psalms), and some are either explicitly metaphorical (the parables of Jesus) or often assumed to be (Song of Solomon). This is uncontroversial to even the most conservative authorities.

Given this, it is quite reasonable that a believer could judge some sections as metaphorical without committing to taking all of them in that manner --a case that is easier to make for the Bible in particular than for religious works attributed to a single author. As far as the specific case of the Bible's view of God, the Bible generally presents the true nature of God as beyond human comprehension, so in that sense, all Biblical presentations of God can be viewed as "metaphorical" in a loose sense of the word.

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