Critics in and outside the Seventh-day Adventist Church attack the accuracy of the Bible through a subversion of its literal meaning. “Literalism” is seen as the method of ignorant fools, but the Bible does not support this characterization. A study of the Bible reveals that it should be read as an inspired work of literature containing various genres, figures of speech, symbolisms, and artistic arrangements for effect. The artistic elements of the Bible do not interfere with a literal reading—they are the literal reading.
The joy that might be had by a literal/literary reading of the Bible is why Seventh-day Adventists advise a “plain reading” of Scripture. But “plain” does not suggest “unsophisticated.” Reading the Bible with an eye for all its beauty and clarity and power is simply more enjoyable and enlightening. On the other hand, the reading method of higher critics turns the Bible into a dull, valueless book. In other words, one never knows what to enjoy or what to reject. Higher critics take away the literary unity of the greatest book ever written.
The rejection of a literal/literary interpretation of Genesis 1-11 is particularly devastating for the church and its message. But fortunately for the church, the Bible explains itself. Bible prophecy proves the literal reality of the ancient stories in the Bible. Three prophecies of the Bible are useful for demonstrating the validity of plain reading.
Bible readers often assume that prophecy is all about the future, and it is, mostly. But in important ways prophecy points backward to first things, thereby connecting the future and the past. The future does not exist independently, but is built on what comes before.
THE DAYS OF NOAH
The first thousand years of earth’s history are vital to events predicted to occur during our own time (the literal time of the end—see Daniel 11:40-12:13). Jesus reaches deep into the Book of Genesis, the beginning of earthly time, to make a comparison between the days of Noah and the days of his own second coming.
Jesus says, “’As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man’” (New International Version, Matt. 24:37). Jesus goes on to provide details about those days. “’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’” (English Standard Version, Matt. 24:38).
The story of the Flood, coming in Genesis 6-8, is as plain as today’s newspaper. Every reader can understand the nature of eating and drinking and marrying. Nothing is more common in human history than these activities.
If the events of the Flood were not literal, it would be pointless to use the Flood as a warning. Readers would be unable to imagine the reality and utter shock of the second coming without some knowable thing for comparison. People learn about what they haven’t seen by what they have seen. Jesus always knew his audience and provided exactly what they needed in order to understand his Word.
In the sixth century before Christ, the prophet Daniel interpreted the dream of a pagan king. Nebuchadnezzar is the head of gold on that famous statue of successive kingdoms beginning with Babylon and ending with the kingdom of heaven (see Daniel 2). Literal Babylon becomes the symbolic representation of the amalgamation of the anti-God powers of earth at the end of time.
But the literal Babylon of Daniel’s time is not the only forerunner for end-time Babylon. The root word is found in Genesis 11 where readers first see the city of Babel, a name synonymous with Babylon. Babylon means confusion and stands for the human attempt to usurp God’s authority.
Providentially for students of the Bible, the reality of rebellious cities precedes even Babel. “Babylon” goes back to the first human city we hear about in the Bible—the city of Enoch. The first murderer, Cain, one of the sons of Adam and Eve, built Enoch. The story of the founding of the city of Enoch appears in Genesis 4, only decades after the creation.
Although the Bible does not specifically say, readers can infer that Enoch was a rebellious city since it was built far from the presence of God and gave birth to a pagan civilization. The biblical literary pattern suggests strongly that Enoch was a literal city.
Over the centuries it was written, Bible authors focused on one rebellious city after another. In the Bible, myth does not precede future symbolism. In fact, myth doesn’t even exist as a biblical genre. Symbols often belong to the future because symbols inform as well as disguise what God will do. Authors reference a literal past that people can easily appreciate. Babylon was a real city. We can find it in ruins today. Knowing the fate of literal Babylon will help explain the fate of symbolic Babylon.
JONAH AND THE GREAT FISH
Jesus supports a literal reading of the account of Jonah, a favorite target of critics of the Bible. He points to the men of Nineveh as witnesses against the current generation who ask for signs. He says, “’For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of God be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth’” (Matt. 12:40).
Here Jesus points to a literal event in the past to predict a literal future event that He clothes in metaphorical language. The belly of a large fish can hold a man, but “the heart of the earth” is figurative language whose meaning has still not been fully unpacked. At minimum, this expression refers to his resting in the grave after his crucifixion.
When critics of the Bible move from the “It Is Written” method of interpretation, they are distorting the divine record. They apply study methods that don’t work for understanding the Word of God.
The Bible stands like a rock. When we allow the Bible to speak for itself, when we study it carefully and mine its truths, we can know in whom we have believed and have confidence that a literal reading of the Bible will guide his people through to the end.