Part of the challenge Christians face when sharing the Gospel is distinguishing imagery or analogies from literal truth. While Christians (at least the traditional or conservative sort) say that everything in the Bible is true, we stop short of saying that it is “literally true.” Psalm 91:4 portrays God as spreading his wings and covering us with his feathers. We know that to be an image, comparing God to a mother bird protecting her young. We believe in the truth of God’s loving protection; we do not believe that God literally has wings and feathers.
When it comes to the redemption of sinners, it can be hard to sort literal truth from imagery and analogy. Jesus of Nazareth is a historical figure. He does not represent any truth; he is Truth itself. Historically, he was executed, suffering and dying on a Roman cross. Historically, he rose to life again the same weekend he was killed. Anyone who tries to turn those events into images or analogies is distorting the central truth of the Christian faith.
But the meaning of those events can only be portrayed in analogy. No one image is big enough to cover the enormity of what Jesus accomplished by his death and resurrection. Any single image is open to distortion and misunderstanding. Sometimes, when trying to communicate the Gospel, a Christian must set aside one analogy and turn to another to keep from offending the listener (in the Biblical sense of John 6:60-66, not in the shallow worldly sense).
The image of the suffering and death of Jesus as a sacrifice is common among Christians. Animals sacrificed in Old Testament times were pictures of Jesus on the cross. But are we to say that God approves of human sacrifice? Clearly not—one of the charges against the Canaanites was that they sacrificed their own children to their gods. The sacrifice of Jesus is an analogy of his voluntary acceptance of suffering to redeem sinners. When the analogy is pressed too far—when it is said that God the Father demanded the sacrifice of his Son—we are better off seeking a different analogy.
There are several others to choose. Paul liked to use financial analogies, depicting Jesus as paying our debt so we could be free from sin. He also used legal analogies, showing Jesus accepting our punishment so we could be declared not guilty (that is, “justified”). Yet another common analogy is that of warfare, that Jesus on the cross battled the devil and the evil world and all sins and death, winning a victory that he shares with his people and wants to share with the entire world.
Likewise, when we pursue the warfare analogy, it is important to remember which enemies were defeated. Christians are commanded to love our worldly enemies, but Christians also battle spiritual enemies of great power. Without Christ’s victory, we are easily defeated; through Christ’s victory, we are more than conquerors. The Psalms that call for help against our enemies do not apply to Muslim terrorists or to neighbors with noisy leaf-blowers. They apply to the devil, to the sinful world, and to the sin still within each of us. When Psalm 137 calls for the children of Babylon to be killed in a violent way, that does not refer to historic babies in a historic city. It uses the imagery of warfare to describe the crushing of our sins through the victory of Christ so those sins can no longer afflict us.
We are not free to change every verse of Scripture into an analogy or an image. Statements about historical events should be regarded as factual. Commandments not to sin should be taken seriously. But the greatest truths can only be communicated through imagery. Human language alone does not have the power to describe the splendor of our Savior and the wonder of all that he has done for us. J.