Biblical Hyperbole, Masturbation, & Intransigent Atheists

Biblical Hyperbole, Masturbation, & Intransigent Atheists September 3, 2019

Atheist and former Christian Acalibre commented on my paper, Masturbation: Thoughts on Why it is as Wrong as it Ever Was., and I replied. His words will be in blue.


Why stop there, Dave? In Matthew 5.30, where he’s speaking in an entirely sexual context, Jesus advocates cutting off one’s right hand if it ‘offends’ you. He’s clearly talking about masturbation, as well as other sexual sins. You ignore him at your peril; he wouldn’t have issued this command if he hadn’t meant it.

Learn about biblical hyperbole. Here’s some help for you to do that.

I like that Jesus words are always hyperbole or metaphor when you don’t like what he’s saying. I guess ‘treat others as you like to be treated’, ‘go the extra mile’, ‘turn the other cheek’ and ‘give to all who ask’ are similarly hyperbolic and can also be safely dismissed.

That’s how you see it. In fact, there are such literary genres and figures and one can intelligently determine when they are present in Scripture. It takes study, and people like you have no interest in that if it establishes traditional Christianity and morals (it goes against your agenda), so you simply bloviate without knowledge, as you have done.

No, I simply ask you how you know when Jesus is speaking metaphorically or hyperbolically and when he should be taken literally; how do you distinguish?

Surely the one who said to have faith like a child does not expect years of study simply to know when to take him seriously.

That’s a completely different thing. He was saying (proverbially), “be trusting of God, rather than always being cynical and questioning, as is too often the case with adults.” It’s a different principle from the notion of studying Scripture in order to better understand it.

We have to study more because we are in a “rationalistic, post-“Enlightenment” Greek-influenced, post-scientific culture, whereas the Bible was written in a pre-scientific, pre-philosophical, agricultural, Hebrew, ancient near eastern culture, rich with poetry and non-literal literary devices and expressions. Because we think very differently than they do, we have to learn about their culture and how they thought and wrote. They were not “stupid” and “primitive”: as atheists are always making them out to be: just different and further back in time.

They thought very differently, for example about time and chronology, and had notions such as “block logic” (very unfamiliar to us in our culture and ways of thinking today): both of which I have written about.

To the casual observer it does indeed seem that when believers like yourself don’t like what Jesus is telling you to do, you decide he’s using hyperbole, and when he’s not placing too much of a demand on you he can be taken literally. Demonstrate how this is not the case: are commands like ‘go the extra mile’ and ‘turn the other cheek’ hyperbole or not? And how do you know?

Those two are proverbial: which are general exhortations that hold in a broad sense, but which allow exceptions. I recently wrote about “turn the other cheek”.

We know by becoming familiar with the different forms of non-literal expression in biblical times. It’s through practice and study. And by cross-referencing.

So, for example, I was writing about how Jesus said, “if you don’t hate your family, you’re not worthy of me.” This is hyperbole: the extreme contrast. But in another Gospel, Jesus gives the literal meaning, which is how the hyperbole is interpreted: “if you love your family more than me, you’re not worthy of me.”

And that brings to mind another principle of biblical interpretation: “Interpret the unclear or difficult verse in light of related ones that are more clear and more easily understood.”

We learn all this by studying Bible commentaries and linguistic aids, and the rules of hermeneutics and exegesis (Bible interpretation). At the link I provided (about hyperbole) is mentioned a book about figures in the Bible. I quote:

Bible scholar E. W. Bullinger catalogued “over 200 distinct figures [in the Bible], several of them with from 30 to 40 varieties.” That is a statement from the Introduction to his 1104-page tome, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible (London: 1898). I have this work in my own library (hardcover). It’s also available for free, online. Bullinger continues, in the Introduction [now I quote it directly]:

All language is governed by law; but, in order to increase the power of a word, or the force of an expression, these laws are designedly departed from, and words and sentences are thrown into, and used in, new forms, or figures.

The ancient Greeks reduced these new and peculiar forms to science, and gave names to more than two hundred of them.

The Romans carried forward this science . . .

These manifold forms which words and sentences assume were called by the Greeks Schema and by the Romans, Figura. Both words have the same meaning, viz., a shape or figure. . . .

Applied to words, a figure denotes some form which a word or sentence takes, different from its ordinary and natural form. This is always for the purpose of giving additional force, more life, intensified feeling, and greater emphasis.

[Bullinger devotes six pages (423-428) to “Hyperbole; or, Exaggeration”: which he defines as follows:]

The figure is so called because the expression adds to the sense so much that it exaggerates it, and enlarges or diminishes it more than is really meant in fact. Or, when more is said than is meant to be literally understood, in order to heighten the sense.

It is the superlative degree applied to verbs and sentences and expressions or descriptions, rather than to mere adjectives. . . .

It was called by the Latins superlatio, a carrying beyond, an exaggerating.

[I shall cite some of his more notable and obvious examples (omitting ellipses: “. . .” ):]

Gen. ii. 24. — “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife.” This does not mean that he is to forsake and no longer to love or care for his parents. So Matt. xix. 5.

Ex. viii. 17. — “All the dust of the land became lice throughout all the land of Egypt”: i.e., wherever in all the land there was dust, it became lice.

I Sam. xxv. 37. — Nabal’s “heart died within him, and he became as a stone”: i.e., he was terribly frightened and collapsed or fainted away.

I Kings i. 40. — “So that the earth rent with the sound of them.”

A hyperbolical description of their jumping and leaping for joy.Job xxix. 6. — “The rock poured me out rivers of oil”: i.e., I had abundance of all good things. So chap. xx. 17 and Micah vi. 7.

Isa. xiv. 13, — “I will ascend into heaven”: to express the pride of Lucifer.

Lam. ii. 11.— “My liver is poured upon the earth, etc”: to express the depth of the Prophet’s grief and sorrow at the desolations of Zion.

Luke xiv. 26. — “If any man come to me and hate not his father and mother”: i.e., does not esteem them less than me. So the verb to hate is used (Gen. xxix. 31. Rom. ix. 13).

John iii. 26. — “All men come to him.” Thus his disciples said to John, to show their sense of the many people who followed the Lord.

John xii. 19. — “Behold, the world is gone after him.” The enemies of the Lord thus expressed their indignation at the vast multitudes which followed Him.

Gary Amirault highlights more biblical examples in a similar article:

[T]is verse is a hyperbole, an exaggeration for effect:

“You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” (Matt. 23:24, NIV)

It is not too difficult to determine that this is a hyperbole, an exaggeration. Because the English language is full of Bible terms and phraseology, this Hebrew idiom has become part of the English language. Therefore most English speaking people know the real meaning of that phrase: “You pay close attention to little things but neglect the important things.” [Dave: or, “you can’t see the forest for the trees”]

However, here is a hyperbole that the average Bible reader may miss and formulate doctrine from which may end up being harmful to themselves and others.

“Everything is possible for him who believes.” (Mark 9:23b, NIV)

The Bible is full of exaggerations like the one above which are not to be taken literally. Careful attention, comparing scripture with scripture, knowing the Bible and its author thoroughly, making certain not to necessary apply things to ourselves which weren’t meant for us individually and some basics about the original languages are needed to prevent us from misinterpreting various scripture verses like this one. . . .

“If thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out…” Matt. 5:29 (I met a Christian who actually tried to pluck out his right eye because he had a lust problem. This is an example the kind of problem a Bible translation can cause if one is not informed of the various figures of speech found in the Bible.)

[The literary device of antithesis, or contrast also seems more specifically applicable to the verse we are considering. Bullinger writes about this in his pages 715-718:]

A setting of one Phrase in Contrast with another.

. . . It is a figure by which two thoughts, ideas, or phrases, are set over one against the other, in order to make the contrast more striking, and thus to emphasize it. [footnote: “When this consists of words rather than of sentences, it is called Epanodos, and Antimetabole (q.v.).”]

The two parts so placed are hence called in Greek antitheta, and in Latin opposita and contraposita. . . .

It is called also contentio: i.e., comparison, or contrast. When this contrast is made by affirmatives and negatives, it is called Enantiosis, see below. The Book of Proverbs so abounds in such Antitheses that we have not given any examples from it.


I guess ‘treat others as you like to be treated’, ‘go the extra mile’, ‘turn the other cheek’ and ‘give to all who ask’ are similarly hyperbolic and can also be safely dismissed.

These are not hyperbolic. The golden rule is literal ethical advice that applies to all situations. If we want to be treated lovingly, we should also do the same with other people. This is a principle present in virtually every ethical system in all times and places (as C. S. Lewis documented in his book, The Abolition of Man).

“Give to all who ask” is also a general ethical principle, but has a proverbial element in that it isn’t always literally possible to do so. The idea is that we should have a giving heart and be willing to help the less fortunate, insofar as we are possibly able to do so.

Clearly hyperbolic passages would be, for example:

Mark 11:23 (RSV) Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, `Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him.

Matthew 7:3 Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?

Matthew 19:24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.

‘Clearly’ they’re hyperbolic? How so? I thought knowing this involved study? Now it appears it’s self-evident.

I see. So you think Jesus talking about having a log in your eye is being literal, huh? How ridiculous are we gonna get?

Nevertheless, Jesus’ point is that with faith, seemingly impossible things are possible. Why don’t we see these things being realised by his followers today?

Many times we do witness extraordinary things. But people like you dismiss them out of hand, because you can’t allow the possibility that Christianity is true (having rejected it as an apostate). There are healings, but there are not always healings, and not healings at command, as if God were our genie.

And why, despite his other ‘literal ethical advice’ (‘advice’?), do we not see all Christians actually doing what he suggests? You’ve turned his words into mere textual exercise, his commands into optional bits of ‘advice’. Well done. As I suggested originally, you pick and choose what you accept on the basis of whether it’s easy or to your liking. The radical stuff you dismiss with quasi-intellectual sleight of hand.

I was speaking generically and in a certain sense when I used the description, “literal ethical advice.” I agree that that could be misunderstood (which is exactly what you did). But I never intended to imply at all that the Golden Rule was merely optional advice. Of course it is a binding command from Jesus. This is not arbitrary picking and choosing, as you charge. I simply was not as clear as I could have been.

As expected, you reject the explanation out of hand. It would make no sense from a purely rational, “understanding of literary genre” point of view, but it becomes more understandable in light of what the Bible says about the rebellious, atheist mind, which becomes “darkened” after a while (“they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools”: Romans 1:21-22, RSV).

I try to have a serious conversation and reply to your questions, which I assume were sincere, but you bring it right back down to mockery and foolishness. Why is that? From the Christian view, it is likely because of the following dynamic:

1 Corinthians 2:14 “The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”

2 Timothy 3:7 who will listen to anybody and can never arrive at a knowledge of the truth.


Photo credit: KlausHausmann (10-4-15) [PixabayPixabay License]


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