I was having a discussion with some Christians the other day that touched on belief in evolution vs. literal belief in the Creation stories in Genesis. Of course the decision is not binary, but people often treat it so. Some other possibilities:
1. We're all replicants a la Blade Runner who were created 5 seconds ago with fully formed memories.
2. As suggested in various sci-fi universes, an ancient alient precursor race seeded the galaxy with its DNA and humanity is one of the byproducts.
3. The creation story of some other religion is true.
4. You're all figments of my imagination, or we're all figments of someone else's imagination.
5. We live in a Matrix-like simulation. (Here's how to survive in a simulation, just in case.)
6. The creation stories in Genesis are figuratively true.
Ok, there's more, but the sixth one is what I want to discuss today. (Of the rest, I find number five most compelling.)
First, so I don't get burnt as a heretic, let me say that I do interpret the Bible literally... at least the portions that are intended to be taken so. It's clear to anyone familiar with the Bible that large portions are intended to be figurative, and a "literal" interpretation of those parts would be nonsense. Jesus taught almost exclusively in parables, by wrapping a spiritual message in a worldly envelope so that his students could understand. Furthermore, huge swaths of prophecy in Daniel, Revelation, the Gospels, and elsewhere use vivid imagery that is intended to convey a message to the readers but not necessarily be taken literally. Consider John's vision of Jesus Christ recorded in Revelation 1:12-16.
I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone "like a son of man," dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.
The returning Christ's hair is like wool, his feet are like bronze, and his voice is like the sound of rushing waters. Clearly the language of metaphor. However, no "like" is to be found where John tells us that "out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword"... but will that be literally true? I doubt it. It seems much more likely that the double-edged sword is an illustration of how the returning Christ's words will divide humanity and bring judgement and destruction.
The Bible contains more than prophecy -- it also contains law, history, poetry, biography, personal communications, letters of instruction, and much more. It's important to interpret the Bible as a whole, a single work with one author who wrote it using many hands. No part of the scriptures can be properly interpreted without an understanding of the whole work, and that includes the question of literal and figurative interpretation. Does this make interpretation harder and more error-prone than if one were to simply declare a literal belief in the Bible? Certainly... but who ever said that understanding God's Word would not require wisdom and discernment?
As for the creation stories, here are a few questions.
Does literal or figurative belief in the creation stories impact one's salvation? I'd say certainly not. They give insight into sin and foreshadow redemption, but those principles can be grasped by a figurative reading of the stories as well. All that is required for salvation is a personal realization of sin, confession thereof, and acceptance of Jesus Christ's death as payment.
Does a literal or figurative belief in the creation stories affect how one lives one's daily Christian life? Again, I don't think so.
And so, why the controversy? Many who are quick to denounce the mere suggestion that the creation stories could be intended to be figurative have no problem figuratively interpreting clear instructions that are explicitly literal. (The passage is long, but I have bolded the portions I wish to draw your attention to.)
1 Corinthians 11:3-16
Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is just as though her head were shaved. If a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off; and if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved off, she should cover her head. A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. For this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head.
In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God. Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God.
I personally believe that the purpose of this passage is to instruct the church in modesty, and that if men and women dress and act modestly and with propriety suitable for their culture then they are in obedience with these instructions. However, the text itself is clearly intended to be taken literally, and the last sentence in particular rebukes any who would discount the instructions.
If clear commands such as those above can be obeyed as principles rather than exact instruction, then who has a basis for disputing the literalness of the history of the creation stories? I think the topic is fascinating to discuss (as I have just done at length), but arguments over the matter are clearly not profitable for the work of Christ.