Literal Danger: Proceed with Caution

By Hanna Hyatt


“I’m literally going crazy.”

“I’m literally going to run away.”

“My cat literally is the devil.”


Take five seconds to search “overuse of the word literally” on Google. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

It’s literally the worst.

Taking things literally limits our ability to communicate and to understand others, and the rage against the word “literally” when people use it in day-to-day life shows that people cannot even take the word “literally” literally. What is the danger of a literal interpretation? How does it limit communication? Let’s examine this from a theological perspective. Hold on to your hats . . .


People’s interpretation of the world around them and communication with others is central to their understanding of life, love, religion, and relationships. How can people work, live, play, or love if they don’t understand expectations or boundaries? Or if they consistently misunderstand the people around them?

If people look to the Bible for help, they can easily find it. They can also easily find many confusing and contradictory ideas. Many people argue that the Bible should be taken literally; however, some passages of the Bible tell followers to obey strict rules and restrictions that many believers don’t follow or trust in the world today.


In Leviticus, where many laws in the Old Testament reside, the Lord says, “You shall not round off the hair on your temple or mar the edges of your beard. You shall not make any gashes in your flesh for the dead or tattoo any marks upon you” (Leviticus 19:26–27). People are also instructed to prepare sacrifices, stone adulterers, and cut people off from their families and neighbors, along with many other outdated, difficult, and specific laws.

What would the world look like if people took this type of law literally? It’s easy to imagine a world of accusations, pointing fingers, burning and stoning. How are people supposed to read and interpret the Bible when laws point them toward condemnation for themselves and others?

Swedenborg’s writing offers a new option for biblical interpretation: the concept that there is a deeper, spiritual meaning within all of these complex laws that “lies inside [the literal interpretation] the way our soul is in our body, or our intellect’s thoughts are in our eyes, or our feelings of love are in our face” (True Christianity #194).

According to Swedenborg, the deeper meaning within the Bible applies directly to each person’s individual life, describing ways to approach everything from moments of temptation and trial to moments of peace and love. In his book Secrets of Heaven, Swedenborg goes through the first two books of the Bible, Genesis and Exodus, line by line, connecting what’s written in the Bible with the Lord’s love in heaven—the literal and the spiritual.

Swedenborg also writes that by thinking of the Word as inwardly spiritual, and by opening themselves to God’s influence (a spiritual force he also refers to as inflow or influx*) people can learn to understand this spiritual sense of the Bible for themselves.

The concept of dual physical and spiritual realities isn’t a revolutionary one; this idea exists throughout the New Testament. In 1 Corinthians, Paul teaches that “if there is a physical body, there is a spiritual body” (15:44). The distinction between a physical and spiritual existence is a common thread throughout Christian history. Swedenborg adds more to that theory by expanding it to include biblical interpretation. With his ideas, each literal word relates back to a spiritual meaning that people can take and apply to their lives.

People determine their own understanding of life, love, religion, and relationships. When people look at the Bible, they can interpret it literally or as having a deeper meaning. Each person approaches and understands it differently.

. . . Hats literally still on?

While these concepts relate to theological discussions, they also relate to the transition every person makes from life to death. If you’re interested in hearing more about the way the interpretation of literal words change as people near death, head over to the offTheLeftEye YouTube channel, where you can find a panel of experts talking about what the communications of the dying mean in a video titled “The Unintelligible Afterlife.”

Happy watching!

*Influx is a tricky one. If you’re curious, keep your eyes peeled (warning: don’t literally peel your eyes) for an influx article coming soon!

Further Reading

To learn more about Swedenborg’s principle that the Bible has an inner, spiritual meaning, check out the pages Inner Meaning of the Bible or Swedenborg’s Biblical Interpretation for free e-book downloads, quotes, and videos.

© Copyright 2017 Swedenborg Foundation

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