“This is part 1 of a series of posts titled “Relearn the Bible.” These four blog posts are written to challenge notions of the Bible held by biblically illiterate Christians, who view it as a magical rule book void of human history, influence, & the need for careful interpretation.
The Bible can be hard and confusing. We can be stubborn and confused. The Bible is situated in a wide ranging spectrum of historical contexts and was written encompassing thousands of years of human culture, language, and history. We are often ignorant of any history that reaches beyond our own birth date and personal interests. Once you throw all of that into a blender, the concoction that comes out is enough to create hundreds of denominations and theological viewpoints… and indeed it does.
With the hope of clarifying the mess above, let’s take a closer look at one particular word/idea and the seemingly strange way it’s used in the Bible. What does the English word, all, as used in the Bible really mean? In Hebrew/Greek the more popular uses of this word are ‘kol’, ‘hapas’, and ‘ouchi’, among others. However, as nearly all people who read (and therefore interpret) the Bible do so outside of the original Hebrew/Greek, we shall only look at the English word “all.”
Here is an example of our contemporary usage of the word. If I tell you that I read ‘all of the Bible, you would expect that I indeed read every single page. Yet if I tell you that I read the Bible ‘all’ of the time, you would not expect that I literally spend every single moment of time reading. How can that be? Both are structured in a very similar way, in fact both include the same phrase: ‘all of the _____.’ The simplest answer is that the meaning of word “all” depends on a situational and contextual awareness of the whole passage.
I propose that sometimes all means all and sometimes all does not mean all. Sometimes it means ‘all that we know about’ not ‘all that are possible,’ or other times it is merely a vague reference to ‘many.’
Now this might make some of us unhappy, especially if we are used to using the word ‘all’ to prove our theological positions. For example the word ‘all’ is often as a deciding factor (“hard proof!”) in Calvinism vs Arminianism debates, and it causes no end to grief to tell someone that “all have sinned” truly refers to all, yet “God wants all to be saved” refers to elect only. I completely understand the frustration with that simplistic statement. And because of that, I want to leave the Calvinism and Arminian passages and ideas completely out of this discussion and look at other issues.
THE TEN EXAMPLES
There are many examples throughout the Bible where “all” seems to mean something other than literally every single or possible thing/person. Here are ten that I found to be interesting. Half of this list will be from one of the synoptic Gospels, Mathew, just to show that “all” issue occurs a lot. The other half is a random sampling from the rest of the Bible.
1. “When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him” (Mat 2:3)
If we try to make “all” to be literal in this case, then the coming of the wise man must have been the most public event in the history of Jerusalem. Also, it would mean that literally every single person in Jerusalem would have to have heard the conversation that caused Herod to be troubled. Yet the text only shows that the scribes and priests were aware of the coming of the wise men from the East. In addition, to really and literally say that “all Jerusalem” was troubled, would be to ignore the fact that many in Jerusalem did not like King Herod. Historians today state the Jews hated Herod and called him an ”Edomite slave” because of his subservience to the Roman Empire. Also Herod is called a “madman who murdered his own family and a great many rabbis.”(1). It’s really hard to believe that every single person in Jerusalem, including the families of those murdered rabbis would be troubled that the rightful Messiah was coming to replace Herod’s reign.
2. “Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. (Mat 3:5-6)
John the Baptizer sure seems like a very popular guy. Turns out that if we take the word “all” to refer to every single person in those regions, then it would turn out that John baptized just about everyone in Israel, and most certainly all of Jerusalem and Judea were baptized. This seems very strange, especially considering that there were plenty of Roman soldiers, priest, and Pharisees in these regions that certainly didn’t act as though they had repented and baptized. Also, how is it possible that King Herod of Jerusalem, who eventually killed John the Baptizer, was first genuinely repentant of sin and was baptized in the Jordan? If “all” is taken literally as everyone, then King Herod is definitely included in as he was in Jerusalem. However, all means all, no? A better explanation is that “all” is a simply layman’s hyperbolic use of a word to refer to “many from those places”
3. “Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.” (Mat 4:8)
The vast majority of Christians take this passage to refer to a literal event in which Satan literally takes Jesus to a literal mountain. (I am open to this being a vision). Now, if you join most Christian in believing this is a literal and physical event, you have to deal with an uncomfortable use of the word ‘all.’ Once Jesus and Satan are on this high mountain, Satan begins to show Jesus “all of the kingdoms of the world.” Can you really see all of the earth’s kingdoms from a mountain? Only if the earth was flat. Even with the best binoculars, if you stand on a mountain in the Middle east you cannot see the kingdoms of the Aztecs or the Mayans, because they are on the exact opposite side of the world. In fact the curvature of the earth is quickly noticeable, for example, you would not even be able to see the kingdoms of China or India from an airplane above Jerusalem. And those two nations contain 1/3rd of the world’s population. What are our interpretive options? Either ‘all’ of the kingdoms doesn’t really mean all, but refers to ‘many’ or else this is a mystical vision.
4. “So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, epileptics, and paralytics, and he healed them.” (Mat 4:24)
Did Jesus completely empty out the whole nation of Syria of every single sick person? While that is a possibility, there is no historical records that show the whole of the nation of Syria was healed. This could have happened in a literal way, however it begs a number of questions, such as why did Jesus not heal literally every single person in Jerusalem, yet healed every single person in the nation of Syria. Or why did the nation of Syria not become the first Christian nation if literally every single sick person in the nation was healed? Or why did this event of colossal magnitude not get recorded anywhere else in history? In fact, why do none of the other Gospel writers even mention the healing of the nation of Syria which was unlike any other even in Christ’s history. Unlike everywhere else in Christ’s history, literally every single person in a whole nation was healed, and no more sick persons were left in existence! A more consistent explanation is that this is an almost hyperbolic summation of Christ’s journey to Syria where indeed many but not literally all, were healed.
5. “All who take the sword will perish by it.” (Mat 26:52)
While it is true that those who follow a lifestyle of violence, often end up victims of that lifestyle, is it literally true that “all who take up” violence will die that way? Over five years ago I spent some time working at t local hospital. I would help patients through their diagnostic imaging examinations. I was visited by old men in their late 80’s and some in their early 90’s who had fought in World War II. I really enjoyed their company, especially as they would tell me war stories, about how they killed “Jerries” and “Krauts.” All of these old warriors were dying of old age, not of violence. Perhaps this is because they were taking up the sword to defend goodness? Again, this still doesn’t apply to “all.” Take for example the story of Laszlo Csizsik-Csatary, a sadistic Nazi war criminal who was famed for torturing Jews and ultimately responsible for the deaths of at least fifteen thousand innocents. After the war he was able to escape to Canada and live a long and fruitful life as an art dealer, raising a family and enjoying wealth and health. His story was discovered, but he died from pneumonia before he could stand trial. He died at the ripe age of 98. So how do we interpret this? Clearly every single person who took up the sword did not perish by it. Yet, as a general rule, the majority who live in violence, die from violence.
6. “And all the kings of the earth sought the presence of Solomon, to hear his wisdom, that God had put in his heart.” (2 Chr 9:23)
Did trans-oceanic travel exist before the modern era? Were the Americas discovered before Christopher Columbus? If “all” really means “every single one” then we must conclude that the Kings of the huge kingdoms of the Mayans, the Aztecs, and so forth, traveled to this small middle eastern country Jerusalem to listen to King Solomon. Is that a possibility? Yes, but it removes every single thing we know about history. It would mean that there were constant trade routes between the Americas and Europe. For how else could news of Solomon have traveled to the Americas, if not by trade. Then it also presumes that kings of the Americas would be willing to take a long and perilous sea journey of many months there and back, leaving their Kingdoms for up to a year, to listen to Solomon rather than simply read his writings. And then on top of this, every single country involved forgot about this historic trans-oceanic route, and all knowledge and record of the Americas were forgotten, as well as all of the shipbuilding techniques that would permit such travel. A far more likely, and historically appropriate answer is that “all” means many and refers to local kingdoms, not those across the ocean. This would be consistent in an ancient world, where the “whole earth” would simply refer to the known world of the culture the Bible was written in.
7. “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases” (Psalm 103:2-3)
This one is a very interesting indeed. At first, we see the word ‘all’ refer to the totality of sin that God forgives, and we passionately agree. Then when the issue turns towards the totality of diseases being healed, we begin to be more cautious. Does God heal ‘all’ of your diseases? Certain subsets of charismatics believe so, and use this verse as evidence that God heals ‘all your diseases’ not just ‘some.’ However, most of us either have ourselves, or know others who have ailments that are not cured. An improper understanding would be to say this refers to the “soul” and therefore God heals all of the diseases of the soul. First, many Christians continue to have some diseases of the soul (which we can only assume are psychological issues like anxiety, depression, etc). Second, this passage talks about youth being renewed, and the reception of love, surely the soul cannot be young, and love is not limited to the soul (ie. Gnostic heresy teaches that). A proper understanding however, includes the fact that this is poetry and this is the singers worship of God, not a promise to all to have their diseases healed.
8. “The LORD is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made.”(Psa 145:9)
First off, God does not owe anyone anything, He could, can, and does, anything he pleases. Nor can we hold him accountable to our morals. That said, is God good to all, meaning every single person that ever lived and will live? Is God merciful in every single thing that he does? According to a literal reading of Scripture, no. According to simple logic, no. For example, God’s judgment is not always kind nor merciful, often it is the opposite. Is God’s work of throwing people into hell to be tormented for all eternity an act of “mercy”? Is God being good or compassionate to those that are burning in hell? Now here someone might try to argue that in some strange way it’s actually merciful for God to judge people, destroy them, or cast them into hell by redefining what the word “mercy” means to the point that it is meaningless. So to avoid highly philosophical fights about our semantics, let’s see what the Bible actually says. Take for example when God judges the Jews and says: “I will dash them one against another, fathers and sons together, declares the LORD. I will not pity or spare or have compassion, that I should not destroy them’ (Jer. 13:14). If the “all” in Psalm 145:9 really means every single person then the Bible simply doesn’t make sense. God says his mercy is over everyone, then says he will not show mercy or compassion. The only option, if you want to keep the Bible inerrant, is that “all” in Psa 145:9 must refer to those who are not rebellious or under judgment. Or you can say that “all” really does mean “all” and adopt universalism by claiming that God doesn’t show mercy at first, but ultimately he will, and both passages are purely literal.
9. “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.” (Luke 2:1)
Did Augustus really demand that literally all of the world should be registered? Did Roman scribes travel to Australia to number the Aborigines? Did the Romans count the peoples of the Americas? What about China, India, Japan or other large nations that were at the edge of the Roman Empire? There are only a few recorded cases of the Chinese Han Empire and the Roman Empire attempting to make contact. How could Augustus make a census of China if Romans had hardly stepped foot into China? The obvious interpretation of this passage is that ‘all of the world’ doesn’t literally mean ‘all of the world,’ but is the human writers geocentric view. For the writer, the Roman empire truly appeared as the whole world, even though it was hardly that.
10. “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” (1 Cor 15:22)
To say that ‘all’ in both cases really and truly means ‘every single person’ leaves us only one option: ultimate reconciliation (or that everyone is saved). First, we assume the word ‘all’ literally refers to every single person who ever lived as being sinful, and we easily affirm that literally everyone is sinful, there are no exceptions. Then we see a direct contrast that also says “all” will be alive with Christ. If we are fair, and don’t change the meaning of the word ‘all’ mid-passage, then this verse says “just as (every single person) is spiritually dead, so also (every single person) will be eternally alive.“ This passage is therefore used by proponents of universal reconciliation to show there is a direct relationship between the total depravity of all people, and the eternal life of all people. And while that is a possible interpretation, and I would love nothing more than universal reconciliation, I think there is a better one that is more contextually accurate. Paul is dealing with both the Jews and the Gentiles and often showing that both groups are eligible for God’s grace. If we assume that is the case, then when Paul refers to ‘all’ he doesn’t mean “every single person” but rather “both the Gentiles and Jews.” This would mean the passage says “Just as both Jews and Gentiles are sinful through Adam, so also both Jews and Gentiles will be saved through Christ.” The most ironic thing here? That the most fundamentalist-literalist reading would have made us universalists, isn’t that interesting? (Although with Col 1:20, if “all” is taken literally, we see the same universalist argument without as good of an explanation.)
I did not survey the whole Bible, but did a brief look through and here are some other passages which I found, where “all” does not seem to refer to “literally all:” Matthew 10:22, 21:26, Mark 1:5, John 3:26, 8:2, 11:48, Acts 2:45, 4:21, 21:28, 22:15, 1 Corinthians 2:15 vs 4:5, 2 Corinthians 3:2, Romans 12:17-18, 16:19, 1 Timothy 2:1, 2 Timothy 3:9, 4:16, 3 John 1:12.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN?
Why do I care about this and why should you? Am I trying to prove that God does not “love all people”? Certainly not! Do I have some strange and evil agenda? Not that I know of… What my wishes are is that all Christians (do I really mean all?) would move towards a more realistic understanding of the Bible, rather than considering it a magical law book that was written only and specifically for modern readers. I don’t believe the Bible is like that, nor was it written specifically for us, using our contemporary cultural understanding.
So how do we interpret the word all? Do we just throw it out? Did I just show us that we are able to simply make up our own interpretation of when all refers to all in existence, and where it means many or etc? I certainly don’t think so. Instead, we are to let the Bible dictate the context and look for clues and hints that are right there in the pages. When it says that we should abstain from “all” sexual immorality, the context dictates that it really does mean every single type. Yet in other places, where there is a sheer impossibility of “all” meaning every single thing in existence, we should consider how the author used the word. This is hardly definitive or all encompassing. In fact, this demands to be discussed in much more detail, but alas I have probably already bored away all my readers. Ultimately the biggest thing that I wanted to show was that the Bible does need to be interpreted, not simply read as literally as possible, especially with regard to that pesky word “all.”