Today in conversation with an atheist we ran into trouble over this passage in Matthew:

Mathew 18:9 (ESV)
And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.

He seemed to be of the idea that the Scripture could be read either literally word for word from beginning to end or just as poetry or allegory, but that you couldn't pick and choose. I think a sound understanding of each passage demands some attention to how the literary elements it contains so that we are reading it the way it was meant to be understood.

What kinds of clues do experts in hermeneutics apply when approaching a verse to determine whether what was meant in a case like this was hyperbole or a verbatim instruction or something else?

  • 8
    "That's an excellent question!" said One-Eye Bill.
    – Richard
    Commented Oct 4, 2011 at 22:23
  • 5
    @Richard: Origen wishes it were asked 1900 years or so earlier too. Commented Oct 19, 2011 at 0:03
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    I have spent a life time researching this question since I would give my left arm to know. But apparently finding a hint on how to discern hyperbole is an impossible task. I do recognize that I may have missed something but I would just die if my error was revealed publicly. In the meantime I will just have to rely on the same instincts that I use to discern hyperbole in non-biblical texts.
    – Bob Jones
    Commented May 28, 2012 at 3:53
  • See now also @Soldarnal's question about "literal v. literalistic", which has an overlapping interest with this question (I think).
    – Dɑvïd
    Commented Sep 11, 2014 at 20:37
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    Jas 3.1's answer is very good here. Jesus' statement is not hyperbole. It is an example of (implied) a forteriori logic. IF your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. Well, if you're willing to remove your eyeballs for God's kingdom, why wouldn't you be willing to give up something lesser?
    – Solocutor
    Commented Apr 19, 2016 at 17:11

3 Answers 3


A literalistic reading of the aforementioned passage in Mathew teaches that under a certain circumstance, namely "your eye causes you to sin," one must poke out his or her own eye. A literary (non-literal) reading of the passage sees the usage of hyperbole and a vivid visual image to communicate the horrifying and traumatic nature of sin. The former reading is basically didactic, the latter reading sees a teaching that is implied and indirect.

“He seemed to be of the idea that the Scripture could be read either literally word for word from beginning to end or just as poetry or allegory”

The Bible clearly has didactic content, but it's unreasonable and certainly wrongheaded to reduce the Bible to a book about what a person should do and when. If the Bible was intended as such, it would have been written in legalese. The Bible contains narrative history, poetry, philosophy and law and is wrought with a pervasive tension between the literal meaning of its words and its literary effectiveness.

[In real life, many people are unable to appreciate nuance or tolerate complexity and are unable to see the power and effectiveness of tension, ambiguity and mystery in the human experience. No great literature is so simple that it can be packaged as either being literal or allegorical and that is what makes literature such a powerful and important medium of communication. The culture of bullet point summaries and bite-sized content is antithetical to a deep appreciation of the Bible or any great art.]

Usually, intuition is sufficient to determine if a text was intended more for its literal content or for its literary content. For example, it's overwhelmingly evident that Mathew 18:9 should not be taken literally since:

  • A literal rendering of the passage would be grossly inconsistent with much of the scriptures
  • The passage fails to be meaningful or informative when taken in its literal sense - "if your eye causes you to sin" is far too vague and ambiguous and “tearing out one's eye” is far too intense to have any practical import
  • The added “and throw it away” contributes nothing to the literal obligation in the verse but is consistent with and complementary to its vivid and descriptive style
  • The context in Mathew isn't legalistic at all

Not all cases are so clear cut (see this question) and these issues are taken seriously and are well debated within religious circles. Nevertheless, a precise and rich understanding of the Bible, like any other important text, can only come through experience, study, and a learned sensitivity to the thematic and philosophical content therein.

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    I actually suggested that while hyperbole was the correct reading, the example in question COULD be taken literally as long as you go all the way with it. Then it because a non-issue again because it isn't the eye that actually causes you to sin it is your will. If you think your body parts are at fault that's a different problem. As for gouging out your will isn't that pretty much what we do with "dying to sin" and having our hearts of stone taken away?
    – Caleb
    Commented Oct 8, 2011 at 16:16
  • Yes! This actually has direct application by Paul concerning the body of Christ when he instructs them to cast one out who is causing others to sin.
    – Bob Jones
    Commented Nov 14, 2011 at 5:05

Hermeneutics: Scripture has two "senses": a literal (historical) and a spiritual (the message God is trying to get across to us). (See here for further explanation of this.) The Bible is completely true in both senses.

Literal: Jesus literally said that "if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away." This statement should be taken as an historical fact. (It is not just some life lesson that Matthew made up to teach us something.)

Now, what was God trying to get across to us by Jesus saying this? That's where we jump from "literal" to "spiritual".

Spiritual: If anything in your life causes you to sin, be ruthless about tearing it out of your life and casting it away from you. This is serious business. It is much better to lose things you value in this life than to go to Hell for eternity!

But does this apply to ripping your eyes out? Yes! It applies to everything! If your eye causes you to sin, rip it out!

Application: With that said, your actual, physical eye does not cause you to sin. It's just blood vessels and goo. What causes you to sin is your lust, etc. And it is that lust that needs to be ruthlessly ripped out of your life.

This is easy to see if you consider what would happen if you actually ripped your eyes out. Do you think you would suddenly stop lusting? Man... if it were that simple, I'd happily go blind!

Conclusion: The Bible is literally true, but the purpose behind it all is to convey spiritual truth. The truth in this case is that we must rid our lives of those things which cause us to stumble - even if it's something as precious to us as our own eyes. Unfortunately, it is not that simple; your eye is not the cause of your stumbling.

  • In my opinion, this is a much better answer. It doesn't try to hand wave away the intent of the passage. When you accept the literal meaning behind the passage, you have an a forteriori argument for getting rid of anything in your life that causes you to sin. "If I'm willing to give up my eyes, then surely I would give up [insert actual sin promoter here]." The message is very simple: Remove things from your life that cause you to sin. God's kingdom is worth any sacrifice.
    – Solocutor
    Commented Apr 19, 2016 at 17:05

Q: What are the good contextual clues that the passage is meant to be read as hyperbole?*

1. People speak Hyperbole, and so does Jesus

Hyperbole is one of the familiar figures of speech people use... It is a rhetorical and literary technique in which speakers intentionally exaggerate to an extreme and inject emphasis into their statements, or “when more is said that literally meant”(Bullinger). The ultimate implication of the Hyperbole is "not meant to be taken literally with the stated consequences."

a. Typical hyperboles people use: Everyday hyperboles are like:

  • There is enough food in the cupboard to feed an entire army.
  • He is a liar! The whole world knows it!
  • I’ve told you to clean your room a million times!
  • If I can’t get a smartphone, I will die.

  • If I don’t clean up this mess by this evening, my mom says, she would kill me!

The first four examples are plain and commonly used hyperbole. The last one is a little different from the four, because “my Mom says, she would kill me.” Of course, He/she does not mean Mom will literally kill him/her, and we all know that. So, it is still a plain hyperbole, an exaggeration, an empty threat, and there will be NO actual harm!

b. Hyperboles Jesus spoke : Jesus employed hyperbole for emphasis, as seen in phrases like:

  • “You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!” (Mt. 23:24)

  • “Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”(Lk. 18:25)

  • Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, I tell you, but seventy-seven times!”(Mt. 22)

  • ".. do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing"; ".. is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. (Mt.6:3; Mk. 10:25)

In sum:

As demonstrate in the examples above, the phrases containing obvious impossibility with NO stipulated eternal consequences serve as contextual clues for "hyperbole." To help further of our understanding for identifying hyperbole.

2. Contextual clues for NOT "Hyperbole"

let us look at the contextual clues for non-hyperbole: Certain statements from Jesus, like:

  • "cut off your hand or foot causes you to sin..." Mathew 18:8-9, and "tear out your right eyes if it causes you to sin..." (Matt. 5:27-30), these are not "Hyperbole."

The structure of the statements are identical to God's command to Adam:

(Genesis 2:17): "but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”

a). It contains explicit stipulations, the description of offense (the acts not to do), and the consequence -i.e. “your whole- body goes into hell.” These rather signifies it as a divine code of conduct for His people.

b). The "I" emphatic

For example, Jesus begins in 5:28, the parallel verses to the text (also in V 28, 32, 34, 39, 44), with “I say to you” (ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν), where the “I” is emphatic and authoritative.

c). The verbs is imperative.

Matthew 18:8-9 (ESV)

8 And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.

“Matthew 5:27

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you (ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν) that everyone who looks (βλέπων) at a (πρὸς τὸ) woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your entire body is thrown into hell. 30 And if your right-hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body goes into hell.”

v.9, ἐξαιρέω (pluck out) & βάλε (cast) which signifies it is a command, **not a suggestion or recommendation.

In the texts, Jesus speaks not about being born again, but is addressing to His own people, the Jews (and believers) who commit “ongoing, continuous, habitual offenses”, dominated by fleshly desires,** that they need to take drastic measures to avert the dire consequences, “be thrown into hell" as a surgeon sees the need and warns the patient of the irreparable consequences if not taken a drastic measure of amputation of a limb:

( “looks” (= looking βλέπων), denotes the act of continued looking to lust after (=with a view to);
at a (πρὸς τὸ)” denotes to “with a view to”; “causes” (σκανδαλίζει) is indicative, present, active; “hand” (χεὶρ), refers to harming others with hands, as in Isa. 58:4; 59:3; Gen. 4:11.)

d). It is a “prescriptive” statement with explicit stipulations.

Jesus is the Savior and Deliverer who came in flesh to save us from eternal damnation and suffering. He does not want any of His sheep to be lost. His prescriptive words such as the text in question are NOT an exaggeration, just as a good doctor would not write a hyperbole prescription ( as defined in 2 -a) for the patients under his care.

Other statements of Jesus that are NOT hyperbole:

  • If say Raca! to your brother, or say you fool, or angry with his brother are in danger of the judgment (Matt. 5:22);

  • “anyone causes one of little better hung millstone” (Mk 9:43-47),

  • Hate your father, mother, and carry your cross (Mt. 10:37-39; Lk. 14:26)

  • For every idle word men speak.. by your words you will be condemned (Mt. 12:34-37)

  • If you do not forgive, I will not forgive (Mt.6:15)

  • And, Matt. 16:25-26!

Words of caution

Misinterpreting God's commands as hyperbole, as the serpent did when tempting Eve, can lead to dire consequences.

The first such attempt to reduce the Word of God, the explicte command, occurred in the garden of Eden** when the serpent said to the woman (Genesis 3:1, 4),

“Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” “You will not surely die.”

In effect, the serpent was saying, "God spoke a hyperbole,an exaggeration, and God didn't mean it. Oh, silly things! You don't believe it, do you?

That one act of reducing to hyperbole changed the destiny of the human race, and cost God dearly - His only-begotten Son! The same "hyperbole spirit of deception" is still lurking around us! Jesus Himself said:

“Not an iota, not a dot will pass” (Matt. 5:18); “my word will not pass away” (24:35), and Peter said the Word of the Lord remains forever (1 Peter 1:25)


Then, do we have to mutilate body parts for each and every time that do wrongs?**

No! We need not mutilate our bodies because there is forgiveness available. For, Jesus was tortured, maimed, and hung on the cross for all our sins.**

Isaiah 53:5 - But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.

Scripture says, only repent and confess your sins - the way out from the dire eternal consequences:

1 John 1:9: "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." (Eph. 1:7; Isa. 1:18; Matt. 18:22; 6:12)

And, Jesus is interceding for us (Heb. 7:25) at the right of God.

PS: For further reading on the subject (here)

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