Problem: Evangelical Christians believe in taking the Bible literally. But Jesus said, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53). Should this be taken literally too?
Solution: The literal (i.e., actual) meaning of a text is the correct one, but the literal meaning does not mean that everything should be taken literally. For example, the literal meaning of Jesus’ statement, “I am the true vine” (John 15:1) is that He is the real source of our spiritual life. But it does not mean that Jesus is a literal vine with leaves growing out of His arms and ears! Literal meaning can be communicated by means of figures of speech. Christ is the actual foundation of the church (1 Cor. 3:11; Eph. 2:20), but He is not literally a granite cornerstone with engraving on it.
There are many indications in John 6 that Jesus literally meant that the command to “eat His flesh” should be taken in a figurative way. First, Jesus indicated that His statement should not be taken in a materialistic sense when He said, “The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life” (John 6:63). Second, it is absurd and cannibalistic to take it in a physical way. Third, He was not speaking of physical life, but “eternal life” (John 6:54). Fourth, He called Himself the “bread of life” (John 6:48) and contrasted this with the physical bread the Jews ate in the wilderness (John 6:58). Fifth, He used the figure of “eating” His flesh in parallel with the idea of “abiding” in Him (cf. John 15:4–5), which is another figure of speech. Neither figure is to be taken literally. Sixth, if eating His flesh and drinking His blood be taken in a literalistic way, this would contradict other commands of Scripture not to eat human flesh and blood (cf. Acts 15:20). Finally, in view of the figurative meaning here, this verse cannot be used to support the Roman Catholic concept of transubstantiation, that is, eating Jesus’ actual body in the communion (see comments on Luke 22:19).