Are Christians cannibals? That's ridiculous, right? Not as much as one might think. First, we need to ask whether the Bible is literally true. If so, how should this statement of Jesus be understood:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:53-54)
Many who heard this at the time stopped following him (John 6:66); apparently believing he intended it to be understood in a literal sense. Even after Jesus' ascension, the early church was forced to answer accusations they condoned cannibalism. Craig Keener notes that “Romans later misinterpreted Christian language about the Lord's Supper: ‘eating the body and blood of their Lord' sounded like cannibalism to outsiders and thus aroused more persecution against the church.”1
Does anyone believe that today?
The doctrine of transubstantiation or “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharist continues to be taught today. The Catholic Encyclopedia states:
“The quintessence of these doctrinal decisions consists in this, that in the Eucharist the Body and Blood of the God-man are truly, really, and substantially present for the nourishment of our souls, by reason of the transubstantiation of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ…”2
The current doctrine has its roots in the 13 th century:
“The doctrine of transubstantiation, that the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ, was codified in its present form by Thomas Aquinas (1225-74).”3
Prohibition against eating blood
What does the Bible say about eating or drinking blood? After the flood, God instructed Noah, “ Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.” (Genesis 9:4). The Lord also gave the same instruction to Moses when He said, “Any person who eat s any blood , even that person shall be cut off from his people." (Leviticus 7:27) This prohibition remained in the New Testament, as James advised regarding Gentiles, “that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood.” (Acts 15:20) It does not make sense that Jesus would instruct His followers to violate the Biblical prohibitions against ingestion of blood. As Geisler and Howe point out, “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)”4
What about the last supper?
Didn't Jesus tell his disciples again at the last supper to eat his body and drink his blood? Shortly before His arrest and crucifixion, Jesus:
“took some bread, and after a blessing He broke it, and gave it to them, and said, ‘Take it; this is my body.' And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, and they all drank from it. And He said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.'” (Mark 14:22-24)
It is obvious the bread and wine Jesus served to the disciples were not his body or blood because he was still sitting and eating with them. But wait, someone might say, the bread and wine could have miraculously become Jesus' body and blood after ingestion. But, would His physical, material body have any sanctifying effect on their spiritual, immaterial souls - or ours? No, this is a physical illustration of a spiritual concept.
Figures of Speech
The ancient Hebrews were not much different than people today. We use many figures of speech. A very short list of examples proves the point: twist my arm, pulling my hair out, raining cats and dogs, and so on. Each language has its own; for example, one may say in Spanish, “lloviendo a cántaros” (raining buckets) or “bebe como una esponga” (drink like a sponge). We use figures of speech in daily conversation and so did the first century Jews.
The Bible contains many examples of metaphors, hyperbole, allegory, and other figures of speech. Some of these include statements of Jesus himself:
“ If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you” (Matthew 5:29).
“ If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple.” (Luke 14:26)
“if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move…” (Matthew 17:20)
There has not been a rash of Christians plucking out their eyes and no one advocates hatred toward family members (though some can be difficult to like). Similarly, it is a misreading of the Bible to believe we must eat the literal, physical flesh of Jesus.
Figurative Language of Jesus
Even Jesus said he used figurative language. After speaking to His disciples in the upper room, He said, “ These things I have spoken to you in figurative language; an hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figurative language…” (John 16:25) When the Lord spoke of eating his flesh and drinking his blood to the Jews at the synagogue in Caperaum (John 6:51-56), they did not understand He was speaking metaphorically. Neither did the disciples, so He explained to them, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit”. (John 6:63)
In fact, Jesus rarely spoke plainly in public:
“He was saying to them (disciples), ‘To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God, but those who are outside get everything in parables…'” (Mark 4:11)
In addition to parables, He used metaphors on a number of occasions:
“I am the vine, you are the branches” (John 15:5)
“I am the door ; if anyone enters through me, he will be saved” (John 10:9)
“While I am in the world, I am the Light of the world." (John 9:5)
“…whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst” (John 4:14)
Obviously, these are physical examples of spiritual truths.
It is illogical to believe Christ is physically present every time someone partakes of the Lord's Supper. As Ron Rhodes points out that, “Revelation 1 makes it quite clear that Christ is now bodily in heaven, where He ascended from earth in Acts 1:9-11. And one day from heaven Christ will bodily come again at the second coming, where every eye will see this one (non-fragmented) body of Jesus (Revelation 1:7).”5
Figures of speech, such as metaphors, are very effective means of communicating a message and certainly Jesus knew that. Frequently, he spoke in a manner that caught the attention of the listeners. Attention grabbers are easily remembered, enabling listeners to recall later when committing these sayings to writing – for which we are grateful two millennia later. To understand the concept of eating Jesus' body and drinking his blood, we need to perceive the spiritual significance. Those who did not comprehend beyond physical, literal meanings, Jesus portrayed, “while seeing, they may not see and perceive, and while hearing, they may hear and not understand.” (Mark 11:12) Conversely, those who honestly desire to understand God's principles will seek Him with all their heart (Deuteronomy 4:29) and He will reveal Himself.