Sometimes we hear expressions around us like, “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.” Now, if we were interpreting this literally, we would immediately tell that person that he had committed a scientific error. After all, hunger is a feeling, brought about by chemical processes that are satisfied when the stomach is full enough to release another set of chemicals to send the “don’t eat any more” message. A horse is large enough that no person could possibly consume the entire animal, without causing his stomach and intestines to burst from the strain.
Or, rather than accusing him of a scientific error, we could understand the statement as it was intended. We all know that the person who states, “I am so hungry I could eat a horse” does not intend to make a scientifically quantifiable statement. He is using an expression called a “hyperbole” to state that he is very hungry, with a certain degree of color or flair. Hyperbole is the use of exaggeration to make a point, and as such, it is not to be understood literally.
So what is the point? One of the texts that atheists have used to attack Christianity is an example of a hyperbole being interpreted literally. Matthew 13:31-32 (along with parallels in Mark and Luke) refers to the mustard seed as the “smallest of seeds” growing into “the largest of trees.” Atheists will immediately state that the mustard seed is not the smallest seed known — and scientifically, that would be correct. The answer is that this is a parable. Using the mustard seed to denote smallness is actually a common literary device among rabbinic writers. Matthew 17:20 makes similar use of this imagery. Jesus was simply using the image as a proverb and using hyperbole to establish his central point (that the kingdom would grow from something very small to something very large). This type of expression was very common among first century Jews; Jesus used hyperbole in other places, as well. For example, the reference to a log in the eye, in Matthew 7:3, is a good example of Jesus’ use of hyperbole. The evidence to understand that this is hyperbole is the latter end of the expression: after all, the mustard plant is also not the largest plant, either.
So, unless atheists are also taking umbrage with references in modern society to the sun rising in the east, enough hunger to eat a horse, or other common idioms, they should perhaps choose a new proof text to argue. Otherwise, they are making “mountains out of molehills.”