Perhaps the master of hyperbole in the 20th century was the acclaimed journalist and author G. K. Chesterton. He was once reputed to have said, “The whole modern world has divided itself into conservatives and progressives. The business of progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the conservatives is to prevent the mistakes being corrected.” Chesterton manages to criticize both progressives and conservatives humorously, at the same time.
Hyperbole and exaggeration can be effective rhetorical devices, grabbing our attention and constraining us to see what we didn’t see before, but they can also be used for ill and to mislead. I’m increasingly concerned that our hyperbolic exchanges—in person and especially online—are dulling us to actual spiritual danger.
How Jesus Used Hyperbole
Jesus uses hyperbole effectively when he warns about the dangers of sexual sin, instructing us to deal with it severely.
If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 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 the parts of your body than for your whole body to go into hell. (Matt. 5:29–30 CSB)
Gouging out the eye and cutting off the hand are clearly hyperbolic, but they slap us in the face, showing us that coddling sexual sin can be fatal.
Jesus uses hyperbole to arouse us from our lethargy, but we may also engage in hyperbole to justify sin. Ten of the 12 men who spied out the land of Israel before they entered the land of Canaan exaggerated their peril to defend their lack of faith.
So they gave a negative report to the Israelites about the land they had scouted: “The land we passed through to explore is one that devours its inhabitants, and all the people we saw in it are men of great size. We even saw the Nephilim there—the descendants of Anak come from the Nephilim! To ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers, and we must have seemed the same to them.” (Num. 13:32–33 CSB)
We can’t win the battle, they complained, since we are mere grasshoppers and the land is filled with giants! They exaggerated their weakness, blaming God for making them victims.
Heated Rhetoric Works
We live in an age with a cacophony of voices, where we exaggerate to make our voice heard. It is tempting, therefore, to trumpet our concerns with hyperbole. We seize the attention of others with rhetoric, by overplaying our hand, and sometimes the good and righteous are vilified.
Jesus uses hyperbole to arouse us from our lethargy, but we may also engage in hyperbole to justify sin.
Notice how the opponents of Moses and Aaron attacked them. “They came together against Moses and Aaron and told them, ‘You have gone too far! Everyone in the entire community is holy, and the LORD is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the LORD’s assembly?’” (Num. 16:3 CSB).
We can imagine that these words stoked righteous indignation among the people. “Yes, yes, who do Moses and Aaron think they are? How come they think they are better than us? How presumptuous of them to order us around.” But we know the attacks were baseless. The adversaries of Moses and Aaron used rhetoric to stir people up against them, but in reality Moses was truly humble (Num. 12:3). He and Aaron weren’t exalting themselves but doing the Lord’s will.
One person’s hyberbole may be another person’s truth, but I can think of several examples of hyperbole that I have encountered over the years. For instance, attaching any importance to works can be dismissed as new perspective, any concern for genuine holiness is called fundamentalist, any reference to racism is labeled as Critical Race Theory, any restrictions on women in ministry are ascribed to patriarchy.
Dulled to Sleep
Certainly false teaching is an ever-present danger, and Paul warns us that false teachers will even arise among elders and overseers and pastors (Acts 20:29–31). Therefore, criticism of others, rhetorically pointed criticism, may be on target and fitting. We think of Jesus’s withering critique of the Pharisees and scribes in Matthew 23 and of the strong denunciation of false teachers in 2 Peter 2 and Jude.
We must not fall into the error of going to the other extreme, of abstaining from criticism of others because of the rhetorical games of some. We need discernment and an unflinching devotion to the Scriptures and the orthodox faith so that those who deviate from it are called out.
Yet we can also abuse and exploit hyperbole and exaggeration, drawing lines in the sand where no lines should be drawn, or accusing people of false teaching when they are truly orthodox. It is tempting to say that something is the most important issue of our day, but how do we even evaluate such a claim?
We must especially be on guard against questioning the orthodoxy of others. Of course, some are false teachers, but if we are going to call someone unorthodox or a false teacher we better be right. We may be guilty of false witness about another person, of maligning someone who has not departed from the gospel.
Overheated rhetoric and flaming keyboards can actually numb us when a real heresy arises.
The temptation today is to use rhetoric and hyperbole to boost our “like” counts and bring attention to an issue. In doing so, we exaggerate the matter and get people stirred up more than is warranted. We can even begin to feel that our overheated rhetoric must be right because so many agree with our assessment.
In the polarized atmosphere in which we live, the kudos we receive may energize us to be even more hyperbolic because being part of controversy can be exciting and thrilling. The boredom of ordinary days can be transcended as we feel amped up by a new controversy.
We must always be vigilant for the truth of the gospel. But overheated rhetoric and flaming keyboards can actually numb us when a real heresy arises. The hyperbolic arrows slung so often and so recklessly may provoke us to say to those who raise concerns, “Here we go again. Another baseless charge from those always trying to stoke the fires.”
Then, when real false teachers arrive, our energy may be drained and our discernment dimmed so that we fail to see true danger. Hyperbole and exaggeration are excellent rhetorical tools, but when used recklessly they may promote division and defamation.
By all means let us continue to be passionate for the truth and to use rhetoric and hyperbole when it is appropriate.
But let us also lower the temperature so that we don’t attack others with rhetoric and hyperbole that will embarrass us on the last day.