Question: "Are the miracles in the Bible to be taken literally?"
Answer: Yes, the miracles of the Bible are to be taken literally, just as all Scripture is to be taken literally except those portions which are clearly intended to be symbolic. An example of symbolism is Psalm 17:8. We are not literally apples in God’s eye, nor does God literally have wings. But the miracles are not symbolic happenings; they are real events that actually happened. Each of the miracles in the Bible served a purpose and accomplished something that couldn't be accomplished in any other way.
The earliest and most profound miracle of all was that of creation. God created everything ex nihilo—from nothing—and each succeeding miracle reinforced His incredible power. The book of Exodus is filled with miraculous events God used to bring about His will. The plagues on Egypt, beginning with the water of the Nile being turned to blood (Exodus 7:17) through the death of the firstborn of Egypt (Exodus 12:12), were literal events that eventually caused Pharaoh to free the Israelites from bondage. If the plagues did not happen, why did Pharaoh let the people go? And if the plague of the death of the firstborn was not real, then God did not move through Egypt that night killing the firstborn, nor was there any necessity for the Israelites to sprinkle blood on their doorposts. Then the foreshadowing of the shed blood of Jesus on the cross is voided, which puts the crucifixion itself into doubt. Once we begin to doubt the reality of any miracle, we have to discount everything the Bible says came about as a result of the miracle, which puts all of Scripture in doubt.
Among the best-known Old Testament miracles is the parting of the Red Sea (Exodus 14), during which Pharaoh and much of his army were drowned. If the incident was symbolic, then how do we know which parts of it were literal? Did the Israelites really leave Egypt? Did Pharaoh’s army really follow them and if so, how did the Israelites escape? Psalm 78 is one of the many passages where God reminds the Israelites of the miracles He performed in releasing them from the Egyptian bondage. These miracles also increased awareness of the surrounding tribes of God Jehovah and proved that He is the one, true God. Their pagan idols of wood and stone were capable of no such things. God continued to do miracles throughout the Old Testament to remind the stubborn Israelites that He alone is God and He alone deserves worship.
In the New Testament, Jesus performed numerous miracles beginning with His first one at the wedding in Cana where He turned water into wine (John 2:1-10). His most spectacular miracle, of course, was the raising of Lazarus after he had been dead four days (John 11). All the miracles He did were to prove that He was indeed who He said He was—the Son of God. When He calmed the storm in Matthew 8, even the disciples were astonished: "The men were amazed and asked, 'What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!'" (v. 27). If Jesus’ miracles were not real, then the gospel accounts of Jesus’ healings were just nice stories, and those people remained afflicted by diseases, calling into doubt His compassion (Matthew 14:14; 10:34; Mark 1:41). If He didn’t really feed thousands of people with a few loaves and fishes, those people remained hungry and Jesus’ words “I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill” (John 6:26) have no meaning at all. But Jesus did heal, He did create food for thousands, He did turn water into wine, and He did raise Lazarus from the dead. John 2:23 tells us that many believed in Him because of the miracles.
All the miracles had a purpose—to prove that God is like no one else, that He has complete control of creation because He is its source, and to convince us that if He can do all these miraculous things, nothing in our lives is too hard for Him to handle. He wants us to trust Him and know that He can do miracles in our lives as well. If the miracles did not occur, then how can we trust anything the Bible tells us, especially when it tells us eternal life is available through Christ? When we begin to call any part of Scripture into doubt, all of God’s marvelous plan is suspect, and we open the door for the lies and distortions which are Satan’s plan to destroy our faith (1 Peter 5:8). The Bible is to be read and understood literally, including the miracles.