Friday, January 04, 2008

7 Reasons People Do Not Understand the Bible

Most people do not understand the Bible.

I've addressed several specific passages that people tend to misunderstand. But in this post I want to look at why people so often misunderstand what they read in the Bible. I can think of at least seven reasons:

1. They start with a bad translation.

Many people try to read the King James Version and get bogged down in the archaic language. This translation was first made in 1611. It uses language similar to what you would find in one of Shakespeare's plays. For most people, this translation might as well be in a foreign language.

At the other extreme are The Living Bible and The Message. These versions are not properly translations. They are what are known as paraphrases. They are easy to understand, but they are simplified explanations of one person's idea of what the Bible says rather than what the Bible actually says.

Another type that leads people astray is the strictly literal translation. An example of this would be the New American Standard Bible. It uses an artificial model of language translation that often results in an awkward style of English. Anyone who has studied a foreign language knows that there is not a simple one-to-one correspondence between words in two languages.

Good versions combine accurate translation with natural-sounding English. A couple of examples are the New International Version and the English Standard Version.

2. They are lazy.

Probably the most common reason that people don't understand the Bible is that they are too lazy to do the work that is necessary.

One form that this takes is assuming that every verse in the Bible is a personal memo written just to them. They read a particular verse and interpret it as if God just wrote it that morning with them specifically in mind. Pastors can sometimes be the worst offenders of this mistake.

Another way that people are lazy is that they only read a little bit of the Bible and expect to understand it. Each sentence of the Bible must be understood in the context of the paragraph of which it is a part. And that paragraph must be understood in the context of the entire book (such as Romans or Luke). The book must be understood in the context of the entire story of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation.

Each book must also be understood in the context of the shared culture of the author and the readers. Many people think that they should be able to read a portion of the Bible and understand it instantly without any background information. But all communication is built upon a foundation of common knowledge.

Because we are removed in time and culture from the original readers, we lack some of that common knowledge. This results both in a lack of understanding and in misunderstanding.

3. They are tone deaf.

Just as there are different styles of music, there are different styles of writing. But many treat the Bible as if it were all the same. They read Proverbs as if it were a physics textbook. But it is actually a collection of general truths. In fact, some proverbs contradict other proverbs. The book of Job (pronounced JOBE) is a drama. It is not intended to be read as if it were a court transcript. The books written by Paul in the New Testament are letters written to specific people usually in response to particular situations that Paul felt needed to be addressed urgently.

Treating the whole Bible as if it were an instruction manual is not only confusing, but it is also dangerous.

4. They treat it like a dead frog.

In the olden days (when I was in high school) students dissected frogs in biology class. These frogs were dead, of course, preserved in formaldehyde. The idea was that the best way to understand how a frog was put together was to take one apart.

This works for machines, electronics and dead animals. It is not recommended for spouses, however. If you want to know what makes your spouse "tick," you must interact with him or her as a living being.

The Bible is more like a spouse than a dead frog.

Too many people think that they can analyze the details of a Bible passage and arrive at the exact meaning of the text. But this treats the Bible as a dead thing.

Instead of us operating on the Bible, it needs to operate on us. As long as we are dissecting and analyzing the Bible, we are keeping it at arm's length. We are treating it like an object.

5. They believe in magic.

Most people do not know the difference between magic and the supernatural. They tend to read the Bible as if it were a fairy tale where anything can happen. They assume that God can do anything he wants. But this is completely wrong.

Even miracles have rules.

The Bible tells us that reality is much more than what we can see and touch. God is not limited by what appears to be possible. But that doesn't mean that just anything can happen. Reality operates according to "laws," even in the supernatural realm.

What we think of as "natural laws" are just a subset of true reality. (This is similar to the relationship between Newtonian physics and Einsteinian physics.) God is able to act in ways that seem to violate natural laws. But he is really only acting according to a higher "law."

6. They can only see trees.

Many people focus on the details in the Bible and miss the big picture. The Bible is in essence one big story.

It starts with creation and mankind's rebellion against God. Then it tells of the people that God called to be his own, starting with Abraham. Abraham's descendants became God's chosen people through whom God intended to reach the entire world. But the chosen people took this to be a privilege instead of a responsibility and failed in their calling.

"In the fullness of time," God came to us in the form of Jesus Christ. He established a new people. He proved himself faithful and defeated the forces of evil by dying a brutal, humiliating death. But he rose victorious from the grave and now reigns in heaven until the day when he will bring final, complete justice. In the meantime, he has left his Church to do the work of his kingdom.

Every verse, paragraph and chapter of the Bible must be understood in the context of this story.

7. They think they are Simon Cowell.

Finally, people don't understand the Bible because they sit in judgment of the Bible instead of allowing the Bible to evaluate them. They pick and chose the parts that they like and ignore the rest. They come to the Bible with their philosophy and their theology and force the text to fit their preconceptions.

Or they use the Bible to condemn other people. They tell others what they should and shouldn't do. They hunt down heretics and apostates. They engage in the "ministry" of discernment.

Without humility, we cannot truly understand the Bible. We must be prepared for parts of the Bible that refuse to conform to our preconceptions. We must be prepared for the Bible to challenge our attitudes and assumptions. We must be prepared to encounter the living Christ, the true Word of God, in the pages of God's "word."

These are seven reasons that I believe many people fail to understand the Bible. Let me know what you think. Do you have other reasons that you'd like to add? Do you disagree with some of my reasons?

Pastor Rod

"Helping You Become the Person God Created You to Be"


Tia Lynn said...

excellent post!

Pastor Rod said...

Thanks, Tia.

ROD said...

Perhaps this is too obvious, but another reason would be that they are blinded by the god of this world.

Pastor Rod said...


Yep. I was assuming as a starting point a person who is spiritually "enlightened." Certainly, someone who is spiritually dead would not be able to comprehend the truth.

But you also bring to mind a mistake that some Christians make by reading the Bible in the same way that a nonbeliever would, as a collection of tips and hints to live a better life.

Thanks for your input.


Meredith Gould said...

Brilliant post...because I agree with all your points?!? Can't stomach NAB!

Here's my pick for a great translation of Hebrew Scripture (aka, Old Testament): Jewish Publication Society's Tanakh from Hebrew text. It's great to read along with other translations.

Pastor Rod said...


It scares me when anyone agrees with all my points. Thanks for stopping by. I'll have to check the version you mentioned.

God Bless,


Bobo B'nai said...

It scares me when anyone agrees with all my points.

Good, I don't ;-) least with number one anyway. I used to study and teach that way when I first came out of Bible College. About 10 years ago, I lost my pastorate and had to do some serious garment rending before the Lord that ultimately brought me back to the old sword, the KJV.

A very good, well written read.

Blessings, grace and peace to you and yours, B

jeff franczak said...

8. Chew your own meat
Our relationship with God is both corporate and individual. Having good teachers is crucial to Christian growth, but this can never substitute for personal Bible meditation and study.

You must do original investigation … It is important that conviction be formed on what the Bible teaches, rather than depending on creeds, commentaries, or even sermons. Walter Henrichsen and Gayle Jackson in “Studying, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible”

I believe that God desires intimate time alone with each of His children while they read His Word, listen, and then respond to Him with questions, prayer, and worship.

I want the Bible to become naturally connected with every aspect of my daily life (a living union)—and the interaction to be spontaneous and bidirectional. Like a tennis racquet becomes an extension of a professional player’s body, or a keyboard the extension of a writer’s mind and fingers, the Bible can become a natural part of every dimension of our person—physical, emotional, and spiritual.

Pastor Rod said...


Thanks for your input. Your comment might be even better as a response to Why People Don't Know God.


Anonymous said...

we usually see the Bible as an absolute, when God is the absolute.
Bible is plan B, was wrote cause the failure mankind and what Bible show us is the interaction God-Man.
See N.T. all letter are the answer to problems. If problems were not raised, N.T. were not write.
What we have then?
A collection of books when God says to us " remember this, don´t make the same mistakes"
In the other hand what is showed is Jesus in the horizon, then Jesus in the land, and Jesus in the future.
God makes a breakthrough between He wants to create in the origin and how to get it in the future.
I hope you can understand my english.

Pastor Rod said...


Yes, the KJV is a literary masterpiece. But it is not very accessible for most people. I also have some issues with the translation philosophy. But I'm glad that you've found it helpful in your journey.

I'm not sure if your last comment was about my post or about the KJV. If the former, thanks for your very kind words. If the latter, forgive me for my presumption.

God Bless,


Pastor Rod said...


I've been trying to learn Italian, so I understand the complexity of trying to write in another language.

Yes, we often forget that God is the absolute rather than the Bible.

I also agree with your point that Jesus is "the point" of all the Scriptures.

El dios te bendiga.


Bobo B'nai said...

I'm not sure if your last comment was about my post or about the KJV. If the former, thanks for your very kind words.

I apologize for not being clearer, it was for your writings. I'm sorry if I appeared too cocky, my regular wranglings with a well known cult and its effect on my family sometimes has me operating in "Stun" mode.

It is true that the KJV has some issues, English being a flawed language compared to Hebrew and Greek. After studying through three different translations and researching eight more I felt the KJV had the fewest flaws. Blessings, grace and peace, BC

Pastor Rod said...


There was nothing improper about your comment. I took it in the spirit it was intended. You're welcome here anytime.


Anonymous said...

thats quite true instead of letting the Word of God go through u swe try going thru it..

Anonymous said...

Incorrect translations of lazy tone deaf Simon Cowell in a magic tree with a dead frog….my my my.

You missed the most important reason people don’t understand the KJV Bible. And Rod you made the same mistake.

They start with a preconceived notion of what the Bible is supposed to contain and they try to overlay those lies on the Bible story. Unfortunately those lies and the true Bible story don’t match leaving the reader dazed and confused wondering why the Bible is so hard to understand.

Clues to know the reader is in this state of mind are:
If the reader has to be told what it says…or has to work at figuring it out… or thinks a newer translation which contradicts and earlier superior one closer to the source improves the text … or that some modern guru trying to make a dime selling anything they can about the Bible is going to help them understand (pass the plate please). Then that reader is most likely trying to overlay an external set of lies on the true Bible story.

Every verse, paragraph and chapter of the Bible must be understood in the context of the one united story the Bible tells from beginning to end.

The problem is; that is rarely, if ever, done these so-called modern days.

God says put noone before him and Jesus Christ repeatedly says he is not God … but that doesn’t fit in with the false external lies that get imposed upon the true Bible story. Those external fables, which were manufactured to deceive, absolutely confound people. So verses like Jesus’ words or Gods words and many others are simply ignored, minimized, explained away with more lies, or swept under the preverbal rug.