February 24, 2024

Dealing With Difficult Bible Texts

Frank M. Hasel
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

That the Bible is the authoritative standard for faith and practice implies not only its truthfulness and trustworthiness but also that the Bible is sufficiently clear to be understood correctly. This conviction is repeatedly affirmed by the biblical writers and by Jesus Christ Himself. Questions such as “Have you not read?” (Matt. 12:3, 5; 19:4; 22:31; Mark 12:26) or references to “It is written” (Matt. 4:4, 7, 10) or such statements as “Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom. 15:4, ESV) indicate that Jesus and the apostles expected people to be able to read and understand the meaning of Scripture accurately so that they could practice it faithfully. While the response of the reader can affect the ability to understand the text, the response of the reader does not determine the meaning of the biblical text. The reader can misunderstand Scripture, but it is the text of Scripture that ultimately determines its own meaning. That’s why the biblical writers refer to Scripture time and again to establish their teachings.

Why Are Some Bible Passages Difficult to Understand?

In stark contrast to skeptics and critics of the Bible, the Bible writers affirm the truthfulness of Scripture and do not give any clear warrant for the belief in the existence or prevalence of errors that would question the Bible’s infallible authority and reliability. One reason that some perceive apparent mistakes in the Bible is that they rely on a poor translation that might convey a wrong or misleading meaning of the original words. To understand difficult statements in Scripture, it is best to have a thorough knowledge of the biblical languages and to study the Bible in Hebrew and Greek. Where this is not the case, one should at least compare several good Bible translations before drawing any conclusions.1 It is possible that some mistakes have occurred in the process of transmitting the Bible manuscripts.2 Yet those minor mistakes that have crept in through the subsequent process of copying and translating Bible manuscripts are so insignificant that not one honest soul need stumble over them.3

Yet the question remains: Why are some Bible passages difficult to understand? Even the apostle Peter knew about the challenge to understand some of Paul’s writings “in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:16). The challenges of such difficult passages in the Bible have been recognized by serious students throughout history, and we do well to remember that most likely we are not the first readers of Scripture to discover them. It is quite probable that other careful scholars of Scripture have noted the same difficulty long before us and most likely have come up with a solution. Just because I am not acquainted with a solution to a problem in Scripture does not mean that no solution exists.4

This brief article cannot deal with all aspects relating to the interpretation of the Bible,5 but here are some thoughts that can help relative to dealing with Bible difficulties.

Dealing With Difficulties in Scripture

Peter states that only “some things” are hard to understand with Paul. Not all things are difficult to understand! In fact, most things in Scripture are quite clear and can be understood very well. We should not let the few statements in the Bible that are more difficult darken the many passages that are clear. We must decide whether we want to build our faith on things that are uncertain and hard to understand or whether we want to build our faith on those things that are very clear. An important principle of biblical interpretation is that we should always move from the clear statements of Scripture to those that are less clear. We aim to shed light from the clear statements of the Bible on those passages that are more challenging. Never the other way around.

In dealing with biblical statements, we also need to remember that the Bible writers frequently used nontechnical, ordinary, everyday language to describe things. For example, they spoke of sunrise (Num. 2:3; Joshua 19:12) and sunset (Deut. 11:30; Dan. 6:14), i.e., they used the language of appearance rather than scientific language. One must not confuse a social convention with a scientific affirmation. The need for technical precision varies according to the situation in which a statement is made. Therefore, imprecision cannot be equated with untruthfulness. Furthermore, the biblical writers did not write in a technically perfect yet unknown heavenly Esperanto, but in ordinary everyday language. All human language is deficient in its ability to describe the totality of reality. Yet the language that is used by the biblical writers is not misleading in what it describes, but faithfully reflects what God wanted to communicate through it. Even fallible human beings are fully capable to communicate truthfully. Hence the repeated warning in Scripture not to change or add anything to the written Word (Deut. 4:2; 12:32; Rev. 22:18, 19).

In dealing with difficulties in Scripture, we must also remember that many so-called mistakes are not the result of God’s revelation, but are the result of the misinterpretation of humans. Ellen White has pointed out that “many contradictory opinions in regard to what the Bible teaches do not arise from any obscurity in the book itself, but from blindness and prejudice on the part of interpreters. Men ignore the plain statements of the Bible to follow their own perverted reason.”6 Thus, often the problem is not so much with the biblical text but rather with the interpreter. It has been said that for some people the most difficult Bible verses are not those passages that are difficult to understand, but rather those statements of Scripture that they can clearly understand but are not willing to obey.

This leads to another challenge in biblical interpretation that we often face when dealing with difficult passages. There is a negative effect of sin on our understanding of Scripture. Sin darkens our understanding of God’s Word and leads to pride, self-deception, doubt, and a distortion of meaning that ultimately ends in disobedience.7 Unwillingness to follow God’s revealed will negatively affects our ability to grow in our understanding of Scripture and to interpret it correctly. Disobedience and deliberate sin are effective barriers to knowing God’s truth (Ps. 66:18). A persistent opposition to God’s revealed truth leads to a point in which the disobedient person is unable to hear and understand God’s Word properly.

Approaching Scripture With the Right Spirit

So what does it take, then, to approach the study of God’s Word, including those difficult passages, with the right spirit?8

Maintain integrity: When we deal with a difficult passage in Scripture, we do well to approach it in perfect honesty. God is “pleased with integrity” (1 Chron. 29:17, NIV). This implies, first, that we acknowledge a difficulty and do not try to obscure or to evade it. An honest person has an open mind set that is receptive toward the message and subject matter of what is being studied. Furthermore, honesty includes the willingness not to twist the evidence or to come to premature conclusions because of a lack of evidence. In biblical and archaeological studies the absence of external evidence is no evidence for the absence of things that are affirmed by Scripture. Honesty also requires the use of proper methods of investigation. To explain and understand the Word of God correctly, we cannot use methods with naturalistic presuppositions that are based on atheistic premises that run counter to God’s Word.

Deal with difficulties prayerfully: Prayer is no substitute for hard work and thorough study. In prayer, however, we confess that we are dependent upon God to understand His Word. It is an expression of humility that acknowledges that God and His Word are greater than our human reason and even greater than our current understanding. On our knees we can ask for the leading of the Holy Spirit and gain a new perspective of the biblical text that we would not have had if we had placed ourselves above the Word of God.

Explain Scripture with Scripture: With God as the ultimate author of Scripture, we can assume a fundamental unity among its various parts. This means that to deal with challenging aspects of Scripture, we need to deal with all difficulties scripturally. The best solution to Bible difficulties is still found in the Bible itself. There is no better explanation than explaining Scripture with Scripture. This means that we must compare Scripture with Scripture, taking into consideration the biblical context in which a statement is found.

Be patient: While all the aspects mentioned above can help in dealing with any difficulty in Scripture with confidence, it will not always produce an easy or swift solution. We must be determined that no matter how much time and study and hard thinking it may require, we will patiently work on finding a solution. At the same time, as we wrestle with difficult Bible passages we should focus on the main points and not get overwhelmed by or get lost in some insignificant details. And if some problems persistently defy even our hardest efforts to solve them, we should not get discouraged. Perhaps God has allowed some difficult parts of Scripture to exist to demonstrate how determined we are to study its meaning and how important the Bible is to us. Part of our perseverance is to be able to live with open questions, yet to joyfully embrace and obey the many passages that are clear to us.

1 For a recent evaluation of the strength and weaknesses of various Bible translations from an Adventist perspective, see Clinton Wahlen, “Variants, Versions, and the Trustworthiness of Scripture,” in Frank M. Hasel, ed., Biblical Hermeneutics: An Adventist Approach (Silver Spring, Md.: Biblical Research Institute, 2020), pp. 63-103.

2 Ellen G. White, Selected Messages (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1958, 1980), book 1, p. 16; cf. Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), p. 246.

3 E. G. White, Selected Messages, book 1, p. 17.

4 Some recent books that deal with difficult Bible passages are Gerhard Pfandl, Interpreting Scripture: Bible Questions and Answers (Silver Spring, Md.: Biblical Research Institute, 2017); Gleason L. Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), and Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Peter H. Davids, F. F. Bruce, and Manfred T. Brauch, Hard Sayings of the Bible (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1996).

5 If you want to dig deeper and explore important aspects of biblical interpretation, see the discussion in Frank M. Hasel, ed., Biblical Hermeneutics: An Adventist Approach.

6 Ellen G. White, “Thoroughness in Christian Work,” Review and Herald, Jan. 27, 1885, par. 8.

7 See Frank M. Hasel, “Presuppositions in the Interpretation of Scripture,” in George W. Reid, ed., Understanding Scripture: An Adventist Approach (Silver Spring, Md.: Biblical Research Institute, 2005), pp. 30-32.

8 In the following I follow closely Frank M. Hasel, “Are There Mistakes in the Bible?” in Gerhard Pfandl, ed., Interpreting Scripture: Bible Questions and Answers (Silver Spring, Md.: Biblical Research Institute, 2017), pp. 38-40.