Douglas Estes – “Why Is the Bible Hard to Understand?”
I am convinced the Bible is at times just plain hard to understand. When I was younger, I thought that most people who had a hard time understanding the Bible didn’t read it; I figured they just didn’t make time for it. When I encouraged people to read the Bible, often they came back to me saying they had a hard time understanding it, and I remember at times dismissing this as their unwillingness to ‘open their eyes and ears’. But is it really that simple?
As I got older, I met and even lived with people who were not Christians, who were strong advocates of other religions, and who read the Bible, yet they didn’t seem to understand it at all. I got ‘witnessed’ to by many people from pseudo-Christian sects who would quote the Bible but from my vantage point also didn’t understand it at all. (At least not the way it has been classically understood by the church for two millennia).
Even more problematic, I pastor a church in a particularly biblically-illiterate area of the US, the San Francisco Bay area. Over and over again, I meet people in my daily travels who seem interested in spiritual growth but to them the Bible can be very confusing and hard to understand. Even when I recommend they try a modern version, frequently they come back to me as if I asked them to read something extraterrestrial.
Why is the Bible hard to understand? Why did God in his infinite wisdom allow the writers of the Bible to write books that would prove to be hard to understand? (So that people like me—Bible scholars and translators—could be gainfully employed?) Couldn’t God have found a better way?
Augustine said that the Gospel of John was shallow enough to wade in but deep enough to drown in. We could say the same thing for the whole Bible. In many places it is deep enough for people to drown in. We all know someone who has tried, unsuccessfully, to get a handle on the Bible. We could argue that all those people from pseudo-Christian cults who study the Bible regularly are drowning in it, with no hope of survival.
But if God loved the world (as we know he did), couldn’t God have figured out a way to make the Bible more simple?
I don’t have the answer to this question, and perhaps there isn’t an answer. So let’s turn this blog post into a free-for-all and see what happens.
Before we do, let’s chase three rabbits that will surely try to come out of their holes during the discussion:
, I expect some will write in about how the hard-to-understand Bible encourages people to dig deeper. This may be true but it doesn’t answer why the Bible is hard to understand—the Bible could have been easy to understand but still allow us to dig deeper in our faith. For example, my wife really likes the The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, a book that is both simple but deep. I’m not comparing Silverstein to the Bible; I am just pointing out that there are books that are both simple to understand but with deep content. In comparison, the Bible is difficult and deep. Why did God add the difficult part?
Second, I suspect others will cite Jesus’ statements about the difficulty of understanding his parables (such asMatthew 13:14–16). Even if we extrapolate this idea to say that the Bible was written for those who can ‘see and hear,’ can we say that people who struggle to understand the Bible just don’t have the ‘right’ eyes and ears? Remember, both people of faith and seekers can struggle with understanding the Bible. Even more, we must remember Matthew 13:11 where Jesus responds to the disciples’ question about his use of parable-speak with, "The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them." If we in the same way extrapolate this to the whole Bible, we get a rather cold view of God. Do we really want to say that God intentionally hides the truth from people (not counting the Tower of Babel)? (We could argue it is the Enemy that obfuscates our understanding, as in 2 Corinthians 4:4–6). Since God could have created an easy Bible, and the Enemy still could have blinded the minds of unbelievers, all this together doesn’t actually address the question: Why is the Bible hard to understand?
Third, I know some will point out the role of interpretation. They will argue that the shift in culture, language, and time is what makes the Bible hard to understand. Of course, we can all agree the need to interpret adds to the difficulty but this line of reasoning doesn’t appear to address my favorite verse in the Bible: 2 Peter 3:16. (Yes, this is the real 3:16 verse!) For those of you who haven’t committed it to memory or painted it on placards for football games: "[Paul] writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction" (NIV) (emphasis mine). Here even Peter—who by the way we can all agree is not blinded to the truth and has dug deeper into the Bible—admits that at the least Paul’s letters (and potentially the other scriptures) are hard to understand, and that this hardness is used by evil people to lead other people away from the truth.
This gets us back to our central question … why did God allow the Bible to be hard to understand that at times even a disciple and apostle of Jesus felt that way? So why is the Bible hard to understand?
Douglas Estes is Adjunct Professor of New Testament at Western Seminary-San José and Lead Pastor at Berryessa Valley Church, San José, California. He received his PhD in Theology from the University of Nottingham, UK. His publications include SimChurch: Being the Church in the Virtual World and The Temporal Mechanics of the Fourth Gospel: A Theory of Hermeneutical Relativity in the Gospel of John (Brill, 2008).