Bad Bible Interpretation Really Can Hurt People

Anyone who teaches the Word of God wants people excited about exploring Scripture. Ultimately, you want to turn listeners into competent students so that they can teach others. Along the way, you have to deal with a lot of mistaken methods and conclusions. But so what? Hey—having folks engaged in studying the Bible is more important than what they actually think they see in it. It’s no concern that what most Christians think is “digging deep” is barely scratching the surface of a passage or a topic. I’ll take one misguided Bible student over a hundred straight-laced, passive, ecclesiastically-correct “believers” who never open a Bible anywhere else but church. At least those are the sorts of things I’ve told myself for a long time. If I’m honest, though, I’ve had doubts about the wisdom of my position. I still do.

I’ve run across a lot of bad Bible interpretation over the years. The problem isn’t just the Internet. Granted, most of what passes for Bible teaching online could be aggregated under the banner of the “P.T. Barnum School of the Bible.” Unfortunately, a lot of poor thinking about Scripture has been published for popular consumption in the Church—and consumed it is.

But is it really harmful? Most of it isn’t destructive. It won’t do anything worse than keep those who buy into it ignorant and never able to move on to what they might really discover. And I’ve seen a few instances where bad Bible interpretation has even been helpful. Because of the sorts of things I do—especially writing paranormal fiction and maintaining two blogs on strange stuff that people believe—I often encounter people with terribly misguided ideas about the Bible and its meaning. My offbeat “ministry” produces all sorts of, shall we say, interesting email.

Many people who contact me are Christians with genuine testimonies who’ve had an unusual, frightening experience, or who’ve spent too much time watching Ancient Aliens on the Fantasy (er, History) Channel. After their pastor or another friend who’s ill-equipped to talk about what’s causing their spiritual crisis tells them they need counseling (or worse), they have a decision to make: dump Christianity or find a way to process what’s disturbing them using the Bible. I’ve heard some of the most absurd Bible interpretation imaginable emerge from those sorts of struggles, but it often keeps people pursuing the Lord. So be it. In these circumstances, the last thing that’s needed is a biblical scholar-bully destroying the interpretations that keep people in the faith. It’s far better to maintain some relationship and build some trust. Maybe down the road we can have a talk about the fact that the Tower of Babel really wasn’t a Stargate.

Truly Destructive Bible Interpretation

But some Bible interpretation is truly damaging—and on a wide scale. For that sort of harm, you needed professionals—people who are supposed to know better because they have degrees or are in positions of spiritual leadership.

Perhaps the most egregious example is racism. Since the Age of Exploration (sixteenth century) on through the eras of European empire and colonization, the racism that was an inextricable part of those centuries can be laid at the feet of the Church. Though it may make you flinch, it’s true—and I’m not launching into some ludicrous left-wing propagandistic screed. It’s pretty simple and, on its own terms, very understandable, though the coherence of how it all came about is no excuse.

In the sixteenth century, as Europeans ventured for the first time across the Atlantic and deepened their penetration east into the “Indies,” they encountered people and places that were not part of the biblical world. The place that would be called North America was not India or China, places that Europeans had been exposed to earlier. How did they get here? The Bible said nothing about them. Things didn’t get any more comfortable in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries after the decipherment of the literary language of ancient India (Sanskrit). In a shocking twist, Sanskrit turned out to be from the same language family as classical Latin and Greek (Indo-European), the intellectual bedrock of European civilization. Sanskrit texts revealed a much longer human history than that of the Bible. And the physical evidence of a civilization much older than the patriarchs gave weight to that history.

The cumulative impact of all these discoveries was that the Bible no longer looked like it had any claim on being special. To make the crisis even more acute, in 1859 Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species. In the wake of that bombshell, the alternative stories of creation in Sanskrit and the discoveries of people in the New World who shouldn’t have been there (because the Bible didn’t mention them) gave opponents of the Bible all the ammunition they needed. The Bible was not only wrong but inferior. After all, it was such a Jewish book.

It’s no accident that this was the era that produced theories about how all races not European (especially blacks and Semitic peoples) were inferior to the “more pure” Europeans. Defenders of the Bible couldn’t argue there; instead, they did their best to make the Bible support those things. The era produced “scholarly” defenses of how the sin of Ham produced the black peoples, or how Cain’s wife proved there were co-Adamic races in antiquity, inferior to Adam, who wasn’t Jewish by the way, or that Jesus wasn’t really a Jew but an Aryan, a Sanskrit term for the high born. Other interpretive leaps were used to justify older suspicions of Jews as Christ-killers whose disinheritance by God had subordinated them to the civilization that had embraced Christianity—the Europeans. But at least the Bible wasn’t left behind in its “accurate” understanding of history. It still deserved its high status. And so the Bible was “saved” through horrific Bible interpretation. And we’re still living with the results since this was all brought to American shores.

So yes, sometimes bad Bible interpretation is truly destructive—with effects lasting generations. This is yet another illustration why we need to get serious about interpreting the Bible in its own context, not against the backdrop of our own modern questions. The tragic baptism of racism was completely unnecessary. But there it is.

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why is the bible hard to understandThis article is excerpted from Dr. Heiser’s book The Bible Unfiltered.

Dr. Michael S. Heiser is a scholar-in-residence for Faithlife, the makers of Logos Bible Software. He is the author of The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible and Angels: What the Bible Really Says about God’s Heavenly Host.

His newest book, The World Turned Upside Down: Finding the Gospel in Stranger Things, is now on pre-order.

He’s taught many Mobile Ed courses, including Problems in Biblical Interpretation: Difficult Passages I.

Comments

  1. Not too long I sang in a Church in Southern USA that I had never been to before. The pews were filled with all white folk except for two black people who had never been there before. After I sang my song the preaching was going well when the preacher began extolling the brilliance of General Robert E. Lee, the leader of the rebels of the US Civil War and die-hard racist. This was during the time when the recent revival in the interest in monuments to monuments to racists was going on. I was livid and called him about it. He said he wasn’t a racist. I told him it was completely inappropriate and I would never sing there again.

    My sons attended public school in Alabama. On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the beloved Christian Principal of the school would instead hold “Robert E. Lee Day” and teach about this “great General”.

    [Mat 23:29-33 NLT] (29) “What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you build tombs for the prophets your ancestors killed, and you decorate the monuments of the godly people your ancestors destroyed. (30) Then you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would never have joined them in killing the prophets.’ (31) “But in saying that, you testify against yourselves that you are indeed the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. (32) Go ahead and finish what your ancestors started. (33) Snakes! Sons of vipers! How will you escape the judgment of hell?

    And now we have a racist President blaming, hunting and persecuting immigrants and who is his base? Mostly Evangelicals.

    I believe it was Christopher Hitchens who famously said, “It is easy to get good people to do good things but if you want to get them to bad things you need religion”. All too true.

  2. Sad but true. Imagine when men were born again before they had access to the Bible we have today. Today the Bible affirms to them that they were not loosing their mind but the world.

  3. David Hereford says:

    Mike, thank you so much for your faithfulness to The Word. Your long hours of labor and focus on just what He is saying has been such a life-giving work for me. I so anticipate what The Lord is doing through the brothers and sisters at Jacksonville!

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