Many people encounter Bible verses that are difficult to understand. Some verses seem confusing and contradictory. How can they be clarified?
Many people today do not believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. They think it is a collection of fables fabricated by men. This belief is bolstered by the idea that the Bible contains confusing and contradictory scriptures and, therefore, cannot be the infallible Word of God.
Does the Bible contain difficult scriptures that are hard to understand?
Notice what Peter said about some of Paul’s writings:
“As also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:15-16).
Does this mean that confusing and seemingly contradictory verses in the Bible cannot be explained or made sense of?
If that were the case, then the Bible would not be inerrant. However, the Bible claims to be inerrant (John 10:35), and careful study demonstrates this is the case. (See our article “Contradictions in the Bible?” and our booklet Is the Bible True?)
This article is only an introduction to confusing Bible verses. We plan to add related articles explaining specific, confusing verses over time. If you don’t see the passage you are interested in, you can write to our “Ask a Question” team.
It’s worth the effort to try to understand confusing Bible verses
The Bible is the best-selling book in the world, and it is also the most important book because it shows us the meaning of our lives and the way to real, eternal fulfillment, peace and happiness. As Psalm 119:105 says, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.”
But some things are hidden and have to be searched out (Proverbs 25:2). The Bible says those who diligently seek godly wisdom will find it (Proverbs 8:12, 17). God is the “rewarder of those who diligently seek Him” (Hebrews 11:6).
Consider what Jesus’ disciples said after hearing some of His hard sayings. “Then Jesus said to the twelve, ‘Do you also want to go away?’ But Simon Peter answered Him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life’” (John 6:67-68).
It can be worth the effort to decipher confusing Bible verses and access the wisdom recorded for us in the Bible—the words of eternal life!
Why are certain Bible verses confusing?
There are many reasons that Bible verses can seem confusing to readers today. The Bible:
- Is ancient literature. One reason is the simple fact that the Bible was written long ago, by many authors, over a period of about 1,500 years. Like all ancient literature, it can take some study of the history and cultures of the times to understand.
- Uses literary styles and purposes we are not familiar with. Hebrew poetry is different from English poetry. Biblical prophecy, genealogy, wisdom literature and epistles are different from modern literary formats.
- Was written in three ancient languages and is read today in translation. The vast majority of us don’t read ancient Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek. So we must look for translations that accurately and clearly convey the meaning to us today. Since the most accurate translations may not be the clearest, and the clearest may not be the most accurate, it can help to compare several translations of a confusing verse. (See more in our article “What Is the Most Accurate Bible Translation?”)
- Has some things that are nearly impossible to translate. For example, there are many plays on words in the Hebrew Bible—Hebrew soundalike words that are lost in the translation, but can often be found in study Bible notes or commentaries.
- Describes cultures and rituals that are unfamiliar today. For example, temple rituals and sacrifices can seem strange to modern readers. Another example is the importance of covenants in Bible times. Learn more about these agreements between God and man in our article “Biblical Covenants.”
Now let’s look at a few specific examples of confusing Bible verses.
One reason people become confused about some Bible verses is because a word or phrase in the scripture has been poorly translated.
This can be fairly rare if you choose one of the more accurate translations, but even the revered King James Version contains the following error:
Acts 12:4 in the King James Version says, “And when he [King Herod] had apprehended him [Peter], he put him in prison, and delivered him to four quaternions of soldiers to keep him; intending after Easter to bring him forth to the people.”
This passage is rather surprising and confusing because neither King Herod nor the Jewish people had ever heard of Easter. Easter is a name that is from a later period and from a different area of the world.
“The word ‘Easter’ is of Saxon origin, and is supposed to be derived from ‘Eostre,’ the goddess of love, or the Venus of the North, in honor of whom a festival was celebrated by our pagan ancestors in the month of April” (Albert Barnes’ Notes on the Bible, note on Acts 12:4).
The Greek word translated “Easter” is pascha, which should be translated Passover, according to Thayer’s Greek Lexicon. Placing the word Easter in this verse (instead of using the word Passover) gives the impression that Easter is the same as Passover, which is definitely not the case.
In all other verses in the King James New Testament, pascha is translated Passover. Other translations of the Bible, including the New King James Version, translate pascha as Passover in Acts 12:4. For more on this, see “Easter in the Bible? Translation Error!”
Preconceived ideas and misconceptions
Certain Bible verses elicit confusion because of misconceptions about the teachings of the Bible.
For example, consider these two verses:
- “No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven” (John 3:13).
- “For David did not ascend into the heavens” (Acts 2:34).
Many professing Christians are confused by these verses, because they have been taught that when a person dies, his or her immortal soul immediately goes to heaven or to a place of torture, depending on whether the person died as a repentant or unrepentant sinner.
How could Jesus say that no one had gone to heaven? How could Peter say that David, a man after God’s own heart, did not go to heaven?
The answer is that the Bible does not teach that we have immortal souls that go to heaven or hell when we die.
The Bible actually says that humans and animals die and return to the dust of the earth (Ecclesiastes 3:19-20). Ecclesiastes 9:5 tells us that the dead know nothing.
Throughout the Bible, death is likened to sleep. The dead will be awakened when they are resurrected. The saints of God who have died throughout history will be resurrected at Christ’s second coming, while the rest of the dead will be raised at the end of the millennial rule of Christ on this earth (Revelation 20:4-6, 11-12; see our free booklet The Last Enemy: What Really Happens After Death?).
Confusing scriptures can be twisted scriptures
As Peter wrote in 2 Peter 3:16, Paul’s writings and other Scripture can be twisted.
For example, some consider Colossians 2:14 to be justification for not keeping the laws of God. The meaning of this verse is twisted to support the idea that the 10 Commandments are null and void. However, when we closely examine this verse, we can clearly see it is not about God’s commandments.
The verse says: “Having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” (emphasis added).
The phrase that is twisted or misinterpreted in this verse is handwriting of requirements. Some claim that the handwriting of requirements is referring to God’s law and therefore God’s law was nailed to the cross when Jesus Christ was crucified.
To clarify a difficult scripture, we must look at the context of the verse. What was nailed to the cross when Christ was crucified? What is the handwriting of requirements?
To clarify Colossians 2:14, look at verse 13: “And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses . . .”
First of all, notice that the sentence in Colossians 2:13 continues into verse 14. This sentence is about our trespasses or sins.
And what has Christ done? Made it possible for all our sins to be forgiven.
When was this done? When He was crucified and the handwriting of requirements (the record of our sin) was symbolically nailed to the stake with Him.
Clearly, these verses do not support the nullifying of God’s law. In fact, verse 12 puts this in the context of baptism, which must be preceded by repentance of breaking God’s law (Acts 2:38). For a more complete explanation of Colossians 2:14, see our article “What Was Nailed to the Cross in Colossians 2:14?”
Resources for clearing up confusing Bible verses
How can confusing Bible verses be clarified?
To begin with, the verses should be examined within the context they are found in. As you read more of the chapter (and more of the biblical book), determine the subject matter being discussed and how the verses in question fit into the context.
Another key to understanding confusing verses is to study the Bible’s clearer verses on the topic. The more definitive passages on a given topic should be used as the foundation for studying and understanding verses that may be unclear or confusing. Instead of basing a conclusion on one confusing passage, look at all of the Bible’s statements on a given topic and build your understanding on the Bible’s unified teaching—especially on the crystal-clear verses.
After establishing the background of the confusing verses, do a Bible study on the content of the verses.
In the study of the confusing Bible verses, you may want to use reliable Bible commentaries, dictionaries and concordances, as well as examine how different translations of the Bible state the verses in question. Many of these Bible helps can be found free online, usually bundled with a free online Bible with various translations.
In addition to the above resources, you can search our Life, Hope & Truth website to see if an article or blog post has been written about a particular confusing Bible verse. Or, if you are having a difficult time with a particular scripture, please feel free to write us.