19 Common Ways We Misinterpret the Bible
August 3, 2020 • Jamey Escamilla
Have you ever wondered why there are so many different beliefs out there about the Bible?
“Why is it that two people with beliefs that contradict one another both have a scripture for why they believe what they believe?”
We all have reasons for why we believe what we believe, and it’s hard to know what’s true sometimes.
But the problem with the church today is not the lack of scripture for our beliefs, but it’s the misinterpretation of scripture for our beliefs.
It’s not the quantity, but the quality of our scriptures.
I’ve often heard it said, and I still believe, that you can make the Bible say anything you want it to if you know how to twist the scriptures and play with the language.
So with this article, I want to look at 19 common ways that we misinterpret scripture, so that we can avoid these mistakes, have a healthy dose of biblical truth, and know God more through the Bible.
One way we often misinterpret scripture is by coming to it with filters. These are things that have been taught to us that we believe is absolute truth, and anything else we hear has to first go through and support these beliefs. Thus, “filters”.
Now, we all have filters. We can even describe them as glasses that we wear when reading the Bible. Special lenses.
You might have a filter of Catholicism, or one of Protestantism. So if something you hear doesn’t jive with the Catholic Church or a protestant one, you’ll reject it.
There are filters that say that God is absolute love, so therefore will never cause harm. Filters that say that God is wrathful, so any thing bad that happens in the world on a global scale was surely caused by him.
Filters can be good, if they’re grounded in good, biblical truth. But they can also be bad, because unless something we hear doesn’t pass the filter test and walk hand in hand with that belief, we’ll toss it out the window, even if it’s actually true.
When people are learning something new and it’s challenging them and causing them to feel frustrated, usually this is because what they’re hearing is going through an internal test by being passed through filters that don’t like it.
Example: Tom has a filter that says that God is absolutely sovereign, meaning God is in complete control of everything that happens on the earth - even bad things such as cancer. Therefore, when Tom’s loved one is diagnosed with cancer, he makes sense of this unfortunate circumstance by passing it through his sovereign filter and coming to the conclusion that God caused the cancer and must have a meaningful purpose to it.
Solution: Tom has to begin to realize that not every filter is correct, and should strive to be open-minded to alternative viewpoints.
2. Preconceived Ideas
These are like filters, but different in the sense that we don’t have to run other things through them to confirm them. They’re just theories that we already think are correct before we dissect them.
When you believe something is right before you look into it, that’s a preconceived idea.
Let’s say you’ve never had Pizza Hut before. If someone told you that Pizza Hut is delicious and you then believed that it was, you have a preconceived idea. It may be right, and it may be wrong. You’ll never know until you actually try it.
We all have them. But when it comes to the Bible, I think it’s really important to research things and not just accept it. We need to experience it for ourselves.
Even though this is something we can’t avoid, we should be careful of what we let in and try to find time to confirm our beliefs.
Example: Mary grew up watching movies about the end of the world and Armageddon, and also heard about it almost every time she went to church. Therefore, she has a strong belief that the world will end in destruction one day, and nobody can tell her otherwise.
Solution: Mary should understand that we all believe things that we haven’t verified yet. She should strive to look more into those preconceived ideas that are most important to her.
It’s exactly what it sounds like. This is where we read a scripture, and then assume that it’s teaching something, even though it doesn’t actually say what we’re assuming.
My old boss used to say, “Don’t assume anything. When you do, you make an a** out of u-m-e.”
A** + u + m + e = “assume”
If you didn’t catch that, sorry, I’m moving on.
One thing I’ve learned in life is that it’s best not to leave any room for confusion. Clarify everything with simple explanations.
This is what we fail to do with the Bible. We read a scripture, assume that it’s saying something because it sounds like it is, teach this interpretation to others, and don’t clarify.
When dealing with scripture, it’s best not to assume, but study to show ourselves approved. The Bible is a really old book with ancient language that can get messy when translating it into English. So if there’s any book we should put extra time into studying, it should be the Bible.
Example: Jeff was talking to a pair of Mormons who knocked on this door this morning. They told him that before he was born, he existed as a “spirit being” with God. To prove this belief to him, the Mormons showed him Jeremiah 1:5, “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.”
Solution: Jeff should note that Jeremiah 1:5 doesn’t say anything about a “spirit being” that lived with God somewhere before he came to earth in a body through childbirth. The text could just as easily be interpreted to mean that even before Jeremiah was born, God had a plan for him and knew what his name would be. Let’s not over-specify things.
4. Described vs Prescribed
The Bible is full of stories, events, parables, ideas… and even suggestions.
It’s important to know when the Bible is describing something (simply talking about something), and when it is prescribing something (dude, you should really do this).
People often confuse these two. We’ll read a place in the Bible that talks about a certain practice, and then push that practice on other people, saying, “You should do this!” But how do we know the text is telling us to do the very same thing? Why do we think we are prescribed to do this, too?
Some things are simply mentioned, not promoted. And unless the Bible very clearly says that we should take part in a practice, there’s no reason to think that we must do it.
Example: Albert believes that oil must be applied to a sick person in order for them to be healed. He’ll point out several places in the Bible where oil was used in various ways, and he states that this is God’s method of healing.
Solution: Albert should realize that there are many places in the Bible where oil is not used to heal people. He should understand that just because something is recorded in scripture, it doesn’t mean that God wants him to do it.
5. Combining Scriptures
Not having enough scripture to prove a point is a bad thing. I don’t think it’s ever a good idea to form a doctrine based on one scripture we read.
But there are times where it’s also not good to have too many scriptures to prove a point. This is because the more scriptures we have to prove a point, the likelihood of those scriptures relating to each other and actually teaching what we’re saying goes down.
It’s common to run into someone who will get a scripture from over here, one from over there, one in Genesis and one in Revelation, and then combine them all in a tangled, web fashion used to teach their doctrine.
An excessive amount of scripture can look convincing on the outside, but are these scriptures actually teaching that?
Not all the time.
Lots of times, when someone has presented to me dozens or hundreds of scriptures to prove a belief, I’ve found that the scriptures actually don’t relate to each other. They’re doing other forms of misinterpretation on this list to combine the scriptures together and make them fit.
One red flag you’ll notice about some who might practice this form of misinterpretation is that they generally don’t read and explain their thousands of scriptures to you, they’ll simply quote them to you.
It’s so much nicer when people spend time explaining 1-5 scriptures to me, rather than unloading 129 scripture on me.
Don’t fall for the numbers. Look for common sense in scripture.
Example: One very popular Bible teacher says that in order to clearly see the rapture taught in scripture, you have to carefully examine more than 300 scriptures. This is a true, paraphrased quote. C’mon, who has the time? If there’s that many scriptures about this topic, and each one has to be “carefully examined”, then it’s possible we might just think the scriptures are saying that.
Solution: There’s nothing wrong in and of itself with having lots of scriptures. But there is something detrimentally wrong with having lots of scriptures that say nothing about what we’re promoting. Learn to examine and break down the main scriptures used to prove a point, first.
6. Word Play
This happens when we take individual words in the Bible and transform them to mean something entirely different. Usually, this is done in a way that violates normal, common sense ways of interpretation.
It’s literally “playing” with words, not interpreting words in a true, serious manner. There’s no real, academically recognized way of interpretation done here.
People play with the English words in their Bibles by:
· Chopping them up
· Rephrasing them
· Respelling them
· Adding to them
· Putting them in other languages
When words in the Bible are played with in this way, you can make the Bible say anything you want.
Example: Some people believe that Donald Trump is the Antichrist because his last name is “Trump”. They believe the book of Daniel describes the Antichrist as a “little horn”. What’s another name for “horn”? Trumpet! What’s a shorter name for “trumpet”? Trump!
Solution: Don’t do this.
7. Literal VS Symbolic
This is one of the age-old debates when it comes to interpreting scripture. Is what we’re reading meant to be taken literally, or metaphorically?
In our modern day language, we speak both literally and figuratively. When I say, “It is raining outside”, that’s meant to be taken literally. But when I say, “It’s raining cats and dogs”, there’s a little bit of symbolism in there.
It shouldn’t surprise us that the Bible also uses both of these types of language. People seem to have always used figures of speech when they talk since the dawn of time.
But we quickly run into trouble when we interpret scriptures that are meant to be taken literal as symbolic, and vice versa. This causes many problems with interpretation.
One book that is highly symbolic is the book of Revelation. It’s full of symbols and strange idioms that represent something else. In other words, the giant beast rising out of the sea might not be an actual giant beast coming up out of a literal sea somewhere on earth like Godzilla.
When you read something strange, ask yourself, “Does the writer want me to see this as a literal picture, or a figure of speech?”
Example: Edward believes that one day, God is going to come back to Earth. When He does, the earth will literally begin to fall apart. He says this because the Bible says in many places that when the Lord “comes”, the mountains will melt and the stars will fall.
Solution: Edward should ask, “Are these scriptures literal or symbolic?” He should explore the context of these scriptures and read commentaries to see what other people are saying about these scriptures and what they mean.
8. Selective Referencing
This is what many people refer to as “cherry-pickin’” scriptures. It’s where we cite and believe the scriptures or parts of scriptures that we like, and simply ignore the rest.
Most people don’t like to be challenged with their beliefs. It may cause us to think and unlearn some of the things we hold dear to us. So we avoid the heat.
It’s like not going to the doctor because we know he’s going to find something wrong with us. We’re doing ourselves a disservice.
Challenging yourself with other scriptures that seem to contradict what we believe is how we grow biblically.
Example: Lydia believes that she should tithe to her local church because many Old Testament scriptures say that people would be blessed if they do it. However, she often skips out on tithing in order to afford other things throughout the week. It doesn’t bother her when she doesn’t tithe, though, because she believes that she is an overall good person and God still loves her.
Solution: Lydia accepts the Old Testament scriptures that talk about a blessing if you tithe, but ignores the rest of the scriptures (sometimes in the same chapter) that say you will be cursed if you don’t. Lydia should realize that if she’s going to embrace scriptures to form her beliefs, she should accept the others.
9. Speculation (Prophetic)
It’s often said that the Bible is very largely prophetic. This means the Bible predicts many things that happened or will happen at a future time. This is true.
Since such a large part of the Bible is prophetic, we’re faced with a unique challenge to correctly identify the where, what, when, who, and why of each prophecy.
This becomes a huge obstacle, because one person will tell you that this prophecy means this, and another will tell you it means that.
The first person’s interpretation of a prophecy might throw it thousands of years in the future, and the second person might think it already happened. Crazy, right?
But this problem mainly arises when we speculate about what a said prophecy means. Speculate, not study.
The definition of “speculate” is to “form a theory about a subject without firm evidence.” This happens a lot with prophecy in the Bible.
When it comes to prophecy, it’s extremely important to do what we’re supposed to do with scripture – study it out, and not just say things that sound good to us.
Example: Many people believe that Matthew 24 is still waiting to happen in our future. This is the passage that talks about earthquakes and other strange signs, followed by the coming of Christ. Most people who believe this have not truly studied this passage, but speculate whenever an earthquake happens.
Solution: Study Matthew 24 and look at other viewpoints. Ask you pastor or other people in your church about what they think. Seek and you will find.
10. Speculation (General)
Speculation doesn’t just happen with prophetic passages in our Bible, but really with any passage in our Bible.
Just like the prophetic way, general speculation is when we assign a meaning to a scripture without looking for the intended meaning. “This is what I think it means.”
Prophetic speculation presents a unique issue. For example, we might be looking for a fulfillment to a prophecy that’s already happened.
General speculation causes us to have bad interpretations about scriptures. We do it because we’re too lazy to actually study.
It’s so much easier to apply our own meaning to scripture.
But we shouldn’t speculate about the meaning of any scripture just because our interpretation sounds good and fits our life.
Example: Jonathan read a scripture that said something like, “1000 years is like a day to the Lord.” He therefore walked away believing that for every thousand years that go by to us, only one day has gone by to God. So to God, it’s actually only been two days since Jesus died.
Solution: Jonathan should have studied the verse a bit more, and not simply speculate about the meaning. The verse he read is not a formula to calculate time with God. It might just be a metaphorical statement that means that time is not a factor with God. He’s eternal.
11. Biblical Confirmation Bias
When we believe something, we tend to look for information that seems to confirm that belief and ignore information that offers a different view. This is confirmation bias, and it’s dangerous with the Bible.
Whatever you want to believe, I guarantee you that there is information out there that agrees with that belief and can provide “proof” for it.
There are people who actually believe that Jesus was an alien from space. What’s more frightening is that they can show you scripture for it, too.
We don’t like to be wrong, so we’ll gravitate to the scriptures that seem to pat us on the back. We can pull them out of our pocket whenever we want and make a pretty good case for our beliefs.
Example: Back to the alien belief. A person who believes that Jesus came from a spaceship might quote the scriptures in the Old Testament that talk about the Israelites being led by a pillar of fire in the wilderness and say, “You see? That “pillar of fire” was a spaceship!”
Solution: What about the scriptures that say he was “born” from a woman? We shouldn’t just look for the scriptures that seem to confirm our beliefs. We should also look for the scriptures that people use to oppose our beliefs. This is how we can conquer this method in our own lives.
12. Dualism (General)
I personally believe that most, if not every scripture in the Bible has one meaning. In other words, Jesus said this, and it means this, and he didn’t intend for it to be interpreted any other way.
Many people today believe that the Bible should be looked as an abstract painting. You know, one of those weird paintings hanging in a museum with shapes, lines, and colors that don’t seem to mean anything at first glance?
With a painting like this, people gather around it and say, “I think it means this.” Another might say, “No, I think it means this.” Someone then walks up and puts his arms around both of them and says, “It’s OK, guys. You both are right!”
The Bible is not an abstract painting.
Each writer in the Bible had a meaning he was trying to convey to the readers in his own time. Our job is to find what that meaning is, and form our beliefs around that.
The reason why this is such a powerful method of misinterpretation is because even if you do present the actual, intended meaning behind a scripture to someone, they still might say, “Ya, I believe that. But I also believe that it means this.”
With a view like this, what the writers meant is of no value. There’s really no reason to study at all if we’re just going to gather our own interpretation after reading a scripture.
Example: Lori, a Mormon, believes that the “other sheep” Jesus was talking about in John 10:16 are the ancient Nephites who came to America long ago, according to Mormonism. She was corrected by a Christian at the supermarket, who said that these “other sheep” are actually the Gentiles, whom would become one with the Jews in the Body of Christ. She said, “OK, I believe that. But I also think this scripture is talking about the Nephites.”
Solution: Lori should see that it’s either one or the other, or else provide proof that the scripture is talking about both.
13. Dualism (Prophetic)
Dualism can also be done with prophetic scriptures. They call this “dual fulfillment”.
Some are shown a prophetic scripture, where God says he would do something in the future. They’re then taught what the fulfillment of that prophecy was. “It happened at this time, with these people, for this reason.”
But then they say, “I agree that this prophecy was fulfilled at that time. But I also believe that it will be fulfilled in the future, because it just sounds so much like what’s going on in our day, too. It must have a dual fulfillment.”
I just don’t see a lot of evidence to support such a view about prophecy. Whenever something was prophesied in the Bible, it usually had one fulfillment.
It’s the same thing with any other scripture. When the writer wrote it, he had one intended meaning behind it. And whatever that meaning is, is the right interpretation.
Example: Tim believes that the “Elijah” who was to come and preach the coming of the Messiah was indeed John the Baptist. He was prophesied to come in Malachi, and Jesus confirms that John the Baptist was this man. But Tim believes that this prophecy is also talking about a future man that will come preaching to thousands right before Jesus comes back.
Solution: Tim should be content with the fulfillment that John the Baptist was this “Elijah.” There’s no reason to speculate further.
14. Application VS Interpretation
Even though there is one intended meaning behind each scripture in the Bible, this doesn’t mean that it can NEVER be applied to our own lives in any kind of way.
This also doesn’t mean that God cannot speak to us about a scripture in a way that’s applicable to our life or our world. There’s definitely millions of ways we can apply scripture to our lives, even though the writers probably did not intend for their writings to be used this way.
We can apply them, not reinterpret them.
Application does not equal correct interpretation. Problems come when we make the application the interpretation.
Now, there are good applications of scripture, and there are bad ones.
If a church makes me mad and I return next Sunday, stand in front, and say, “God showed me that he is going to open up the earth and swallow this church up! He gave me the scripture where this happened in Exodus with the children of Israel. You all are going to DIE!!!”
This is a bad application, because 1) God did NOT tell me that, and 2) I don’t believe that God operates this way, killing people who make us mad or don’t agree with us.
Any time we apply scripture to our life that contradicts other scriptures, doesn’t represent the heart of the Father, or we use to manipulate or do wrong, these are bad applications.
Example: Margie was told by her pastor that she could no longer pray for people during prayer time because she took way too long to pray. She was repeatedly asked not to do this, but continued to do so, so the pastor had to ask her to stop. She then angrily stopped attending and began to post scriptures on social media geared towards the church that said, “You brood of vipers! Snakes!”
Solution: Margie was in the wrong in this situation, because she was not in order, nor respected the wishes of her pastor. The scriptures she applied to her situation were used to hate on her former church, which is not the character of Christ.
15. Confusing Covenants
Most people know that their Bible is separated into two portions – the Old and New Testaments. Most people also know that we’re under the new one.
But most people don’t understand what it actually means to be under this New Covenant.
The Old Covenant, also called the Mosaic Covenant or the law, was in effect for most of your Old Testament. With this covenant, God operated in a very different way than he does today. He hasn’t changed, but his covenant has.
Under the old one, they had to obey every command in order to be blessed. If they failed in one aspect, they would probably be under a curse and need to atone for their sin.
Under this new one, God says he remembers our sins no more because of the blood of Jesus. We also don’t have to obey every command in the Law of Moses in order to be right with God.
As a matter of fact, the Old Covenant was not even made for us. We were never invited to it. It was only for the ancient Jewish people. It’s time that people understood this concept once and for all.
Problems with interpretation come when we apply Old Covenant laws and scriptures to our lives today. They’re not meant for us, so it’s wrong to tell others today that they have to obey this or that in order to be right with God.
Every scripture in the Bible needs to be read through the lens of the New Covenant. We read and appreciate the Old Testament from our vantage point. We look back and see where they were, and thank God for where we are today with this New Covenant.
Example: Jermaine is a youth pastor. One Wednesday night, he told his youth group that they need to stop complaining or else God might do something horrible to them. He preached from Numbers 11, where fire consumed some of the Israelites for complaining.
Solution: Jermaine should realize that this is an Old Covenant scripture, meaning that they were under a contract with God to live right. Not doing so would result in catastrophe. God no longer counts our sins against us, and he should not apply this scripture to his youth group.
16. Incorrect Definitions
I think one of the most important factors to getting the correct interpretation of scripture is having the right definitions for words.
Before you can begin any kind of discussion or study, we all have to make sure that we’re on the same page and talking about the same thing. That only happens with first defining things.
I’ve read many articles on theology that I don’t agree with. It never fails. They quote a scripture, and I almost immediately disagree with the way they’re using it because they are assuming or passively stating that a phrase in that scripture means something that it doesn’t.
I know because I’ve studied the word. So before we argue theology, let’s argue definitions and language. An incorrect definition will cause us to have incorrect interpretation.
Example: Aaron read in Romans 8 – “Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires.” He concludes that after he was saved, he still has his old, sinful nature living on the inside of him, and it’s wrestling with his new, saved nature.
Solution: Aaron should get the proper definition of this word “sinful nature” in the Greek. The Greek word is “sarx”, and it’s actually better translated as “flesh”, which could mean many other things. We shouldn’t believe that our old nature still resides within us, because then we wouldn’t truly be new and complete.
17. Permitted vs Required
When you’re studying scripture and begin looking at what other people are saying about that scripture, you’ll quickly see that there are tons of interpretations out there.
Everyone has their opinion, and their interpretation is “clearly” the correct one.
I’ve always kind of hated that word. “Clearly” or “obviously”.
I don’t like it because with scripture, not everything is “clearly” seen. We just use this word when presenting our interpretation to make it seem like ours is the right one.
But in the end, we can’t really say that our interpretation is, without a shadow of a doubt, the right one. The only way we can say that is if we wake the writer of the scripture up from the dead and ask him.
However, we can make a well, educated guess based on study. One view will usually make more sense than another, and usually, what makes more sense is the correct view.
Since we can’t say with absolute surety that our interpretation is correct, we should accept that all interpretations of a scripture are permitted. In other words, we should allow room for other views, since they’re all fair game.
We shouldn’t automatically say that our interpretation is the required one unless we’ve first honestly studied it out. Then we can say, “More than likely, this is the required interpretation.”
If I totally disagree with your interpretation of a scripture, I’ll still say, “You could be right! Your view is permitted. I could have it totally wrong.” But we run into trouble when we say, “My view is the only required view, and no others are permitted, because they’re stupid, and mine is clearly seen.”
Like Paul said in 1 Corinthians, “Everything is permissible.”
Example: Callie believes in something called the “gap theory”, which says that between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2, there was apparently thousands of years, or a “gap” of time. She believes that this explains many scientific observations, like the age of Earth. She refuses to permit any other interpretation.
Solution: Callie should at least grant that it’s possible that the “gap theory” is not correct, and research this topic more in depth.
18. Voices From the Past
Another way we misinterpret scripture is by seeing what people said in ancient texts about scripture, and automatically accepting it as true.
We’re often quick to run to the writings of Josephus, Augustine, Martin Luther, and others. When we find a quote from one of them that supports our belief about a scripture, our view becomes strengthened as we say, “I must be right since this person from the past believes the same thing.”
For some reason, we believe people who lived closer to the time that the Bible was written are more credible than anyone living today.
I think there’s some truth to that. They did live closest to the eyewitnesses of the accounts in the Bible, and they were there before a lot of scripture and other texts could have become corrupted.
But still, it doesn’t mean they were automatically correct in everything they said. They could have been wrong about some things.
We can look at it another way. We, in our day and age, have grown in our understanding of the scripture because of the amount of sources available to us. We’ve had more scholars rise up who have clarified things. We have a better understanding of the world as a whole. It’s a good thing.
We can see things more from an aerial view with a broader scope. They saw things more lateral, producing with the knowledge that was available to them.
In my opinion, it’s OK to have historic evidence, but only to support something that you can first make a good case for without the ancient texts.
Example: Adam is very much against that Catholic Church. He believes that the Pope is the Antichrist. In order to strengthen his beliefs, he researched other ancient documents written by people who believed this as well, and came across an old version of something called “The Westminister Confession”, where it’s stated that the Pope is the Antichrist.
Solution: Adam should realize that just because a document is old, that doesn’t make it true. Most people do not hold to this view today. He should also study newer information about the Antichrist.
19. Esoteric Interpretation
This is kind of a “when-all-else-fails” approach to scripture. But it’s used all the time.
This method says that the correct interpretation can only be understood by a select, spiritual few, and might not be able to be understood with simple study.
If we can’t get someone to agree with our interpretation, why not just say, “God has to show you the meaning of this scripture. When you pray about it, God will show you that my interpretation is right.”
Really? So our evidence becomes, “God showed me.”
Look, I’m not denying that God can’t show us something about scripture and help us understand it, but he will NEVER show us something that contradicts the scriptures.
If our view on a certain scripture is the correct one, we should be able to provide more scriptural, academic proof for it.
Example: Nathan believes that the “Behemoth” of Job 40 is a dinosaur. He did a little research on this scripture and found countless articles of others who believe this. He was trying to explain his view to his wife, who said it sounds silly. He then said, “Look, just pray and God will show you.”
Solution: Instead of resulting to this esoteric statement, Nathan should have asked himself, “Can I somehow make my case stronger for this interpretation with more study?” If he can’t, it might just be one of those things that we can never fully know.