A reader recently shared the following declaration, and it’s one I’ve heard about a billion times—give or take a few hundred thousand:
“The Bible clearly says…”
He said it, as so many Christians do: matter-of-factly, definitively, and without a trace of suspicion that he could be wrong.
And he is wrong.
The Bible doesn’t clearly say very much, and we who claim the Christian faith need to be able to admit this—especially when encountering moments of disagreement on what we believe it says. Regardless of the topic at hand, there is probably less clarity than the person suggesting it would have us believe:
Is the Bible clear on violence?
We see Jesus condemning it, and then we see God both commanding it and prohibiting it. Turns out the Bible clearly sometimes says violence is abhorrent to God and sometimes God fully authorizes it—which leaves us to determine when and how violence is redemptive. We get to determine its clarity, and that clarity usually mirrors our biases and preferences—and the verse we choose to justify them.
Is the Bible clear on marriage being between one man and one woman?
Many of the Patriarchs had concubines and multiple wives, and yet they were the presented pillars of God’s people, with such realities rarely presented as deficiencies. King Solomon had 700 wives—and yet God does not get angry at the number of wives, but the fact that they are not from among the Israelites. So when did God finally “make it clear” what marriage was and wasn’t? Is there one catch-all verse that decides that matter and overrides all the other verses?
Is the Bible clear on the existence of a literal hell where bad people go to suffer eternally?
Throughout the entire Old Testament the idea of a literal hell is nearly nonexistent. Jesus refers to a place translated from the word Gehenna, which was a literal perpetually burning, local dumping ground. When he references afterlife suffering, the actual offenses are vague and numerous. Sometimes Hell is promised for religious hypocrites, sometimes for harboring angry hearts, sometimes for neglecting the poor, sometimes for unbelief. And the majority of the New Testament writings including Paul’s letters are absent the word Hell and any graphic images of eternal damnation. So how can the Bible be described as clear on the matter of hell when the existence of it, and the specific ways of entering it or avoiding it are not consistent?
The Bible also seems to clearly: affirm stoning non believers, view menstruation and semen as spiritually unclean, imply that faithful sick people will all get well. I don’t think we’d universally agree to any of these things.
When someone says “The Bible clearly says,” they are usually referring to the specific verse they are using, in the context they’ve decided this verse is appropriate, and independent of any other verses that might argue an alternative viewpoint. They are cherry-picking where and when to decide clarity based on what they want God to say: when God sounds most like them.
I can tell a fellow Christian that the Bible clearly says that Christians are to love God and to love their neighbor as themselves—and they’ll argue what loving someone looks like, until their definition of love aligns with their hateful behavior.
If the Bible were as clear as Christians claimed it is, then each of us who have read and studied it would come to the same conclusions on every matter—and clearly we have not. That’s because the it isn’t a textbook, it’s a traveling companion.
The Bible is a sprawling 66-book library, written over thousands of years by dozens of authors in multiple languages—professing to speak of the deepest truths about the creation of all matter, the beginning and end of life on the planet as well as beyond it, and about the Maker of everything and everyone. We’d better have some ambiguity about it all—or we’ve discovered a God who is small enough to fit entirely inside our three-pound brains or our current belief system.
The Bible is filled with mystery and wonder—and it should be. If it isn’t, that’s a problem. The Bible attempts to describe in mere words, something ultimately well beyond any words. We need to wield these words with great humility, never imagining we have it all figured out, never believing that God always agrees with us—
and being very hesitant to claim clarity when it comes to the souls of another human being that we would send to Hell or put through Hell here.
That much, is clear.