Isn’t the Bible filled with contradictions?
Here is one of the most common ways skeptics justify their skepticism about the Bible. The question is based on the commonplace supposition that contradictions are bad. If you can find a statement I make which disagrees with something I’ve already said, you’ll feel justified in rejecting both. Even though one may be right. Even though they both may be. Why?
Contradict the contradictions
We have Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) to thank or blame. In his desire to compile all knowledge into an organized system, he devised laws of logic as organizational tools. One of them is called the law of contradiction: A cannot equal B and at the same time not equal B. A fish cannot also be a mammal, if a biologist like Aristotle is going to classify it. From then to now, we Westerners have adopted Aristotle’s law as the basis for determining all truth. If we can find a contradiction in the Bible, we have reason to dismiss its veracity.
But there’s a fly in the ointment. Aristotle applied his laws to physical and rational truth, not to spiritual or relational experience. It may appear contradictory to claim that you love your children and yet sometimes wish they’d never been born. But if you’re a typical parent, both are sometimes true. Jesus claimed to be fully God and fully man; God is three and yet one; the Bible is divinely inspired but humanly written; God knows the future but we have freedom to choose. Inside every essential Christian doctrine there is a paradox, an apparent contradiction.
Many of the so-called contradictions in the Bible fit into such spiritual or relational categories. For instance, the Bible teaches that “God is love” (1 John 4:8). Yet it also states clearly, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness” (Romans 1:18). And it warns, “For those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger” (Romans 2:8). How can God both love and hate? Don’t ask Aristotle. But you can ask any parent.
Not all truth fits into test tubes. My seventh-grade geometry teacher claimed that parallel lines never intersect. But to prove it, he’d have to draw them forever. Black and white are not the only crayons in the box.
Consider the context
A second category of apparent contradictions in the Bible is more historical and factual. For example, here are two of the common questions I’ve been asked. Each is clarified when we understand the larger context of the text in question.
“The Old Testament teaches, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But Jesus told us to turn the other cheek. Which is right?” Both. Moses was dealing with an ancient culture in which blood vengeance was common and drastic. If you kill my son, I kill your entire family. To limit retribution to the actual criminal and crime was a great step forward. On the other hand, Jesus was speaking to the issue of personal insult. People in his day used only the right hand in public (as the left was used for personal hygiene). To “strike you on the right cheek” (Matthew 5:39) with my right hand meant to slap you, a threat to your social standing but not your life. Here you are to forgive rather than punish.
“Matthew says that Judas hanged himself; the book of Acts says he fell down and died. Which is it?” Matthew’s gospel does indeed record Judas’s suicide by hanging (Matthew 27:5). In Acts 1 Peter says, “Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out” (v. 18). It may be that Judas’s body decomposed, so that when the rope broke or was cut, it fell as Peter describes. Or it may be that the Greek word translated “hanged” is actually the word “impaled” (both meanings are possible), so that Peter describes more vividly the way Judas killed himself. Either option is a possible way to explain the apparent contradiction.
When we consider the intended meaning of the text and its larger context, such apparent contradictions are resolved.
Check all the options
A third category of supposed contradictions is not the result of context. For instance, 2 Samuel 24:1 states that the Lord incited David to take a census of the people; 1 Chronicles 21:1 records, “Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel.” But the Jewish people saw all that happens as within the providence and permission of God, so that Satan’s activity (1 Chronicles) was permitted by the Lord and thus attributable to him (2 Samuel). And the people grew in their knowledge of God, so that the Chronicler (writing 400 years after 2 Samuel) could record Satan’s activity in more detail than the people had earlier understood.
Matthew 4 records Jesus’ temptations in a different order than does Luke 4. But neither claimed to be writing chronology, so that the order is immaterial. One could set them in time order, the other in spiritual priority, for instance. 1 Kings 7:13 states that Huram, one of the builders of Solomon’s temple, came from the tribe of Naphtali; 2 Chronicles 2:14 says his mother was from the tribe of Dan. But she could have lived in the territory of Naphtali, or her parents could have come from both tribes.
The next time someone claims the Bible is full of contradictions, ask him if he has read the Bible. Then ask if it is a contradiction to dismiss a book he hasn’t read. Now offer to help him study the Bible and meet its Author. It is a contradiction to me that a holy and perfect God would want me to live in his perfect paradise. I’m glad it’s not to him.