Does the Bible Contradict Itself?
Atheists.org begins its post on Biblical Contradictions[i] with this statement: “It is a central dogma of all fundamental Christians that the Bible is without error. They teach this conclusion by “reasoning” that god cannot be the author of false meaning and he cannot lie. Is this true? If written by a perfect being, then it must not contradict itself, as a collection of books written by different men at different times over many centuries would be expected to contradict each other.”[ii]
It’s a well-stated premise. I heartily agree. If the Bible’s forty authors who wrote the Bible over a span of approximately 1,500 years and three continents contradict one another (and let’s be honest, how could that kind of motley collection of authors not contradict one another!) it would be a sure sign that the Bible is a human, not divine document. The Atheists.org post goes on to list its top 15 contradictions in the Bible.[iii] Those are:
1) The Permanence of Earth: we are told “the earth abides forever” and that it will be “burned up.”[iv]
2) The Holy Lifestyle: should we celebrate “with a merry heart” or be sober-minded in our living?[v]
3) Seeing God: have some seen God face-to-face or have none?[vi]
4) The Sabbath Day: we are told that the Sabbath day is to be kept holy and later that “every day is alike.”[vii]
5) Personal Injury: is “eye for an eye” punishment the rule, or non-retaliation?[viii]
6) Circumcision: are we to be circumcised or not?[ix]
7) Family Relationships: are we to honor our parents or to hate them?[x]
8) Incest: is incest blessed or disallowed?[xi]
9) The Power of God: is God all-powerful or is his power limited?[xii]
10) Trusting God: does trusting God bring us blessing or difficulties?[xiii]
11) Human Sacrifice: are human sacrifices encouraged or forbidden?[xiv]
12) Punishing Crime: does the punishment of sin fall upon the children of the offenders or not?[xv]
13) Temptation: can God tempt or not?[xvi]
14) Resurrection of the Dead: can those who die be resurrected or not?[xvii]
15) The End of the World: was God supposed to return quickly when the New Testament was written or not?[xviii]
Let’s deal with these apparent contradictions with three responses.
1) PROPER UNDERSTANDING OF THE VERSES
The first group of alleged contradictions can be sorted out by properly understanding the meaning of the verses that apparently contradict one another.
Apparent contradictions one (the permanence of the earth) and two (the holy lifestyle) both quote from Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes is a book written from the perspective of life “under the sun” a phrase used twenty times in the book. Both apparent contradictions are no longer contradictions when one understands that the point of Ecclesiastes is to contrast the apparent truth from the temporal earthly perspective with the ultimate sovereign perspective.
One can make sense of apparent contradiction in scripture about whether or not we can see God’s face (number three) with understanding the context of the Genesis 32 passage. In that passage, Jacob claims to have seen the face of God while John says that no one has seen the face of God. If one reads what precedes Jacob’s declaration in Genesis 32:30, the wrestling match Jacob has with a man who is some sort of manifestation of God, it is clear that while Jacob has encountered God, he has not come face to face with the fullness of God.
2) THE FULFILLMENT OF JESUS
Some of these apparent contradictions misunderstand the progressive revelation of the Bible and the fulfillment of Jesus.[xix] Jesus came not merely to destroy the law nor merely to keep the law, but rather to fulfill the law. And he came as the new lawgiver with a new covenant sealed by his blood and empowered by the Holy Spirit. That means that there are times that Jesus heightens the law and other times Jesus overturns the law altogether.
This clarifies Paul’s interpretation of the Sabbath (apparent contradiction four) in Romans, where he says some interpret particular days (like the Sabbath) as more important and some interpret every day as alike. To this Paul allows both interpretations: “Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.” Paul goes on to encourage the two groups to demonstrate humility and charity to one another. The reason that both can be right is that the law (including the Sabbath) is fulfilled in Christ. That means that our Sabbath-keeping is an invitation. Christ is our rest who also invites us into patterns of rest both daily and (perhaps) on special days.
This does not demonstrate a contradiction, but rather that the coming of Jesus ushered in a new era where the followers of God, through the power of the Spirit of God, lived a life that adhered to a higher moral standard. This explains the apparent contradictions five (personal injury), six (circumcision), and seven (family relationships).
In a world where God’s relationship with his people calls the people to muster up the resources of obedience internally, God does not ask for obedience that reflects his flawless character perfectly.
Once Jesus has come, he pays the cost of our breaking of God’s law and gives the Holy Spirit to his followers. The Holy Spirit is the instrument of change and transformation and enables Jesus’ followers to follow a higher law. It is because of this that Jesus exchanges “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” with a message of non-retaliation. It is because Jesus circumcised our hearts, that physical circumcision is no longer required.
3) A NUANCED READING
Finally, many places of apparent contradiction involve a wooden literalistic reading of the Bible that doesn’t allow for the literary nuances of the writing.[xx]
The claim that the Bible endorses incest (the eighth apparent contradiction) leans on a literalistic reading that is void of cultural nuance. As is the case in much of the biblical narrative, the presence of sin in the narrative does not mean that God endorses the sin. The Bible is brutally honest about the sin of God’s people. Abram is married to Sarai before God calls him, and additionally, the law against incest comes later in God’s revelation to his people.
When one considers the verse about the ninth apparent contradiction about the limit of the power of God, it is best understood by God’s choice to connect Israel’s military success to their obedience (or lack thereof). God’s choice to self-limit his power does not demonstrate his lack of power.
The same could be said of the tenth apparent contradiction, that the Bible says that trusting God will grant one favor (Proverbs 12:2), while there are times where God allows suffering to befall those who love him. As is clear in the course of the Bible, obtaining the favor of the Lord is not ultimately a matter of earthly health and wealth.
The eleventh apparent contradiction, that God both condemns and endorses human sacrifice is perhaps the worst misreading of the Bible in the bunch. God clearly disallows human sacrifice. The telling of the story of Jephthah in Judges 11 is no endorsement of human sacrifice, but rather an indictment of the rashness of Jephthah.
The twelfth apparent contradiction, that God visits iniquity down through generations (the results of the parents’ sin impact their children) is not the same as children bearing the responsibility of the sin of their parents.
Likewise, the twelfth apparent contradiction, that God tempted Abraham, requires a nuanced reading of the text. The entirety of Scripture helps inform a reading of the text that God while tests, he doesn’t tempt. Such tests can be felt as a temptation from our human perspective (the perspective much of Genesis is written from), but isn’t, in fact, temptation.
Texts regarding the resurrection of the dead and the end of the world (the fourteenth apparent contradiction) are also understood when one reads the texts in the manner that is intended with the biblical-theological framework given to us by the Bible. In the book of Job we see Job wrestling throughout the book with what the eternal state is and what our life beyond this life looks like. At other points in the book we find Job reflecting on life after death and him facing God for this judgment.
Meanwhile, the claim that the Bible’s authors were wrong about the imminent return of Christ (the fifteenth apparent contradiction) misunderstands the scope of the redemptive plan in the Bible: a very long arc of history as well as misunderstanding God’s eternal nature. What is 2,000 years to the eternal God?
I understand that this post cannot adequately address in detail each of these concerns, but I hope that you get a sense that with some basic tools of interpretation, there are answers to many of the apparent contradictions in Scripture.
The purpose of this post is not to dimension the reality that there are challenges and tensions in the biblical text, but to show that such challenges and tensions don’t necessarily mean that the Bible is full of contradictions. On the contrary, it is more than remarkable that a book written by prophets and kings, by the most learned and the most common, by the richest and poorest, by people inhabiting different cultures at different times would produce a book that is so unified in its understanding of God and human beings.
Are there difficult passages to understand in the Bible? Certainly! Ought we be more surprised by those challenging passages or by the unity we find in the Scriptures? I believe it is the latter that is what is truly jaw-dropping.
[iii] This is the list exactly as it can be found on the above post with the only difference being that I’ve renumbered the list to be able to deal with the misunderstandings more simply.
[xx] See https://www.atheists.org/activism/resources/biblical-contradictions/ and https://friendlyatheist.patheos.com/2013/08/19/an-incredible-interactive-chart-of-biblical-contradictions/. of the contradictions also involve a lack of understanding of the relationship between the Old and the New Covenants. See New Life’s series Level Up where we explore Christ’s teaching on the new law in the Sermon on the Mount. See also Reisinger’s But I Say Unto You. A few of these contradictions just simply misunderstand how to properly read scripture (for instance the interpretation that Judges 11 supports human sacrifice) or that the Lot narrative supports incest.
www.thebeehive.live. Used by permission of the author.