How seriously do we need to take the claims that the Bible is full of contradictions?
More than a few have written books or hosted Web sites to say that they lost their faith after finding glaring inconsistencies in the Bible. Some have spent a lot of time compiling lists of apparent discrepancies in both the Old and New Testaments.
Some of these collections of alleged contradictions are apt to include statements like:
How can anyone believe in a Book that tries to get away with saying:
• God is one (Deuteronomy 6:4); God is three (Matthew 28:19).
• We don’t need to be afraid of God (1 Samuel 12:20-22; 1 John 4:18). We need to fear God
(1 Samuel 12:24-25).
• Salvation is by faith without works (Romans 4:5). Salvation is by faith plus works (James 2:14).
For some people, these are the kinds of examples that tell them the Bible can’t be trusted. Others, however, can look at the same examples and see evidence of the life-changing wisdom of the Bible. For such people the above pairings of opposites speak volumes. At the very least, they suggest:
• One Godhead is made up of three coequal, coeternal persons who share perfect knowledge, love, and power.
• A healthy fear of God drives us to Him, rather than away from Him.
• By faith, we receive salvation as a gift. By actions of love, we show God’s presence in our lives.
The Bible is full of similar “studies in contrast.” As many have noted, the Scriptures present “truth in tension.” From one point of view, facts seem to contradict one another. From other angles, “two sides of the same coin” complement and counterbalance one another.
In their place, the apparent “opposites” of the Bible provide us with the balance and symmetry of wisdom. But when such pairings of truth get out of proportion, the results can be dangerous.
Dangerous religious groups teach false doctrine built on half-truths.
Young believers are apt to overemphasize one side of the truth, to the exclusion of the other.
Personal blind sides incline all of us toward that “side of the coin” that seems most consistent with our own temperament, plans, or experience.
Personal moral choices cause many to look for inconsistencies in the Bible as a way of attempting to avoid its moral influence.
With the last of these observations in view, John W. Haley, author of An Examination of the Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible, notes, “Men do not reject the Bible because it contradicts itself, but because it contradicts them.”
So what then is behind the healthy tensions and contrasts of the Bible?
1. Some contrasts reflect tensions of divine mystery. Isaiah the prophet writes, “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts” (55:8-9 NIV).
Maybe this is why the Bible can emphasize both the control of God and the freedom of the human will. Only in the mind of God could such opposites be resolved.
2. Some contrasts are based on ironies of principle. Jesus said many things similar to the “first shall be last” (Matthew 19:30 KJV) and that in His kingdom those who want to be leaders must be as those who serve (Luke 22:26). With explanation, what at first sounds like a contradiction ends up being insightful. If we want to find life, we really do need to die to our own natural ways of thinking. If we want honor, we need to first learn the ways of humility.
3. Some contrasts reflect the times and seasons of life. Solomon observed that “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-3 NIV). The result is that the Bible variously approves or disapproves of serious matters like killing, marriage, divorce, or slavery based on time, purpose, and circumstance.
4. Some contrasts lie in differences of purpose and perspective. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John each provide their own account of the life of Jesus. The fact that they tell His story in different ways can be regarded as a problem or as evidence of their credibility. Their different perspectives can be seen as contradictory or as the complementary perspectives of honest witnesses and reporters.
The profound unity and rich diversity of the four Gospels is a mark of the whole Bible. On one hand, there is a striking oneness of perspective that shows up in the unfolding plotline of 66 books, written by at least 40 different authors, over a period of about 1,500 years. On the other hand, these same authors provide the variety of perspectives that fuel the Bible’s critics while stretching and feeding its admirers.
Both perspectives are necessary to understand how the Bible could be such a controversial book—while surviving its critics—even to the point of being called Holy, the Good Book, and an all-time bestseller.
Some admittedly have started out believing in the Bible, only to conclude that no inspired book could be so self-contradictory. Others have started out to prove the Bible wrong, only to be won over by it. Former atheist and Oxford scholar C. S. Lewis is one of them. He ended up believing that the Jesus of the Bible is not a liar, lunatic, or legend, but actually the Lord of creation.
The result of such different perspectives is that each of us must at some point decide. Whether we find that the Bible resonates with life, and with our own minds and hearts, is a judgment call that each of us has to make for ourselves.
Only when we have personally heard “the ring of truth” in the Bible can we pray,
Father in heaven, please help those who aren’t sure that they could ever accept the Bible find in its pages the priceless truth of Your offer to accept them. —Mart De Haan