Does the Bible contradict itself?
Are there contradictions in the Bible?
The question ‘What about all the contradictions?’ is a challenge often thrown at the Bible. Yet many of the challengers have rarely read the Bible seriously in a mature way and only a few seem to have read all of it. Whether there are contradictions or not, most of those accusing the Bible of being contradictory use second-hand arguments and have little or no knowledge of the background and context of the part they criticise. The Christian position is that the Bible, as originally given in its original languages and taken in context, nowhere contradicts itself or any established fact. There are some occasional minor problems in translation, or where a manuscript might have been damaged or was not copied correctly. These occurrences are relatively very few when you consider the huge size of the Bible. An occasional detail may have suffered in the translation or in copying variant readings in the manuscripts available to us. These are rare and virtually none of them affects our understanding of the truth expressed. In any case, these are not contradictions in the truth that God the Holy Spirit produced through the holy men of God whom He used to record His original revelation in the Bible.
It is beyond the scope of this chapter to look at all the Bible’s alleged discrepancies and supposed contradictions, and those wishing to look at this subject in more detail will find John W. Haley’s book Alleged Discrepancies (Whitaker House) both interesting and helpful. But there are principles that govern the way a Christian should approach supposed contradictions. As those principles are applied, a growing confidence in God’s word justifiably results. We will look at some of those principles now.
As seen in Chapter 3 of The Bible Panorama, the Bible can be shown to be God’s word both by internal and external examination. So that is how we should approach it, namely taking it to be the word of the all-wise, all-knowing, all-powerful, eternal God, whose thoughts, ways and character are infinitely higher than ours. We have a mind that is both biased and closed, and we should admit that. Would it surprise you if I said that a Christian’s mind should be both biased and closed about the Bible? It should be about other issues too! For example, we should be closed to driving on the wrong side of the road, or drinking poison! If we are married, we should be unerringly and faithfully biased towards our spouse and be closed about the possibility of an intimate relationship with anyone else. That is the nature of love and loyalty where a commitment has been made. So it is with the Bible. With good reason, we should love the book that God has used to give us the only message that can save, bless, guide and keep us. We should remain loyal to its teachings, however unfashionable that may be in a selfish and rebellious world, and declare that we espouse no other revelation and will not enter into unfaithfulness to God, or doubt or deny what He has said through the Bible. Do not apologise for such a stance—it is a sure sign that God has wrought His work in your heart and produced a love for the things of God, including the Bible. Our starting premise is not that we have an open mind that may change, but that we have closed our mind around the words of our faithful and unchanging God. This stance is strengthened by the fact that all the evidence underlines that the Bible is God’s word. We are, of course, open to be taught new things from God’s word and to respond to those truths, provided they are in line with the context of the whole Bible.
God is not the author of confusion
A statement urging discipline and order in the church, 1 Corinthians 14:33, reveals an important principle about God. That principle is demonstrated throughout His creation and His dealings with mankind. It is that ‘God is not the author of confusion’. In 1 Corinthians 14:40 the application of that principle to the Christian church shows how God’s mind works: ‘Let all things be done decently and in order’.
Because God is the God of order and not of confusion, it follows that He who made a fully harmonised world, who created the human body that perfectly fits together and works without any ‘contradictory parts’, and who revealed Himself in the faultless perfection of His living Word, the Lord Jesus Christ, would produce a faultless, harmonised, integrated, ordered, perfectly working and non-contradictory written word. He has! It is the Bible.
Because of the constant attacks on the truth of the Bible as the Word of God, it is worth repeating often that there is no contradiction of any kind in it. This is despite the fact that God caused it to be written through fallible men. God, the Holy Spirit, infallibly inspired it. The very fact that its writers or compilers have not sanitised the Bible, in order to remove parts which could be thought to be contradictory by those viewing it superficially, is in fact a further evidence of its divine origin. If man wanted to persuade others of the perfect harmony of a man-made book, he would carefully check and eliminate anything that could even raise the question of the book’s contents.
An apparent contradiction therefore cannot be a real contradiction
But apparent contradictions will confront Bible readers, whether introduced by friend or foe of the Bible, or encountered in their personal reading. How should the Christian deal with these apparent contradictions? Ten simple, but non-exhaustive, guidelines are suggested. In applying them, remember a two-sided rule: doubt your doubts and believe your beliefs, as long as those beliefs come in context from the Bible.
Guideline 1—The biblical order is not always the chronological order
Generally speaking, the events recorded in the Bible are related to each other in a progressive time span, but there are many exceptions, sometimes to emphasise a point made, or because the chronology is not an important issue. Thus the biblical order is not always the chronological order and the Bible may ‘replay’ a past event or ‘fast track’ to a future one. These instances do not, however, constitute contradictions.
Guideline 2—A different point of view of the same event may be presented
The supposed contradiction may concern the reporting of a single event, or a certain aspect of a single event, from different points of view. As is normal in any reporting, different reporters can observe the same thing from various, though not necessarily contradictory, stances. For example, one sportswriter may focus on one player and present him as the match winner. Another may emphasise the fitness of the whole team and the good job the manager has done in pulling them together. These are not contradictions. Similarly, a violent offence may be reported by concentrating on the aggrieved, while another will focus on the ringleaders, and yet another will present the main culprit’s criminality. No contradiction is involved just because a different viewpoint is taken. Law courts recognise that a different emphasis in an eye-witnessed testimony does not thereby contradict other witnesses. In fact, it is often regarded as a healthy indication of truthfulness, because the witnesses have not got together to concoct a story. So, regarding the Bible, men of intelligence, integrity and judgement have had no problem in producing a harmonised view of different Bible events. To illustrate this point, consider the harmonised summary of all the events in the four Gospels in a study Bible, such as The MacArthur Study Bible (Nelson).
Guideline 3—Do not confuse similar events with identical events
A number of happenings in the Bible are very similar to others, but are not the same events. As today, some basically similar events could occur in different circumstances. Sometimes the Bible makes clear reference to the difference between events, and sometimes it is implied. Be careful not to draw a contradiction from a genuinely different, but similar, occasion. A superficial and unthinking reading of the Bible can lead to that, when in fact closer study always emphasises the Bible’s reliability. Certainly no contradictions are involved.
Guideline 4—An event may concern different elements and people
There are occasions when only one aspect of an event, or only one of the characters involved, is the focus of attention in one account, whereas another account of the same event may take a broader brush approach or focus on another aspect or individual involved. Such different elements or personalities can always be harmonised. Again, no contradiction is involved. At a time when textbooks and tape recorders were unknown, similar truths would be taught on many different occasions, though not necessarily in identical words.
Guideline 5—Reported mistakes do not contradict the Bible’s truthfulness
There are a number of times in the Bible when someone says something that is wrong. That may be through malice, ignorance or a failure to understand fully. When the Bible accurately records the giving of an inaccurate account or opinion by someone, that is not a contradiction. It is a truthful report of a misguided or dishonest person’s wrong account. When Teriq Aziz, the then Defence Minister of Iraq, commented that the invading allied forces had been routed near Baghdad, it became apparent that what he said was not true. But CNN did not contradict itself when it simply reported what he said. Similarly, the Bible does not contradict itself by reporting information wrongly given by others.
Guideline 6—Remember the context!
One of the cardinal rules in understanding the Bible is always to look at what you read in context. There is never a supposed contradiction that remains when the searchlight of context is shone upon it. Almost like concentric circles of light, the context of the whole Bible, then the context of the book of the Bible concerned, then the context of the chapter and verse(s) concerned in that book, then the context of the prevailing circumstances, will always show the truthfulness of God’s word. If you come across two or more allegedly contradictory passages, simply look at the context of each and then compare them together. They are always able to be reconciled. The more a fraud or a fake is closely examined the more obvious are its faults. In stark comparison, the more closely the Bible is examined, the more it is seen to be entirely trustworthy.
Guideline 7—Do not be in a hurry
When using these guidelines, or any others, it may not always be immediately clear what the answer is to an apparent contradiction. Do not worry about that—rather take your time sorting it out. God’s word will not ‘unbecome’ God’s word because some Christian does not fully understand something for a time! As a young Christian, someone told me to read the Bible like I eat fish: consume, enjoy and digest the pieces I can easily get, and leave the rest on the side! Obviously, the illustration is limited. There are no indigestible bones or skin in the Bible! But the underlying principle is good. If you do not immediately understand something, especially something that seems to be contradictory, keep trusting the Bible as God’s word and ask God to show you the answer in His time. But do not be lazy, either! As well as praying, thinking it through and reading around the various contexts dealt with by ‘Guideline 6’, consult a mature Bible-believing Christian, or leader. And use a good evangelical Bible commentary and study Bible. But, above all, keep reading through the Bible. It is amazing how a completely different part of the Bible can shed light on, and resolve difficulties found in, difficult passages elsewhere. C.H. Spurgeon’s humorous comment about one Bible commentary was that it was surprising how much light the Bible shed on that particular commentary! In a more serious vein, it really is amazing how much light the Bible sheds on itself.
The study of the Bible, including the resolution of parts wrongly said to be contradictory, must always be undertaken carefully and with prayer. Remember that the Bible is a spiritual book and so should be approached spiritually, and with an attitude of prayer. Bathe the alleged contradiction in prayer, and God the Holy Spirit will lead you into all truth, as Jesus promised He would (John 16:13).
Guideline 9—Do not confuse the words ‘inspired’ and ‘inspiring’
All parts of the Bible are equally inspired by God the Holy Spirit and therefore equally infallible and non-contradictory. But not all parts are equally inspiring to the reader. For example, few readers buzz with delight when they read a genealogy. But such parts of the Bible are foundational to its historicity and accuracy. The details of the foundations of a house for sale never get the same exposure to a potential buyer as the size and number of the rooms, the location of the house, or the wonderful views from the windows. But without the foundations the exciting parts of the house could not exist. In the same way, do not fall into the trap of thinking that parts of the Bible are less inspired, and therefore potentially more likely to be contradictory, than other parts. Whether you find a particular part inspiring or not, the whole of the Bible is inspired as God’s word. It is all profitable and given for our instruction and blessing, and none of it is contradictory.
Guideline 10—Take courage: you are not alone!
Satan’s first tactic in the Garden of Eden was to try to instil doubts in the minds of Eve and Adam. He still asks the malicious question ‘Has God indeed said?’ (Genesis 3:1) to seek to undermine faith in, and obedience to, God’s word. Often the devil poses that question through others. But take courage! Every Christian who ever lived has been tested at some stage in the fires of doubting God’s word. God has brought, is bringing, and will bring every born-again, blood-bought child of His through that temptation to confidence in His word and eternal blessing. Like the heroes of faith in Hebrews 11, those who run that race of faith now can be encouraged by countless witnesses who have run it before them and found God is true to His inspired, infallible and complete word, the Bible. They could find no justifiable contradictions in it, and neither will you!