As Christians, what are we supposed to do with the apparent contradictions in the Bible?
Panic. Run. Scream. Abandon all hope.
Okay, that might be a bit of a drastic response to this question. Yet most Christians feel noticeably uncomfortable asking this question, let alone acknowledging this is a real issue in which many people wrestle to find a solution. Even the fact I’m addressing this question will frustrate some people (and you haven’t even read my answer yet!).
I believe there ARE what would be considered contradictions in the Bible. Here are a few:
- Were the last words of Jesus “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit,” as Luke records it in Luke 23:46? Or were they “It is finished,” as John records it in John 19:30?
- Did Jesus ride into Jerusalem on one donkey, as Mark 11:7, Luke 19:35, and John 12:14 record it? Or, did he ride in on two as Matthew records it in Matthew 21:7?
- The money Judas received for betraying Jesus was used to buy a field. Did the chief priests purchase the field as in Matthew 27:3-7, or did Judas himself buy it as in Acts 1:18?
- In the moments before crucifying Jesus, did they have Simone of Cyrene carry His cross as found in Matthew 27:32, Mark 15:21, and Luke 23:26? Or, did Jesus carry it by Himself as in John 19:17?
- Notice how Mark and John describe Jesus’ arrest in such dramatically different ways in Mark 14:43-51 and John 18:1-11. In John’s account, Jesus speaks powerfully and his accusers fall to the ground in response. The disciples stand by Jesus and He even mentions that “I have not lost one of those you gave me.” In Mark’s account, Jesus is quickly “seized and arrested,” everyone abandons Him, and one disciple even flees naked in haste.
I could keep going, but I think you get the point. Before you are quick to explain them away, let’s explore other options to make sense of passages like these. We must keep in mind that these are the types of passages that stand out to someone exploring Jesus (and what the Bible says about Him) for the first time.
First, a contradiction does not mean a lack of truth. In fact, much of Christianity is based on logical contradictions. An essential belief for Christians is that Jesus is fully (100%) man and fully (100%) God in one (see: Colossians 2:9 and Hebrews 2:14). Last I checked, you can’t be 200% of something. Does that mean it’s not true? Some would argue that. But I believe this should be expected when we are dealing with a supernatural God. When you begin to try and follow Jesus you start to see how much these contradictions become normal. Jesus told us we must die in order to live (Luke 9:23-24). And this makes most people scratch their head.
The second part of my answer is that we are not equal to God. To whatever degree we get involved in God’s story we bring our own limitations and personality (which is a nice way of saying our issues). That means that even my best description of God will fall far short of who He is in His fullness. This doesn’t mean it isn’t important to study theology, just that we need to keep this always in perspective. It also shows us God allows us to represent Him, even when our version of it falls short of communicating its totality. This speaks volumes about the character of God and helps us understand why God looks like Jesus.
Third, we must remember that the Bible was written by people, under the influence or direction of the Holy Spirit. That means they brought their own biases, limitations, and understandings to the process. God certainly caused them to write things far beyond what most of them fully understood, yet we are also amiss to think that none of them ends up in the mix either. I personally don’t believe God literally gave each Biblical author each word to write down (many other Christians would argue differently). That’s why we see issues as in the examples above. But it’s important to note that none of the issues we see like these change the nature of God or who Jesus is in the story. They are usually more practical details from different people’s perspectives. Although this analogy quickly breaks down, it’s similar to a preacher communicating God’s Word. If done right, the Spirit of God will move throughout the words that people hear to communicate a much deeper message. Yet, it does not remove the preacher’s voice from the process. A good sermon has both God’s voice and the voice of the preacher. The Bible is that and more.
If you expect the Bible to have none of the human limitations of the writers in order to be true, you will eventually have a crisis in your faith as you continue to study it deeper. I’ve watched countless people go through it. But, if you see the bigger reality of how God communicates who He is and the story He’s telling through those people, you’ll realize what an unparalleled book this truly is and that God can use people even like you and me. God stoops down to meet us in relationship and has been doing that since the beginning of time. God could have done all the communication directly by Himself but He has a thing for partnering with people like us. How amazing is that?