This eight-part series addresses common objections to the Bible as the Word of God.
Objection 5: The Bible is full of contradictions.
When someone raises this objection, a reasonable first response is, “Show me one.” Often, the person cannot do so. However, it must be acknowledged that there are numerous places in Scripture where there are seemingly conflicting testimonies and apparent contradictions. If the Bible comes from God, and if God neither lies nor makes mistakes, how do we reconcile these Bible difficulties?
The law of non-contradiction
First, we should examine the Bible the same way we examine other documents, using the traditional rules of logic and reason. A good place to start is by applying the law of non-contradiction, which maintains that “nothing can both be and not be.” For example, it cannot be day and night in the same place at the same time. Therefore, if a passage of Scripture violates the law of non-contradiction, its trustworthiness is undermined. At the same time, two statements may differ without being contradictory.
For example, in Matthew’s Gospel we read that Jesus meets two blind men (Matt. 20:29-34). Mark and Luke, however, mention only one blind man. Are these contradictory statements? Not necessarily. If Jesus meets two men, He certainly meets one. In addition, when the three Gospel accounts are read in their entirety, it becomes clear that Bartimaeus picks up an unnamed blind companion during the time Jesus visits Jericho. Finally, “Matthew was concerned to mention all who were involved in this episode (just as he alone of the Synoptists recorded the fact that it was really two maniacs that met Jesus on the territory of Gadara [Matt. 8:28], whereas both Mark and Luke speak only of one demoniac possessed by the Legion demons)…. As for the second blind beggar, neither Mark nor Luke finds him significant enough to mention” (Gleason L. Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, p. 333).
By the way, apparent contradictions such as this actually provide supporting evidence for the veracity of the eyewitnesses. They show that the New Testament writers didn’t “get their story straight” in order to concoct a hoax. Just as four eyewitnesses to an auto accident would report what they saw from their different vantage points, so the four Gospel writers sought to communicate to their readers the details they felt were most important. Their testimonies are consistent even though their stories are different.
Translation and context
Next, we should consider translation and context. Some Bible passages appear contradictory because of the nuances of Bible translation. A case in point: The Book of Acts has two accounts of Paul’s conversion experience. Acts 9:7 (KJV) says the men journeying with Paul hear a voice but see no one. Acts 22:9 (KJV) says they did not hear the voice. The two passages appear contradictory, but the Greek clears it up, as do some modern translations. The construction of the verb is different in each account. W.F. Arndt explains: “In Acts 9:7 it (the verb ‘to hear,’ akouo), is not the same in both accounts. In Acts 9:7 it is used with the genitive, in Acts 22:9 with the accusative. The construction with the genitive simply expresses that something is being heard or that certain sounds reach the ear; nothing is indicated as to whether a person understands what he hears or not. The construction with the accusative, however, describes a hearing, which includes mental apprehension of the message spoken. From this it becomes evident that the two passages are not contradictory” (Does the Bible Contradict Itself? quoted in “Bible Contradictions – Appearance or Reality?” found in www.allabouttruth.org.)
Some additional considerations
There are other considerations that may help clear up Bible difficulties:
- Time. Some seemingly contradictory statements are separated by years – even hundreds of years – and must be seen in their proper time frames. For example, Gen. 1:31 records that God was satisfied with creation, while Gen. 6:6 says He was sorry that He made man. Contradictory? No. Keep in mind that hundreds of years, including the fall of man, came between the first and second statements.
- Context. A careful study of the chapters and books in which the apparent contradictions occur often reveals subtle differences that aid understanding.
- Sense. Words and phrases can be used literally or figuratively. For example, Matt. 11:14 identifies John the Baptist as Elijah, yet John denies being Elijah (John 1:21). Contradiction? No. In Matthew, Elijah is described as the spiritual antitype of the great prophet (see also Luke 1:17).
- Quotations. Many references to Old Testament passages are not word-for-word quotes in the New Testament. Rather, they are paraphrases or summaries. Many of the apparent discrepancies in the gospels, Acts and the writings of Paul – minor as they are – disappear once we judge ancient historians by the standards of their day rather than ours. As Craig L. Blomberg writes, “In a world which did not even have a symbol for a quotation mark, no one expected a historian to reproduce a speaker’s words verbatim” (“The Historical Reliability of the New Testament,” Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, p. 207).
- Understanding. Some critics assume that passages they can’t explain cannot be explained by anyone. But lack of understanding does not necessarily imply errors in transmission.
- Perspective. When two or more writers provide separate accounts of the same events, differences in names, numbers, and conversations may be accounted for by each writer’s perspective: What did he see? Who did he interview? What was most important to record? Who is the audience to whom he wrote? Should numbers be exact or rounded?
Rick Cornish summarizes: “Skeptics play a constructive role. Their challenges force us to study and sometimes reevaluate our interpretations. But until they improve their own game, we need not worry about their accusation that ‘the Bible is full of errors and contradictions.’ It’s not” (5 Minute Apologist, p. 68).
Copyright 2009 by Rob Phillips
Objection 6: The Bible can’t be true because it depicts a different God in the Old and New Testaments.
Critics argue that the God of the Old Testament is distant, vengeful, and harsh, engaging in genocide and punishing the innocent. Meanwhile, they say, the God of the New Testament is a God of love. Further, His Son Jesus is a gentle, meek, selfless and all-too-human being who speaks in adoring terms of His Father in Heaven. Complicating things further, the God of the Old Testament is described as one (Deut. 6:4) while the New Testament hints at a triune Godhead consisting of three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. How can the Gods of the Old and New Testaments be reconciled as one?
First, it’s important to note that this objection reveals a basic misunderstanding of what the Old and New Testaments reveal about the nature of God. The writers of www.gotquestions.org put it very well: “The fact that the Bible is God’s progressive revelation of Himself to us through historical events and through His relationship with people throughout history might contribute to people’s misconceptions about what God is like in the Old Testament as compared to the New Testament. However, when one reads both the Old and the New Testaments it quickly becomes evident that God is not different from one Testament to another and that God’s wrath and His love are revealed in both Testaments.”
For example, the Old Testament in many places describes God as “a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in faithful love and truth” (Ex.34:6; see also Num. 14:18; Deut. 4:31; Neh. 9:17; Ps. 86:5, 15; 108:4; 145:8; Joel 2:13). In the New Testament, God’s love for mankind is manifested more fully in the sending of His Son, Jesus Christ, who died for us (John 3:16; Rom. 5:8). Or, consider that in the Old Testament, God deals with the Israelites much as a loving father deals with His children, punishing them for their idolatry but delivering them when they repented of their sin. In much the same way, the New Testament tells us God chastens Christians for their own good. Hebrews 12:6 says, “[f]or the Lord disciplines the one He loves, and punished every son whom He receives.”
But what about God’s wrath – and jealousy? Both the Old and New Testaments tell us that God delivers judgment on the unrepentant. He orders the Jews to completely destroy a number of people groups living in Canaan, but only after allowing them hundreds of years to repent (see, for example, Gen. 15:17). In addition, God’s order to destroy the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites and others has a divine purpose: “so that they won’t teach you to do all the detestable things they do for their gods, and you sin against the Lord your God” (Deut. 20:18). When the Old Testament describes God as “jealous” (see Deut. 4:24, for example), the word translated “jealous” (qanna) also means “zealous.” God’s jealousy “is an expression of His intense love and care for His people and His demand that they honor His unique and incomparable nature” (Apologetics Study Bible, p. 273). In the New Testament, Paul tells us that “God’s wrath is revealed from heaven against all godlessness and unrighteousness of people who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Rom. 1:18). Jesus Himself often had harsh words for hypocrites (see Matt. 23) and even acted violently against them (John 2:15). He spoke more about hell than heaven, and He is depicted as an angry and wrathful judge in verses foretelling His return (Rev. 19:11-16). Put simply, a God who loves what is good must necessarily hate what is evil.
Throughout the Bible we see a God who patiently and lovingly calls people into a relationship with Him. The entire human race is wrecked by sin, resulting in spiritual and physical death and separation from our Creator (Rom. 3:10, 23; 6:23; Eph. 2:1). Paul wrote that the whole world groans beneath the weight of sin (Rom. 8:22). But from the moment Adam and Eve rebelled against God, He provided a way for that broken fellowship to be restored. He began with a promise of a Redeemer (Gen. 3:15); instituted a sacrificial system in which an innocent and spotless animal would shed its blood to atone for – or temporarily cover – man’s sin; and then sent His Son, the Lamb of God, to take away the sin of the world (John 1:29; 3:16). When one reads the entire Bible, it becomes abundantly clear that the God of the Old and New Testaments does not change (Mal. 3:6; Heb. 13:8).
Finally, what about the one God of the Old Testament and the triune God of the New Testament? There is no contradiction here. While the Bible emphatically declares that there is one true and living God (Deut. 6:4; James 2:19), the Old Testament hints at the triune Godhead, and the New Testament more fully reveals one God in three persons (see Gen. 1:1-2, 26; 3:22; 11:17; Isa. 6:8; Matt. 3:16-17; John 1:1, 14; 10:30; Acts 5:3-4; Col. 1:16; 2:9; Heb. 1:8; 1 Peter 1:2). An ancient saying sums up the difficulty of comprehending the Trinity, but the necessity of believing in the Godhead: “He who would try to understand the Trinity would lose his mind, and he who would deny the Trinity would lose his soul.”
Next — Objection 7: There are so many translations of the Bible today, it’s impossible to know which translation is the right one.
Copyright 2008 by Rob Phillips
Objection 2: The Bible has been copied so many times, with so many variations, there’s no way to know what was originally scripted.
Mormons and Muslims allege that the Bible’s documents were substantially corrupted in their transmission, but there is overwhelming evidence that proves these claims wrong.
Scholars of almost every theological persuasion attest to the profound care with which the Old and New Testament documents were copied.
For the New Testament, for example, the books were copied in Greek, and later translated and preserved in Syriac, Coptic, Latin and a variety of other ancient European and Middle Eastern languages. In the Greek alone, more than 5,000 manuscripts and manuscript fragments of portions of the New Testament have been preserved from the early centuries of Christianity.
As William Lane Craig explains, “The oldest of these is a scrap of papyrus containing John 18:31-33, 37-38, dating from A.D. 125-130, no more than forty years after John’s Gospel was most probably written. More than thirty papyri date from the late second through early third centuries, including some which contain good chunks of entire books and two which cover most of the gospels and Acts or the letters of Paul. Four very reliable and nearly complete NTs date from the fourth and fifth centuries” (“The Historical Reliability of the New Testament,” Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, p. 194).
While it’s true there are variations among the manuscripts, the vast majority have to do with changes in spelling, grammar, and style, or accidental omissions or duplications of words or phrases. Only about 400 have any significant bearing on the meaning of the passage, and most of these are noted in the footnotes or margins of modern translations and editions of Scripture. The only textual variants that affect more than a sentence or two are John 7:53-8:11 and Mark 16:9-20.
William Lane Craig writes, “Neither of these passages is very likely to be what John or Mark originally wrote, though the story in John (the woman caught in adultery) still stands a fairly good chance of being true. But overall, 97-99% of the NT can be reconstructed beyond any reasonable doubt, and no Christian doctrine is founded solely or even primarily on textually disputed passages” (“The Historical Reliability of the New Testament,” Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, p. 194).
Next — Objection 3: The books of the Bible were chosen arbitrarily by councils of men in highly political processes. As a result, they left out some very good books — perhaps some equally inspired writings.
Copyright 2008 by Rob Phillips