Faith

Is the Bible Full of Contradictions?

Some of you may have found this article by googling “does the Bible have contradictions?” To you, I say welcome; I’m glad you’re here. Others of you may be regular PJ Media readers who saw my name attached to the article and wondered if I have reversed course and am no longer a conservative evangelical Christian. Let me assure you that I remain a conservative evangelical Christian. But to the point at hand, and as someone who affirms the inerrancy and Divine inspiration of the Scriptures, I must admit, yes, the Bible contains contradictions.

Actually, the qualifier “apparent” needs to be added. As in, the Bible contains apparent contradictions. And therein lies the rub to basically the whole argument. Because, you see, contradictions are not refutations in and of themselves. Contradictions are problems to be solved.

Readers have to ask themselves if they are going to read the Bible honestly, allowing for nuance and literary styles that clash with 21st-century definitions of reporting and writing. Or are they going to read the Bible dishonestly, applying a level of critique and quick dismissal that they generally do not apply to other books? Automatically assuming that the presence of apparent contradictions is reason enough to dismiss the Bible makes for a lazy literary analysis.

I daresay that most people who so cavalierly dismiss the Bible because of the book’s apparent contradictions do not hold the discipline of physics to the same strict criteria.

In physics, the theories of general relativity and quantum mechanics are an apparent contradiction. They both propose seemingly incompatible descriptions of reality. Have physicists abandoned one or both? No, of course not. Instead, they operate under the assumption that they’re missing something and so physicists have dug in and are searching for a solution, a unifying theory.

When confronted with apparent contradictions in their field, physicists assume that they are the problem; they don’t have enough data or are failing to account for all the perspectives of the known variables. Likewise, honest readers of the Bible should begin with the presupposition that the apparent contradictions they see are problems to be solved; that maybe they haven’t done the hard work of attempting to uncover the book’s literary (and theological) riches. I submit that when readers approach the Bible with the desire to treat the book fairly, they will discover, with some work and research, that all of the Bible’s apparent contradictions have plausible solutions.

At this point, I’m going to transition into looking at a couple of the Bible’s apparent contradictions while providing a solution. Obviously, there is no way that a short article can tackle every apparent contradiction in the Bible. I’m going to start with one of the easier apparent contradictions to deal with, but one that, I think, provides a good example of how the Bible isn’t treated fairly by many people.

Who Killed King Saul?

1 Samuel closes with the death of King Saul (1 Samuel 31:1-13). Saul, though badly wounded, “took his own sword and fell upon it.” In short, Saul committed suicide. However, 2 Samuel opens with a different explanation.

According to 2 Samuel 1:1-16, a young Amalekite breathlessly ran into David’s camp and reported that King Saul is dead. What’s more, this young man declares, “So I stood beside [Saul] and killed him.”

Whoops.

There we have it, a contradiction! This proves that the Bible is untrustworthy, right?

Well, not so fast.

The solution is so obvious it makes me embarrassed to admit that when I was an atheist I used to smugly use this apparent contradiction to demonstrate the Bible’s unreliability.

The report of Saul’s death in 1 Samuel is given by the narrator, who has what’s called a god’s eye view of the events. The report of Saul’s death in 2 Samuel is given by a “character” in the story (a real person in a historical account, to be sure). The narrator has already informed the reader of what actually happened.

Trusting the reader to, well, read honestly, the narrator operates under the assumption that it’s obvious that the young Amalekite is lying to gain David’s favor. That lie horribly backfires and David executes him for killing the “Lord’s anointed.”

Lest you think that David acted unjustly, remember that the young man had just openly confessed to the crime. Unlike the narrator, David doesn’t have a god’s eye view of the events. Why should he doubt the confession?

Who Incited David?

This next one is one of the harder apparent contradictions to resolve, and it involves an understanding of how the Bible weaves together theological themes across historical events that happened hundreds and even thousands of years apart. At the risk of sounding like I’m equivocating, this one is difficult enough that I doubt that I’ll be able to adequately answer it for everyone with the remaining space that I have. My point with this article, though, isn’t to provide rock-solid apologetics for the apparent contradictions. My aim is to point out that it is intellectually dishonest to assert that the Bible has contradictions without acknowledging that scholars and theologians have done the hard work of interacting with the apparent contradictions and have provided plausible answers (you don’t have to accept the answers, but to act like answers don’t exist is cowardice).

In short, 2 Samuel 24:1 says that God incited David. Relating the same event, 1 Chronicles 21:1 says that Satan incited David. So, who incited David?

The answer here is grounded in an understanding of the different points of emphasis for the writers of the two accounts. The writer of 2 Samuel (most likely the prophets Nathan or Gad) wanted to emphasize God’s sovereign control over the events of the nation of Israel. At the time of the writing, shortly after the end of David’s reign, the kingdom was going through a transition period. The Israelites, like us in the 21st century, needed to be reminded to trust God.

The writer of the 1 Chronicles account (most likely Ezra) was concerned with pointing out to God’s people Satan’s desire to destroy them and what happens when God’s people steer into Satan’s plotting. The book was written after the remnant had returned to Jerusalem and were rebuilding the city and the temple. The surrounding people groups were not happy with the return and rebuilding, and Satan was using them to harass and be a stumbling block to the rebuilding project. Shamefully, some of the returned Israelites were buying what the agents of Satan were selling, so to speak. Those Israelites, like us in the 21st century, needed to be reminded of how badly things go when you give in to Satan.

With those differing, yet theologically related, points of emphasis in mind, the apparent contradiction between the two passages can be better dealt with. Thankfully, the Bible provides a narrative and, more importantly, a theological solution in the book of Job.

The book of Job begins with Satan approaching God and asking for permission to afflict God’s servant Job. God allows Satan to persecute Job with the only limitation being that Satan can’t kill Job. After Job suffers immensely, three friends show up. Throughout much of the book, the three friends and Job debate Job’s response to God’s actions. Note, they attribute Job’s suffering to God. Well, when God makes His appearance known in chapter 38, He never once says, “Satan did it, not me.” Throughout His correction of His servant Job, God never allows Job any room to think that God wasn’t sovereignly controlling the awful circumstances.

When the reader channels the different points of emphasis in 2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles through the rubric of Job’s narrative, the explanation for the apparent contradiction should be the result. God is sovereign over everything, yet He sovereignly uses means to accomplish His will. It’s not a contradiction for the writer of 1 Chronicles to say that Satan incited David and for the writer of 2 Samuel to say that God incited David.

Once again, by no means am I operating under the assumption that I’ve cleared up everyone’s skepticism and doubts. However, I urge you to not fall into the trap of simply asserting that the Bible has contradictions. Remember, contradictions are problems to be solved. There are many great resources available to help you work through the apparent contradictions. Two that I recommend among the myriad of available resources are The Historical Reliability of the Gospels by Craig L. Blomberg and the Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties.