This may be your question, or the question of someone you know. It’s a good question to ask: how can you trust the Bible when it contains so many contradictions? However, the question automatically assumes that there are many contradictions in the Bible, and that the Bible isn’t reliable. And so actually before going further, it’s worth asking these three questions.
Three Necessary Questions, First
a. Could You Be More Specific?
It’s one thing to say “the Bible is full of contradictions!” It’s another thing to actually deal with specific examples. So, ask yourself or the questioner: what specific contradictions are you thinking about? Instead of making a massive generalisation, or perpetuating a second or third-hand myth, examine particular passages or ideas.
b. Are You Willing to Be Humble?
Countless everyday people trust the Bible as God’s gracious word to us.
The Bible has shaped the world like no other book in the history of humanity. We need only consider the works of the missiologist Lamin Sanneh, or the philosopher Vishal Mangalwadi, or the historian Tom Holland. Beyond that, countless everyday people with their heads screwed on straight trust the Bible as God’s gracious word to us. And so, the second question asks: are you willing to humbly consider that maybe there are explanations for any supposed contradictions, and that this ancient book may be on to something?
c. Will You Read and Study the Bible for Yourself?
It’s one thing to read a few status updates, tweets, or blog posts that raise this kind of blanket statement against the Bible and its apparent contradictions. It’s another thing to sit down and put proper time and reflection into it. So, have you bothered to read and study the Bible properly for yourself? Have you asked someone who already knows the Bible for help in how to read it?
If you’re willing to engage with those three questions above then it’s clear you really are willing to engage with this overall question. And so now, let’s examine the charge that the Bible is full of contradictions. Four points here.
1. No One is Saying that the Bible is Always Easy to Understand
The apostle Peter says this about the apostle Paul: “Also, regard the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our dear brother Paul has written to you according to the wisdom given to him. He speaks about these things in all his letters. There are some things hard to understand in them. The untaught and unstable will twist them to their own destruction, as they also do with the rest of the scriptures” (2 Peter 3:15-16).
Some parts of the scriptures are easy to understand. But not all of them.
Even the fact that the Bible is made up of not just one genre but several makes reading the scriptures tricky at times. Historical narrative is not the same as poetry. Law isn’t the same as prophecy. Nor are epistles (or letters) the same as a parable. Some parts of the scriptures are easy to understand. But not all of them. There is an incredible depth to the scriptures which means you can spend decades mining for gold, and always find more—with difficulties to wrestle with along the way.
And, of course, part of the difficulty for us isn’t simply in understanding the scriptures, but in obeying or wanting to obey. In other words, our propensity to not love God and what he is saying often means we complicate the scriptures more than we should.
2. Tensions are Not Necessarily the Same as Contradictions
The Bible is full of tensions.
The tensions encourage humility, and discernment, and dependence on God and others.
Paul says that no one is saved by works but only by faith (Ephesians 2:8-9), and then James says without works no one can be saved (James 2:14-17). That’s not a contradiction but a tension. The Bible is clear that there is one God (Deuteronomy 6:4), but that he has revealed himself in three persons (Matthew 3:16-17). That’s not a contradiction but a tension. People are valuable as image-bearers (Genesis 1:26), but are also deeply sinful as rebels (Romans 3:23). Again, that’s not a contradiction but a tension. Christians are saved from sin (1 John 4:10), but still struggle with sin (1 John 1:8). Not a contradiction, but a tension. The kingdom is now, yet still to be perfected. That’s not a contradiction but a tension. The Bible is full of tensions, many of them richly beautiful.
Life too, and especially the Christian life, is full of tensions. Even as we can know things and God fully, none of us know as fully as God knows. The tensions encourage humility, and discernment, and dependence on God and others. And perhaps most of all they remind us that there is an End drawing near where everything and everyone will be laid bare, and all things will be perfectly set right under the good God.
Tensions are not necessarily the same as contradictions. That’s helpful to realise.
3. The Immediate Context of a Passage Matters
When we speak, there’s background and a set of circumstances that help people to make sense of our words. Or at the very least, the sentences before or after certain things we say. All of that is what we call “the context.” Looking at that context helps people make sense of particular sentences or phrases. But without it, well, you could twist or misunderstand a sentence or idea in multiple ways.
Think about it like this: after a long conversation with someone, would you like it if they just randomly took one thing you said and simply repeated it, with no context, to someone else?
Often the supposed contradictions exist because we haven’t looked at the context of the passage.
So why do we think it’s okay to basically do the same thing with verses and ideas from the Bible, ignoring even just the immediate context? Often the supposed contradictions exist because someone hasn’t looked at the immediate context of the passage. Some of us might be practising laziness. Others of us might just be looking for any excuse to mislabel and dismiss the Bible as “full of contradictions.”
4. The Larger Storyline of the Bible Frequently Brings Clarity
Just as we want to examine the immediate context, so we also need to make sure we understand that the Bible is one big book running from Genesis (the first book of the Bible) through to Revelation (the last). And sometimes our difficulties with the Bible come because we don’t understand that there’s a single storyline running through the entire Bible—in other words, a far larger context.
Most of us, even in countries and places professing to be majority Christian, are surrounded by functional biblical illiteracy. We might know a dozen of our favourite verses, but we don’t really grasp the Bible as a whole. So, when we just pluck out a verse or passage saying “Oh that doesn’t make sense! The Bible is full of contradictions,” that’s a little like walking in on your friends watching a 4-hour movie you’ve never heard about, but you hear one random line and you go: “Huh! – what a stupid movie!”
There are other points and issues to raise. But none of them detract from the central message about Jesus.
And actually, to help you navigate the greater story of the Bible, let me give you the single biggest key to unlocking the Bible. It’s this: the Bible is first and foremost about Jesus (Luke 24:27, 44). Yes, there are difficult passages in the Bible. Yes, there are other points and issues to raise. But none of them detract from the central message about Jesus. The Bible is utterly holy in that sense— set apart to achieve God’s purposes of making salvation in Jesus known to us. And encouraging us to grapple with our response to this Jesus of Nazareth.
The Bible is Remarkable
To my knowledge, there is no other book like it in the world.
Compiled over three continents and 1500 years, it contains 66 different books written by over 40 different authors. To my knowledge, there is no other book like it in the world. Many people want to harp on about issues with the Bible, but perhaps it would be good to remember the utterly remarkable nature and consistency of this book!