The cross of Christ helps us reconcile what can seem to be contradictions in the Bible.
Critics of the Bible attempt to discredit the Bible with a variety of strategies. One of them is to ask, “How can you trust that God’s Word is faithful and unchanging if it contradicts itself?”
Contradictions in biblical accounts?
At first, some Christians might have this question themselves. For example, what do you do when 1 Samuel chapter 17 says that David killed Goliath but in some translations 2 Samuel chapter 21 says that Elhanan did? Another inconsistency appears when you see the lists of the return of the exiles in Ezra chapter 2 and Nehemiah chapter 7. The totals at the end of each list are identical, but if you look closely at the numbers within the families, there are notable differences. Aren’t these contradictions?
Apparent contradictions like these can be explained. 1 Chronicles chapter 20 says that Elhanan killed Goliath’s brother Lahmi. So why does 2 Samuel call him Goliath? There are multiple, plausible explanations. The Hebrew letters for the name Lahmi are identical to the letters found within the word “the Bethlehemite,” so a scribe may have inadvertently combined the two words into one as copies were made. Or, while it isn’t always wise to make definite connections with English word usage, Goliath is synonymous with large in English. If both Goliath and his brother were large enough to use a spear the size of a weaver’s rod, it wouldn’t seem out of place that their new champion might take on the same title, even if he was born with a different name.
Regarding the numbers of the families that returned from exile, while we have no certain explanation for the difference, there are many plausible ones. Perhaps the counts began at different ages. For example, the difference could be explained if one counted everyone over the age 18 and the other counted everyone over 20. Perhaps one counted everyone in the city limits of Jerusalem itself and the other of those in Jerusalem’s vicinity. Neither of these examples should give any cause to think that God contradicts himself in those various books.
Contradictions between testaments?
But what about broader accusations? Some argue that the God of the Old Testament, who caused the earth to swallow up whole families that rebelled against God or ordered Israel to eradicate nations, is clearly different from the God of the New Testament, who is love (1 John 4:8).
But this is an unfair characterization of the testaments. For example, Psalm 103:8 says, “The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love.” And 2 Thessalonians chapter 1 is a vivid example of God’s demand for justice against those who fight against him and his promise to inflict vengeance on them.
Perhaps the best example is from Exodus 34:6,7, when God reveals his name, the LORD, and what it means: God is gracious, compassionate, abounding in love, and yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished. God’s justice and his love are found throughout both testaments. This is how God reveals himself throughout the Bible.
Contradictions in the Bible’s core teaching?
And yet even if the two testaments don’t contradict themselves, don’t his justice and love seem contradictory? Throughout Scripture, God announces the severe consequences that come to everyone who sins. Paul says, “In this way death came to all people, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). This same judgment is rendered on every single person because all have broken God’s law. “There is no one righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10). And yet right alongside this condemnation of all the world, God proclaims love, forgiveness, and life to all people. “Just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people” (Romans 5:18). Declarations of both death and life. There can’t be any stronger contradictions than that, can there?
Martin Luther wrote in his commentary on Galatians, “These two things are quite contrary: to wit, that a Christian is righteous and beloved of God, and yet notwithstanding he is a sinner. For God cannot deny his own nature: that is, he must indeed hate sin and sinners; and this he does of necessity, for otherwise he should be unrighteous and love sin. How then can these two contradictories stand together: I am a sinner, and most worthy of God’s wrath and indignation; and yet the Father loves me?”
Think about how these two teachings even affect how one might view the characteristics of God. God is omniscient and omnipresent. He sees everything, knows everything, and is everywhere. In times of trouble, God is there, and he sees. He knows your struggles. What
a comfort! But in your private moments when temptation comes and your weakness gives in or your nerves are stressed and your temper runs short, God is there, and he sees. He knows your struggles. What a terror!
The law and gospel seem to be the greatest of the contradictions in Scripture, but in reality, they are not.
So, does the Bible contradict itself in the core of its teaching—law and gospel? If not, how do you answer these two different messages when they intersect?
You see the cross.
Luther, when writing about these two contradictions, said, “Here nothing comes between, but only Christ the mediator.”
When you look at Jesus you can’t help but see God abounding in love. God is compassionate and gracious, just as he said. How can Jesus be willing to endure all that for you? When you turn away from God in your sin, shrink back from your confession in the face of opposition, or ignore his Word to follow your own will, how can Jesus be willing to die for someone like that? Because he is the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, who is slow to anger. But Jesus’ cross shows you even more. God does not leave the guilty unpunished because he can’t. He is a just God. But instead of punishing you, he punishes his only Son. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
So how should you respond to the accusations of the critics who claim the Bible contradicts itself? Every apparent contradiction about numbers or names all have reasonable explanations about why God may have chosen to communicate history accurately and yet revealed it in various ways in different instances. So when you are asked these types of questions, provide possible explanations but then seize the opportunity to demonstrate how God reconciles the central messages of Scripture. The law and gospel seem to be the greatest of the contradictions in Scripture, but in reality, they are not. Instead, they are the demonstration of God’s saving plan that points to one intersection—the cross of Christ. There we see the grace, love, and justice of God intersect where God meets with mankind—Jesus Christ, your Savior.
Author: Nicolas C. Schmoller
Volume 108, Number 8
Issue: August 2021