Difficulties and apparent contradictions in the Bible

Bible difficulties Men regularly sound their protestations against the reliability of Scripture simply because they do not grasp its meaning or because of lack of light on the passage in question. They point the finger to a host of events or personages in the Bible which, they claim, are erroneous. But it always turns out that the Bible is vindicated.

From the Old Testament

For instance, the critics of the Bible were in error when they claimed that the Battle of the Kings in Genesis 14 could not have taken place.

Higher critics claimed that the battle of the five kings against four in Genesis 14 must be fictional; such an event was not possible.

But Wilson and other scholars have now proved that such skirmishes as described in this chapter were quite common two millennia before the birth of Christ, i.e., around the time of Abraham in Canaan. Here, the biblical events are expressly co-coordinated with external history. The whole chapter, like the rest of Genesis, has a character and the stamp of great antiquity.

Critics used to regard it as a late document, an opinion now rarely held in the light of growing archaeological knowledge. Some of its words and topographical details "carry us directly back into the Middle Bronze Age," (W.F. Albright, The Archaeology of Palestine, Pelican, 1949, p.236).

Upon face value, the Bible can easily be criticised, and this happens all the time by those who are adverse; but time, research in secular documents and archaeology, and other factors generally give an adequate answer to the opponents' criticisms. This is a case in point.

From the New Testament

Another bone of contention between Bible-believers and Bible-critics is in respect of the decree of Caesar Augustus.

This case, as recorded in Luke 2, is a New Testament equivalent of mud-throwing.

When we don't have enough information it is only wise and discreet to wait until further light is brought to bear. If a Bible text seems difficult for us and even contradictory to present data (which may be calls "facts," whereas it would be false), then we are not to assume that the Bible is wrong. The Bible claims to be inspired and correct in all things; secular history and documentation does not. It is only proper to give the Bible the benefit of the doubt, and wait upon the Lord to show us more light in the future. Bible study is continuously on the move; it's an ongoing process.

Now the main point of controversy in the above-mentioned case is the argument that Cyrenius was not the governor of Syria, until nine years after the death of Herod, whereas Luke places the governorship of Cyrenius and the kingship of Herod together. We have a serious date problem.

But it is not irresolvable. First of all everybody admits that our calendar is mistaken by some 4-6 years or even more. In addition it must be noted that an inscription in Antioch has been discovered showing Cyrenius as being in that city and holding the office of chief magistrate in the year 8 BC. It is not also known that the said census us to take place every 14 years. Apparently Cyrenius was governor of Syria twice: from 4 BC to AD 1, when this census was taken, and again in AD 6.

In considering all this it is not unreasonable to accept Luke's testimony, all the more knowing his introductory confession how he researched from the source all things before committing them to writing.

Apparent contradictions

1. In Genesis 22:2 we are told that Abraham had only one son, Isaac, whereas in Genesis 25:6 we are told that he fathered several sons, including Ishmael.

The solution is both obvious and illuminating to the meaning of Scripture and the divine promise. Isaac, whom God described as “your only son,” was the only son Abraham had by his wife Sarah. More significantly than that, he was the only one in the line of promise, the theocratic line through which God perpetuated and re-affirmed his covenant promise.

The Lord also designated Isaac as Abraham’s only son because the latter loved him so much as he had hoped for him for twenty-five years since the time God intimated to him the first time that he would be the father of many nations.

In Hebrews 11:17 Isaac is described as Abraham’s monogenes, the only-begotten, that is Abraham’s unique son, like whom he had no other. For although Keturah bore him more children later on, it was through Isaac that the divine promise was kept. Isaac was born after the Spirit whereas the others, particularly Ishmael, were born after the flesh.

2. Did Absalom had three children or none?

The difficulty arises from a cursory reading of 2 Samuel 14:27 together with 18:18. The first passage reads: “And unto Absalom there were born three sons, and one daughter...” Then later on Absalom confesses: “I have no son to keep my name in remembrance...”

There is no contradiction at all. A factor that needs to be observed is that several years had elapsed and evidently his sons had died. This is similar to God’s pronouncement on all creation that it was good and well-pleasing to Him (Genesis 1:31), while later on in the same book (6:6) it is said that “it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart.” If we keep in mind that in the meantime the circumstances had changed, some 1,500 years had passed; sin had entered the world, creation was ruined and subjected to futility, and mankind had fallen, it is easily understandable why this new situation grieved God. There is no change in God; He is forever holy, and since He cannot look upon sin with approval, His displeasure is to be expected.

3. Did Jacob’s family consist of seventy or seventy-five persons when he went down to Egypt?

In Genesis 46:27 we read: “All the souls of the house of Jacob, which came into Egypt, were threescore and ten,” while according to Stephen’s testimony, “Then sent Joseph, and called his father Jacob to him, and all his kindred, threescore and fifteen souls” (Acts 7:14).

Which record is correct? Well, to ask such a question is naive. Presupposing, as every Christian does, the infallibility of the Scripture, we do not have to pick and choose; rather we need to realize how both accounts complement each other.

A solution may be as follows. Jacob’s children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren amounted to sixty-six (Genesis 46:8-26). If we add Jacob himself, and Joseph with his two sons, we reach the number seventy.

If, however, to the sixty-six we add the nine wives of Jacob’s sons (remembering that Judah’s and Simeon’s wives were dead), Joseph could not be said to call himself, his own wife, or his two sons into Egypt; and Jacob is specified separately by Stephen, we have a different (though not contradictory) enumeration, that is, seventy-five, as Stephen affirmed.

A similar case would be the different degrees given for boiling point for water, according to the Celsius and Fahrenheit system. Both tell the truth but the computation is different.

4. Did Christ accept a drink on the cross, or not?

Should we compare Matthew 27:34 with verse 48 of the same chapter, it becomes evident that Christ was twice offered to drink while hanging on the cross. “They gave him vinegar to drink, mingled with gall; and when he had tasted thereof, he would not drink.” - “And straightway one of them ran, and took a spunge, and filled it with vinegar, and put it on a reed, and gave him to drink.”

The difficulty is resolved this way: the first time, the wine, being drugged with bitter narcotics, the effect of which would be to stupefy the crucified, was refused by Jesus. Afterward, some drink free from drugs was given him, which he accepted, for he himself had cried out for it: “After this, Jesus, knowing that all things were new accomplished, that the scripture might be fulfilled, saith, I thirst...When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar...” (John 19:28,31).

The word rendered “vinegar” means simply a cheap brand of wine, such as was used by the poorer classes.

What one author mentions does not necessarily cover the whole series of events. He might legitimately mention one thing and disregard another (which might be mentioned by another author). Such are not contradictions: they give the fuller picture, taken together.

5. How did Judas Iscariot die? Two seemingly conflicting reports exist:

A. “And he cast down the pieces of silver in the temple, and departed, and went and hanged himself” (Matthew 27:5).

B. “And falling headlong, he burst asunder in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out” (Acts 1:18).

This is another instance of one statement finding place alongside another, not denying it or excluding it, but taken together.

It goes without saying that Matthew does not deny that Judas, after hanging himself, fell and burst asunder; on the other hand, Peter, who affirmed that Judas burst asunder, does not assert that Judas did not hang himself previous to his fall.

Putting the two accounts into perspective, it is natural and logical to conclude that Judas had suspended himself from a tree on the brink of a precipice overhanging a valley, and the limb or the rope gave way, he fell, and was mangled to death.

As it stands, Matthew gives one aspect of the affair (which was sufficient for his purpose), while Peter, to show the inglorious end of the traitor, gives another. And yet there is no contradiction between them.

6. Did Christ preach His sermon on a mountain or on a plain?

The evangelist Matthew reports: “And seeing the multitude, he went up into a mountain, and when he was set, his disciples came unto him” (5:1). What follows is a sermon the bulk of which is also given by Luke, who introduces the occasion thus: “And he came down with them, and stood in the plain....” (6:17,20).

A viable solution would be that Christ was simply repeating his instruction on a different date to a different audience in a different place. This is commonplace with all teachers, with pastors and catechists who often (when occasion arises) repeat substantially, though not verbatim, what they had spoken earlier.

Another feasible harmonization would be that the level place or the plain that Luke mentions refers to a hill with a flattened top, suitable for the collection of a multitude. Such hills, to be found in Palestine, could also have two peaks. The Horns of Hattin, which could be seen even today, are such. From the higher peak Christ could have come down, and stood upon the level place to address the people, but it would still be on the mountain.

All in all, though, the first solution is to be preferred; it is more probable, more natural and devoid of all difficulty.

7. Will this earth be destroyed, or is it indestructible?

Several passages indicate the indestructibleness of the world. For instance: “The earth which he hath established for ever” (Psalms 78:69). Again: “Who laid the foundation of the earth, that it should not be removed for ever” (Psalms 104:5).

On the other hand we are reminded of its transitoriness and its future end: “Of old hast thou laid the foundation of the earth: and the heavens are the work of thy hands. They shall perish, but thou shalt endure; yea, all of them shall wax old like a garment” (Psalms 102:25,26). And Christ Himself speaks unequivocally: “Heaven and earth shall pass away; but my words shall not pass away” (Luke 21:33).

It will be noted that the word olam, rendered “for ever,” does not necessarily imply the idea of absolute endlessness. In many instances it simply denotes a period of indefinite length, the end of which is hidden from man. So such texts do not inevitably teach the absolute perpetuity of the earth.

That the present world order will come to an end is more than apparent in Scripture. A comparison between the absolute eternity of God and the dependent existence of material objects brings this fact to light.

This great globe will be subjected to the action of fire, as Peter and the Apocalypse both describe in vivid language.

The biblical position is then as follows: the present form of the world will be radically changed at the last day, but the earth is spoken of as durable, implying the permanence of its constituent elements.

8. Did Elijah go to heaven, or not?

Our Lord’s testimony is such: “And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven” (John 3:13).

But formerly a biblical penman had recorded: “Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven” (2 Kings 2:11).

In the first quotation the Lord Jesus, who is superior to all human teachers because of his divinity, is setting forth his own supreme authority. He is substantially saying, No human being can speak from personal knowledge, as I do, who came down from heaven. He had first-hand knowledge of all truth, being Truth Himself. His point to Nicodemus is that nobody had ascended up to heaven to bring back tidings. No teacher before or after is able to do this: but He is unique. He came from heaven as the great and ultimate Prophet.

In the same way, when we speak of the secrets of the future world, we quite naturally say: “No man has been there to tell us about them.” Making such an affirmation does not imply, though, that nobody has yet entered the future world. We would be merely asserting that nobody had gone there and returned to unfold the mysteries yet hidden from our sight.

As soon as we understand Christ to mean such things, as explained, the apparent contradiction is immediately resolved.

9. Will future punishment of the wicked consist in continued misery or in the eventual end of consciousness?

There are passages that imply the extinction and end of lost souls. For instance: “They that forsake the Lord shall be consumed” (Isaiah 1:28). “The soul that sinneth, it shall die” (Ezekiel 18:20). And in the New Testament: “Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction” (2 Thessalonians 1:9). “The day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men” (2 Peter 3:7).

The everlasting misery and punishment of ungodly souls is referred to in other passages: “The same shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out without mixture into the cup of his indignation; and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb: and the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night” (Revelation 14:10-11). And the equally explicit Matthew 25:46: “And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.” The same adjective, ‘everlasting,’ describes the inheritance of the saints and the woe of the wicked.

The seeming difficulty is resolved once we realize that the first set of texts, while certainly teaching ruin, irremediable overthrow, do not necessarily imply annihilation or the cessation of existence. If a light-bulb is broken, it is lost forever, but it is still a (broken) light-bulb. Its perdition consists in not being able to function with the purpose for which it was produced.

Annihilationists interpret such texts rigidly by affirming that destruction and perdition and such terms necessarily picture the annihilation of the wicked. They say that death is extinction of being, soul and body. Their idea is imported into Scripture.

But, manifestly, death in Scripture is not equivalent to extinction. Its root idea is that of separation, and in the case of the wicked, that they are separated from the blessed God forever and ever.

Thus Scripture is consistent in teaching the non-ending misery of the lost.

10. Is man passive or active in regeneration?

Those who advocate synergism (God and man co-operating together in the new birth) point to such passages as these: “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiff-necked” (Deuteronomy 10:16). “Make you a clean heart and a new spirit: for why will ye die, O house of Israel” (Ezekiel 18:31) Other passages of similar import are Isaiah 1:16; Jeremiah 4:14; Zechariah 1:3; and Ephesians 5:14.

Those who teach monergism (God the Holy Spirit alone operative in regenerating man who is dead in trespasses and sins) point to another set of Scriptures, such as: “And the Lord will circumcise your heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love the Lord thy God with all thy heart” (Deuteronomy 30:6). And similarly in Ezekiel: “Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean; from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you” (36:25,26). The sole agency of God is manifest, as it appears also from Lamentations 5:21: “Turn thou us unto thee, and we shall be turned.” More passages may be adduced: Psalms 51:2; Ephesians 2:5,6,10.

As the Scripture clearly teaches the total depravity of man in all his faculties, including the will, which is inclined wholly to evil (in his unregenerate state), so that man cannot and is not willing to turn to God, the solution is found in studying the nature of the first set of quotations. God, in commanding “Make you a clean heart....” is not implying the ability and the free will of man; rather such passages teach us what is man’s duty (which he cannot perform, because of his inability and defilement inherited from Adam). God shows us our utter inability, and how impossible it is for us to circumcise the foreskin of our heart. What man can do is, at best, to circumcise the foreskin of his flesh. Being himself flesh, there his ability stops.

Augustine expressed it thus: “Give us what Thou commandest, and we will give it thee.” The prayer is similar to Jeremiah’s, when he confessed: “Convert us and we shall be converted.” Unless God, in His mercy and sovereignty turn us, we cannot turn, though we remain responsible to turn and accountable for all our actions.

If you still suspect that there are real contradictions in the Bible, why don’t you contact us and share your doubts with us?