Does the Bible Contain Errors and Contradictions?

Title: Does the Bible Contain Errors and Contradictions?

Text: 2 Peter 1:20-21, 2 Timothy 3:16, Matthew 4:4

Date: July 19th, 2009

 

I’ll be talking about the Bible for the next few weeks by asking and then answering a few common questions that people raise about the Bible. For nearly two thousands years of Christian church history it was assumed that the Bible is completely reliable and true. Even during the time of the biggest schism in the church – the Reformation – both sides agreed that the Bible was totally true and free from all errors. But starting roughly a couple hundred years ago during the time of the Enlightenment, people began to question more and more the accuracy of the Bible. Today, as a result of the Enlightenment and modern secular skepticism, most people, sadly, doubt the reliability and truthfulness of the Bible. We even find this unbelief in parts of the Christian church, within denominational structures and local churches, as well as church institutions such as colleges, seminaries, and publishing houses. It is commonly accepted and widely assumed that the Bible contains many errors and contradictions, so much so that it can’t be totally relied upon to give us the whole truth. Many people read the Bible for inspirational value, but also refuse to interpret it literally because they feel that it can be wrong in places. Still others do read the Bible for more than just inspiration – they really do read it for instruction in spiritual and moral matters – but outside of these two strictly religious areas they have their doubts as to its reliability to present an accurate picture of reality. For example, in areas of science, history, and psychology, some people may feel the Bible contains errors and contradictions because it was written by ancient people limited as they were to the knowledge of their times. So we see a lot of skepticism today concerning the Bible’s main claim to being the Word of God. This skepticism as to the Bible’s truthfulness in all matters leads to a hesitancy by most people to trust in it completely with their lives. And we see this tragic result reflected in the life of the average Christian whose life is very often no different than the people of the surrounding culture. This lack of conviction concerning the truthfulness of the Bible effectively negates any form of discipleship in the church – which explains why Christianity is a mile wide but only an inch deep in our culture today. There will be no revival or renewal of Christianity here or anywhere unless the Bible is given its rightful place of authority in Christians’ lives; and that won’t happen until its truthfulness and trustworthiness is restored. I hope to make a small contribution in that direction this morning by showing how alleged errors and supposed contradictions all fail to demonstrate any real errors or contradictions in the Bible. I hope to show that we can rely totally on the Bible to teach us the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Let me say a couple things on this topic.

 

First, There are no real errors in the Bible. 2 Peter 1:20-21, “Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” We find this passage in the New Testament writings of the Apostle Peter, who wanted to remind Christians that the word of Scripture, the Word of God, the Bible, is not a product of merely human inspiration, say, the way someone is inspired to write poetry or some epoch novel or some great work of literary genius. No. The prophets, or those to whom the Word of God came, wrote as they were supernaturally and specially inspired by God. Now if the Bible were a product of normal human inspiration, the way artists for example are inspired, then we could and should expect there to be errors and imperfections in the end product, because after all, as they say, “To err is human.” And I think if we were to examine even the best inspired artists of history, take for instance the famous sculptor Michelangelo, we would find slight errors and imperfections even in some of his most famous works such as the Pieta, the sculpture of Mary and Jesus. That’s because he operated under human inspiration. Yes, it was high-level artistic inspiration, but it was still only human. But the Bible is something entirely different because it rises above mere human inspiration; it was created through divine inspiration, which is the highest level possible. “For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” The Bible is a collection of prophetic writings created by men who were inspired by God. They were “carried along” by the very Spirit of God to write the very Words of God, yet employing their own personalities, vocabulary and styles. We can now see how the Bible can have no errors – it is inspired by God. If it were merely inspired at a human level, then it could contain errors and mistakes, but because it is inspired by God at the divine level it can’t contain anything untrue. I should mention one qualification: the Bible is free from errors in what it teaches. For example, in Psalm 14:1, these words are quoted from the mouth of a fool, “There is no God.” Obviously, the Bible doesn’t teach that there is no God, but only records what a fool says. So then, whatever the Bible teaches we can know that it is true because it is inspired by God as revelation to us. If we were to try to argue that the Bible could still be inspired by God and at the same time contain errors and mistakes and untruths, then we’d have to say that God inspired these falsehoods also, which would be impossible — “Let God be true and every man a liar,” Romans 3:4. God could not and would not lie. So we don’t have to worry about there being any errors or mistakes in the Bible; God wouldn’t have allowed that.

 

Now let me give an example of an alleged error in the Bible and how it really is not an error after closer examination. Most people who believe or state that the Bible contains many errors and mistakes usually don’t have any specific instances in mind – they are usually just repeating what they’ve heard someone else say. But sometimes there are genuine instances where a passage will contain an apparent error or mistake. Are these real cases of error or only apparent? According the claims of the Bible, it contains no errors or mistakes because it is the Word of God, but can that claim be supported by actual evidence? Yes. The closer we look at all alleged errors or mistakes found in the Bible the more we see that they are explainable. For example, some people think that the Bible is mistaken in Matthew 13:31-32 when it describes the mustard seed as the smallest of all seeds, “He (Jesus) told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.’” The problem is that modern science now knows that there are seeds smaller than the mustard seed. To some, this is an example that shows that the Bible contains errors and mistakes, since Jesus specifically says that the mustard seed is the smallest of seeds. Is this a genuine case of error found in the Bible? If so, then we wouldn’t be able to claim the Bible is totally trustworthy or reliable, since it may or may not be accurate depending on the specific teaching or passage. Is there no answer to this problem? Yes there is an answer. It’s not clear from the language of the passage in the original Greek whether Jesus is referring to all seeds anywhere in the world or just all the seeds known to the people of that area. It probably wasn’t the intent of Jesus to make a universal claim about every and all kinds of seeds in the entire world, but rather to make a point to the people of that time and place that the mustard seed was an example of one of the smallest seeds known in that area. He was speaking to specific people in a specific historical context, and it was probably his intent to speak in a relevant and understandable way to them. So then there wouldn’t be any error at all because it probably wasn’t Jesus’ intent to make a universal claim but only a general claim. So then there really isn’t any error involved in this passage. The truth is, most alleged errors and mistakes found in the Bible have already been effectively answered by Christian theologians throughout history. But it is interesting to read books such as The Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties by Gleason Archer, which show how so-called errors and mistakes can actually be explained intelligently. There are no real errors in the Bible; we can completely trust it.

 

Second, there are no real contradictions in the Bible. 2 Timothy 3:16, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” In addition to claiming that the Bible contains errors, some people also claim that the Bible contains contradictions as well. Now an error is different from a contradiction in that an error is a false statement, but a contradiction is a conflicting statement. I’ve shown the impossibility of the Bible containing outright errors, since it’s inspired by God and presumably God wouldn’t be in the business of inspiring error or falsehoods if he’s going to inspire at all. We would expect that if the Bible is the product of divine inspiration – that highest level of inspiration – that it would in fact be true inspiration. If it did in fact contain errors and mistakes it wouldn’t need divine inspiration for that, it could simply claim mere human inspiration and then errors would make perfectly good sense if found. But since the Bible claims for itself divine inspiration we can expect and in fact we do find that it contains no real errors of any kind. But what about contradictions? Does the Bible contradict itself? The same problem would apply to contradictions as it would errors – if the Bible is inspired by God would it, could it, contradict itself? Here again is a biblical passage that claims divine inspiration for the Bible: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” Some translations say, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God.” It’s the very same thing, only the New International Version translates the original Greek language of the New Testament more literally, “All Scripture is God-breathed,” which is basically the meaning of divine inspiration. So if the entire Bible is inspired by God or “God-breathed,” would it, could it, contain errors or contradictions? No. Again, that kind of thing would make sense of lower-level human inspiration, but it doesn’t make any sense of the higher-level divine inspiration. If God is going to inspire it makes sense he would inspire in a way that was true and consistent. He would not inspire error or contradiction. It would not be God’s intent to give us revelation of himself only to make it so difficult because of errors and contradictions that we couldn’t trust completely what he speaks. The passage claims that “all” of the Bible is given by inspiration of God, which means all of the books, all of the chapters, all of the sentences, and all of the words are given by inspiration of God. Theologians call this verbal plenary inspiration, meaning, divine inspiration that covers all the words of the Bible. This also makes sense in light of Matthew 4:4: “Jesus answered, ‘It is written: Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” It is every word, not just every idea that is inspired. And if this is the case, if every word of the Bible is inspired, then it cannot possibly contain any contradictions. We can trust the Bible to be free of any errors or contradictions. We can trust the Bible completely.

 

But let me give an example of an alleged contradiction and how it can be answered successfully. Matthew 27:5 says, “So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself.” But Acts 1:18 says, “With the reward he got for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out.” Critics have alleged that here we have a clear indication of a contradiction in the Bible. One version of Judas’ death says that he killed himself, another version says he fell and was killed. But on closer examination, it’s clear that there isn’t necessarily a contradiction at all. Now remember, a contradiction is “a situation in which inherent factors, actions or propositions are inconsistent or contrary to one another,” Merriam Webster’s Dictionary. For something to be a true contradiction it must also be describing the same thing in the same way at the same time at the same place – and one of the descriptions must be wrong. Now as we examine the different descriptions of how Judas died, we easily see that both descriptions could indeed be true. There is no logical contradiction involved. In the first instance, Matthew describes Judas as hanging himself, presumably with a rope from a tree limb. In the second instance, Luke in the Book of Acts describes Judas as falling headlong and his body bursting open and all his intestines spilled out. There is no obvious or inherent contradiction because both are true. If we attempt to reconstruct the scenario in the style of a CSI or Crime Scene Investigation we come up with this fuller description. Judas took rope with him to the property described in the Book of Acts and proceeded to hang himself from a tree overlooking a raven or canyon. It would make perfect sense to imagine Judas tying the rope to an overhanging limb and then simply stepping over the cliff of the precipice in order to hang himself. Then, either immediately or later, the rope broke or the limb broke, and he fell down into the raven and his body burst open just as the Book of Acts describes. There is no obvious contradiction. In fact, the above scenario makes perfect sense. Again, there are many instances of so-called contradictions allegedly found in the Bible which have similar explanations. The point is that we don’t have to doubt the Bible, instead we can fully trust it. It is inspired by God and is free from all errors and contradictions. This makes perfect sense because the Bible is the Word of God. It is given by God as revelation in order to lead and guide us into the truth. Why would it mix error with truth or contradict itself? That would only produce confusion not faith. Somehow or other we need to reach people with the good news that the Bible is a reliable and trustworthy guide for life. Even though most people are under the false impression that the Bible contains errors and contradictions, we need to bear witness to the fact that it can be trusted and should be trusted in all matters. I hope you’ve made the great discovery that you can trust God’s Word. I hope you read and study it always and apply its truths to your life.

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2 Responses to “Does the Bible Contain Errors and Contradictions?”

  1. Nev Randle Says:

    I have been reading your comments on gay christians and I’ve been confused about this subject for a while now. In the same passage of scripture that you quote from (i.e. Romans 1:24-32), homosexuality is listed with things like God-haters, evil, greed, murder and so on. On that basis, I can see why the church views homosexuality as a serious sin. In the same list in Romans however, and described by Paul as coming from a depraved mind, are such things as envy, strife, gossiping, being insolent, arrogance, boasting etc, which churches are often full of and which are often displayed by Christians without reproach.
    I just wonder if you would have taken the stance you have if Barack Obama had declared ‘arrogance-pride’ day. Or any sort of a ‘pride’ day (isn’t pride a sin?).
    Let me say that I am a heterosexual Christian who has been raised to believe that homosexuality is a sin. What I find difficult is the amount of focus placed on it by the church who then allow hurtfulo gossip to run rife, and church leaders to display arrogance.
    And by the way, does Romans 8:1 come into this debate?

    • jeffshort Says:

      Nev, thanks for your comments. you are corrent that homosexual sins are not the only kinds of sins, which is why paul lists it along side other sins. the problem today is that secular contemporary culture is trying redefine homosexual activity as normal, acceptable, even moral activity. that’s why biblical christians must repeat over and over again that it is not acceptable to God, that it in fact is sin. in stating that homosexual activity is sin, it comes across as emphasizing this one sin against other sins, but in order to make the point, that homosexual behavior is sin, we must continue to repeat ourselves even at the risk of being misunderstood. no, i wouldn’t want president obama to declare any kind of sin as a special “pride” month. i’m surprised that he would do so in the case of homosexuality. you are correct that the christian church has a lot of cleaning up to do within itself, for example, in respect to arrogance, materialism, pride, greed, etc. the church is guilty of being “blind” to its own sins in this respect. but that can’t be used as an excuse for being silent on other sins, such as abortion and homosexual activity. we need to understand the whole will of God and seek to walk in it, if we fail, we need to repent, recommit to the right path, and walk in it. thanks for your question.
      p.s. you mentioned Romans 8:1. this is speaking to christians, true christians. a real christian is no longer living in the sin of homosexuality, that is, as a continuous lifestyle or constant practice. why? because he/she has been set free from the power of that sin by the power of God. can a christian fall into that sin again? yes, that’s possible. they would need to repent and recommit themselves to God again, but they would never seek to justify their sins or argue that it isn’t sin at all. they would never seek to promote “gay pride” or legitimize what they know is wrong according to the bible. instead, they’d try to promote leading other out of that sinful lifestyle. when the apostle paul writes to converts to christianity, he always distinguished between what they were before Christ with what they are now in Christ. that’s what true conversion is.

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