I typically do not write about alleged Bible contradictions because there are more interesting things to talk about. There is also the fact that on many atheist blogs, anything that could pass as a contradiction at first glance will make the big list, and to try to respond to all of them would a herculean task. However, I am afraid it is largely a wasted effort, because there are other models of biblical inspiration that are perfectly compatible with Christianity. Some evangelical, orthodox Christians think that there are or could be errors in the Bible because its purpose was not to teach these background details. Having said that, I am assessing a few really lame alleged Bible contradictions because they were rolling around in my mind, and I hear them regurgitated often enough that I wanted to write about it.
It was actually the reference to bats as birds that inspired this article. But I thought that with just that one contradiction, it might be a little too short. So I did a little more research and found absolutely baffling commentary about why some of these were contradictions. While there are some contradictions that really make you stop and think, I have never actually heard any of them come out of the atheist blogosphere, so I did not want to write about it. I thought I would address a few really lame popular level contradictions.
Bats Are Birds?
In Leviticus 11:13-19, the Torah refers to bats as birds. This would not really be an internal contradiction as much as it would contradict what we know about the modern world. However, the authors of the Bible were not operating with modern taxonomical classifications. The reason that we do not regard bats as birds is because we have developed a method of classifying animals. In the ancient near east, they did not operate with that same classification. You might criticize their method of classification for being less useful than ours, but you could not call it an error.
For the skeptic to object that the Bible does not use modern taxonomy is sort of like objecting that Australians drive on the left side of the road. It is like saying that the authors of the Bible should have referred to the fourth month as April because we now know that is what it is. Taxonomical classifications are useful, but I do not know that it makes much sense to apply it to the ancient world to correct ancient writers. They were not using that system.
Another point worth raising is that the author is not teaching taxonomy. He is making a theological point, and the classification of animals is far outside of his scope. It is a colloquial usage. Also, some have argued that the Bible is not overly interested in relaying scientific truths. On this model, God had no interest in correcting ancient near eastern cosmology. He was willing to condescend to it for practical purposes. The teaching here is theological, not scientific, and to impose scientific standards on a colloquial usage seems inappropriate.
The Chariots of Iron
The chariots of iron have become a favorite for atheists such as Matt Dillahunty, even naming his wiki iron chariots. The relevant text is in Judges 1:19. It reads, “Now the LORD was with Judah, and they took possession of the hill country; but could not drive out the inhabitants of the valley because they had iron chariots.” Yet there are other passages that explicitly say that God is omnipotent.
But I do not find this as troubling as Mr. Dillahunty does. God often operates confluently with man. For example, in the inspiration of Scripture, we believe that the man is writing exactly what he believes and is thinking. He is not overtaken by some force that compels him to write words against his will. He is actually writing what he thinks. Yet it is also the word of God. Similarly, when the text says that God is with Judah, it does not mean that Judah is God. It means that God is operating confluently with Judah. If it were just God opposing the iron chariots, then he would prevail. But given the confluency, he cooperates with natural circumstances.
Another point to consider is that God’s being with Judah does not mean that Judah will exercise optimal military actions. But their military goals will be accomplished, and they were. Judah wanted the land. The inhabitants resisted them, but they still seized the land. That was their military goal. So considering these two points: confluency and military goals, I do not think that Judges 1:19 conflicts with omnipotence.
The Unforgivable Sin
The unforgivable sin has actually caused a lot of distress among atheists. I have read several blogposts from atheists citing it as a major stumbling block before their deconversion. They would live in anxiety about whether they had or would commit the unforgivable sin. This blogger says that he agonized over this verse, petrified that he would say something negative about the Holy Spirit. One account of this verse is in Matthew 12:32, which reads, “Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come.” In context, Jesus is rebuking pharisees for calling his work, done by the power of the Holy Spirit, demonic.
But if there is this unforgivable sin, how do we reconcile it with verses such as Romans 10:13, which says “For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Well, at a surface level, these verses are not explicitly in conflict. It could just be that nobody who commits the unforgivable sin will ever call upon the name of the Lord. However, I can understand how this apparent conflict would raise some eyebrows. It needs to be understood within the larger context of Jesus’s message and the plan of salvation.
Jesus died for the sins of his people. Anybody who puts their trust in him will be saved. On the other hand, those who deny the power of God in the Son will not be saved. In the historical context, that manifested as blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. In other contexts, it could manifest as apostasy. So the unforgivable sin is to refuse to recognize the Holy Spirit’s work in Christ and persist in that unto death. Jesus was not saying that his accusers could not be forgiven. He was saying that if they continued on that path, they would not be forgiven. William Lane Craig called this a meta-level sin.
So on the surface, I do not think there is anything contradictory about these verses because it could just be that those who commit the unforgivable sin will never turn to God in faith. Second, when we understand this passage in the larger context, the alleged contradiction seems to dissolve completely.
No Man Has Seen God At Any Time
I chose this one because anybody who cites it as an internal contradiction would have very little understanding of Christian theology. I found a few perpetrators, but the most interesting was The Thinking Atheist. In Genesis 32:30, Jacob says that he has seen God “face to face.” Yet there are other verses which says “Nobody has seen God at any time.”
The one that I want to focus on is John 1:18. The Thinking Atheist’s commentary was startlingly oblivious to the immediate context. Of this verse, he writes, “John the Baptist was denying to the Jews of Jerusalem that he was the Christ.” That was certainly what happened in verses 19-27, but verse 18 has a completely different context. John 1:1-18 is his prologue about Christ. John the Elder (not the Baptist) is talking, and referring to the incarnation. While the Thinking Atheist did not cite the whole verse, it would have been beneficial. He writes, “No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.” Nobody has seen God, yet Jesus is the “only begotten God” and he is seen.
This is one of the foundational texts for trinitarian theology. John was echoing the old contradiction throughout the Old Testament that the Thinking Atheist cited. Some verses say that God cannot be seen while others actually have people seeing God. Based on this and several other passages (in the linked article), a tradition in the ancient near east formed that maintained that there were two powers in heaven.
The incarnation vindicated this position in the revelation of the Son. With the incarnation and the testimony of the New Testament, it is clear that there is one God who is eternally present in three persons. Regarding this contradiction, nobody has seen God the Father, but they have seen the Son, who was made man. I have to say, the Thinking Atheist’s misapplication of John 1:18 (thinking that John the Baptist was speaking) is one of the worst exegetical blunders I have seen on the atheist blogosphere. He literally only read half of a verse and made the application.
Any Non-Contradictory Contradiction
When atheists appeal to an internal contradiction, they are suggesting that if true, there would be a violation of the law of non-contradiction. Two conflicting claims cannot be true at the same time and in the same way. If two claims were not directly conflicting, there would not be a contradiction. Yet this sort of alleged contradiction typically take up the bulk of these lists.
Let’s return to The Thinking Atheist. Further down on his list, he cited the parallel accounts of Jesus on the road to Jericho (Mark 10:46-47 and Matthew 20:29). In one account, the text says that Jesus healed two blind men. In the other, it says that he healed one. But this is not actually a contradiction. Healing two blind men entails that he healed one blind man. It is just a difference of emphasis in the author’s stories.
There are several other alleged contradictions that take this form. The angels at the tomb of Jesus, the story of Simon of Cyrene carrying the cross, and pretty much anything that relies on omission of details rather than conflicting details. You might be able to raise a different sort of objection, like “Could the authors be inspired if they omitted different details?” but you could not say that it is a contradiction.
Similarly, a paraphrase is not a contradiction. Jesus probably spoke in Aramaic, and there are only a few phrases that are actually translated into the language. So the disciples were not concerned about his exact words. They were only concerned about the propositional content of his words. That should not surprise us, because colloquially, we do the same thing. If you were going to summarize this article, you might say, “He said that the contradictions are fake.” That would be true, but I never used the word “fake.” It would still capture the propositional content of what I am saying. So paraphrases and omitted details are not contradictions.
Assessing A Few Really Lame Alleged Bible Contradictions
As I said, I think there are some contradictions that seem challenging. Most of them have been pointed out by theologians and they are based on a deeper reading of the text. I do not think that you can read half of a verse (like The Thinking Atheist) and think that you understand the context.
A rule of thumb to pointing out contradictory elements of a text is to try to understand what the author is saying. If you are actively looking for contradictions, then anything, even half of a verse, will suit your needs. Second, we should give authors the benefit of the doubt. That principle does not only apply to authors of the Bible. If I were reading something that you said, I would assume that you were rational enough to not contradict yourself within a few paragraphs. Give the text a fair hearing, or you are likely to embarrass yourself when somebody starts examining one of these big lists.