Coping With Contradictions

When I asked about alleged contradictions in the Bible, Geisler leaned back in his chair and smiled. It was an issue he had spent a lifetime studying.

"I've made a hobby of collecting alleged discrepancies, inaccuracies, and conflicting statements in the Bible," he said. "I have a list of about eight hundred of them. A few years ago I coauthored a book called When Critics Ask, which devotes nearly six hundred pages to setting the record straight. 36 All I can tell you is that in my experience when critics raise these objections, they invariably violate one of seventeen principles for interpreting Scripture."

"What are those?" I asked.

"For example, assuming the unexplained is unexplainable. I'm sure some sharp critic could say to me, 'What about this issue?' and even though I've done a forty-year study of these things, I wouldn't be able to answer him. What does that prove-that the Bible has an error or Geisler is ignorant? I'd give the benefit of the doubt to the Bible, because of the eight hundred allegations I've studied, I haven't found one single error in the Bible, but I've found a lot of errors by the critics."

I cocked my head. "Is that really reasonable, though, to give the Bible the benefit of the doubt?"

"Yes, it is," he insisted. "When a scientist comes upon an anomaly in nature, does he give up science? When our space probe found braided rings around Jupiter, this was contrary to all scientific explanations. So do you remember when all the NASA scientists resigned because they couldn't explain it?"

I laughed. "Of course not," I said.

"Exactly. They didn't give up. They said, 'Ah, there must be an explanation,' and they continued to study. I approach the Bible the same way. It has proven over and over to be accurate, even when I initially thought it wasn't. Why shouldn't I give it the benefit of the doubt now? We need to approach the Bible the way an American is treated in court: presumed innocent until proven guilty.

"Critics do the opposite. They denied the Hittites of the Old Testament ever existed. Now archaeologists have found the Hittite library. Critics say, 'Well, I guess the Bible was right in that verse, but I don't accept the rest.' Wait a minute-when it has been proven to be accurate over and over again in hundreds of details, the burden of proof is on the critic, not on the Bible."

I asked Geisler to briefly describe some of the other principles for resolving apparent conflicts in Scripture.

"For example," he said, "failing to understand the context of the passage. This is the most common mistake critics make. Taking words out of context, you can even cause the Bible to prove there's no God. After all, Psalm 14:1 comes right out and says it: 'There is no God.' But, of course, in context it says, The fool says in his heart, 'There is no God.' Therefore, context is critically important, and most often critics are guilty of wrenching verses out of context to create an alleged discrepancy when there isn't one.

"Another mistake is assuming a partial report is a false report. Matthew reports that Peter said to Jesus, 'You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.' Mark said, 'You are the Christ.' Luke said, 'The Christ of God.'37 Critics say, 'See? Error!' I say, 'Where's the error?' Matthew didn't say, 'You aren't the Christ' and Mark said, 'You are.' Matthew gave more. That's not an error; those are complementary.

"Other mistakes include neglecting to interpret difficult passages in light of clear ones; basing a teaching on an obscure passage; forgetting that the Bible uses non technical, everyday language; failing to remember the Bible uses different literary devices; and forgetting that the Bible is a human book with human characteristics."

"Humans make mistakes," I said. "If it's a human book, aren't errors inevitable?"

"Except for, say, the Ten Commandments, the Bible wasn't dictated," Geisler replied. "The writers weren't secretaries to the Holy Spirit. Sometimes they used human sources or used different literary styles or wrote from different perspectives or emphasized different interests or revealed human thought patterns and emotions. There's no problem with that. But like Christ, the Bible is totally human, yet without error."

"However," I interjected, "people bring up alleged contradictions all the time."

"Like what, for example?" he responded. "What are the most common you hear?"

I thought for a moment. "Matthew says there was one angel at Jesus' tomb; John says there were two. The gospels say Judas hung himself; Acts says his bowels gushed out."

"You're right; those are frequently cited," he replied. "But they're easily reconciled. Concerning the angels, have you ever noticed that whenever you have two of any thing, you also have one? It never fails. Matthew didn't say there was only one. John was providing more detail by saying there were two.

"As for Judas' suicide, you hang yourself in a tree or over the edge of a cliff. It was against the law to touch a dead body in those days. So somebody came along later, found his body, cut the rope, and the bloated body fell onto the rocks. What happens? The bowels gush out, just as the Bible says. They're not contradictory, they're complementary."

All in all, I had to admit that Geisler was on track. I remember as an atheist peppering ill-prepared Christians with a flurry of apparent biblical contradictions and discrepancies. They would get flustered and embarrassed because they couldn't answer them, and I'd walk away feeling smug and self-satisfied.

But because they weren't able to answer them didn't mean there weren't answers. As with the troubling passages about the Canaanites and Elisha, the more I delved into the historical evidence and subjected the issues to scrutiny, the more they tended to fade away as objections.

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