Contradictions Within The Bible

Copyright © 2015 by Wil C. Fry. All Rights Reserved.

Published 2015.03.29, Updated 2017.08.02

This page is a subsection of my How I Came To Disbelieve The Bible page. The subject of contradictions grew too long and thus warranted its own page.

Because I grew up convinced that the Bible was literally true and inerrant, a degree of congitive dissonance was required to keep reading it. When I baldly stated “I believe everything in this book is true”, yet kept finding parts that didn’t agree with other parts, there is mental discomfort. There are many passages in the Bible that seem to contradict one another. Some of them aren’t really contradictions, as we shall see, but others actually are.

Please keep in mind that I was not sifting through the book looking for contradictions. I was studying to be a minister, reading the Bible daily for my own education, and these kept popping out at me.

OT God Versus NT God

One of the first contradictions that became apparent was in the descriptions of God, who seemingly changed somewhere between the ancient Hebrew text and the relatively new and enlightened Greek writings of the New Testament authors. One God was angry and fitful, undependable, merciless, hard-nosed. He kept changing his mind, and was susceptible to persuasion. He seemed more interested in the odor of burnt animals than in the behavior or motivation of his people. He encouraged the wandering tribes of Israel to commit genocide on several occasions, instead of having them teach other nations about the one true God. But in the New Testament, He’s apparently had a change of heart for the better. Now He is merciful (though the cruelty still shows through), wise, forgiving, loving.

Just to pull two passages at random (though they are representative), let’s look first at Genesis 6:5-8 and 8:20-21, and then I John 4:7-21:
“The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. So the Lord said, ‘I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created — and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground — for I regret that I have made them.’ But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord... [After the Great Flood:] Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it. The Lord smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: ‘Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.’ ”
“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.” (emphasis mine)
In the first passage, God changed his mind three times: once to regret that He’d ever created humanity and therefore should destroy it (Gen. 6:6), then again to allow Noah and his family to survive, and thirdly to regret having ever destroyed it and promising never to do it again — this last apparently brought on by the smell of animals set afire (Gen. 8:21). If I had read this in ancient times, it might not have seemed so strange, but I was in Oklahoma City in the 1980s, where burnt sacrifices were not common and God was not supposed to change his mind.

In the second passage, “there is no fear in love” because “fear has to do with punishment” — which seems exactly like what the OT God wanted. He wanted us to fear punishment, in fact commanded us to fear punishment. As I grew older, this dichotomy reminded me of parents who were overly strict and corporal with their first child, but then loosened up with the second child, leaning more on positive incentives and encouragement than on spankings or other physical discipline.

For a time, I accepted (and propagated) these explanations.
Don’t think that Christians haven’t noticed this. They have. Theologians and apologists long ago came up with a variety of explanations. One school of thought points to the various expressions of God’s “love” in the OT as well as descriptions of his wrath in the NT. “They’re not that different”, they’ll say. For a time, I accepted (and propagated) these explanations.

One thing no Christian will deny is that the rules changed from the OT to the NT. For example, we no longer have to offer burnt sacrifices — presumably because Christ was the ultimate sacrifice. And we no longer kill sinners by throwing stones at them. Where there’s great disagreement is on which Old Testament laws were dismissed by the New Testament. So, how do you decide which OT rules are still in force and which ones aren’t? For every preacher or theologian with an answer, you can find one with a different answer.

For example, some will insist the NT didn’t supercede the OT. They’ll quote Jesus as saying he hadn’t come to abolish the Law or Prophets, but to fulfill them. Others, however, will insist that Jesus’ death on the cross did away with the OT, and they’ll quote Colossians 2:13-14, especially in certain versions, which says Jesus “wiped out the written Law with its rules” (NIRV), and “The Law was against us. It opposed us. He took it away and nailed it to the cross.”

For me, the question was: “If God didn’t want us to follow all these OT laws, then (1) why give them in the first place? and (2) why included them in our “inerrant” scriptures?”

The smart thing to do in the NT would have been to make a short list of which rules were still in effect.
For humanity’s sake, it sure would have been easier for God to hand out the same rules/laws in the OT that he eventually changed them to in the NT. But even if there is some “mysterious ways” reason for God to have different rules for different times, the smart thing to do in the NT would have been to make a short list of which rules were still in effect. It could have even been in Jesus-spoken red letters: “No more burnt offerings, because Christ died for your sins. No more violent punishments for sins; just forgive people and move on. All those laws about cooking, hair-cutting, garment-making, not gathering wood on the Sabbath, etc.? Those are done. Basically, be nice to people.” And list a few specifics.

One other interesting tidbit, which I didn’t realize until later, is that the Old Testament is almost entirely silent on the subject of Heaven (Daniel 12:1-3 being one of a few major exceptions). Those who followed the Lord in those days expected to go to Sheol, somewhere in the belly of the Earth. Cobbling together a bunch of scriptures, it looks like Sheol (Hades, the Grave, etc.) was divided into compartments, one for sinners and one for the righteous. It wasn’t until much later that the concept of Heaven arose. Modern Christianity gets its depiction of Heaven mostly from the last couple of chapters of Revelation.

I learned to accept this apparent dissonance between the two testaments, just as I accepted other teachings that later made little sense to me. But as I later read passages from other religious writings — from outside Christianity, I discovered something startling: the Old Testament sounded just like other religions’ writings from the same time period, while the New Testament was written in language just like others of its time, and framed with different ideas than the old.

The God of the Old Testament seemed just like the ancient gods of other nearby cultures, demanding burnt offerings, going to war against neighborhing tribes, often acting capriciously and often unexplainable. The God of the New Testament resembled more modern thought, perhaps borrowed from the Greeks and Romans.

It seemed less and less like the completely whole book I’d been taught, and more like two collections of writings. Even within each testament, there were differences in not only style, but also in ways of thinking. If one unchanging God inspired every word, then why did it feel like several dozen men wrote it in vastly different time periods and circumstances and with varying beliefs?

God Is Seen/Heard/Felt Or Invisible Spirit?

The Bible is full of passages where people saw the Lord, touched him, heard him. Yet in other places, he cannot be seen, touched, or heard.

A few examples of the former: In Exodus 33, Moses demanded of God: “Now show me your glory.” God explained that no one could see his face and live, but allowed Moses to see his back (Exodus 33:20-23). Just a few verses earlier in the same chapter: “The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.” Nine chapters before that (Ex. 24:9-11), seventy-four people, including Moses, “saw the God of Israel” and even described the “pavement” that was “under his feet”.

In Gen. 3:8-10, Adam and Eve heard God “as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day” Later in Genesis (32:24-32), Jacob physically wrestled with “a man” who later admitted he was God. (Notably, “the man” was unable to beat Jacob in actual wrestling, and instead cheated by using his magical powers to injure Jacob’s hip.) In that instance, Jacob said he “saw God face to face”.

Job said he saw God with his eyes (Job 42:5). Jeremiah said “the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth” (Jer. 1:9).

But John 1:18 is very adamant that “No one has ever seen God”, and I Timothy 6:16 agrees “no one has seen or can see” God. God is also “invisible” (I Tim. 1:17).

These are outright contradictions.
These are outright contradictions and demonstrate how the idea of god had changed. God used to be something like a super-powerful, super-longlived human, who sometimes walked around like a person, talking and wrestling with folks and playing hide and seek, but later he was understood to be a completely different kind of being — something more philosophical, ethereal, spiritual.

The best explanation I ever heard for this is still pretty poor, and is based on the assumption that the Bible cannot be wrong: Since the Bible cannot be wrong, and it says no one has ever seen God and anyone who looks upon him will die, then no one has ever seen god and anyone who looks upon him will die. Period. Therefore, any time it says someone saw God, they were actually seeing a very toned-down version of a physical manifestation. In other words, they didn’t really see God.

This is weak tea, and they know it, because the Bible actually says these people saw God, but the audience for this explanation is primarily people who already believe. I always wondered why the explanation couldn’t work the other way: if the Bible is never wrong, and it says people saw God, then people saw God. It’s the later verses that must be explained; perhaps they meant no one has ever fully comprehended God.

God Grows Weary?

Isaiah 40:28 assures the reader that “the Lord is the everlasting God... He will not grow tired or weary...” But we all know the story of Creation, where God rested “from all his work” and “from all the work of creating that he had done” (Gen. 2:2-3). The Bible goes further (Ex. 31:17) and says that God was “refreshed” by his rest.

The only explanation I’ve seen is that the original Hebrew word for “rest” can also mean “to cease or stop”. So, apologists will say, God really didn’t rest; he just stopped. This, however, does not explain how he was “refreshed” by the rest.

It also brings up the question of various English translations of the Bible, almost all of which say “rested” instead of “ceased” (I found only three translations that chose the supposedly better word in Gen. 2:2-3). Who knows Hebrew better, us or the folks who translated the Bible into English? Also, didn’t God know ahead of time that few readers of the Bible would be reading it in the original manuscripts?

God Satisfied With His Works?

Genesis 1:31 depicts a God satisfied “with all that he had made”, but 6:6 says he “regretted” making humans and thus decided to kill all of them, and every plant and animal as well.

For us humans, it would not be contradiction. I can be satisfied today when I complete a project, and then regret it later, when I realize what I did wrong. But for an almighty God who knows the future, it is indeed a contradiction. To date, I have never seen a good explanation around this.

The explanation most often given is that God is reacting to human sinfulness: he gave us free will, and is saddened any time we use that free will to sin. Many seem to accept this, despite the answer itself raising more questions than it answers. God himself created the capacity and desire to sin, but is sad when people do it? God foreknew that humans would become exceedingly wicked within a few generations, but didn’t intervene until the only solution he could think of was to drown everyone? God was satisfied with all that he had made, despite knowing it would all fall apart very soon (exceedingly soon for a being who is eternal)?

And even if the “explanation” didn’t raise these other questions, it still doesn’t explain how God could be satisfied with all of creation and then later regret it, if he exists eternally and knows all things.

God Is Omnipresent & Omniscient?

Christian doctrine is pretty solid on this point: God knows everything, from the beginning of time until the end of time, and has always known it. And he is everywhere, at all times. There are countless scriptures to bear this out, including Proverbs 15:3 (“The eyes of the Lord are everywhere, keeping watch on the wicked and the good.”), Psalm 139:7-10 (describes how God is everywhere, in the heavens, in the depths, on the far side of the sea), and Job 34:21-22 (“His eyes are on the ways of mortals; he sees their every step. There is no deep shadow, no utter darkness, where evildoers can hide.”)

However, there are scriptures that indicate otherwise. In Gen. 3:8-9, Adam and Eve hid from God, and God asked where they were. Gen. 11:5 says God “came down to see” the city and tower that the people were building (Babel). In Gen. 18:20-21: “Then the Lord said, ‘The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.’”

The first one could be explained easily, that Adam and Eve only thought they were hiding from God; of course he knew where they were. The next one could simply be a figure of speech. But the last one is the Lord himself speaking, as if he has no idea what’s going on in Sodom and Gomorrah; just what he’s heard from complainants. “I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me” is not indicative of someone who knows exactly what’s going on, someone who has forever known that this would happen.

There is no way to explain it away.

God Is All-Powerful?

The Bible regularly repeats the refrain that God is all-powerful. As a couple of examples, take Jeremiah 32:27 and Matthew 19:26. There are many other such passages.

However, there are also passages which indicate strongly (without inline explanation) that God is not all-powerful. As previously mentioned, Jacob once wrestled with “a man” that turned out to be God. During that wrestling match, “the man saw that he could not overpower him”, and only won by magically causing a permanent hip injury. Afterward, the man (God) told Jacob: “you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.” I have only ever heard/read one explanation for this, which is that God must have chosen to not use his power. But this is not what the passage says. It says God could not — did not have the ability to — overpower Jacob. If it had meant he didn’t want to, it would have said would not or just flat-out “God was restraining himself” instead of giving the impression that God in human form was just a man.

Also relevant is the confusing story of Israel’s conquest of Canaan. In Genesis 17, God promises Abraham: “The whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you...” This promise is apparently fulfilled in Joshua 21:43:
“So the Lord gave Israel all the land he had sworn to give their ancestors, and they took possession of it and settled there. The Lord gave them rest on every side, just as he had sworn to their ancestors. Not one of their enemies withstood them; the Lord gave all their enemies into their hands. Not one of all the Lord’s good promises to Israel failed; every one was fulfilled.”
But, just a few chapters later, at the beginning of the book of Judges, it turns out that “all their enemies” had not been driven out. Some of the Canaanites were still in the land. The Lord continued to send the Israelites into battle against the various tribes who still lived in Canaan, including in the city of Jerusalem. Victory after victory ensued, but by verse 19, the military efforts began to fail, despite the Lord being “with” the army.
“The Lord was with the men of Judah. They took possession of the hill country, but they were unable to drive the people from the plains, because they had chariots fitted with iron.”
A few verses later, Israel’s army failed to drive out the Jebusites, who were living in Jerusalem. They also failed to defeat the people of Beth Shan, Taanach, Dor, Ibleam, or Megiddo, “because the Canaanites were determined to live in that land.” They did press them into slavery. The rest of the chapter lists further peoples and towns that Israel could not subjugate, despite the Lord being with them and despite the earlier assertion that all the enemies had already been driven out.

A little later in Judges (Ch. 3), it’s explained in hindsight that the Lord had left these nations in Canaan intentionally “to test the Israelites to see whether they would obey the Lord’s commands” and to “teach warfare to the descendants of the Israelites who had not had previous battle experience”.

As a believer, these stories troubled me, both as examples of poor writing and as unexplained contradictions. How could it say God had given the Israelites all the land he had promised them during the lifetime of Joshua, but then after Joshua’s death they still didn’t have that land? And if God was fighting with the soldiers, how could they not defeat iron chariots or lose to people whose only defense was their determination? How could an almighty being wrestle with a man and only win by cheating?

Everyone Who Calls Will Be Saved?

In Acts 2:21, Peter gives a speech to the crowd, quoting the OT: “And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” — from Joel 2:32, in which it was the Lord himself who was speaking.

Yet in Matthew 7:21, Jesus seems to contradict this, saying: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in Heaven.”

An apologist will say this one is not the contradiction it seems. In Jesus’ speech, he had already covered (a few verses earlier) “ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find... for everyone who asks receives...” When he got to the part about “not everyone”, he was clearly talking about the difference between doing good deeds and only claiming to be a follower.

Yet, the very phrasing acts as if it’s a contradiction. Also, the Joel and Acts passages don’t mention good deeds. Both are speaking of the End Times, when apocalyptic events have already occurred, and both claim that everyone who “calls on the name of the Lord” will be saved — regardless of whether they’ve done good deeds or have done “the will of my Father”. It does raise the question: “which is it?” Surely, Acts and Joel should have mentioned that “everyone” is really “only the one who does the will of [the] Father”. Or surely Jesus (who was also talking about the End Times) could have clarified that even those who hadn’t behaved well can still be saved at the last minute if they call on God.

An omniscient author would not have missed such an obvious need for clarification.

God Knows The Hearts Of Men?

In addition to knowing of events, God is supposed to know our thoughts and feelings too. Acts 1:24 has disciples praying: “Lord, you know everyone’s heart.” Psalm 139:1-4 says: “You have searched me, Lord, and you know me... you perceive my thoughts from afar... you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue, you, Lord, know it completely.” I Chronicles 28:9 adds, “the Lord searches every heart and understands every desire and every thought.” He’s the world’s best mind-reader.

Surely, if the Psalmist and Jesus’ disciples were correct, God already knew whether Abraham feared him; there was no need to terrorize Isaac just to learn something he already knew.
Yet there are times when God clearly didn’t know. In Gen. 22:12, God says to Abraham, after ordering him to kill his son Isaac, “Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” Surely, if the Psalmist and Jesus’ disciples were correct, God already knew whether Abraham feared him; there was no need to terrorize Isaac just to learn something he already knew. In Deut. 8:2, Moses told the Israelites: “Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands.” But God already knew all that, right? So why did he really lead them through the wilderness for forty years? For fun? A little later, in Deut. 13:3, Moses almost repeats himself: “The Lord your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul.”

One attempt I have often heard on this matter is still making the rounds: “Since God knows even the intent of the heart, then He knew what the intent of Abraham’s heart was... we can conclude that God was speaking to Abraham in terms that Abraham was familiar with... God makes statements often designed to reveal to us a truth that needs to be presented. In fact, God often asks questions He already knows the answer to.”

What if instead, you started with the parts where God didn’t know the intentions of men’s hearts, and used that to explain the all-knowing parts? It’s not as pretty, then.
As always, that isn’t an explanation, but a cop-out. Some years ago, I began to realize how commonly this strategy was used: “If part of the Bible seems to disagree with another part, then accept the part that backs our doctrine, and use it to explain away the other part.” The “explanation” is based on other verses that say God knows everything, including our intentions and thoughts. What if instead, you started with the parts where God didn’t know the intentions of men’s hearts, and used that to explain the all-knowing parts? It’s not as pretty, then.

No Sin, Or Continue To Sin?

I John 5:18 says “We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin” (and I John 3:9 backs this up), while other passages — even within the same epistle! — make it clear that even Christians will continue to sin. For example, I John 1:8,10 says:
“If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us... If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.”
I struggled with understanding this as a Christian, thinking I just wasn’t knowledgeable enough to understand the different meanings. Today as an atheist, it appears to be an outright contradiction. (1) Once you’re born again, you cannot possibly sin, but (2) if you claim that the first part is true, then you’re a liar (and lying is a sin).

The latter part sounds comforting to Christians when they sin. “It’s okay! The Bible says we will continue to sin. Don’t feel bad.” But the other two verses are pretty clear also.

As with all the other known contradictions, this one has readymade explanations on offer from apologists. The most common one here is “look at the original Greek language”, which is a cop-out if I’ve ever heard one (since according to the Bible, it was God himself who created the various languages, his reason being “so they will not understand each other”). Apologists say one verse means Christians will not “habitually abide in sin” or “practice it as a lifestyle”, though they “may fall into it”. If that was the case, then why did not the devout linguistic scholars — the translators — just translate it that way?

There have been entire denominational splits over this doctrine, with the holiness movement claiming over 12 million adherents to their teaching that true believers will live “holy” (sinless) lives.

The Four Gospels

Much has been written on the four canonical gospels — the four “books” in the Bible that purport to describe the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth — and how they relate to one another. In the world of Christian fundamentalists and biblical literalists, from whence I came, much of the writing focuses on explaining away the differences and contradictory parts.

I wasn’t in high school until I learned there had been other “gospels”, and that there had been severe disagreements in the early Church about which gospels were the true ones. This shook me, because I thought it should have been more obvious to those who lived closer to the time of Christ which ones were accurate.

And it wasn’t until going to Bible college that I learned that none of the four Gospels was likely composed by anyone who had actually met or even seen Jesus. Scholars differ somewhat on the guessed dates of writing (65-110 CE), but we know the earliest surviving complete copies of the gospels date to the 300s CE. Mark is often thought to be the earliest of the gospels with Matthew and Luke borrowing heavily from it.

What I studiously ignored for many years were the differences between the four stories of Jesus, or when I didn’t ignore them, I accepted the common explanations.

Three Days And Three Nights

In Matt. 12:40, Jesus told the Pharisees that he would “be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth”, speaking of his own forthcoming temporary death. Yet the Bible has Jesus dying just after 3 p.m. (27:45-50) on a Friday, and rising from the dead “at dawn” on Sunday (28:1-2).

That’s barely two nights (Friday night and Saturday night), and only one full day (Saturday) and part of another (Friday). Had Jesus said he would be in the heart of the earth for “one and a half days and two nights”, then there would be no contradiction. But there is no way to count two nights as equalling three nights, or one-point-five days as equalling three days.

The Easter Story

One issue with having four gospels is that they don’t agree on the Easter (resurrection) story. I’m ashamed to admit I never noticed these discrepancies until I was in Bible college. These stories are written in Mark 16, Matthew 28, Luke 24, and John 20.

Mark names three women who went to Jesus’ tomb “just after sunrise”. Matthew names two women who went “at dawn”. Luke names three women (one is different from the list in Mark) “and the others with them”, who went “very early in the morning”. So far, no real contradiction. Neither Mark nor Matthew says their named women were the only ones who went, and the three times listed are compatible. But then John comes along and says “while it was still dark”, naming only one woman.

What if the event in question was the single greatest event in the history of the world? Would we take more care to get the details right? The biblical authors did not.
Now, the naming of different women isn’t necessarily a problem. If three buddies and I went to a party 50 years ago and had a great time, and retold this story hundreds of times before each deciding independently to write about it today, we might mention different people who were at that party. We might all be telling the truth, but might not name the same people or describe the same incidents. However, what if the event in question was the single greatest event in the history of the world? Would we take more care to get the details right? The biblical authors did not. And there is no question that “while it was still dark” is not the same time as “after sunrise”.

And there’s more. Mark and Luke say the reason the women went was to bring spices; Mark adds that the spices were to “anoint” the body. Matthew says their reason for going was “to look at the tomb”.

When the women arrived, Mark, Luke, and John report that they found the stone “had been rolled away” or “had been removed” from the entrance of the tomb. But Matthew carefully reports there was a “violent earthquake” caused by an angel coming down from Heaven, and that the angel rolled away the stone and spoke to the women — after causing such fear that the guards “shook and became like dead men”. (The earthquake and guards at the tomb are only mentioned in Matthew.)

As already mentioned, Matthew recounts the lone angel coming from Heaven to roll away the stone. He adds that the angel “sat on it” and then spoke to the women. Mark doesn’t mention an angel, but says “a young man” was sitting “on the right side” as they entered the tomb. Luke recounts “two men” suddenly appearing “beside them”, standing. In John, we learn there were “two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.”

So, was it one angel, a young man, two men, or two angels? Or all six?
So... was it one angel sitting on the stone, a young man sitting on the right side of the entrance, two men standing beside them — appearing “suddenly”, or two angels seated inside the tomb? Or was it all of these, and each writer chose to only mention a bit of it? Could there have been two angels seated inside while a third sat on the stone outside? And at the same time, two men appeared suddenly to stand beside them while a third man sat at the entrance? That would be the only way to settle the discrepancies. And if so, wouldn’t it have been crowded with three angels, three men, guards who’d fallen down as if dead, three women, and the “others with them“?

Further, Matthew, Mark, and Luke report that the angels/men appeared and spoke to the women before anyone else showed up. But John says Peter and “the other disciple” checked the tomb and left before the two angels showed up to speak to Mary.

The man/men/angel/angels also said different things, depending on which gospel you’re reading, as shown in the table below.

Mark Matthew Luke John
(a young man) (an angel) (two men) (two angels)
“Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you’.” “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.” “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: ‘The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again’.” “Woman, why are you crying?”

What did the women do after finding the tomb empty? Matthew and Luke say the women ran off immediately to get the disciples, while John has Mary Magdalene alone running to get just two disciples. Mark insists “the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”

So there are at least nine outright disagreements between these stories.
So we see there are at least nine outright disagreements in these stories: (1) John disagrees on the time the women went to the tomb, (2) Matthew gives a different reason why they went to the tomb, (3) Matthew differs on when the stone was rolled away, (4) no two agree on whether there were angels or men at the tomb and (5) the number of angels/men at the tomb, (6) Luke differs on whether the angels/men were seated, (7) all four gospels differ on where the angels/men were seated/standing, (8) John disagrees on whether the angels/men showed up before or after men arrived to confirm the women’s story, (9) Mark insists that the women told no one, while the others say they did.

For me, these differences illuminate other questions about the Bible and the Gospels in particular, such as: Why are there four gospels? Couldn’t the story have been well-told in one book? (Several scholars have attempted this.) If there is reason to include these four gospels (but not the others), why do they describe events so differently? This last question is more important for the literalist, because God is supposed to have inspired the entire thing as a coherent account to pass on the message to future believers.

Again, there exist attempted “explanations”. One is that “the Bible often portrays angels simply as men”, so it’s not a problem that two gospels say men and two gospels say angels. This is not an explanation; this is an admission that the Bible is not very clear about what angels are or how they appear to humans. As for the number, the excuse is “It is not vital to the account” whether there are one or two men/angels. What? Yes, it is absolutely vital to Christianity that readers be convinced these stories are true. In order to explain the four locations where the angels/men were sitting/standing, one attempt at harmony supposes the woman taking three or four separate trips to the tomb.

All of the writers attempting to explain the differences here conveniently ignore for a moment that they normally assert God’s omnipotence and omniscience, and that he inspired the writing of these scriptures. Suddenly, it’s just several eyewitnesses, remembering different parts of the story years later, kind of like what might have happened if God wasn’t involved in writing the Book.

Who Is Joseph’s Father?

Matthew says Jacob was the father of Joseph (the husband of Jesus’ mother Mary). But Luke says Heli was the father of this same Joseph. Joseph cannot be the son of both Jacob and Heli unless both gay marriage and gay adoption were acceptable then (they weren’t). The rest of the genealogies differ as well.

The most common explanation offered is that Matthew’s genealogy is that of Joseph, while Luke is listing the ancestors of Mary. Of course, neither gospel makes this clear, and neither does any other passage in the Bible. Some apologists (example) assert that “Luke never said that Joseph was the son of Heli in the Greek”, saying that the original manuscripts omit the word “son”, something that was added into the English translations “so we can better understand it”. Really? If adding the word son was so we can understand it better, then why does it require removing the word son to actually understand it? I’m willing to take the word of scholars about what the Greek passage says, but what I’m not willing to accept is that an all-knowing God would require every future Christian to learn Greek or hang around with Greek scholars in order to understand the Bible. It was God, afterall, who created the various languages of the world, for the express purpose of: “so they will not understand each other”.

A more rational explanation is that neither author, or only one of them, knew the actual genealogy of Jesus. In other words, at least one of them was mistaken.

Jesus Equal To The Father, Or Lesser Than?

John 10:30 has Jesus saying: “I and the Father are one.” But just a few chapters later, in 14:28, Jesus says: “...the Father is greater than I.”

Read in complete context, this is not quite the contradiction that it seems at first. Other verses explain that Jesus and “The Father” are different aspects of the same God, but that Jesus, when he was sent to Earth was placed temporarily in a lower position of authority, even “lower than the angels” (Heb. 2:7). This doesn’t require knowledge of the original languages; just more careful reading of the entire New Testament.

It only raises the question of why this wasn’t spelled out more clearly instead of appearing to be a doctrine that developed over time.

Sermon On The Mount Or On The Plain?

Matthew records the well-known Sermon of the Mount in chapter five. It’s called this because “when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down.” But in Luke, a very similar sermon is delivered from “a level place”, with Jesus standing.

This is not a contradiction. Nothing in the two gospels indicates that this was the same sermon. Jesus’ ministry is supposed to have lasted just over three years, as he “went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues”. It is easy to conceive that he covered the same material on multiple occasions. If he had a consistent message to convey, it only makes sense that he would have delivered it more than once, in different places to different crowds.

But again, it calls into question the theory that the entire Bible was guided by an all-knowing God. Why have the same sermon in the Bible twice, worded slightly differently each time? This reminds me of the Old Testament listing many of the laws two or three times, often slightly differently each time.

God Has A Specific Dwelling Location?

2 Chronicles 7:12-16 depicts God telling King Solomon he has “chosen this place for myself as a temple for sacrifices” and that he has chosen the temple as a dwelling place for “my eyes and my heart”. But in Acts 7:47-49, a man named Stephen, who was “full of the Holy Spirit”, explained that God “does not live in houses made by human hands” (referring specifically to Solomon’s temple).

Like some of the other alleged contradictions, this one isn’t quite so. The earlier passage doesn’t say the temple is God’s house or that an infinite God will somehow live in a stone building made by an earthly king. However, the differences in the two passages certainly seem to reflect different ways of thinking about God on the part of the authors. The earlier Hebrew writings often depict God being attached to physical places or objects, much like other religions of the time, while the later Greek writings see a much larger, less human-like God.

In other words, the two passages don’t necessarily contradict each other, but it is clear that God became more sophisticated over the millenia, coincidentally just as humanity’s ideas of gods became more sophisticated.

This same changing idea can be seen by contrasting I Kings 8:12 (“The Lord has said that he would dwell in a dark cloud”) and I Timothy 6:16 (“[God] lives in unapproachable light”). Looking at the context, these aren’t so much contradictions as they are representations of the god idea going through changes over the centuries. Verses like Psalm 18 show the ancient idea of gods being part and parcel with natural phenomena — earthquakes, thunderstorms, — providing physical strength to overcome enemies in battle, showing human characteristics like sadness, anger, favoritism, and jealousy, while the New Testament depicts a higher, non-Earthly being described by light and love, mystery and immutability.

Many other passages touch on this topic, including Ex. 29:45-46, which has YHWH saying he will “dwell among the Israelites and be their God” and goes on to explain that the reason he brought them out of Egypt was “so that I might dwell among them”.

God Doesn’t Change His Mind?

God, according to Christian doctrine and parts of the Bible, is unchanging. Number 23:19 tells us that “God is not human, that he should lie, not a human being, that he should change his mind.” James 1:17 assures us that “the Father of the heavenly lights” (God) “does not change like shifting shadows.” Mal. 3:6 agrees: “I the Lord do not change.” And, since Jesus is God too, let’s include Hebrews 13:8: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” So, God doesn’t lie, change, or change his mind — ever.

Except all those times he did. The flood story (more on that) is a good example, and I mentioned it above.

When Jonah was sent to preach to Ninevah, the message God gave him was “Forty more days and Ninevah will be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4). The king of the city and all the people acted immediately to show God how contrite they were, and “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened” (Jonah 3:10). God’s initial message did not include an “if”; just that the city would be overthrown.

In I Samuel 2:30-31, God reminds Eli of a previous promise (“I promised that members of your family would minister before me forever”), and then announces he will break the promise: “Far be it from me!”

2 Kings 20:1-6 relates the story of how God promised death to King Hezekiah: “Put your house in order, because you are going to die; you will not recover.” Like the people of Ninevah, Hezekiah immediately prayed and begged for God to change his mind. So God changed his mind and promised to heal Hezekiah, and added fifteen years to his life.

The usual explanation for these stories is that God’s forebearance with humankind is conditional upon human behavior. In other words, he wasn’t lying and didn’t change his mind; his actions in these cases were dependent upon the human actions. What’s odd then is that the Bible didn’t come out and say that was the case. Just that he planned/promised one thing but later did/said something else.

God Will Judge Us?

A bunch of Bible passages refer to various post-life judgments. Revelation 20:11-15 describes every dead person being judged according to “what they had done”, as recorded in a book. Anyone whose name was not in the book was thrown into “the lake of fire”.

But in Job 34:23-24, it is recorded:
“God has no need to examine people further, that they should come before him for judgment. Without inquiry he shatters the mighty and sets up others in their place.”
This only feels like a contradiction, but isn’t really. Job just says God doesn’t need to have a judgment, not that he won’t actually do it.

On the other hand, reading more about the Judgment can cause a lot of confusion. According to the passage from Revelations above, some names are in the book and others aren’t; it seems like a simple process. But Jesus said:
“But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”
So it’s not the simple process of finding out whether your name is in a big book; but you will also have to stand around while every word you said is evaluated. Jesus added that he will “separate the people from one another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats”, based on whether they fed the hungry, housed strangers, clothed the poor, looked after the sick, and visited folks in prison. Even the Revelations passage above mentions people being judged for “what they had done”. James noted that “judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful.” People who teach will be “judged more strictly” (James 3:1). Also, Jesus said, “in the same way you judge others, you will be judged”. Later in that same chapter, Jesus indicates there will be some time set aside for pleading your case at the judgment, and this is backed up by Romans 14:12 (“each of us will give an account of ourselves to God”) and by I Peter 4:5. In I Corinthians, it’s written that “the Lord’s people will judge the world” and “judge the angels” too, something you don’t hear too much about. Regardless of all the talk about words and actions, though, John 3:18 disagrees, saying that anyone who believes will not be condemned, and whoever doesn’t believe is already condemned; doing good stuff won’t matter if you don’t believe. Luke wrote that Jesus said the poor will go to heaven, and the rich won’t. Later in the same chapter, Jesus said you could get out of being judged by not judging others, that you could be forgiven by forgiving others. The prophet Jeremiah said God will search a person’s heart and mind, but will reward them for their conduct and deeds. That one was kind of a tease; you start to think — Oh! I’ll get points for good intentions — but no; it’s just what you do. Psalm 15 gives a different list of things one must do in order to dwell in God’s “sacred tent” and live on his “holy mountain”.

My point here is that the Bible is gravely inconsistent in how it describes the judgment that will allegedly follow our deaths.

Satan Made Him Do It, Or Was It God?

II Sam. 24 relates the story of how God punished Israel with a plague that killed 70,000 people, all because David asked for a census to be taken. That passage makes it clear that it was God’s fault to begin with, saying “Again the anger of the Lord burned against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, ‘Go and take a census of Israel and Judah.’ ” But when the same story is told again in I Chronicles 21, it tells a different story: “Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel.” Who was it, YHWH or Satan?

Apologists try to explain (example) that it must have been Satan, and YHWH just allowed it to happen. Their reasoning is that someplace else in the Bible, a writer says God’s “way is perfect”; therefore God simply could not have done a wrong thing. This is commonly known as contextual interpretation, using passages elsewhere in scripture to explain away any contradictions a reader might find. The problem of course with this method is that it’s only used in one direction. A skeptic — like me — could just as easily use the II Samuel passage to explain away the others. It clearly says God was responsible not only for David’s action, but for the killing of innocent people afterward. If both II Samuel and I Chronicles are true, this means God and Satan are either the same person, or worked closely together on the project. It also means that the “perfect” verse must be interpreted differently.

Judas Hanged Himself?

In Matt. 27:3-10, it is said that Judas was “seized with remorse” about betraying Jesus and threw his 30 pieces of silver into the temple. He went away and hanged himself. The chief priests took the money, decided it was against the law to put “blood money” in the temple treasury, and instead used it to buy a field as a “burial place for foreigners”. “That is why it has been called the Field of Blood to this day.”

Okay, but in Acts 1:15-20, the author (purported to be Luke) says in a parenthetical statement that it was Judas who used the money to buy the field, and there in the field he “fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out.” It was called the Field of Blood because “everyone in Jerusalem heard about this”.

There are several separate contradictions here: (1) whether Judas threw the money into the temple, (2) whether the priests or Judas bought the field, (3) the manner of Judas’ death, and (4) why the field was named Field of Blood.

I’ve heard several apologists say that the manner of death is reconcilable — he could have both hanged himself and fallen headlong, spilling his intestines. I remember hearing this explanation as a youth, and accepting it. But I’ve never heard an explanation for the other three contradictions.

It is indeed true that a person could hang himself, not quite die, and then either cut himself down or suffer a broken rope, and then — assuming rough terrain — stumble and fall, spilling his intestines. I could accept that if I was a police detective, gathering eyewitness testimony — it’s easy enough to believe that Witness 1 saw a man hang himself, while Witness 2 saw the same man die a different way, if the first witness didn’t wait around to see if the guy was fully dead, and if the second witness didn’t get there early enough to see the hanging part. However, as a police detective in such a situation, I would make sure to ask each witness about the timing, when they arrived, and when they departed.

But these aren’t two witnesses talking to a police detective; they’re part of one large book that the church says is the inspired, infallible word of a perfect God. So no, I no longer accept that explanation of this contradiction.

Also, there is no legitimate explanation for the other three differences in the story. Either Acts got it wrong or Matthew got it wrong (or both). At least one of these two books of the Bible isn’t telling it the way it happened.

70 Sons, or 71 or 72?

Gideon (also known as Jerub-Baal), like many of the Bible’s heroes, practiced polygamy — “he had many wives” (Judges 8:30). His many wives bore him “seventy sons of his own”. The next verse says “His concubine, who lived in Shechem, also bore him a son, whom he named Abimelek.” To me, the “also” means that Abimelek is in addition to the 70, which makes a total of 71 sons, but I suppose it’s possible 70 was the total. It doesn’t matter, because it turns out that Gideon had 72 sons. Then Gideon died.

In the next chapter, Abimelek mentions “all seventy of Jerub-Baal’s sons” (9:2), though it’s not clear whether he includes himself — but apparently he wasn’t, because in 9:5, “he went to his father’s home in Ophrah and on one stone murdered his seventy brothers, the sons of Jerub-Baal.” If he killed 70 brothers, that means Gideon had 71 sons, right? But wait for the rest of the verse: “But Jotham, the youngest son of Jerbu-Baal, escaped by hiding.” What? That makes 72 (70 dead, plus Abemelek, plus Jotham).

Some have argued that it was only thought that Abimelek murdered 70, but that he only actually killed 69, since Jotham escaped. Yet the Bible continues to say he killed 70 — even Jotham says this in 9:18. Then in 9:23-24, God himself “stirred up animosity... in order that the crime against Jerub-Baal’s seventy sons, the shedding of their blood, might be avenged on their brother Abimelek”.

Later, after Abimelek slaughters a bunch of other people, has a millstone dropped on his head, and asks his armor-bearer to kill him, 9:56 repeats the claim that Abimelek killed “his seventy brothers” and explains that his death was God repaying him for those murders.

So, if 70 brothers were killed by Abimelek (a claim that’s repeated by the author of Judges), and Jotham survived, then Gideon actually had 72 sons, not 70 as stated in 8:30, or 71, as could be assumed by “also” in reference to Abimelek in 8:31. And it means that Abimelek had 71 brothers, not 70, as said in 9:5.

This is simple, easy, elementary-level counting, which even uneducated goat-herders can understand, but the incorrect numbers were apparently never corrected during the early oral tellings of Judges, nor during the years that scrolls were copied and recopied, nor when the Old Testament was translated into Greek or Latin, nor when it was translated into English and a hundred other languages.

I did see one apologist website claim that “Jotham was born later”, and therefore wasn’t included in the first “seventy”. Note that the scripture says only that Jotham was the youngest son, not that he was born after 8:30. And certainly, by 9:2, when Abimelek is ready to take over, Jotham must have been born (for he shortly thereafter was old enough to escape being murdered and to pronounce a curse on his brother), yet Abimelek says he has 70 brothers.

All The Water, Or Only Some Of It?

When Moses and Aaron were performing their magic tricks for Pharaoh, Exodus 7:19-22 records the first plague on Egypt was turning the water into blood. YHWH ordered Aaron to stretch out his staff over the waters of Egypt. When Aaron did so, and “all the water was changed into blood”, not just in the Nile river, but the streams and canals, the ponds and resevoirs — “even in vessels of wood and stone”. Naturally, the fish in the river died and no one could drink it.

But verse 22 says “the Egyptian magicians did the same things by their secret arts”. My question is how? How did they do the same thing if all the water in Egypt was turned to blood already? There was no water left for them to turn into blood.

A followup question is: why did YHWH think this miracle would impress Pharaoh, if he knew that the court magicians had the same powers, could do “the same things”? Don’t tell me the reason for the plague was (7:18) “By this you will know that I am the Lord”, and then tell me in the next breath (7:22) that non-Lord magicians have the same power.

All The Livestock?

In the sixth plague on Egypt (Exodus 9:1-7), YHWH killed “all the livestock of the Egyptians”, specifying horses, donkeys, camels, cattle, sheep, and goats. But during the eighth plague, that of hail (Exodus 9:13-26), all the livestock that died in the sixth plague are magically alive again! — YHWH commands the Egyptians to “bring your livestock and everything you have in the field to a place of shelter”, saying that if they’re not brought in, “they will die”. Some officials believed and brought in their livestock, while others left their livestock “and slaves” in the field, where the Lord killed them with hail. Did God forget that these animals were already dead, or did he save some livestock during the sixth plague so that they could die in the eighth? If the latter, why does the Bible say all the livestock died in the sixth plague?

A related question, though not a contradiction, is why did YHWH kill the slaves but not their masters?

As for all those dead cattle from the sixth plague, some of which died again in the eighth plague, they were still magically alive when the 10th plague happened (Exodus 11:4-5). All the firstborn sons in Egypt died, “and all the firstborn of the cattle as well”.

This is a clear sign not only that Exodus is just a bundle of old fables and legends, probably retold orally for generations before being written, but also that the people who retold them and later wrote them down cared little for accuracy or consistency.

In all my years of studying the Bible, not only did I never hear an explanation offered for this one, but I never even heard someone ask the question.

Saul Killed Himself, Or Not?

In I Samuel 31:4-6, the author says Israel’s first king, Saul, fell on his own sword. Immediately afterward, his companion “saw that Saul was dead”. But three days later, an Amalekite told David that he was the one who killed King Saul, that he had found Saul still alive, leaning on his spear, claiming to still be alive. According to this Amalekite, Saul asked to be killed. “So I stood beside him and killed him”, the man told David. David believed the man, and then had him killed for his honesty. (This story is in II Sam. 1:1-15.)

This is not necessarily a contradiction. If the first story is true, the second story could simply be a lie told by the unnamed Amalekite to David, though why he would have told such a lie is unclear — why would any soldier walk into the enemy’s camp and announce he had killed their king? Also, the Bible does not say it was a fabrication, and strongly indicates that David believed the story. If the second story is true, then it is indeed a contradiction, because the first one is an assertion of the biblical author.

It was once “explained” to me that both stories could be true, that the armor-bearer only thought Saul was dead, but that Saul survived long enough to be killed by the Amalekite. But checking the first passage does not leave any room for this possibility. Remember, it is not the armor-bearer who says Saul was dead; it is the author of the book who says Saul was dead.

No One Innocent? Or Some?

Psalm 143:2 says “no one is innocent before you” — some translations use “righteous”. But Daniel said “I was found innocent in his sight” (Dan. 6:22), and Peter says Lot was “a righteous man” (2 Peter 2:7). So at least some people are innocent/righteous before God.

The normal explanation for this contradiction is that “all have sinned” (Romans 3:23), and that people are only made righteous through faith in God. If this is so, then how easy would it have been for Psalm 143:2 to say that?

Demon-Possessed Pigs

When I first created this web page, I hesitated to include the story of the demon-possessed pigs, and held off for two years, because the biggest problem with the story isn’t the seeming contradictions, but rather the impossibility of it. As told in three Gospels (John skips it) — Matt. 8:28-34, Mark 5:1-20, and Luke 8:26-39 — Jesus encountered a man (or two men, according to Matthew) in “the country of the Gerasenes” (or “Gadarenes”, according to Matthew) who was possessed by demons to the point of harming himself and others. Jesus sent the demons into a herd of pigs, which then rushed down a “steep bank” and died in the water of the Sea of Galilee.

While the three Gospel stories can’t agree on how many men there were, or whether the demons announced their collective name (“Legion”, in Mark and Luke), or what exactly Jesus said to the demons, or what the demons said to Jesus, or what their concerns were — while all this confusion reigns between the three tellings of this tale — the biggest issue is that one of the towns mentioned (modern day Umm Qais) is more than five miles from the Sea and the other (modern day Jerash) is nearly 30 miles away. All three stories hold that Jesus had just crossed the Sea of Galilee on a boat, got out and performed an exorcism, watched the pigs run into the Sea, and then got back into the boat to leave — and none of them notice how far away these towns were from the water. Another problem is that the ancient manuscripts are confused. Multiple copies of all three Gospels interchangeably use the two names, and some old manuscripts also include “Gergesenes”, which doesn’t correspond to a known town.

I eventually decided to include the story on this page because there are seeming contradictions, even if it is possible to reconcile them. The most difficult to reconcile is the number of people involved. If there were two, as Matthew insists, then what reason do Mark and Luke have for mentioning a singular man? If there was only one possessed man, then why does Matthew mention two? The location description can be reconciled more easily, since all three versions say “in the region of” or “in the country of”, and none of them specify that the incidents occurred within a specific city boundary. It is conceivable that people at that time considered the entire 30-mile circle to be “in the region of” one or the other of those towns. As for the different word choices between the three versions, it’s possible that all those words were spoken, and each author simply selected certain ones that fit better in his story.

A more reasonable explanation, of course, is that the people who wrote these Gospels were not with Jesus during this time, nor were they familiar with the countryside near the Sea of Galilee. Further, they were not familiar with the exact words spoken either by Jesus or any other person on scene and had simply heard this story retold. It is possible that the later Gospel of Matthew saw the use of “they” (plural) in the older Mark and Luke and inferred that at least two men must have been possessed.

As with so many other seeming contradictions that have an explanation, the important question to me is why would an all-knowing overseer of this book permit such passages that require such explanations? Coming from the perspective of a person who once believed the entire Bible was true and inspired by God, poor writing like this casts doubt on the entire thing. An apologist might say (and I’ve heard them say it) “the similarities between the gospels are more astounding than their differences; if each story was simply made-up, they would be far more different!” However, any similarities can be chalked up to later writers using the earlier gospels as source material.

John Was Elijah?

In Matthew, Jesus pontificates about John the Baptist:
“Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come.”

11:11-14, emphasis mine

But in the Gospel of John, John the Baptist was specifically asked whether he was Elijah, and he flat-out stated: “I am not.” He just as matter-of-factly said the was not the Messiah, and not the Prophet (John 1:19-22).

So which is it? It is no surprise that apologists have noticed this contradiction and tried to explain it away. First, they remind us that all the questions about Elijah are due to a prophecy in Malachi 4:5, in which God told the Israelites that, just before the End Times, “I will send the prophet of Elijah to you”. The Jews of Jesus’ time who questioned both John and Jesus about this were referring to this passage. The apologists then turn to the gospel of Luke for reconciliation, citing Luke 1:13-17, in which an angel appeared to Zechariah (John’s father), announcing that he would have a son, to call him John, and that “He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God”. The angel adds: “And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah...” And that’s it. That’s the entirety of the apologist explanation.

Noticeably, it doesn’t reconcile John’s statement with Jesus’ contradictory one. Jesus didn’t say John the Baptist was “in the spirit and power of Elijah”; Jesus said he is Elijah. I checked 25 translations of Jesus’ speech, and they all use the word “is”. Not one of them has Jesus saying “in the spirit of”, or “is a metaphor for”, or anything else. In fact, the primary difference between the translations is that some of them do not use the word “John” and some of them say “Elias” instead of “Elijah”. It also doesn’t reconcile with the prophecy in Malachi, which clearly did not say someone would come in the spirit of Elijah; it neatly stated that the actual Elijah would be sent. So why did they even bring up the prophecy, since it merely reinforces the contradiction?

In other words, the only escape route apologists could think of is that Jesus’ very specific claim was actually a figure of speech, a metaphor. And the example I cited is from an organization that claims: “The Bible is to be taken as literally as possible except where obviously figurative. Genesis, for example, is literal, and Adam and Eve were actual people.” If Jesus’ clear statement about John can be taken as “obviously figurative”, then so can just about anything else Jesus said in the Bible. Remember when he spoke of Hell? For example, Matt. 13:41-42 has Jesus saying:
“The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
According to the “obviously figurative” standard used for the John/Elijah question, the “blazing furnace” is a metaphor, as is the weeping and gnashing of teeth. In fact, anything that seems odd or like it doesn’t fit can now be a metaphor — obviously figurative, including the creation story, the flood story, the plagues on Egypt, the 40 years of wandering in the desert, the resurrection, etc. Just choose which parts are figurative, especially if it helps you avoid an obvious contradiction.

Elijah Didn’t Go To Heaven?

Here’s another one about Elijah, but much easier.

2 Kings 2:11: [Narrator speaking:] “As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind.”

John 3:13: [Jesus speaking:] “No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven — the Son of Man.”

Oops. Jesus forgot about Elijah. Or — and this is pretty far out there — was Jesus saying that Elijah and “the Son of Man” are the same person? That would be even more confusing and require tons more explanation.

Apologists are not in agreement on this one. Some say “Jesus was not teaching that no one had ever gone to heaven before” (another metaphor perhaps?). Others assert Jesus was talking about a different heaven that was being discussed in the OT story (“Careful study shows that three “heavens” are actually discussed in the Bible.”) Still others say “...after being lifted into the atmospheric heavens, [Elijah] spent the remaining years of his separate life at some other location on the earth, living as every human being, before he naturally died.” (This one required a lot of pretzel-style bending over backward.) I’ve also seen this one: Elijah couldn’t have gone to Heaven, since Jesus hadn’t died for his sins yet; so Elijah must have just disappeared into the sky, and then later died naturally. (This explanation, of course, makes the II Kings passage flat-out incorrect.)

Further notes:

In 2 Chr. 21:12, Israel’s king Jehoram received a letter from the prophet Elijah. This is only strange because — if you follow the narrative closely — it was 10 years after Elijah was taken up to Heaven in a whirlwind.


Despite the existence of regular “explanations” for some of these contradictions (most of which fall flat), I began to strongly feel that the Bible could not have been inspired by God on a word-for-word level. An omniscient being with the intent to instruct us through this collection of small books would not have included so many passages that either seem to or actually do contradict each other. He would have known how confusing it would be to the average acolyte, how many questions they would foster.

Some of the “explanations” require extra-biblical knowledge, knowledge of the original languages or a specific translation, or knowledge of ancient Hebrew customs. Did God not realize that the world would someday be filled with people who don’t speak ancient Hebrew, Latin, and Greek?

In my 40-something years, I have read many non-biblical books, most of them novels but also hundreds of biographies, history books, science books, and other non-fictional tomes. In those, I have found many mistakes — typographical errors, editing problems, and even occasional misspellings. I’ve found a couple of seeming contradictions or places where it was clear the author didn’t fully flesh out an idea. But in the vast majority of them, I have not found these types of errors. This is significant to me, in the context of considering a book inspired and controlled by an omnipotent God. I have read books longer than the Bible that don’t have unnecessary lists of utensils or sewing instructions for tabernacle fabric. I have read books more complex than the Bible that have no contradictions — or even seeming contradictions. I have read books with far more numbers than the Bible that never once make a simple counting mistake like whether someone had 70 sons, or 71, or 72, or saying something obviously false like “ten commandments” after listing 600 or more commandments. I have read many novels with tales of magic spells and/or curses; not one author wrote that “all” the livestock died, and then a couple of pages later had some of them die again.

For any apologist who — like I once did — regularly trots out the same old explanations for things that the rest of us consider outright contradictions — I ask one question: Wouldn’t it have been better if God himself had included those explanations in the book instead of the seeming (and actual) contradictions?

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