The Bible contains many seeming contradictions. In fact, many of the most basic doctrines are debated by scholars precisely because several passages can reasonably be used to support opposing views. At times, it can almost seem like God intentionally made His word confusing and inconsistent. However, I believe God set multiple truths in tension with one another so that we would carefully search out scripture’s counsel on a topic to find a balance that properly esteems everything He canonized.


Acts 19:21 says Paul “purposed in the Spirit to go to Jerusalem.” Likewise, In Acts 20:22, he said, “…bound by the Spirit, I am on my way to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there…” Yet when Paul stayed for seven days with the disciples in Tyre, Acts 21:4 says “they kept telling Paul through the Spirit not to set foot in Jerusalem.” Why the contradiction? Did the Holy Spirit change His mind? 


Exodus 33:20, John 1:18, 6:46, and 1 John 4:12 all state unequivocally that no one has ever or can ever see God. Yet Revelation 1, 4, Daniel 7, Ezekiel 1, and Isaiah 6 all depict certain men doing exactly that, not to mention Genesis 18:1-2, Exodus 33:11, Joshua 5:14, and Acts 23:11. Did one set of passages get it wrong? Perhaps the answer is that our frail, fallen human frames cannot endure being in the full manifest presence of the Father face to face, but this does not apply to seeing God in a vision or when He takes on a human form.  


In Matthew 12:30, Jesus said, He who is not with Me is against Me”. Yet in Mark 9:40, He said precisely the opposite: “For he who is not against us is for us”. Why the contradiction? Perhaps these are principles that each apply to some situations, but not all situations. (In the first His passage Jesus was speaking to the Pharisees while they opposed ministry. In the second, He appears to be speaking about a sincere believer who cast out a demon using Jesus’ name, but did not follow along with the disciples.)


These are minor examples compared to others we will examine. For example:


·         Does God know the future? Can He change His mind, be surprised, or not yet know what someone will choose?


·         Who has authority over the earth? Does God? Does Satan? Does man? Who appoints kings and rulers?


·         Does God’s sovereignty override human free will? If we can be held responsible for evil choices, can we not also be responsible for righteous ones?


·         Are we saved solely because of God’s pursuit or do we have to respond? Can believers become lost again after being saved?


·         Does God already know who will be saved and who will remain lost? Does He actively predetermine who will be saved and who will remain lost?


Approach for Resolving Contradictions

How do we reconcile seemingly contradicting sets of passages? I propose an approach that asks three sequential questions. I believe asking these questions in this order is the best way to honor scripture. The questions are:


1)      Is there any sense or context in which both sets of passages could be true at the same time without any contraction?


2)      Could both sets of passages be true at the same time despite contradicting because it is beyond our limited human capacity to grasp how they can both be true?


3)      Is one set of passages meant to be taken at face value while the other is meant to be taken figuratively?


The order is significant. The assumption behind them is that, unless scripture itself states or implies otherwise, God spoke plainly. He meant what He said and He said what He meant.


I believe some common doctrines are erroneous because believers have been taught to assume certain passages must be figurative if they violate philosophical, unbiblical presuppositions about God, Satan, angels, demons, man, creation, time, salvation, or free will. However, if we begin by assuming that God spoke plainly and ask whether seemingly contradictory passages could be true simultaneously, they usually can.


As we will see, the solutions can be quite nuanced. After all, God, Satan, angels, demons, man, creation, time, salvation, and free will all interact with and affect one another sometimes in complicated ways. Nevertheless, solutions can often be discovered by considering the specific circumstances in which the passages were written. After all, some passages were not intended to apply to all people or all nations at all times with no caveats or conditions, even if some believers treat them that way.


While most major doctrinal disputes can be resolved without moving past question one, some require moving to question two. One example, in my opinion, would be the Trinity. Is there one God or are the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit each God? I believe the answer is yes to both. There is one God that also somehow embodies relationship and selfless love between the three members of the Trinity. It is simply beyond our limited human capacity to fully grasp.


I believe most major doctrinal disputes do not require moving to question three, where an entire set of supposedly contradicting passages is meant to be taken figuratively. For example, some theologians believe that certain passages that depict God experiencing emotions or regretting a decision must figurative. These passages are intended, it is claimed, to make God appear relatable and understandable to human readers. However, I believe the Bible itself does not teach this, but rather teaches the opposite, as we will discover. This error goes back to unbiblical, philosophical presuppositions.  


An obvious major exception to not having to go to question three is in the area of prophecy/ eschatology. It is the nature of prophecy to contain heavy symbolism, which is meant to be taken figuratively by definition. Thankfully, the meanings of most if not all biblical symbols are identified in scripture. Nevertheless, there are still many different interpretations of prophetic/eschatological passages among believers. Unsettled questions that contribute to differing interpretations include:


1)      Which events described by scripture are literal and which are symbolic?

2)      Have documented historical events already fulfilled the passage?

3)      Will future events fulfill them “better” or more literally?

4)      Could there be more than one fulfillment of some passages?


We will explore eschatological positions in the coming chapters as well.


A passage could also become subject to question three in instances where scripture uses sarcasm or hyperbole. However, most instances of sarcasm or hyperbole are fairly obvious. One example of hyperbole would be when Jesus said in Luke 14:26 that one must “hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters” to truly put Jesus first and become His undivided disciple.


An Illustration

Before we continue, I’d like to share an example to illustrate how seemingly contradictory statements can both be true. The way two contradictory statements are resolved in this illustration bears some resemblance to how we will later approach scripture.


Imagine you are reading through hand-written flight logs. You know the pilot who wrote them. You know he is careful, precise, and honest. However, you find a glaring discrepancy. In one log, he described a long flight saying, “My average flight velocity was 500 miles per hour.” Yet, another log described the same flight saying, “My average flight velocity was 400 miles per hour.” You initially conclude he made an error. However, after remembering his careful, scrupulous nature, you decide to investigate further. You ask, “Is there any sense or context in which both of these statements could be true at the same time with no contradiction?”


You look through a few maps and weather records. You examine his other flight logs for comparison. Soon the answer becomes clear. The first log recorded his velocity relative to the ground. The second log recorded his velocity relative to the surrounding air mass. He spent most of the flight surrounded by a 100-mph jet stream. As it turns out, both statements were precisely accurate with no contradiction.