Given Christianity, do contradictions prove it false?
Firstly, the Christian might respond by arguing that this is not a challenge against the truthfulness of Christianity; rather, it is a challenge against Biblical Inerrancy. Christians differ on the doctrine of inerrancy as some hold it as a primary doctrine while others view it as secondary (1). It is also true that many skeptics assume contradictions, they haven’t actually read the texts themselves. The Christian can argue that the Bible does not have to be free of contradictions in order for Christianity to be true. This is not me minimizing the importance of the Bible, or biblical authority, but simply stating the reality of the situation. It means that even if we grant the skeptic his claim, it just doesn’t logically follow that Christianity is false.
Secondly, skeptics can be very uncharitable when reading the Biblical text. They no longer attempt to remain objective as possible, but instead look for contradictions. Sometimes they even find them where none exist. Take one skeptic’s challenge (chart depicted) where he lists over 60 000 alleged discrepancies and contradictions in an interactive chart (2). This is absurd considering my Bible is, give our take, 1200 pages. Are there really 50 to 60 contradictions per page? Many of the contradictions, the Christian can show, are not actually contradictions. However, other Christians readily accept the Bible is full of errors and contradictions given its diverse nature of texts (C.S Lewis, Peter Enns and Thom Stark would agree with this point). Either way, errors or not errors, many skeptics are very uncharitable and grossly unfair in their exegesis. At most the skeptic would be attacking the doctrine of inerrancy, not the truthfulness of Christianity.
Thirdly, most alleged contradictions are not actually contradictions, but differences. A difference is when two or more independent accounts describe the same event with nuances, but do not contradict each other. According to scholar Mike Licona who has compiled 60 pages of differences between the gospel accounts: “Many of the alleged contradictions are actually differences and not contradictions.” He goes on to say, “…there were certain literary liberties that were allowed, time compression, lack of precision when it came to minor chronological details such as the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness, Matthew and Luke – one of them inverts the second and the third. We wouldn’t regard that as a contradiction, we would say that that is a difference.”
When we realize this basic fact we can disqualify a good percentage of alleged contradictions. William Lane Craig having considered this writes:
“In fact, when you look at the supposed inconsistencies, what you find is that most of them—like the names and number of the women who visited the tomb—are merely apparent, not real. Moreover, the alleged inconsistencies are found in the secondary, circumstantial details of the story and have no effect at all on the four facts as I’ve stated them” (3).
Fourthly, the skeptic must be careful not to commit a fallacy. To simply dismiss a text because of errors, and contradictions would fall victim to the fallacy of the excluded middle. This is when one dismisses an entire text because he finds an error in it. This skeptic is limiting his options by only choosing between either A (that there is not one error in a text, therefore we can trust it) or B (that we must reject the entire text because we find an error in it). However, there are other options. For instance, option C could be that even though there are errors in a text we can still trust it as historical. To either be forced to choose between option A or B, and exclude option C, or other options, is simply not the case when it comes to historical method. It is through historical analysis that we can establish Jesus’ resurrection as the best explanation of the data. In fact, a text can be full of these errors but still be reliable and valuable when reporting historical information.
Fifthly, the Christian can argue that, as an act of God in history Jesus was still raised from dead even if we never had the Bible with or without its contradictions. A Christian’s faith is not dependent on the Bible, but on Jesus’ resurrection from the dead – the very center of Christianity.
Sixth, regarding the inspiration of scripture, many Christians would argue that only the originals are error free, should there be errors and/or contradictions in our translations (4). This is noteworthy as many alleged discrepancies are based on the translations of Hebrew words to English. Many Hebrew words have several meanings that may all apply – for instance, just see the debate over the Hebrew word yom in the Genesis creation account, and how it has produced over a dozen theories of how to read Genesis. Other alleged errors are scribal lapses since our texts come down to us via scribes copying earlier manuscripts, and so on – in such a process a slip of the pen, or a sleepy state of mind could accidentally change a word or two without the scribe being aware of it. These, some apologists argue, could account for some contradictions and errors (especially when numbers are involved).
Seventh, whether a skeptic like it or not, even if you take away the inspiration of the gospels/Bible they still remain historical documents that require historical analysis. As long as the important, central details agree such as the Jesus’ death via crucifixion, his empty tomb, the postmortem appearances to the disciples and skeptics alike, and their willingness to suffer and die for the proclamation of the risen Jesus – these are central details, and they are attested to in all our gospel sources, Pauline epistles and by other ancient historians.
I think these several points are sufficient for the Christian to dispel the argument that the “Bible is full of contradictions, and therefore we can’t trust it, and Christianity is false.”
1. Patton, M. 2009. If the Bible is Not Inerrant, then Christianity is False… And Other Stupid Statements. Available.
2. Mehta, H. 2013. An Incredible Interactive Chart of Biblical Contradictions. Available.
3. Craig, W. 2006. Is There Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus? Available.
4. Vela, T. Book Review of Disproving Christianity.