Does the Bible Contradict Itself?

The short and direct answer to this question is, No… the Bible does not contradict itself.

But if the answer were so simple, then such a question wouldn’t gain much traction or keep making laps around the racetrack of theological and biblical discussion.

I might be worthwhile for the reader to take a moment to really think about the fact that Christians throughout history have not been complete idiots (well, at least not all of them). The point is: intelligent and careful readers have searched the Scriptures far more than you or I, and these men and women have not been so quick to throw the Bible out on the basis of unresolved contradictions.

Furthermore, non-Christian and critical intellectuals (and those who like to regurgitate their ideas and phrases) have been making this accusation against the Bible for at least the last 200 years. But Christians too have written many books and articles in order to candidly deal with the supposed contradictions (HERE is a great example).

The reader is charged with the responsibility of thinking carefully through the matter before walking away with a half-baked answer to suit his or her preconceived notions about the validity and trustworthiness of the Bible.

This subject is dear to my heart as a pastor, and it came up again as I was preparing to preach through Exodus 9. God’s fifth plague or strike against Egypt (beginning in verse 1) and God’s seventh plague or strike (beginning in verse 13) seem to contradict one another. They both refer to “livestock” in a way that seems impossible to harmonize. However, I’d like to argue that there are at least a few options for the reader to resolve this apparent contradiction without accusing the Bible of error.

In the fifth plague, we’re told “all the livestock of the Egyptians died” (Exodus 9:6), but a short time later (thirteen verses to be exact) we read about Moses warning the Egyptians to “get [their] livestock… into safe shelter” in order to avoid the falling hail (Ex. 9:19).

“And the next day the Lord did this thing. All the livestock of the Egyptians died, but not one of the livestock of the people of Israel died” (emphais added).

Exodus 9:6

Moses said, “Now therefore send, get your livestock and all that you have in the field into safe shelter, for every man and beast that is in the field and is not brought home will die when the hail falls on them” (emphasis added).

Exodus 9:19

So the question is, if “all the livestock of the Egyptians died” (Ex. 9:6), then where did all this other Egyptian “livestock” come from (Ex. 9:19)?

This is the kind of question Bible-believing Christians need to be prepared to engage with, and Bible-believing Christians need to be prepared to give some kind of an answer.

Christians believe the Bible is the inerrant word of God (at least those who are grounded in historic Christiantiy do). We do not believe there are any contradictions in the Bible. We believe the Bible (in so far as the text of Scripture is compiled translated faithfully) is an utterly truthful and consistent compilation of God’s trustworthy words.

So, what do Christians do with this apparent contradiction? Well, first, we don’t melt in fear… and we don’t run away.

We must first acknowledge that there are some passages in the Bible that do appear (at least at first glance) to contradict other passages. It is no surprise that someone antagonistic to the Bible would point to several Bible-passages and accuse the Bible of contradiction.

But, second, we must also remember that the Bible is fully capable of enduring skepticism. Bible critics are not new, though the modern ones often fancy themselves as more sophisticated than those who have come before. 

Marcion was a man born before the Apostle John died, and Marcion accused the Old and New Testaments of contradicting one another. He invented a whole theological system around his flawed perspective of the Bible, and he was roundly rejected as a formal heretic at the first official Christian council.

See two helpful introductions to Marcion and his recurring ideas in modern Christianty HERE and HERE).

Bible-skeptics have been around as long as the Bible. Satan’s first attack on humans was an attack on the word of God. The ancient snake asked Eve in the garden, “Did God actually say…?” (Genesis 3:1). And we hear the devil’s hiss in the mouths of others throughout history as well as today.

Third, when dealing with an apparent contradiction in the Bible, we must recognize that any supposed error we see in the Bible springs from our own misunderstanding or ignorance (or maybe some mixture of both). 

Let’s think about the apparent contradiction in front of us here.

Did “all the livestock” in Egypt die from some kind of disease (Exodus 9:6)? And, if so, where did the “livestock” in Egypt come from that died later from falling hail (Ex. 9:19-21, 25)?

One possible explanation is that the Egyptians kept some of their livestock “in the field” or “in the pasture” and the rest they kept in stalls or closer to their homes. A careful reading of Exodus 9:3 does allow for a specific “plague upon [the] livestock that are in the field.”

We might say the livestock that didn’t die from this fifth plague upon Egypt were those which were not out in the field, and these were the livestock later threatened by the seventh plague.

Another possible explanation is to understand the word “All” in Exodus 9:6 to refer to “all kinds of livestock” and not “each and every one of the livestock.” As a matter of fact, this is exactly how verse 2 seems to present it.

“behold, the hand of the Lord will fall with a very severe plague upon your livestock that are in the field, the horses, the donkeys, the camels, the herds, and the flocks” (emphasis added).

Exodus 9:2

From this perspective, one might paraphrase verse 6 by saying, “Death came to every kind of grazing animal in Egypt, but not a single cow died among the people of Israel.”

Still another possible explanation is to understand the language in the popular sense and not the absolute. In other words, “The quantity of livestock left in Egypt was nothing in comparison to what was there before.”

These are three possible explanations, and maybe you can see others.

I should note that I am heavily indebted to Philip Ryken for his consideration of this text and these options.

The point is: The Bible doesn’t contradict itself. And any apparent contradiction can be explained (usually pretty easily) if we will take time to think about it.

The practical application of this answer is that the reader must address the greater issue of what to do with the God of the Bible. Because the Bible truthfully and consistently reveals God as He is, the reader is responsible to seek God there.

Four Apologetic Methods

Apologetics is the study and use of reasonable arguments to promote and defend ideas. Christian apologetics is interested especially in arguing for the existence of God (theism) and for the rationality of the Christian worldview (the wholistic lenses through which one views the world).

If you have ever tried to delve into apologetics, you may have become overwhelmed by the information available on the subject. In fact, the wide range of subjects involved in apologetics is enough to splash cold water on anyone’s intention to become an apologist. And yet, some swim in the apologetics pool long enough to reach the deep end where methodology and practice come together.

It is one thing to promote an idea, another to argue in defense of it, but it is another thing entirely to understand the various (and often conflicting) methodological paths you might choose to travel in order to make your argument. Here are four of the major approaches to apologetics today.

Evidentialism is the apologetic method that seeks to prove Christianity by pointing to independent facts which suggest their own (right/true) interpretation.

Presuppositionalism is the method that begins with presuppositions, arguing that only the Christian worldview is sufficient for having any productive and coherent conversation about anything. Presuppositionalists argue that there are no independent facts, but everyone argues from a basic foundation of presuppositions.

Reformed epistemology is grounded firmly in John Calvin’s concept of the sensus divinitatis (the innate sense of the divine or sense of God). Rather than appealing to foundational and incorrigible facts that must be known as such, Reformed epistemologists seek to tap into that intuitive awareness by offering secondary arguments in order to simply build onto the inherent base.

Classical apologetics is similar to Evidentialism (sometimes called “two-step” evidentialism) in that both seek to apply the use of reasonable facts in order to prove Christianity. Classical apologetics begins with theistic arguments to prove theism (cosmological, teleological, anthropological, etc.), and then employs historical and theological arguments to prove Christianity.

Transparently, I find myself most drawn to the Classical apologetic method, both in talking with Christians and non-Christians. My attraction is probably due to R.C. Sproul’s influence on me… his impact on my Christian worldview is unparalleled and will likely remain so.

That said, I believe the reasonableness of theism is a strong argument in practice. For my own belief, rational arguments have bolstered my trust in the reality of God. Additionally, I have had many conversations with self-proclaimed agnostics and atheists in which the Classical apologetic approach has served me well.

Whichever method you find to be logically sound, practical to employ, and (above all else) biblically faithful, I hope you’ll open your mouth to promote the gospel of Jesus Christ. This subject is worth every moment you spend on it.

 

For those interested in taking a closer look at apologetics, I suggest the following resources.

Classical Apologetics” by R.C. Sproul, John Gerstner, and Arthur Lindsley

The Consequences of Ideas” by R.C. Sproul

Apologetics to the Glory of God” by John Frame

Mapping Apologetics” by Brian Morley