5 So-Called Contradictions in the Bible and How to Refute Them

Contributing Writer
5 So-Called Contradictions in the Bible and How to Refute Them

Some people refuse to accept the truth of the Bible because they claim it contains countless errors and contradictions. Sadly, this also prevents them from believing in the Gospel accounts and placing their faith in Jesus. These supposed contradictions are a major obstacle to belief for many.

At times, Christians can also encounter these areas of seeming discrepancy that shakes their faith. How do they reconcile passages and verses that appear to be at odds? Learning to address and refute contradictions can help believers trust in God’s Word and grow in their ability to talk to others about these areas.

For those of us who take the call to contend for the faith seriously, we need to be aware of these “contradictions” and be ready to address them (Jude 1:3). We will look at five examples people typically use to argue that the Bible is unreliable. Although there are many more passages we could explore, the principle for studying the Bible applies to all verses. We should always consider the historical and cultural context, as well as interpret Scripture with Scripture. God does not lie, so we can trust that His inspired Word is consistent and true (Titus 1:2; John 17:17).

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Earth painted in many colors

1. The Creation Account

In Genesis 1, the order of creation is listed over the course of six days. Each day includes a specific focus on what the Lord created:

Day 1: The heavens, formless earth, and light (Genesis 1:1-5).

Day 2: The sky (Genesis 1:6-8).

Day 3: Land, seas, and vegetation including seed-bearing plants of various kinds and fruit-bearing trees (Genesis 1:9-13).

Day 4: The sun, moon, and stars (Genesis 1:14-19).

Day 5: Sea creatures and birds (Genesis 1:20-23).

Day 6: Land animals and humans (Genesis 1:24-27).

However, when we read Genesis 2, we may wonder why that version is different. The Bible says that shrubs and field plants had not yet grown (Genesis 2:5). We may also notice that Scripture shows God forming Adam but creating Eve later (Genesis 2:7-22). For many unbelievers and skeptical scholars, these appear to be inconsistencies. They would argue that Genesis 1 and 2 present different creation accounts.

How to Refute It

In Genesis 2, the author does not present a different version of creation but elaborates on what was presented in chapter 1. The plants that God created on day three of creation were specified to be “seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds” (Genesis 1:11). In contrast, Genesis 2 discusses shrubs and field plants that had not grown because God had not yet sent rain. They had been created but waited to sprout and grow.

When Scripture mentions God forming Adam from the dust of the ground, this is an elaboration of day six of creation. The Lord created Adam and placed him in the Garden of Eden. On the same day, Adam named the animals and was placed into a slumber so the Lord could form Eve as a helper and companion for the man (Genesis 2:19-22).

Therefore, we should not see these as two separate accounts. In Genesis 1, we read of God’s work of creation on each day, while in Genesis 2, we find further information about Adam’s creation and the other happenings on day six.

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a person writing a list

2. Did the Lord or Satan Incite David to Take a Census?

Both 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21 record how David took a census to count all the fighting men in Israel and Judah. Joab attempted to dissuade the king from this sin of pride, but David did not listen (2 Samuel 24:3-4; 1 Chronicles 21:3-4). As a result of this census, God sent a plague that killed 70,000 people in Israel (see 2 Samuel 24:15; 1 Chronicles 21:14).

These accounts align and tell the same story about David’s census, the plague, and the building of the altar to stop the plague. However, one detail contributes to some people’s distrust of the Bible.

In 2 Samuel 24:1, God incites David to take the census, but 1 Chronicles 21:1 says that Satan did this instead.

How to Refute It

If we are familiar with the Bible, which tells us about the character of God, then we know that the Lord is Sovereign over all creation. This means that nothing happens without His consent. We are asking the wrong question by making it a matter of either God or Satan. Taking into consideration both accounts, we glean that God used Satan to urge David to take the census.

Such an interpretation is consistent with what we see in other parts of Scripture. The Lord allowed Satan to bring disaster to the life of Job (Job 1:9-12). The devil wanted Job to curse God, but the Lord knew the heart of His follower – that although Job would struggle and question the purpose of the disasters, he would not turn away from God or curse Him.

Like in the case of Job, God used Satan to accomplish His will by inciting David to take a census. He did this to punish Israel since they had moved Him to righteous anger (2 Samuel 24:1). Although the incident revealed David’s sinful pride in the force of his fighting men, it served a greater purpose of bringing judgment against Israel. Hence, the account in 2 Samuel emphasizes that God incited David against Israel. The Lord can use anything and anyone to accomplish His will.

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Illustration of angel and women at Jesus' tomb on resurrection day

3. The Women and the Resurrection Accounts

The resurrection of Jesus is the foundation of the Christian faith (1 Corinthians 15:13-20). Perhaps that is why people who are antagonistic to Christianity attack the resurrection accounts in the Gospels. They argue that the accounts do not align and provide inconsistent details. As a result, they choose not to place faith in Christ and convince others that Jesus’ resurrection did not happen.

One such detail is that the Gospels do not agree on which women discovered the empty tomb. Mary Magdalene is included in each Gospel, but the other named women do not seem to align. John’s account also presents a difficulty since Mary Magdalene is depicted alone at the tomb and runs to tell Peter and John about the discovery (John 20:1-3). To the skeptic, these details seem contradictory.

How to Refute It

When reading the Gospels, we need to remember that each author had a specific purpose and conveyed events from his perspective. One author might have focused on a certain detail while another one omitted it. Their purpose was not to give a unified account that perfectly aligned with the other Gospels. If they had done this, then there would be cause for suspicion. As it is, the fact that they each present a unique perspective of the events of Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection attests to their authenticity.

We gain a wider understanding of the events of Jesus’ resurrection by considering all the accounts together. Just because Matthew recorded that Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to the tomb does not mean they were the only ones present (Matthew 28:1). Matthew was merely focusing on these two women in his account. With the additional details from Mark and Luke, we understand that many women were there, including Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Salome, Joanna, and others (Mark 16:1; Luke 24:10). Nowhere do the Gospel writers assert that only the specific women they named were at the empty tomb. We get the full picture by reading the accounts in each Gospel.

In John’s account, the same principle applies: He chose to focus on Mary Magdalene (John 20:1). From the other Gospels, we know she went with the women early on Sunday to anoint Jesus’ body and found the empty tomb. She ran back to Peter and John as soon she saw that Jesus was gone, while the other women remained and heard the news of His resurrection. This is why she told them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” (John 20:2, emphasis added). This sequence of events also explains why she was the first to see the risen Lord (John 20:14-16). She also saw Him again with the other women before hurrying to tell the disciples (Matthew 28:8-10).

Remembering that each author wrote with a unique purpose and perspective is important in understanding the account of Christ’s resurrection in its entirety.

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Woman praying on the shore

4. Is Salvation by Grace or Works?

The doctrine of salvation by grace is a foundational doctrine of the Christian faith, famously restored during the Protestant Reformation. However, opponents of the Bible and biblical Christianity argue that there is conflicting information in Scripture about how a person receives salvation. Is it by faith or by works?

In James’ epistle, he wrote, “You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). Upon first glance, this seems to contradict other passages like Ephesians 2:8-9: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast.” Jehovah’s Witnesses also use these disparities to promote a works-based salvation.

How to Refute It

The contradiction only stands if we take this verse out of context and fail to interpret it with the rest of Scripture. When we look at the surrounding context, James was reminding the believers that saving faith always produces works. He used the example of a Christian seeing a fellow brother or sister in Christ hungry and naked (James 2:15). True faith will not simply wish the person well but will do something to help the sufferer (James 2:16).

James pushed against the idea that faith is merely a declaration. As he said, “faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:17). A person who has genuinely placed faith in Christ will bear the fruit of good deeds in their lives. Thus, they are shown to have been made righteous (James 2:24).

In the wider context of Scripture, James’ message fits with what Paul wrote about salvation by grace through faith. After Paul explained that individuals are saved by the grace of God, and not by works, he stated that Christians are saved to do good works (Ephesians 2:10). Nowhere do we see Paul advocating for a mere declaration of faith divorced from a change that leads to action. Therefore, James and Paul both agree that true, saving faith produces works. No contradiction exists.

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Crumpled paper heart torn in half

5. God’s Choice of Jacob over Esau

Throughout the Bible, we read about how the Lord is a God of compassion and unfailing love (Exodus 34:6; Psalm 145:8-9). He loved the world and sent His Son to die for us, which shows us the meaning of love (John 3:16; 1 John 3:16). As the Apostle John wrote, “God is love” (1 John 4:8).

Many people throughout time, though, have wondered how God can be described as loving when He chose Jacob over Esau. In his epistle, Paul summarized the words of God in Malachi, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” (Romans 9:13Malachi 1:2-3). Those who question the reliability of the Bible use these verses as evidence of contradiction. How can the Lord love unconditionally and show compassion to all, when He hates Esau?

How to Refute It

Like in many of the other examples of supposed contradictions, this one fails to consider the context. The prophet Malachi was discussing the two nations, Israel and Edom. The Lord would restore Israel because it is the chosen nation. In contrast, He allowed Esau’s nation, Edom, to become a wasteland, because Esau was not the inheritor of the promise (Malachi 1:3).

When Paul quoted from Malachi, he emphasized God’s election based on grace, not works. Nothing in Jacob (Israel) forced the Lord to show favor to him. If we have read the Bible, we know this is true as Jacob was a liar and deceiver. The choice of one brother over the other did not “depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy” (Romans 9:16).

In choosing Jacob (Israel), the Lord rejected Esau. This does not mean He hated Esau and destined him for condemnation while lavishing love and favor on Jacob. Scholars note that the terms “love” and “hate” in this verse, quoted from Malachi, stem from a cultural idiomatic phrase that emphasizes choosing one person over another (see Barnes’ Notes on Romans 9:13). God chose Jacob as the one who would inherit the promises of Abraham, not Esau.

This contradiction also does not stand because Esau did receive compassion from the Lord. We know that God graciously blessed Esau because his ancestors became a mighty nation. This was a result of God’s promise to Abraham, that all nations would be blessed through him (Genesis 12:3). However, the Lord chose Jacob over his brother as the inheritor of the promise through which He would build His chosen nation. His choice had nothing to do with the individuals or their actions, nor was it that He loved one brother more than the other. He chose according to His character and mercy.

At first glance, some verses and passages in Scripture may appear contradictory. However, if we dig deeper into the context and consider the wider teaching of the Bible, we will find that the supposed discrepancies fall away. God’s Word is reliable.

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Sophia BrickerSophia Bricker is a writer. Her mission is to help others grow in their relationship with Jesus through thoughtful articles, devotionals, and stories. She completed a BA and MA in Christian ministry, which included extensive study of the Bible and theology, and an MFA in creative writing. You can follow her blog about her story, faith, and creativity at The Cross, a Pen, and a Page.