Much of Westernized Christianity’s recent decline has been blamed on the failure of churches and denominations to adapt to modern times — either becoming irrelevant or, contrarily, becoming too commercialized and “fake,” creating a superficial form of faith that drives parishioners away from institutionalized religion.
Lost in the conversation is a much deeper issue, one that revolves around losing confidence in the Bible.
For years churches have glossed over, rationalized, and provided shallow answers to thorny Biblical problems that are no longer being ignored — and it’s becoming harder to defend texts that appear contradictory and culturally irrelevant.
When you consider that the Bible was written by more than 40 separate authors and compiled from thousands of manuscripts, in different languages, over hundreds of years, from a variety of locations around the world, with little collaboration, and ultimately interpreted into hundreds of translations — there are bound to be ambiguities.
Given the endless array of unique components that went into its construction, the Bible is extremely complex in origin yet miraculously consistent in theme. But eventually, followers of Christ must wrestle with the fact that the Bible isn’t as neat as we want it to be.
Through academic study, apologetics, and theological training, Christians can put to rest many apparent biblical contradictions such as conflicting dates, times, and descriptions. But the most serious contradictions aren’t specifically textual — they’re ideological.
Even if you believe Scripture is inspired by God — as I do — there are major theological and philosophical hurdles that must be overcome. Oftentimes, there are no easy answers.
But Christians often cherry-pick the Bible, ripping the most inspirational and lovely verses out of context and plastering them on Facebook walls, Twitter feeds, and Tumblr pages. Very little attention is given to the darker verses, the stories that are sad, depressing, and horrendously ugly.
For example, how can we reconcile the loving person of Christ with the violent God of the Old Testament? How can God forgive the sins of the world yet kill a man for simply trying to stabilize the Ark of the Covenant (2 Sam. 6)? How can an unchanging God preach to us about loving our enemies yet facilitate the destruction of entire people groups — including children (Deut. 7:1-2; 20: 16-18)?
In modern marriage ceremonies, we use the Bible to recite verses about love and commitment, but some of the most “righteous” characters throughout scripture were polygamous (Gen. 16), adulterers (2 Sam. 11), and even performed incest (Gen. 38). In fact, hardly any examples of what we would now consider “godly” marriage can be found within the Bible.
We’re instructed to follow Christ’s example of being forgiving, patient, and kind, yet God immediately kills Lot’s wife for simply “looking back” at the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:26). A few chapters later God kills a man named Onan for failing to impregnate his dead brother’s wife (Genesis 38).
These stories are hard to explain, and they strike at the very center of our spirituality. As Christians, we are faced with a Bible that teaches us that God is seemingly peaceful and violent, caring and cold, kind and cruel, graceful and legalistic, patient and intolerant, forgiving and vengeful, good and bad.
Furthermore, biblical accounts that are filled with miracles, supernatural events, and unexplainable phenomenon directly contradict with our modern understanding of science and reason, pushing us to question the overall reliability of the Bible’s content. Can we trust something that is so unbelievable?
The old-fashioned traditions and customs of the Bible don’t just appear to contradict themselves, they radically contradict today’s culture and society and widely accepted morals.
Ultimately, all of these biblical issues force Christians to ask some huge questions: Is God real? Is God good? Is God relevant?
For years, Christians have resorted to using the Old vs. New Covenant as an explanation for the seemingly dramatic contradictions in God’s character. But to the average person — and Christian — this reasoning (no matter how legitimate it may be) often sounds foolish and confusing and unsatisfying.
In the end, rationalizing the violent and gruesome images of the Old Testament sounds like a bad excuse, where illogical and confusing theological antidotes are used as a failed effort at trying to save God’s reputation.
Is an intricate knowledge of biblical Jewish culture and history, combined with a fluent grasp of Hebrew, an expansive knowledge of scripture, a conviction that the Bible still applies to today’s world, and the belief in the supernatural all required to understand biblical contradictions? Maybe.
We often treat the Bible as an all-or-nothing decision, where we entirely accept or completely reject it. Many people totally discredit the Bible simply because they struggle with just a few contradictions. Will you?
To make matters worse, many people discard Christianity because Christians contradict the message of the Gospel itself. Instead of following Christ’s example of service, sacrifice, and love, we’re guilty of being hypocrites — hating, hurting, ignoring, and exploiting those around us.
The hard truth is that there are no simple solutions to these contradictions, and finding resolutions may require lots of time, energy, and work, but God desires that we try. Our faith is a journey filled with doubt, struggles, and trials. We may never find a satisfactory answer to our biggest questions, but that’s OK.
Throughout Jesus’ ministry, He continually admonished those who were the most certain about their faith — the Pharisees. They thought they knew everything and had all the answers. Ironically, the people who were the most unsure and desperate were the ones that Jesus used to change the world. Certainty and confidence don’t necessarily equate to holiness and righteousness. We must accept the Bible in its entirety instead of avoiding the hardest parts and embrace the idea that our faith will exist within the tension of these difficult dilemmas.
Stephen Mattson has contributed for Relevant Magazine and the Burnside Writer's Collective, and studied Youth Ministry at the Moody Bible Institute. He is now on staff at Northwestern College in St. Paul, Minn. Follow him on Twitter @mikta.