Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Is the Bible Theologically Inconsistent?

Atheists often argue that the Bible contradicts itself. And I'm not talking about slight variations in the gospel accounts. That can be explained by the fact that eyewitness accounts often differ because our perceptions are fallible. I'm talking about actual theological inconsistencies. Is it true?

It's important not to dismiss the question by becoming defensive. There is an element of truth to it. The Bible appears to say one thing, and then it goes on to say almost exactly the opposite, sometimes in the same chapter of the same book. Take Romans 8, for example. Verses 38-39 say: "For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord." That is one of the eternal security passages. Nothing can separate us from God's love. 

But wait--go back a few verses to 13-14. "If you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God." Whoa! All of a sudden we are faced with a condition. Am I putting to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit? (I'll come clean and confess that there's a large empty bottle of Frappuccino next to me on the desk.) Whatever happened to eternal security? The same Paul who said those wonderful words of Romans 8:38-39 also penned 1 Corinthians 9:27: "I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified." Paul disqualified? 

I will stop for a moment to address those who say that the Bible is inconsistent. Ironically, the apparent inconsistencies are within the books. You'll find remarkable consistency between them if you dig deep enough, and the whole Bible is one cohesive story. It starts with the fall--when the human race was cut off from God and the life he gives. Then we see God trying to govern his wayward children with the Law, while prophets forecast something better. The climax of the story is when God himself becomes one of us and takes all of our guilt upon himself on the cross. The story ends with his gracious invitation: "Let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes take the water of life without cost." (Revelation 22:17)

But moving back to the inconsistencies; as Christians it's important that we not gloss over them. They are called paradoxes and they're not there by accident. They exist because God's word is living and dynamic. You can think of it as a 3-D movie that you need special glasses to enjoy. Those glasses are the Holy Spirit. He alone brings the word of God to life for us and makes sense of it. 

If we are led by the Spirit, He will reveal to us that salvation can be a free gift as well as something that requires a response from us. Jesus opened the way into the Holy of Holies for us when he died on the cross. But what if we prefer not to enter in? What if we have made peace with our sins and would rather not give them up? Then we reject the gift, just as surely as it is possible for us to live in poverty after finding out that we have inherited millions of dollars. We may insist that we believe the money exists, and we may gaze at the bank statements and follow our investments. But if the money sits untouched, we might as well not have inherited it.

I remember watching our kids learn to swim and thinking how similar it is to walking in faith. If we don't learn to swim, we will drown in deep water. However, learning to swim requires relaxation as well as effort. First we have to trust that the water won't hurt us. Then we have to discipline ourselves to learn the different strokes and become more proficient at them. But all along we have to keep a healthy respect for water. 

It is very important to understand about God's great love for us, and how he will never forsake us. But at the same time, we as a culture need to relearn the fear of the Lord--or a healthy respect for him. Otherwise we become like children who jump into a deep pool and die. As C.S. Lewis says in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe--Aslan is not a safe lion, but he is good.

It may seem like we need a doctorate in theology to understand these paradoxes, but our religion is actually very simple. Jesus tells us to come to him and receive the abundant life he has to give. If we do that, everything else falls into place. God's presence is the eye of the storm.

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