Contradiction or Paradox?
God Is Both/And…Not Either/Or
The paradox is the source of the thinker’s passion…the thinker without a paradox is like a lover without feeling: a paltry mediocrity. - Sören Kierkegaard
Unthinking faith is a curious offering to be made to the creator of the human mind. - John Hutchinson
Religious skeptics have long used apparent contradictions in the Bible—and there are many—to discredit Christian faith. “How can a rational person believe something that is so full of holes?” they continue to ask, even after centuries of debate.
In some cases, those who challenge the reliability of Scripture have to search diligently to locate a clear case of one verse contradicting another—or at least, seeming to contradict each other. Verses that appear to be at odds with one another often were penned by different writers and were recorded hundreds of years apart. But consider the following passage in Proverbs. Here are two consecutive verses that, from all outside appearances, tell us to do completely opposite things.
When arguing with fools, don’t answer their foolish arguments, or you will become as foolish as they are. When arguing with fools, be sure to answer their foolish arguments, or they will become wise in their own estimation.1
So which is it: Answer a fool or don’t answer a fool? We are commanded to do both! Adding to the drama are the consequences for ignoring either command. The price for ignoring the first command is that we become just as foolish as the fool. This one exacts a personal cost. However, disobeying the second command also brings a serious consequence: The blockheads end up thinking they’re geniuses, and the whole world withers a little more. This hurts the foolish one as well as those who follow that person.
Unlike most biblical paradoxes, these are written consecutively, the first taking us in one direction, the second slamming us to a stop and spinning us 180 degrees. It’s as if God wants to highlight for us the inescapable fact that there are, indeed, paradoxes in his written Word. If one half of a paradox is hiding in Habakkuk and the other in Philemon, we can easily miss it or just choose to ignore it. But when they are together, as in these Proverbs verses, there simply is no way to dodge them.
Since we can’t avoid this one, we will explore in the following chapter the paradox of answering fools and not answering fools. Do answer them. Don’t answer them. What an irresistable riddle!
To rephrase the famous words of Charles Dickens, a paradox is the best of things and the worst of things, and it’s both of these at the same time. It is the best of ideas for those who want big answers that destroy their prejudices, and it is the worst of ideas for those who want small answers that confirm their prejudices.
Thumb through your Bible and you’ll be overwhelmed by paradoxes. Resist your enemies and love them. Ignore hypocritical spiritual leaders and obey them.
Forget what’s in your past and be careful to remember. Flee from evil and stand firm against it. Don’t judge and judge rightly. And that just begins to scratch the surface. We can exercise our own free will, but we are chosen by God. We are saved by faith, not by doing good deeds, but there is no faith if there are no works. We are to keep a reverential distance from God while at the same time barging right into his throne room.
Given the prevalence of biblical paradoxes, what are we supposed to believe? And more, how are we supposed to behave?
If the Bible’s paradoxes were limited to apparent contradictions regarding our own behavior, at least we’d have to navigate in only one sea of confusion.
But Scripture doesn’t stop there. Even God’s nature and his work in the world are riddled with apparent contradictions. God remembers our sins no more but will make us give an account for every idle word we utter. He is unchanging, but then again he can change in response to our prayers. He loathes the wicked, and he loves them so much that he sent his Son to die for these abhorrent people.
Jesus’ teachings, and his person, are paradoxical as well. He is called the Prince of Peace, but he said most emphatically that he didn’t come to bring peace. He tells us to be innocent as doves and yet to be shrewd and constantly on our guard. He exhorts us both to give without expectation of return and to give to gain friends for ourselves. He warns us that a wicked generation asks for signs, and then he gives us sign after sign. His thoughts are immeasurably above ours, and yet we have the mind of Christ. “Brilliant, untamed, tender, creative, merciful, slippery, loving, irreducible, paradoxically humble”2—this is Jesus!
If you read the Bible carefully and accept it as God’s truth, then you can’t avoid the reality of paradoxes. They are lurking everywhere, and on almost every conceivable issue that is important to our lives. I’m convinced that God cannot be understood apart from paradox. Skeptics have wrongly painted the paradoxes as contradictions and have tried to use seeming inconsistencies to call God’s character into question. If they can prove that what God says is confusing and incoherent, they can then portray him as a confusing and incoherent deity.
However, paradox is far different from contradiction. As we explore biblical paradoxes we actually find a deeper, richer portrait of God emerging. The apparent contradictions, when rightly interpreted, unlock our understanding of God. He is paradoxical but never inconsistent or incoherent. When we face the Bible’s paradoxes without flinching, we find a better way to relate to the God who reveals himself to us through mystery and paradox. As Thomas Mann reminded us, the opposite of a great truth is also a great truth. A paradox is an interweaving of two great and opposite truths.
A good place to begin our quest is to define the problem. Understanding paradox will help us clarify the most important questions and then discover a multitude of life-enriching answers.
A simple dictionary definition describes paradox as “a seemingly contradictory statement that may nonetheless be true.”3
The first point to understand is that a paradox is true. The whole thing. It is a challenging, mysterious marriage between two apparently incompatible ideas. It’s true, but it keeps screaming at us, “I’m false and contradictory!” The combination of a true core with a false appearance is the essence of paradox. Let’s first eliminate some things that are not paradoxes.
There are statements that are true and seem true. These are not paradoxes.
When the Bible tells us that all humans will die, it is not only true, it rings true with everything we see in the world. We don’t like it, but we can’t deny it.
Then there are statements that are false and seem false to most of us. These, too, are not paradoxes; they are simply lies. “Those who hold different beliefs should be converted by force”; “Nonwhites are a lower creation than whites”; “Jews, gypsies, and certain other groups should be eradicated.” Throughout history, those who insist that such lies are true—such as the crusaders of the Middle Ages, slaveholders in antebellum America, and Hitler’s Nazi regime—end up being trampled by the inescapable lunacy of their positions. When a sufficient number of right-thinking individuals wake up to the truth, the nightmare of the lie disappears.
The Bible reports falsehoods that are clearly false, such as the deception that was pulled off by Joseph’s brothers after they sold him into slavery. When they returned home without their brother, they produced a blood-stained garment, leading their father, Jacob, to believe that his son had been killed by a wild animal. 4 Such accounts in Scripture show us the consequences of lies and deception.
Finally, as we consider what a paradox is not, there are statements that are false but seem true, such as “malaria and yellow fever are caused by bad vapors and gases in the air” (accepted as truth for centuries) or “things in the world are so bad these must definitely be the last days” (a recurring “certainty” through the millenniums, with many incidences of erroneous dates set for Christ’s return).
These are not paradoxes but falsehoods and illusions, which show that our perception of reality is often impaired, perhaps severely. They can even be fatal illusions, as tens of thousands discovered while helping to build the Panama Canal without taking precautions against the mosquito, even though scientific papers had long identified this insect as the carrier of malaria.5
For those who set dates for the return of Christ, claiming this is the worst the world has ever been, a simple review of the fourteenth century would put things into perspective. That was the era of the Black Death and other unstoppable plagues, recurring famines, brigands controlling the highways, widespread serfdom and slavery, the Hundred Years’ War, and a church hierarchy so corrupt that many in positions of power weren’t even Christian. The world today is in the worst shape it’s ever been? Far from it.
Sadly, some statements that masquerade as truth are dressed up in a facade of religious language—such as the recurring date-setting for the return of Christ. But with or without religious language, such assertions are falsehoods, not paradoxes.
A paradox is something altogether different. It is a complex statement that is true—all of it, both sides, no matter how mismatched they might seem. But because the truth is so big, or because we are so little, it just seems false and contradictory.
If we are unwilling to stretch ourselves by engaging biblical paradox, we’ll end up being tiny in our beliefs about God, and because of that, tiny in our influence for the kingdom of God. We will spend part of the time confused and the rest of the time searching for something that will explain away the paradox.
This tendency, all too common in religious circles, leads many to adopt unhealthy and extreme positions. Whole churches have been formed to maintain a focus on only half a paradox. If we aren’t willing to embrace paradox—not just dabble in it or accept its existence, but embrace it—we will miss the opportunity to build a big life out of a full-size faith in a colossal God.
We can’t go very far in our pursuit of paradox without talking about contradictions. And as we do so, we encounter two types of contradictions: real and apparent. A paradox is an apparent contradiction, since it only seems that one half of the statement must be false. Our rational minds prefer to believe the absolute, universal validity of “if A, then not B.” For example, if an animal is a cow, then it can’t also be a horse. When we encounter opposing ideas, we often assume they can’t be brought into resolution. But if we cling to this assumption, we’ll miss a big part of who God is and how he operates in our world.
Because paradoxes in Scripture present themselves as apparent contradictions, it’s harder for us to see the truth that dwells there. The two sides of the paradox grate on our minds, and the friction causes so much discomfort that we turn away. Or perhaps worse, we take one of the strands firmly in our grasp and ignore the other. This is more comfortable than wrestling with paradox—and more deadly, since it leads to unbiblical extremes.
As humans, we seem to be designed to search for order and harmony. This can be both an asset and a liability. It’s an asset if we patiently continue to seek the whole truth. It’s a glaring liability if we gloss over passages that seem to conflict and stop when we have found only a part of the truth. We stop because we don’t want to think that hard, or because we want to hang on to the comfort we have in our current belief system. When we stop short of embracing biblical paradox, we cheat ourselves out of a deeper relationship with God. God reveals himself through paradox in part to remind us that he is far above simple formulas of logic.
As we explore the Bible’s paradoxes in the chapters that follow, we will draw on the following important ideas.
We shouldn’t confuse paradox with actual contradictions. To contradict means “to assert or express the opposite of [a statement]; to deny the statement of; to be contrary to; be inconsistent with.”6 A real contradiction presents two ideas in fundamental conflict—two opposing ideas that can’t be brought into resolution.
They simply clash. We can say, “God is just” or “God is unjust,” but we can’t say both with any credibility. God is either just or he is unjust, but he can’t be both. Hypocrisy is perhaps the most common form of real contradiction. If we say that we love animals but we treat them with cruelty, we are contradicting what we say by what we do. We cannot be holy and deliberately sinning at the same time. We can act holy while we are sinning, but this is hypocrisy.
While real contradictions are impossible to reconcile, paradoxes are merely difficult to reconcile.
People have developed many real contradictions. These man-made contradictions often are presented as “mysteries” so they can be sold as the truth. In the most harmful variety, these contradictions merge Bible concepts with added bits and pieces for effect. Since a human-manufactured contradiction screams against our minds and our faith, those who invent it have to sell it as a mystery. “Relax,” they soothe. “It’s just bigger than you.”
Here’s an example. We’re instructed in the Bible to testify about our faith in God, to evangelize by proclaiming the gospel so that people can hear the truth and believe. And we’re told in the Bible that any who choose not to believe will also be choosing (automatically) a very tough afterlife apart from God. These are both true statements.
The contradiction that many have created out of these concepts is this: If we fail to evangelize a certain individual, it will be our fault if he or she goes to hell.
The unbiblical contradiction? It’s each person’s responsibility to make the right choice regarding God, but somehow it’s our responsibility if someone else happens to make the wrong choice.
This contradiction is often used to push people into supporting new ministry initiatives or giving more money to their churches. The contradiction of dual responsibility for a person’s commitment to God can lead to great pride if we take credit for “leading others to Christ” and also to great guilt if we fail in this venture.
But how can anyone’s eternal future depend on another frail human being? How could a just God send a lost soul to hell because a church member decided to sleep in on Saturday morning rather than going door-to-door in the neighborhood to distribute gospel tracts? A person’s eternal fate is based on his or her own decisions about God, not on whether a certain Christian remembers to share the gospel on a certain day. If we won’t proclaim the love of God, he will send someone else. If necessary, he’ll intervene directly.7
We’re responsible for our disobedience, but other people are responsible for their own souls. We’re responsible if we fail to act on the prompting of the Holy Spirit to go to them with the gospel, but they’re responsible if they choose not to come to God. We’ll miss the blessing, but they will still have full opportunity to decide.
It is a human-made contradiction that says the burden of salvation is on each individual and somehow also on everyone else. There is no mystery involved; it’s simply a guilt trip designed to strong-arm churchgoers into volunteering more time or getting behind the pastor’s new church-growth strategy.
God is certainly big enough to get his message out, even if many of his children are lazy about doing their part.8
Such religious contradictions can seem legitimate, but they are manufactured and false. When our minds are repelled by these concocted contradictions, we need to say, “This isn’t a mystery. It’s nonsense.” These ideas aren’t bigger than we are; they’re dumber than we are.
The text of Scripture does indeed include plenty of apparent contradictions.
They deliver confusion to the listless and ammunition to the atheists. Some are so glaring and fierce that they practically demand we shun them. Let’s face it: Some of these are hard. They can be frustrating. If we’re not careful, they can even threaten to derail our faith.
The only answer is to stare them in the face. “We have the mind of Christ.”9 If we ask the Holy Spirit to show us the way, he will do it. I think, perhaps, that he will even enjoy it.
Since the Holy Spirit cannot contradict himself, we can be confident that the Bible has no real contradictions. God is complicated but consistent. Coherence is there, but we have to look for it.
“The point of each part only becomes fully clear when seen in relation to the rest,” wrote J. I. Packer. “[This means] not setting text against text or supposing apparent contradictions to be real ones, but seeking rather to let one passage throw light on another, in the certainty that there is in Scripture a perfect agreement between part and part, which careful study will be able to bring out.”10
The key to interpreting biblical paradoxes is careful study. God’s treasure chest isn’t opened for anyone who won’t take the time to find the key.
Why are biblical paradoxes so unsettling? Is it because they are so bold in their seemingly conflicting assertions, threatening to cast doubt on the reliability of Scripture and of God himself? Or is it because we’re afraid of what we might find—that some of these are not apparent contradictions after all, but real contradictions that show God to be an unstable deity who can’t seem to make up his mind? Or, even more unsettling, will these paradoxes tell us something about God that we don’t want to know? Perhaps we’ll find that he is not truly a God of love and mercy. Or is it simply that we want things uncomplicated, easy to understand, and supportive of our own pet desires and prejudices?
Distressing or not, the many paradoxes in Scripture cannot be ignored if we are to be complete in our faith. If we don’t examine and understand them, they will linger in the back of our minds, haunting our faith. “If a man wishes to avoid the disturbing effect of paradoxes,” wrote Elton Trueblood, “the best advice is for him to leave the Christian faith alone.”11
If we don’t face the reasons that make us avoid paradoxes, we’ll never have the clarity or the courage to examine them for the truth they hold.
Perhaps the main reason we struggle with paradox is in itself a paradox, namely the paradox of faith and reason. We may struggle because paradoxes seem so intellectually dense, and we want to be people of faith, not intellect. Or perhaps the opposite is true. We want to be thinking Christians, yet there is so much in paradoxes that must be taken in faith and simply believed.
But the two are not mutually exclusive. We don’t study to take the place of faith, but rather to strengthen our faith. We want to know more so we can believe more. And we want to trust more, so we can question and verify more.
This is not a faithless intellectual quest but a search for understanding that builds our faith. The Christian life requires both. We need to use and delight in both our faith and our reason.
Scripture teaches that faith is being “sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”12 These paradoxes are high walls. We can scale them, but only when we take faith in one hand and reason in the other.
Why isn’t God more straightforward in his revelation? Why doesn’t his Word follow a simple outline so that we all can easily understand it? Part of the answer may be a bit unsettling: We saw earlier that “it is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings.”13
Our God is a God of mystery and intrigue. He loves to create mysteries for us to search out and enjoy. He hides things from us so that we can find them.
And God’s tendency to conceal things isn’t just a periodic hobby. Concealing things is God’s glory. There is good reason for him to reveal himself gradually: He is so magnificent and extraordinary that if we discovered him in his fullness all at once it would probably stop our hearts.
Thankfully, God does make some things “plain” to us,14 but it adds to his renown to cloak much of the truth.
Jesus drills this point home and then adds another twist: The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?”
He replied, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them.… This is why I speak to them in parables: ‘Though seeing they do not see; though hearing they do not hear or understand.’
In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: ‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’”15
This is one incredible passage. What was Jesus really telling his disciples, and what is he telling us? That he uses parables to conceal the truth. He hides things in stories so that people will have to listen with their spirits and not just with their logic. And here’s the frightening twist: He works very hard to keep the truth forever away from those who choose to be hard of hearing and hard of heart. If we don’t want to hear it in the way he lays it out, we’ll never hear it at all.
Children love stories, and they’re crazy about mysteries. Parables are stories that often contain a mystery. When Jesus tells us that we have to become like little children, he doesn’t just mean that we need childlike faith and innocence; he means that we need to come at life and truth like little children, looking for the “stories” and unraveling the mystery that lies inside them. We need a passion for the mystery.
Professor Howard Gardner, in his book Leading Minds, tells us that inside every adult is a child who loves to hear stories and responds to them in a way unlike anything else.16 That’s the spirit that we have to bring to the exploration of paradoxes in Scripture.
Saint Augustine, a leading theologian of the early church, speculated that God allows casual hearers to misunderstand him “to conquer pride by work and to combat disdain in our minds.… Those things which are easily discovered seem frequently to become worthless.”17We value most the knowledge we must struggle to acquire.
And here is perhaps the most direct answer to why God doesn’t put the truth in a simple outline form. It’s because the truth isn’t simple. God’s magnificence and wisdom are infinite, so great that they can’t be expressed in neat, snappy sound bites. If you want a simple, easy-to-explain god, then you’ll have to look in books other than the Bible.
To be sure, a paradox is a mountain. But as someone has asked, is it greater to move molehills a mile or mountains an inch?
One more issue we have to consider is the matter of being “black and white” in our thinking. That expression has been used as both a point of pride and as a point of condemnation. “She is absolutely black and white” can mean she has chosen her principles and firmly stands on them, or it can mean she is rigid and dogmatic and recognizes none of the complexities or ambiguities of life.
But let’s take a different slant on this issue. Let’s start with a few questions:
• Is Jesus God or man?
• Did Jews or Gentiles kill Jesus?
• Which part of Scripture, the Old or the New Testament, emphasizes the importance of God’s law?
• Which part of Scripture, the Old or the New Testament, emphasizes the importance of salvation by faith in God’s grace?
Take a moment to consider your answers.
The short but complicated answer to each of these questions is both. Jesus is both God and man. This is orthodox Christian doctrine. But the difficulty in understanding this teaching has driven many people to pick one over the other.
Entire heresies and whole new religions have been built on one side or the other of this incarnational paradox.
As to the second question, Jews (Sadducees and Pharisees and teachers of the law) and Gentiles (Romans) killed Jesus. The Messiah didn’t arrive in Judea until after the Gentiles did. God structured the event so that both “divisions” of humankind, both Jews and Gentiles, share responsibility. In fact, it was not only both of those groups that killed Jesus—it was you and I as well.
When it comes to teachings on law and grace, both Testaments of the Bible emphasize both teachings. We don’t see the books of Scripture that were recorded prior to Jesus’ ministry on earth stressing God’s law and judgment alone, with Scripture that follows Jesus’ years on earth introducing us to grace. Both parts of Scripture do both.18
As we examine biblical paradox, we find that God is both/and—both sides of the paradox are true. The alternative interpretation is either/or—the conviction that either this idea or that idea is true, but not both. This view does not leave us with half a truth; it leaves us with a lie. God is not just or loving. He is both just and loving. When studying this both/and nature of paradox, we discover not confusion but more truth than we had previously grasped.
What is often called black-and-white thinking is really black-or-white thinking. We are called to resist black-or-white thinking so we can embrace the paradox of true black-and-white thinking. We are called to take both sides of the truth and hang on for dear life.
Learning to think in black-and-white terms does not mean we settle for a neutral, meaningless gray or that we compromise our beliefs. It means we keep both sides of the paradox clearly in view, even as we try to find the new truth that resides in the middle—the via media, the middle way. We don’t overlook the black, and we don’t let go of the white, and because of that we end up with the whole black and the whole white—and something more as well. Holding both strands in balance to find the greater truth is the core principle of halakic reasoning.
As you explore major paradoxes in Scripture, you’ll come to a much more practical faith. You will be able to relate to a God who is an actual person, like you in many ways, because he made you to be like him. Your prayer life will change, your confidence in your faith will grow, and your effectiveness for the kingdom will be magnified. You will become clearer on how to judge people and situations and how to deal with evil and those who do evil. You will run your race with greater purpose because you will have gone inside the core of reality.
You will understand a whole lot more and wonder a whole lot less. As Helen Keller observed, life is either the greatest of adventures or it is nothing at all.
At the same time, you will almost certainly come to a loftier view of God. You will wonder a whole lot more, and, yes, you’ll understand a whole lot less than you thought you did before. You’ll see that God is more astounding, more transcendent, and more breathtaking than you ever imagined. You will be drawn into a more remarkable sense of mystery as you discover that “the supreme paradox of all thought is the attempt to discover something that thought cannot think.”19
The Bible can sometimes come across as a choir that has no harmony. We hear all the voices, but they don’t mesh. We try to follow the score, but it seems to wander and circle around. It exasperates us.
When we face the troubling paradoxes of Scripture, we can take the easy route of focusing on one of the two sides and ignoring the other. We can pursue this course by selective Bible reading and choosing books that support what we already believe. We can try to reduce God to manageable size and pretend that there is no mystery left, that God is fully explainable.
Or we can take paradox for what it is, a collection of interlocking pieces of a celestial puzzle. We can spend the rest of our lives striving to learn and know and grow, and never get all the way there. But think how much deeper our faith will grow as a result of the journey! This is the only choice that gives us deep hope and clear direction.
Paradoxes are inherent in the nature of God and in the world he has created.
They can, at some very deep level, be understood. But at the same time, they are so complex and astounding that we can never fully explain them. So let’s start asking different types of questions about God—questions that will lead to a new type of answer, a both/and answer. This is the answer that doesn’t settle all debates, but it does reveal how the pieces of the puzzle could fit together.
As you struggle with the paradoxes of Scripture, find one that hits you where you are right now, and go after it—fearlessly. In our study together, we will discover together that God is understandable, beyond our wildest hopes. We will also discover that God is stunningly unfathomable, beyond our wildest dreams.
1. What do you think God is trying to get across to us with the paradox found in Proverbs about answering and not answering fools?
2. How would you define a paradox? How is it different from a contradiction?
3. How do you feel about the idea of God concealing truth? Does it frustrate you and make you angry, or does it capture your interest and fire your curiosity? Why?
4. What do you think about the need for true black-and-white thinking? Where do you stand on the issue of the both/and approach to paradox?