Don’t many people, who have given up on the Christian churches, just see inconsistencies in the Bible? Maybe. But the footballer Darren Bent doesn’t mind. He reads the Bible every day before he gets up and finds this has helped him cope with missing out on England’s Euro 2012 squad through injury. What makes this story newsworthy is how unusual this is in this day and age in Britain.
Examples of inconsistencies in the Bible
I would suggest it is true that there are numerous inconsistencies in the Bible. For example in some verses we read that God gets angry, punishes, and even takes delight in destroying wicked people, yet in others we are told God is the source of love, compassion and mercy.
The Old and New Testaments declare they are giving voice to God’s words. This is stated over 3,000 times, throughout the text in various ways. But, one wonders whether the writers of this material were lying or deluded to make this claim. The inconsistencies in the Bible don’t appear to sit well with the notion of infallible truth.
Inconsistencies in the Bible only as to its literal sense
In the eighteenth century, the spiritual philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg, claimed that the scriptural contradictions that can be found are more apparent than real. He thought that often the deeper meaning of what God was trying to put across was sometimes veiled by a literal sense of the verses suited to the mental grasp of individuals with limited spiritual understanding. Hence the inconsistencies in the Bible.
A modern circumstance comes to mind. Parents may speak sharply to young children, who put their hands near electric wall sockets. In this way loving parents, wanting to protect a toddler from electrocution, pretend to be angry. And despite what has been called permissiveness in the home, sometimes older kids need to be punished, perhaps by having privileges temporarily taken away, as a way of demonstrating right from wrong to them.
Similarly, the argument goes, no amount of reasonable explanation of what they are doing is bad will get through to some delinquents. We say ‘actions speak louder than words’ and so the only thing that may be understood is punishment — a fine, community service or even a custodial sentence.
Likewise, if it is to communicate with people, doesn’t the Bible also need to speak their language and also to link in with their own ethical and spiritual ideas?
We are told about God’s punishment and wrath in response to certain actions. Swedenborg maintained that in this way spiritual lessons can be learned. For by believing that God is angry and punishes, a person also believes that God sees every single thing and that immoral actions have serious consequences.
Deeper meaning in the Bible
However, Swedenborg suggests that there is also a deeper meaning of verses that talk of God punishing. Rather than it being God who punishes and condemns you when you behave badly, it is you who brings some degree of punishment and criticism on yourself. When criminals are sent to prison, the tabloids proclaim they are simply getting their just desserts. It is the reading public who condemns. And when conscientious individuals break their own rules of conduct, they guiltily think that suffering the consequence is no more than they deserve. They blame themselves. It is not really God who punishes and condemns at all. The deeper message is about a loving Father of all who wants us to learn how best to live our lives even if this means learning the hard way.
Perhaps many with a historical Christian background have an inkling of the hidden spiritual value in the scriptures. The first Norwegian translation of the Bible for 30 years topped that country’s book charts almost every week for 3 months after publication. It can’t just be actively religious Christians who are buying it because it just wouldn’t make these numbers.
Inconsistencies in the Bible due to accommodating its message to the listener
What appears to be true to one person may be quite different for another. Many writers know that it is not enough to know your stuff but you also need to know your readers if you wish to convey your ideas effectively. A clever politician in his speech to the party conference will slowly lead up to a new policy. He starts off where his audience is at, their understanding of issues and then shows how the new proposal ties in with the old, not replacing it but evolving from it. In other words working within the terms of their persuasions and even their illusions.
According to Swedenborg, the Bible also needs to accommodate to the persuasions and illusions of its readers. If the message is not in accord to how things appear to us we are likely to reject it. We simply do not see how it links in with what we know. We reject deep ideas that are not in line with our understanding and experience.
Swedenborg’s conclusion? That the inconsistencies in the Bible demonstrate degrees of meaning. That there is an appearance of truth in the literal sense which at times hides a deeper truth that can be sensed by those able to receive an enlightened understanding.
He says that the Bible is written in such a way that all its readers have the potential of taking something useful from its verses. In this way the primitive and simplistic things we find in the sense of the letter can communicate a deeper spiritual message if we know how to find it. No need to throw the baby out with the bath water by rejecting what we read on the surface as superstitious nonsense but rather we are encouraged to look for a deeper meaning.
Copyright 2013 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems