A paradox is a seeming contradiction that, when properly understood, may prove true. The Bible uses paradox at times to explore the full scope and nuance of truth. One of the most famous paradoxes in the Bible is the teaching that God is triune: there is one God who eternally exists in three Persons.
Some examples of paradox in the Bible occur within the same verse. These statements seem, at first blush, to be self-contradictory:
Each of these paradoxes is meant to contrast an earthly view with a heavenly view. There is a difference between our material situation and our spiritual reality, although we experience both at the same time.
The book of Proverbs contains paradox among its wise sayings. One example is Proverbs 11:24, which says, “There is one who scatters, yet increases more” (NKJV). John Bunyan picked up on this truth, putting this paradoxical couplet in the mouth of old Honest in The Pilgrim’s Progress: “A man there was, though some did count him mad, / The more he cast away, the more he had.” How can a person get rid of stuff, yet have more? Wisdom has the answer.
Another example of paradox in Proverbs is found in sequential verses: “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself” (Proverbs 26:4, ESV) seems to be contradicted in the next verse: “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes” (Proverbs 26:5, ESV). It’s up to the reader to discern the meaning of these instructions and solve the paradox.
Paul uses a quote from the poet Epimenides, “One of Crete’s own prophets has said it: ‘Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons’” (Titus 1:12), which presents a paradox. Epimenides was himself a Cretan, and so his statement that Cretans are “always liars” seems self-contradictory. Is Epimenides telling the truth about his own lying? How can there be a truth-telling liar? Or is it possible that his paradoxical description of his countrymen is both true and false, in certain respects?
Other examples of paradox in the Bible are found in separate passages that seem to teach opposing ideas:
One of the most perplexing paradoxes in the Bible concerns the interplay of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. We see this in the matter of salvation: John 1:12 says, “To those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God”; but then John 1:13 describes those children as “born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” So, which is it? One verse says that we must believe to be saved, and the next verse says it’s not our decision, but God’s. It’s a paradox, but both verses are true.
We see a similar paradox in Matthew 18:7: “Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come!” This statement has us pondering some riddles: if offenses “must” come, does that mean they are ordained of God and out of our hands? And if there is woe pronounced against the person through whom the offenses come, does that mean he acted freely and is responsible?
In the Bible we are confronted with paradoxes such as a virgin birth, justified sinners, rich poor men, and happy mourners. The use of paradox in the Bible is startling at times, but it reveals a deep spiritual richness and beauty. Paradox causes us to take time to reflect on the meaning of certain passages and investigate the truth, which is sometimes complex.
Every time we sing “Amazing Grace” by John Newton, we vocalize the paradox of grace: