Did Jesus contradict himself in John's Gospel?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture 

Question: In the Gospel of John, Jesus SEEMS to contradict Himself. Can you explain some of these alleged contradictions? In John 11:24-26, first Jesus says, "He who believes in me, though he may die, he shall live." Then he goes on to say, "Whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die." So, are we going to die or not? Then in John 5:19-22 we read where "The Son can nothing of Himself; but what He sees the Father do” and  "For the Father judges no one, but has committed all judgment to the Son.” So, I suppose the question is, how can Jesus judge when the Father doesn't judge if he does only what the Father does. Also, how can Jesus say that He is the one doing the judging yet in John 12:47 it says that He has not come to judge but to save?

Answer: Greetings, friend. I will be happy to respond to your questions today. First, let me commend you on your stance that these statements only seem to be contradictory. Bravo! That is indeed where we begin. You see, many people who send us questions do not like the Bible or do not believe it to be true, so we have to build a platform of trust — which is quite a bit of work. But you’ve indicated that you trust the Bible and are merely looking to unscramble the phrases that seem contradictory on the surface. This is (comparatively) light work, so let us begin by examining your first example.

“Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25–26, NKJV)

You have asked concerning this passage, are we going to die or not? Yes, we will indeed die, because Jesus said, “though he may die…” And, no we will not die, because Jesus said, “And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die.”

Among other issues, there is a style issue here. Jesus went out of his way to play with the words a bit. To emphasize a contrast, he used similar words that mean different things but kept them in close orbit. The result (IMO) is one of the most compelling passages in all of Scripture. Of course, a reader will not feel the tension unless he knows that there are three different types of death in the Bible, so the following is a brief description of each.

First, we have our bodily (our physical) death, which is the one everybody participates in…but not merely participates. We all have an appointment with it.

“And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment,” (Hebrews 9:27, NKJV)

Second, there is a spiritual death. This is the death of the soul. Believers do not participate in this death. The verse below shows both cases. We believers will only die in body, but not in soul, whereas non-believers will die in both.

“And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28, NKJV)

Third, there is a second death, which is future to today but will also only involve those who oppose Jesus. Satan, his minions, nonbelievers, hell, and death itself will finally be dispatched. Yes, even death will die.

“Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over such the second death has no power…” (Revelation 20:6, NKJV)

To unscramble John 11:24-25, we only need the first two types of death, and you can probably see the answer already. We will all die (physically), but we believers will never die (spiritually). Where it counts, which is spiritually, we will never die, since the soul continues to live right through our bodily deaths. See? No conflict. Just a clever turn of phrase from a more than clever guy, Jesus. Now let us turn our focus to the judgments.

“Then Jesus answered and said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He sees the Father do; for whatever He does, the Son also does in like manner. For the Father loves the Son, and shows Him all things that He Himself does; and He will show Him greater works than these, that you may marvel. For as the Father raises the dead and gives life to them, even so the Son gives life to whom He will. For the Father judges no one, but has committed all judgment to the Son, that all should honor the Son just as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him. “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life.” (John 5:19–24, NKJV)

Frankly, friend (and you are not alone in this, believe me), you’ve got the language screwed down too tightly. Relax. Breathe… and give God a break. This is normal language, not a programmer’s code. You cannot force a sentence of broad introduction to act as a restrictor to its own explanation. Here is what I mean by that.

Context, of course, is king. No word and no sentence have any meaning outside of context. So, what is going on in this paragraph? Jesus is teaching about his relationship to the Father, but for what purpose? To show how a believer escapes judgment. He does this through the Son but under the imprint of the Father. That’s what the phrase the Son also does in like manner is about. It is not a behavioral restriction. It is a description of the unity between Jesus and the Father. So, as the paragraph develops, so does the theme of familial cooperation, and one of the ways they cooperate is that the Father gives overall judgment to the Son — and look at the result. Believers are free from condemnation.

In the future, consider this rule for sentences: Sentences that work together in a paragraph to explain or expand an introductory theme should not be understood, no matter what the wording, to be in contradiction with the introductory sentences. And more broadly, just because certain words appear in Bible sentences somewhere, does not mean that they impact the same words in Bible phrases everywhere. All words and phrases must respond to context, and no word or phrase has meaning without it.

Let us move on to your other issue with Jesus’ judgment. Just as there was more than one type of death, so there is more than one type of judgment. To remain biblically level, we must always understand which judgment is in focus. For instance, you mentioned this verse.

“And if anyone hears My words and does not believe, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world.” (John 12:47, NKJV)

The following verse explains why Jesus does not judge some people.

“He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” (John 3:18, NKJV)

All unbelievers come to Jesus having already been condemned to death, so what is left to judge? Nothing. It would make no sense to judge a condemned man. is it any problem, therefore, that Jesus did not come to judge the non-judgeable? Hardly. So why mention it? Here again, Jesus goes for the contrast as a literary tool. He mentions judgment to set up its only alternative — salvation. That is what he came to do — to save, not to judge. But you cannot consider this phrase as globally restrictive of Jesus' judgment, because he will indeed continue to judge everything else. Therefore, there is no conflict concerning his role as a judge.

First of all, Jesus has two huge future judgments to administer. At the Great White Throne of Judgment (Revelation 20:11-14), he will sentence all the unbelievers and ungodly elements to eternal separation from us. We believers are free from that judgment, but we are not totally off the hook. Every believer will get the once-over at the Judgment Seat of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:10) — not for condemnation (we are free from that [Romans 8:1]) — but to assign or withhold rewards depending on our performance as believers. As you can see, this has a different flavor from a criminal judgment. It is more like a performance evaluation at work, which is a categorically different type of judgment from the condemnation kind. Note that the nations themselves will be judged, too, so one cannot say the Jesus will not or cannot judge at all, because it’s a huge part of his job description! But be acutely aware that Jesus does not judge people for salvation. Saving means bringing people back from the dead. Our salvation has no deservedness component, so just as the already condemned are categorically non-judgeable, so are the saved… but Jesus’ non-judging status is limited to this arena.

This ends my explanation of the ostensive contradictions, although I will continue with some comments concerning these types of misinterpretations.

Concerning reading: I admire your reasoning ability, in that you picked out elements, the words of which, might contradict other elements. This is clever. But the fact that you understood them as contradictory is troubling. The problem is not one of theology or even logic. It’s plain old reading. Not Run, Spot, run! but the next step, the kind where you learn about words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, context and their rules for their common use. These should be squared away before high school. Try reading more… as a reader. Relax and absorb the story. The Bible is God’s written word. There is no other document like it! But just because it boasts divine authorship does not mean that he used a language structure that is different from other literature. God used common men and their common language to write uncommon things…yet the common rules apply. Relax, pray, read. Relax, pray, read…

Concerning contradiction: Passages of Scripture cannot be said to be contradictory as long as there is a reasonable solution to the apparent conflict. Please note that I am not saying that we have to arrive at absolute truth to unscramble anything. On the contrary. Contradiction and non-contradiction are merely elements of a logic puzzle, and as such, they only need to work in their own world. That being said, all writing is accountable to logic, and this includes Scripture. But the elements of logic merely require us to join concepts congruently. They do not require intrinsic theological correctness, although we cannot reach such correctness without their help. The idea here is to give God the break. There are no contradictions, so don’t invent any.

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