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Hitchens Wrong about Q, Hell (Twice), Nag Hammadi, Canon, and Tampering

By Mark D. Roberts | Saturday, June 9, 2007

Part 4 of series: god is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens: A Response
Permalink for this post / Permalink for this series

In yesterday’s post I pointed out three errors in Christopher Hitchens’s recent book, god is not Great. In today’s post I’ll deal briefly with six more errors. I’ll finish up with the next six on Monday.

Hitchens Mistaken About the Nature of Q

Hitchens writes:

The book on which all four [New Testament Gospels] may possibly have been based, known speculatively to scholars as “Q,” has been lost forever, which seems distinctly careless on the part of the god who is claimed to have “inspired” it. (112)

Q is a hypothetical document invented by New Testament scholars to explain the complex relationships between the three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Most New Testament scholars affirm the existence of Q or something like it, though quite a few find this hypothetical document to be unnecessary. (Hitchens would like the Ockham’s razor approach of these non-Q-ites!) I happen to believe that something like Q existed. If you’re looking for a more detailed explanation of what I have said so briefly, you can check out chapter five of my book, Can We Trust the Gospels? I’ll include here a chart that shows up in that chapter so you can see how the Gospels might be related to each other and to Q.

So what does Hitchens get wrong? Q is not the book on which all four [Gospels] may possibly have been based. No New Testament scholar believes this. By definition, Q contains that which almost never shows up in the Gospel of Mark, so nobody argues that Mark was based on Q. And, to my knowledge, nobody believes that John was based on Q either, though John may or may not have had access to another Sayings Source. Clearly, Hitchens does not understand the nature of Q.

I should also add, though I don’t count this among the fifteen errors, that nobody to my knowledge has ever argued that God inspired Q. The scholars who are enamored with Q tend not to think much in terms of God’s inspiration of the Bible anyway. And those of us who value inspiration don’t try to smuggle Q into the canon, though we regard it as a helpful source of Jesus’s sayings.

Hitchens Wrong in Saying that Only Jesus Mentioned Hell

Hitchens writes,

“This distinction [between the Old Testament and the New with respect to an ill-tempered god] is more apparent than real, since it is only in the reported observations of Jesus that we find any mention of hell and eternal punishment” (175).

Christopher Hitchens doesn’t like the idea of Hell. In this he is joined by many Christians, actually, including me. But we affirm the idea of Hell (in various forms and non-forms) because we find it taught in Scripture in many places. Jesus does mention Hell and eternal punishment, and in this Hitchens is correct (for example, Matthew 5:29-30). But the notion of Hell and/or post-mortem punishment shows up elsewhere in the New Testament (for example, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10; 2 Peter 2:4-10; Jude 7; Revelation 20:11-15).

Now I can just hear Hitchens laughing, believing that I have won the point but lost the argument. After all, he is an enthusiastic critic of the notion of Hell, and believes the whole idea of Hell gives good reason to reject both religion and God. My response to this would be three-fold:

1. I am not dealing now with the rightness or wrongness of Hell, but only with the rightness or wrongness of Hitchens’s purported statements of fact.

2. The biblical imagery of Hell, like biblical imagery associated with the apocalypse, should be read in context. Whatever Hell actually is, it may not be a literal lake of fire. The point of such imagery is, among other things, to help us to realize that what we do and think and believe in this life really matters, both for now and forever.

3. I expect that at some time in the future I’ll need to do some blogging on Hell. For now, if you’re wondering about what Hell is really all about, I’d encourage you to read The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis. This is also a wonderful book on heaven . . . a work of fiction that is full of truth.

Hitchens Wrong That Jesus Invented the Idea of Hell

Hitchens writes:

Not until the advent of the Prince of Peace do we hear of the ghastly idea of further punishing and torturing of the dead. (175-176)

Hitchens is right in part. The idea of Hell is not plainly taught in the Old Testament, but only hinted at (see, for example, Psalm 9:17). He also notes on page 176 that John the Baptist presages the notion of eternal judgment, fairly connecting John with the “advent of the Prince of Peace.”

But the idea of post-mortem punishment of evil-doers was not original to Jesus. We find this idea in Jewish writings that come from the time prior to and contemporaneous with Jesus. Many of these are apocalyptic in nature, and are not well known today. They would include: Apocalypse of Abraham 15:6-7; Apocalypse of Zephaniah 10:3-14; Sirach 12:9-10; 4 Ezra 7:75-101; Sibylline Oracles 1:100-103; 2:290-310. The precise dating of these books is difficult, but they show that Jesus was not unique among Jews of His day when He envisioned punishment beyond this life.

Hitchens Mistakes the Dating of the Nag Hammadi “Gospels”

He writes:

These scrolls were of the same period and provenance as many of the subsequent canonical and “authorized” Gospels, and have long gone under the collective name of “Gnostic.” (p. 112)

There is one nit-picky error here that I haven’t counted as a mistake. The Nag Hammadi documents are codices (ancient books) not scrolls. Sir Leigh Teabing made a similar error once, but I won’t go there now.

More to the point, the Gnostic writings were not “of the same period and provenance” as the canonical Gospels. Though there’s an open debate on the dating of the Gospel of Thomas, the likely dependence of Thomas on the New Testament Gospels places its composition later than the biblical varieties. (See the references below.) The rest of the Gnostic gospels were almost certainly written well after the biblical Gospels. Hitchens’s use of “subsequent” is particularly off base.

References for the dating of the Gospel of Thomas: K.R. Snodgrass, “The Gospel of Thomas: A Secondary Gospel,” Second Century 7 (1989-1990): 19-38; C. M. Tuckett, “Thomas and the Synoptics,” Novum Testamentum 30 (1988): 132-57; C. A. Evans, “Thomas, Gospel of” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments, ed. Ralph P. Martin and P. H. Davids (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Pres, 1997) 1175-1177.

Hitchens Wrongly Describes the Debate Over the Inspiration of the Gospels

He writes:

For a long time, there was incandescent debate over which of the “Gospels” should be regarded as divinely inspired. Some argued for these and some for others, and many a life was horribly lost on the proposition.” (113)

Once more, it feels as if I’m back debating Sir Leigh Teabing. Though there were a couple dozen so-called “Gospels” that did not end up in the Christian Bible, there is little evidence of much debate about which Gospels to include and which not to include. What’s pretty clear is that the orthodox had their four Gospels, and the Gnostics had their many “Gospels,” and they didn’t agree which were authoritative. But there wasn’t much debate between Gnostics and the orthodox. And what there might have been could hardly be called incandescent. As to the lives “horribly lost” part, this is so fantastic as to be laughable, except I don’t think it was meant as a joke by Hitchens.

If you’re looking for a succinct discussion of how the New Testament Gospels made it into the canon of Scripture, I’d recommend Chapter 15 of my book, Can We Trust the Gospels? This chapter is entitled: “Why Do We Have Only Four Gospels in the Bible?” For a more detailed discussion, check out F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture.

Hitchens Repeats Mencken’s Mistake Concerning Tampering With the New Testament Documents

He quotes H.L. Mencken approvingly (”Mencken irrefutably says”):

. . . and that most of them [the New Testament documents], the good along with the bad, show unmistakable signs of having been tampered with. (110).

One can only wonder what Mencken meant, and what Hitchens thinks he meant. The most charitable reading I can make of this claim is that the scribes didn’t get every word of the New Testament manuscripts correct. But tampering suggests something much more sinister and intentional than this, at least in most cases. The fact is that the New Testament documents, including the Gospels, are better attested than any documents of the ancient world, a fact I defend in Can We Trust the Gospels? You can read the relevant chapter online, if you wish (PDF file).

The passage from Mencken, quoted by Hitchens, appears in the book Treatise on the Gods, which was published in 1930. Like Hitchens, Mencken was a rhetorically-clever opponent of Christianity. But, contrary to Hitchens’s claim, Mencken did not write “irrefutably” on the New Testament. Cleverly? Yes. Accurately? No. Irrefutably? You’ve got to be kidding.

Topics: Hitchens: god is not Great |

38 Responses to “Hitchens Wrong about Q, Hell (Twice), Nag Hammadi, Canon, and Tampering”

  1. Chris Says:
    June 9th, 2007 at 3:48 am


    The substance of this particular post is very paltry indeed. You are misrepresenting Hitchens’s statement, (paraphrase) “not until gentle Jesus, meek and mild, do we come across the idea of hell.” The context in which Hitchens always states this is in comparing the old testament with the new. He’s not saying that hell is not mentioned by anyone else in the new testament, but rather, that in the context of the bible, it’s not until Jesus (i.e., the new testament) that we are inflicted with the idea of eternal punishment. Presumably, the other authors who mention hell in the new testament are mentioning it after Jesus did, so where’s the error?

    You had me going with the whole AD 4 business in your previous post, but after researching it, it wasn’t necessarily frivolous of Hitchens (perhaps a mistake on his part, or perhaps not). But, if you’re claiming to have found over a dozen errors, please make sure that they are errors (statements that can be verified or falsified) with at least a hint of glare to them, and not just things with which you disagree.

    Also, at the top of your posts you state that you have found 15 errors in god is not Great, but then, later in the post you say things such as: This isn’t really an error but… I’m being nitpicky about this error but I don’t count it as a mistake…

    If it’s an error, count it; if it’s a mistake, count it; if it’s not conclusively either, don’t. For the most part, what you give here are ostensible errors.


  2. Prairie_Dog Says:
    June 9th, 2007 at 5:46 am

    Is it unchristian of me to enjoy watching you make mincemeat of Christopher H?

  3. Clark Says:
    June 9th, 2007 at 8:05 am

    I’ve also been appalled at the very poor grasp of basic facts among this new crop of atheists.

    Hitchen’s point about there being no hell before Christ is intended to prove that Christianity made the world a darker, meaner place.

    But in fact, prior to Christianity, most religions (greek, roman) relegated EVERYONE to an underworld, which was invariably a dark and gloomy place, where everyone just sort of immersed themselves in the sorrow of being dead. They weren’t exactly punished, but no doubt most of them were nearly bored to death in such a place.

    Christianity, on the other hand, said that good people went to heaven, and bad people went to hell. Isn’t that a better, more just and humane view of things than just letting everyone go down to the same place, no matter what you do?

    Surely the Christian concept of death would fit more nicely with Hitchens’ rather sharp view of justice, where he wants bad people like Hitler and Pinochet to suffer, and good people like Jefferson and Thomas Paine to be rewarded.

    Or does he like the idea of Jefferson being forced to spend all eternity sitting next to Hitler, in a dark dank underworld, doing nothing much?

    I don’t think a serious person can argue that the Christian view of things was not an improvement over the older view.

    The only thing an atheist can say is that neither of these places (heaven or hell) exists, so you just can’t talk about it. But then they want to talk about it, to claim the practical effect of Christianity is to make us all poorer beings. But invariably, they must discuss only one aspect of the situation, and quickly change the subject before anyone can fully engage them with the facts.

    It’s a pretty sorry tactic for a “man of reason” to use, isn’t it?

  4. Brad Says:
    June 9th, 2007 at 8:24 am

    Pastor Roberts

    Thanks for the great work. Thanks for the interesting study.

    My point concerns some of the meanings translated from original texts. In the Old and New Testaments a couple of words are used that are now translated as hell. One of these words is “Sheol,” which I think may mean “in the ground” or something like that. The question is whether an in context meaning of the word sheole is merely buried or is in fact hell.

  5. greg Says:
    June 9th, 2007 at 8:27 am

    I found the interview curious in that Hitchens was completely focused on his point of view and his work to get to it. Roberts on the other hand, went beyond his book into broader discussion about what this means for (all) of us.

    A question I wished HH would have asked of Hitchens would be ‘ to what benefit is your work? that is, IF you sucessfully prove the athiest position, what benefit have you bestowed upon the world ? The next logical step in his argument is that everything is relative. Moral Relativism is what is undermining the entire world today. One could extent Hitchens logic and say that once his position is “proved” then the basic rule of law and tenants of society are ill founded since they are based upon Judeo-Chistian teachings. Therefore we de-volve to a paganistic society…one much like Moses found coming off Mt Sinai !!

    Point is - someone needs to put him on the spot and say (hypothetically) OK, I believe your premise. Now what ? My bet is that he wont have a clue beyond every man for themselves.

  6. Jim C Says:
    June 9th, 2007 at 8:39 am


    You say in your comment that Hell wasn’t mentioned until the time of Christ. Pastor Roberts clearly points to at least one reference in the old testament.


    My reading of Christianity (and I am a Christian) is that it’s not a matter of good going to heaven and bad going to hell. It’s a matter of do you believe in Jesus Christ as your savior, and have you repented of your sins. The bible clearly says that “works” will not get you to heaven.

    Jim C

  7. Robert Duquette Says:
    June 9th, 2007 at 9:19 am

    Clark says:
    Christianity, on the other hand, said that good people went to heaven, and bad people went to hell. Isn’t that a better, more just and humane view of things than just letting everyone go down to the same place, no matter what you do?

    No, Christianity says that believers go to Heaven and unbelievers go to Hell. For you to equate belief with good and unbelief with bad just shows how morally corrupt the whole idea of Christian redemption is. Good and bad have no place in Christian theology, if you really want to get down to brass tacks. If Jefferson will be sharing Hell with Hitler in your cosmology, then you’ll be sharing Heaven with Jeffrey Dahmer.

  8. John Underwood Says:
    June 9th, 2007 at 9:37 am

    As I’ve listened to Hitchens’ interviews on radio and TV I’m struck not so much with his clever debate as much as the vile, hateful “spirit” that oozes from his mouth. His manner is arrogant and pompous. One of the comments rightly suggests he is an imposter for a “man of reason” who changes the subject QUICKLY when pressed to engage on the facts. This aside, Hitchens seems to have a pretty clear concept of “good” vs. “evil” and cleary believes all things “Christian” are evil. How did he come by his standard? A man of reason would logically conclude there is no evil unless defined by the good. From whence cometh the good, Mr. Hichens? If there is no absolute truth in the world, you have no basis for argument. It appears you have bought the pernicious lie and “reasonably” defend it… to what end? You are proof there really exists puffed up, pontifical hooey.

  9. Clark Says:
    June 9th, 2007 at 10:02 am

    Robert: I think you misunderstood me. I said that Hitler and Jefferson would be sharing the same place under a paganistic, pre-Christian view, and that Hitchens would probably find such a result repugnant to his conscience, which he claims as his ultimate guide. Therefore his attempt to point to Christianity as the thing that degrades humanity is probably illogical, even in his own worldview.

    I wasn’t intending to make a theological point, and we could discuss faith versus works all day. (Sorry, I’m a Catholic. I guess you could tell)

    My real point was that it is better to have people go to heaven (a reward) or hell ( a sanction) no matter what the basis, rather than everyone ending up in a dark cold underworld - Which Hitchens seems to believe was a better belief for humanity than Christ’s supposed introduction of hell.

    My aim was to point out that even using Hitchens’ purely secular bases of argument, and without introducing religion, his ideas fail - under his own ground rules.

    As is usual with these neo-atheists, they discuss the negative (hell) and fail to mention that the corresponding postive (heaven) that is an integral part of a whole. Only by distorting and telling half-truths can they make their points.

    All of which is a rather cheap and shoddy way to win an argument. But that drive-by style of argument (sprinkled with a liberal dose of insults) is the only thing they have, since much of what they say doesn’t stand up under rigorous analysis.

  10. Richard Romano Says:
    June 9th, 2007 at 10:12 am

    Be prepared Pastor to have many kooks with lots of time on their hands, sometimes too much, and that they will post rubbish here without really looking at your arguments.

    Post #1 is a case in point — he nit picks over phrases, but glosses over the fact that Hitchens did indeed make mistakes. Honest mistakes? Probably, but I would argue that people who are angry seldom check their facts carefully — their only interest is in expressing their emotions, not presenting completely sound arguments.

    Good work Pastor Roberts, and God bless you :)

  11. Anthony J. DeFalco Says:
    June 9th, 2007 at 10:22 am

    Thank you Pastor Roberts for your trenchant response to C. Hitchens.
    I think it is essential to address these errors for the simple reason that he has such a big megaphone. Marginal christians without a strong gift of faith in Jesus Christ as the Risen Lord are most susceptible to his scurrilous rants. Hopefully these same will read and consider your responses.

  12. Christof Meyer Says:
    June 9th, 2007 at 11:17 am

    Robert (7)

    It’s always nice to see you post. I have a sad feeling that our very interesting debate from a WAAAAAY long time ago (what… two days ago?) is now too old to carry on. So, in the spirit of this discussion let me just say it’s very refreshing to see you in a very non-judgemental way, refuting arguments and not people. Positions are irrelevant, people - always relevant. So thanks for sticking to issues.

    One clarification though, I think you and Clark are either talking past each other, or grossly oversimplifying Christian doctrine. It’s not hard to do, considering how long we have been working on it, but surely you must admit that for Christians a “believer” is distinguished from a “non-believer” not simply by what club he’s in (Christian vs. everyone else), but by the way he responds to the work of God on earth throughout all time.

    As a former Catholic (I am Anglican, so we have a very similar canon of heavyweights) you must know that both the NT book of Roman’s (the concept that people who HAVEN’T heard the gospel will be judged by their response to the revelation they HAVE), St. Augustine (Plato is in heaven?), and C.S. Lewis (the Last Battle where the bad guys get accepted by Aslan) are all in agreement that Christianity isn’t a club; and therefore does not fit your description of it having an immoral understanding of redemption)… And the whole Hitler, Dahmer, Jefferson issue is quite a red herring I’d warrant.


  13. Mark D. Roberts Says:
    June 9th, 2007 at 11:46 am

    Friends, thanks for some good points, questions, etc. Sorry I can’t respond to each. The Hebrew notion of Sheol is a place (sort of) where people go after death. But in the Old Testament it’s not equivalent to Hell (a place of punishment). Sometimes the language of Sheol seems to be a poetic way of talking about death.

  14. Robert Duquette Says:
    June 9th, 2007 at 11:48 am

    Thanks for the compliment. Yes, I’m aiming at the ideas, and not the people. This gets back to my idea that morals aren’t derived from theologies or philosophies. The theist challenge to the atheist that without a belief in judgment and afterlife he has no reason to act good in life can be redirected right back at the Christian, for if salvation is granted to people as a gift, wholly unearned, and that all that is necessary is faith, then neither does a Christian have any need to be good. That Christians do act good just shows that they are not doing so as a logical deduction from their theology.

    The Anglican/Catholic view of salvation is different from the evangelical or reformed view, but faith, from what I can tell, is still a necessary, if not sufficient, requirement. I haven’t studied the latest word from Pope Benedict, so I don’t know where Catholic doctrine is now, whether he took the Church back to the stance of Vatican I, which definitely stated that salvation is through the Church alone. My parents grew up in the Vatican I church, and there was no nuance around the position that no non-Catholics would be finding their way to Heaven.

    I’ve tried to get a discussion going on the Great God Debate over at my blog, the Daily Duck. You’re welcome to join in.

  15. Evan Says:
    June 9th, 2007 at 11:55 am

    7. Robert Duquette: You have put a lot of thought into this and are very eloquent. I am hesitant to address anyone specifically, lest you think I am “calling you out,” because there is no “challenge” to be issued. Since this is not mathematics, there is really no way to have a dispositive resolution on these issues, but perhaps I can carry the conversation along and bring another perspective to things.

    From my human perspective, things get even murkier on the issue of Heaven that you mention, since Jesus says that there will be many who say to Him, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied, cast out devils and done many wonderful works in Your name? to whom He will say, Depart, I never knew you. (Matt 7:22-23)

    This is all part and parcel of the problem Hitchens has with Faith. Part of the problem is the way “belief” is now used. People “believe” in the Easter Bunny, or that Tinkerbelle will get well if you clap your hands. Clearly, Jesus is indicating that a “believer” will be one whom He recognizes as having a two-way relationship with Him. And if there is a God, God exists whether folks are clapping for Him or not. If He does not, all the clapping there is will not help. So “belief” is a flawed word, but it gets used, and to that extent, we are stuck with it.

    Another part of this problem is your notion that “Good and bad have no place in Christian theology.” I would urge that they do, and the verdict is that we are ALL “bad.” It is the claiming by faith of the sacrifice of Jesus’ life to redeem me that grants me to be looked upon by God the Father as He looks upon Jesus. Both Testaments are clear that there is not one of us who are “good,” but all have sinned and fallen short. Heaven will be populated exclusively by people who did not “deserve” to be there, but are there by Faith. It is not a matter of the Scales of Anubis— it is absolute purity or a bar to entrance. And nobody short of Jesus was ever absolutely pure, and it is His purity that we are allowed to participate in via Faith.

    But I think the bigger part of the problem Hitchens has is the very nature of “Faith.” Let me draw a very imperfect parallel to illustrate. One can observe the little fish that swim into sharks’ mouths and eat the little bits of meat and such stuck in the shark’s teeth and postulate, using your logical facilities, that over billions and billions of years, the little fish and the shark developed this symbiotic relationship. Or you can postulate, using your logical facilities, that sharks eat little fish all the time like popcorn, and that for such a symbiotic development to occur, it had to happen all at once, because the pool of still-trusting small fish would rapidly be depleted as they got chomped repeatedly, and that would argue for the so-called “Intelligent Design” model of things. I don’t want to debate that issue, but here is the point: no matter which way you may decide, you cannot “prove” it by scientific replication in a lab. You look at the evidence, use your logical facilities, and embrace a theory… by Faith. It cannot be “proven” in either direction. Sartre and Nietszche are excercising Faith that there is no God by this process as surely as Matthew and Luke are excercising Faith that there is. I have known folks who are aggressive toward Faith to think that Faith entails throwing your brains out the window and believing idiocy. Folks like C.S. Lewis demonstrate that you can have tremendous mental firepower and be a Christian. Hitchens is a very, very formidable intellect in his own right, and while I would disagree in varying measure with much of what he has said, I would not be so foolish as to consider him a moron for not having Faith in what I have Faith in. Frankly, he strikes me as having been deeply hurt somewhere along the way, and the emotion he most evokes is sympathy, and secondarily, admiration of his many gifts as a speaker and even as a thinker. But he is not an idiot for believing as he does.

    So my overarching point is that everyone goes through their best mental processes and has Faith in a worldview that has no possibility of being proven scientifically. You can be either a genius or a moron and come to what will one day objectively be proven to be “right,” ie, we are all eaten by worms and that is that, or we stand before God. Until it actually happens one way or the other, you act in Faith on your chosen outcome. There is no way to “know” either way, so Hitchens has Faith in non-Faith, if you will. He may be right, or he may be wrong, but it is still “Faith” at this point. That is not a palatable thought to many, but as I have thought it out, it seems to be the way it works out.

    Please take my comments as part of the ongoing conversation here, not some sort of rebuttal to the thoughts you have expressed. The totality of Christian Faith is vast and often nuanced. A satisfactory explanation of various aspects of it will be likewise not subject to fast answers (my attempt above being ample proof!) Dr. Roberts does yeoman work on this blog every day in that direction.

  16. Susan Says:
    June 9th, 2007 at 1:24 pm

    Me thinks Mr. Hitchens is joining the blog with post #1 under the name Chris.

  17. Robert Duquette Says:
    June 9th, 2007 at 2:26 pm

    Evan says:

    Another part of this problem is your notion that “Good and bad have no place in Christian theology.” I would urge that they do, and the verdict is that we are ALL “bad.”

    Evan, thanks for your response. But you prove my point in a backdoor way. It is like any other situation where some quality is said to belong to everything. As with art, if anything and everything can be art, if a urinal or a blank canvas or a pile of feces can be art, then nothing is art. The term distinguishes nothing.

    Your point demonstrates that Christianity rests on an extreme case of moral equivalence. When a white lie makes a person as guilty as murder does, then there really is no good and bad to apply to human affairs. But human affairs needs judgments of good and bad, we can’t form societies without it. It is precisely because men are imperfect that some scale of good and bad is needed to give moral direction.

    The morality that you ascribe to God, that only perfection is good, anything short is bad, would be useless in human affairs. We can’t live with such a morality. Morality is a human construct, something that human beings developed out of necessity.

  18. The Layman Says:
    June 9th, 2007 at 2:54 pm

    I am surprised that Pastor Mark D Roberts states that Psalm 19:7 has any hint of hell in it. To say that the Jewish word “sheol” means hell is an error foisted on the Bible by those scholars who want the issue of hell front and center, by suggesting its presence in the Old Testament. The word sheol translated hell in the passage Pastor Roberts cites simply means grave. There is no hint of hell anywhere in the passage. There is no hint of hell anywhere in the Old Testament.

  19. Evan Says:
    June 9th, 2007 at 3:22 pm

    17. Robert, you raise a good point. I think the answer lies in the notion of “Good and Evil” as regards “entrance into Heaven,” and “Good and Evil” as they touch on human conduct. You have mentioned both in regard to this post, but your analysis only fits on the latter as I see it.

    The summation of my point was that the best of human conduct ultimately will deviate from perfection, and perfection is the standard of entry into Heaven. Jesus is clear that no human effort will be successful; it is thus only through Faith in Him that you find perfection, and it is freely available.

    Here is where I think your analogy of Art does not work in the first context. I conceive of the analogy as Infection.

    Heaven is a pure, sterile environment, and any disease is not allowed.(Like situations where folks have received bone marrow transplants and the like and must be in a sterile environment for a while.) If you have any infection going on, you cannot enter. This is true whether it is a mild cold or TB, or if you have a blob of raw medical waste on you, you cannot enter. It is not “moral equivalence.” The standard of entry is perfection, and you either qualify or you don’t.

    Where your analogy is pertinent is in the context of a remark you made to someone else. “…if salvation is granted to people as a gift, wholly unearned, and that all that is necessary is faith, then neither does a Christian have any reason to be good.” Here, “Good and Evil” do come into play in degree, and a blank canvas, urinal, etc take on relevance, because as I mentioned prior, Salvation is a relationship, not a punchcard. I seriously doubt you have a relationship with God if the notion is, ‘I have ‘faith,’ therefore I am ’saved,’ so therefore I can commit any act of evil I desire.’ In the first instance is my citing of Jesus disowning some people who claimed to do great things in His name. In the second instance, there are many places in which Jesus measures your relationship to Him with obedience to his orders, such as John 14:15. It is disingenuous on an unimaginable scale to think that one can claim the mercy of God, achieved by the awful death of His Son, and then throw it back in His face and embark on a campaign of evil that would make Hitler, Stalin and Mao blush while wagging your Salvation Punchcard at Him. If you are not grateful, and thus obedient to your best efforts, I seriously doubt that “faith” has entered the picture. As a semantic exercise, it has some merit, but it is silly.

    Faith in God is ultimately a relationship. It is ultimately based on love. I have heard some folks go through a semantic excercise in which it ends up “legal” to marry one’s own daughter, but the whole notion is likewise ludicrous based on the relationship of love.

    If one claims to love Jesus, then one will attempt to follow His instructions. That is the Christian incentive to “be good.” Paul addressed the notion of “anything goes” when he wrote that “letting sin abound so that grace could abound all the more” is not to be done. God HAS given instructions as to what is Good or Evil precisely IN the context of human interaction, precisely for the reasons you cite. The rules are not arbitrary. Should you try to found a society based on doing the OPPOSITE of the Ten Commandments, for example, you have utter chaos.

    God has laid out the rules of Good and Evil in our conduct in society. For entrance into Heaven, God demands perfection, and has provided it for any that desire it. If I choose not to like it and refuse it, that is another matter. At least that is the way that I see it.

  20. The Layman Says:
    June 9th, 2007 at 3:47 pm

    When Jesus asks us to be perfect, he does not mean perfection as in sinlessness. He means perfection in love, as in loving our neighbors as ourselves, no matter who they are. Many mistake Biblical perfection as sinlessness which we cannot attain. If we cannot attain perfection, why would Jesus command it? The cop out is to say since we cannot be perfect, Jesus must mean that we must accept His own perfection.

    How do you achieve the perfection of Jesus? By simply believing that you are perfect? No way! The perfection of Jesus cannot be tranferred to anyone. The perfection of Jesus is the perfection of one who never sinned. That is not for us humans. The perfection we have as human beings is the perfection we attain through repentance for our sins, and choosing to do good works by loving our neighbors as ourselves. The two are not the same thing.

    When Jesus tells us to be perfect, he simply says we must not discriminate in love, because God doesn’t. And that is why God is perfect.

    Mat 5:43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy.’
    Mat 5:44 But I tell you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who mistreat you and persecute you,
    Mat 5:45 that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.
    Mat 5:46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same?
    Mat 5:47 If you only greet your friends, what more do you do than others? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same?
    Mat 5:48 Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.

    This is faith being expressed through works, because faith without works is DEAD!

  21. Arukiyomi Says:
    June 9th, 2007 at 4:48 pm

    To the Layman… you have argued a point which does not stand the test of scripture. I’ll simply leave one portion of it to counter what you have said:
    “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ just as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world that we would be holy and blameless before him in love…” Ephesians 1:3-4

    Moral and spiritual perfection is the inheritance and portion of everyone who trusts in Christ. For us to dwell with him and for him to dwell in us, this must be so if he is in fact a holy God.

  22. Chris Says:
    June 9th, 2007 at 5:16 pm


    The first post is mine, and I’m definitely not Christopher Hitchens. Also, he would most likely sign off as Christopher instead of Chris.


  23. The Layman Says:
    June 9th, 2007 at 5:19 pm

    Arukiyomi: To the Layman…you have argued a point which does not stand the test of scripture.

    Which point are you referring to? The Bible is very clear on the teaching of Jesus concerning salvation and the Christian life, and it cannot be confused in any way.

    Jesus makes this clear, “If you CONTINUE in my teaching, then you truly are my disciple.” John 8:31

    There are some Christians who hope to inherit the righteousness of Christ for their salvation, and they hang their hope on the so-called “imputed righteousness,” i.e., the righteousness of Christ being “imputed” to them. In other words, no need for them to do right. Just believe in the imputation!

    It is sometimes easy to misunderstand what Paul is talking about and to mistake his meaning about certain phrases, but the Bible is very consistent in the teaching concerning salvation.

    Pastor Mark D Roberts himself made a mistake when he claimed that Psalms 9:17 referred to hell. There is simply no teaching about hell in the Jewish Old Testament scriptures, not a single line or word.

    Jesus has already done his own work of salvation by dying on the cross to reconcile us back to God. His righteous is the righteousness of one who lived a sinless life. That is what qualified him to earn us our salvation and reconcile the world back to God. Human beings don’t need the righteousness of sinlessness. We all need the righteousness that come through repentance for our sins. The Bible is crystal clear about this.

    Jesus is not going to live a righteous life for us. That is our part to do, otherwise we will have to blame Him in the end for our failure to attain Salvation.

    Paul understood this perfectly when he said:

    1Co 9:27 But I keep my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.

    Paul understood perfectly that he had work to do to endure till the end.

  24. Arukiyomi Says:
    June 9th, 2007 at 5:38 pm

    @ Layman: While what you have said may have valid points, you have not even acknowledged having read what I’ve written.

    I’m sorry I didn’t reference which specific point you were referring to. It was this: you wrote that Jesus does not mean perfection as in sinlessness. Could you reconcile your point with the scripture reference I’ve quoted which refers to the purpose of God in reconciling us to himself as being our blamelessness and holiness i.e. sinlessness.

  25. The Layman Says:
    June 9th, 2007 at 5:50 pm

    Read the passage Mathew 5: 43-48. It ends with the definition of perfection, according to Jesus, not me. It gives the context, then says, “therefore be perfect, just as your father in heaven is perfect.”

    It is logical to say that if you cannot inherit sin, you cannot inherit righteousness. The Old Testament teaching of visiting the sins of the father upon the children to the 3rd and 4th generation (2nd commandment) is not a New Testament teaching.

    Blamelessness and holiness do not mean sinlessness. It simply means repentance for our sins, the same way Paul repented. Afterall Paul kept saying he was the worst of sinners, but he had hope for salvation because he repented for his sins. This is what make a sinner blameless and holy; forgiveness from God for your sins.

    There is no difficulty in understanding this concept. God doesn’t look upon the sinner as if he never sinned, instead God looks upon the sinner as one who has sinned and repented, and forgives him.

  26. TM Says:
    June 9th, 2007 at 6:02 pm

    While reading this blog I was struck by the irony of Mr Hitchens given name - odd that he never changed it to something other than “Christ-bearer”!

  27. Neil Ferguson Says:
    June 9th, 2007 at 8:22 pm


    It is a little known but interesting fact that in the case of Sir Leigh Teabing’s name, “gh” is pronounced “f” as in “enough” and the “n” is is silent; his name is pronounced “Sir Leaf Teabag”.

    Neil Ferguson

  28. Corrie Says:
    June 9th, 2007 at 9:05 pm

    Evan - thank you for your posts; you’ve saved me much time.

    There are two Hebrew words commonly translated as “Hell” (especially in the KJV, which critics love for its many inaccuracies). “Sheol” means, “the grave” or, “the place of the dead.”

    “Gehenna” refers to the Valley of Hinnom, aka the Jerusalem Municipal Dump, which was filled with noxious odors and the smoldering flames and choking smoke of rotting garbage in spontaneous combustion.

    Jewish thought did not exclude the idea of an afterlife; after all, the Pharisees believed in a general resurrection. Jesus taught a parable about the poor man after he died resting in the bosom of Abraham while the rich man cried out for a drop of water. This indicates that concept of reward and punishment existed in contemporary Jewish culture.

  29. Arukiyomi Says:
    June 9th, 2007 at 9:30 pm

    Okay layman… I’m not going to post any more. Again, you’ve ignored the scripture I raised in comparison to the one you originally posted. ATB.

  30. David Kleykamp Says:
    June 9th, 2007 at 9:56 pm

    I thought the most telling moment of the “Great God Debate” was when Mr.Hitchins confessed that he was a secular humanist. Sadly, I suppose that means the value of human life is determined by consensus. Life is some chemical formula…that’s all. Physics in your face. But, surely Mr. Hitchins understands Love and Commitment. I noticed that he mentioned that he has a daughter. Surely he feels a transcendent care for her. Where do all these feelings come from if not from a spirit? You cannot begin to say “I love you” using mathematics. No, religion does not poison everything. Religion will always be our last great hope that Life does have meaning. Hope, not scientific fact.

  31. Greg McNew Says:
    June 9th, 2007 at 10:06 pm

    Dr. Roberts,

    I enjoyed the debate Wednesday, and while your willingness to concede a few points wasn’t enough to win against Christopher Hitchens, it shows that your corrections of his mistakes and exaggerations aren’t purely partisan. I’m an atheist who doesn’t share Hitchens’ blanket antipathy to religion, and as a member of the demographic who his book (which I haven’t read) is taken to represent, I’m disappointed that he’s made at least one mistake (about Q) that I myself could have corrected six months after getting a B in a freshman-level course on the Christian scriptures.

    Concerning Hell, I find the common doctrine (which pictures a place of endless, conscious misery for the unsaved) completely repugnant and unjust, and I think any morally decent person has to feel the same way to some extent — it might not be very biblical for God to merely wipe the unsaved out of existence, but at least it wouldn’t be immoral of him to do so. I’d be interested to read your future post on Hell, even if you only echo Lewis’s views, and especially if you can reconcile the moral perfection of God and the horror of Hell without the tired cop-out that both are true and we just aren’t wise enough to understand how that could be the case. “It’s not a contradiction, it’s a paradox” has never been a satisfactory answer to me, if it is an answer at all.

    Thanks for your posts. I hope your fellow Christians, and I, can learn from your kind approach to just criticism.


  32. Saxon Harding Says:
    June 10th, 2007 at 6:09 am

    It seems to me much of this debate rotates around how you conceive of “God”. If you think, as I do, that this concept has evolved over time as the average person’s ability to think more abstractly has developed, then a lot of contradictions disappear. Starting as the group projection of a stern leader who kept his believers in line the better to create solidarity, it progressed, as society progressed to wiser, more merciful concepts which emphasized the inevitable reciprocity of human interaction, the punishment of evil and principles and reasons to combat destructive practices such as incest, hatred and so on.
    With the confluence of many academic disciplines today, a new vision is developing - the idea of an over-arching set of principles that drives the whole known universe and, retrospectively, makes sense of our individual lives even if this rule set doesn’t necessarily offer much immediate comfort. In this view, heaven becomes the peace of mind one gains from “doing the right thing” and hell is the frustration,loneliness, anguish and self-righteousness of alienating those who might have loved you.
    But as with any topic,how you conceive of “God” makes quite a difference to how you debate. If you think as some seem to, that there is a real entity who sits in judgment and runs the universe and caused the Bible to be written and so on, then the ordinary standards of proof, willy-nilly, come into play. This entity must, as a powerful ruler, be consistent since to think otherwise casts his omnipotence into question. So, the inconsistencies become important and we get debates about whether Hitchens’ arguments are valid if he makes a few statements that experts don’t support.
    If you think there is no ruler but, instead, we are all contributing to an understanding of the ever-more inclusive rules that drive everything, then you argue as Hitchens does that the current set of rules leaves a lot to be desired. And you insist that the literalists confront the consequences of their stance.
    But, whatever the state of your thinking and whatever God is or isn’t, for sure, striving to make the world a better place is part of the rule set.

  33. Evan Says:
    June 10th, 2007 at 10:47 am

    32. Saxon Harding: I always appreciate a discussion that focuses on the merits and avoids stridency, and your entry methodically lays out how you see things to discuss in that fashion. Well done.

    As I noted before, this is not mathematics, so there is no objective way to “prove” anything as such, so please do not think I am doing anything more than offering my own thoughts in the same manner as you have. (I often make this disclaimer since prose is a risky way to communicate–very often fraught with misunderstanding.) So this is how I see it:

    The Christian views Good and Evil as unchanging, because God defines Good, and He does not change.

    Societies, in contrast, seem to change as time rolls along. The Christian points to God as the standard and argues that conformity to God’s standard should be the norm. The standard never changes. It is like the North Star— you can navigate relative to the fixed point, because the point does not move.

    Not to put too fine a point on it, but when there has been an issue that Christians have disagreed over, the ultimate consensus came because the comprehension and understanding of what God has said improved, not because God has announced a change in the moral scheme of things.

    Any discussion of this ends up being voluminous because particulars get raised and get addressed. I tend to be verbose as it is, but let me try to give an example to illustrate the concept. The Christian notion is that the life of each individual has worth because Jesus died for them. Jesus makes abundantly clear that He seeks every individual; indeed, in the parable of the Good Shepherd, the Good Shepherd leaves to flock to search high and low for the one missing sheep, whom He retrieves. His death on the cross is a personal substitution.

    The notion of each individual being important works its way into our ideas of jurisprudence via Due Process and the Bill of Rights.

    But here is my point. The Christian points to the unchanging declarations of God as the basis for how to act. There have been disagreements (some bad faith, as I see it) over what therefore results, but there is no question as to what reference point is being used. Without an eternal fixed reference point, my study of the matter leads me to conclude you wind up with Nietzsche’s Will to Power: If you have the power, you make the rules, there is no Right or Wrong, only what those with power declare it to be. There is no “universal” Good or Evil to refer to, only each person’s own interpretation, which is no better or worse than the next person’s, so the powerful dictate the standard.

    Christians can explore what the standard set by God might mean, but there is agreement as to the standard being discussed. Without that eternal fixed point of reference, I find it logically difficult to come up with any universal standards that are not “arbitrary,” since they are derived from finite humans, and “who is to say YOUR standard is any more legitimate than MY standard” as the argument goes.

    This is not a dispositive argument; I merely seek to illustrate the problem. If the eternal, unchanging Creator sets the standard, it has some logical basis to claim primacy that a human standard would not. That does not “prove” anything as such, but that is where I as a Christian come from looking at this issue. And I hope I laid it out as thoughtfully as you laid out your perspective.

  34. Robert Duquette Says:
    June 10th, 2007 at 10:58 am

    Evan says:
    Christians can explore what the standard set by God might mean, but there is agreement as to the standard being discussed. Without that eternal fixed point of reference, I find it logically difficult to come up with any universal standards that are not “arbitrary,” since they are derived from finite humans, and “who is to say YOUR standard is any more legitimate than MY standard” as the argument goes.

    But the fixed standard hasn’t resolved the dilemma of your standard/my standard, because as you point out you still have to figure out what the standard says. You can’t use the North Star as a guide if you can’t locate the right star. Saying “God is the standard” is so general that it is practically useless. History bears this out. “My standard” is no different than “My interpretation of God’s standard”.

  35. The Layman Says:
    June 10th, 2007 at 8:41 pm

    Arukiymi, I apologize if I have not responded to your scripture quote to your satisfaction. I perceive the reason is probably that I am speculating on what you want me to respond to. I thought I answered by my response to blamelessness and holiness. Maybe you are referring to the issue of being “chosen before the foundation of the world.”

    If by being “chosen before the foundation of the world” you mean that some people are chosen for salvation and others for destruction even before they are created, I see that as a doctrine that is unsupportable by any Biblical text or context. It is a suggestion that people are condemned even before they are created, before they have committed any sin. I find that to be unbiblical and I try never to spend time debating it.

    Perhaps Saxon Harding presents the most logical and rational understanding of God that I have read on these posts. God does change, as our perceptions of Him change, and our understanding of Him improves. He changes not because He has really changed, but because we learn to discard teachings about God that become too ridiculous to sustain in light of clearer understanding.

    And so the earth is no longer 6,000 years old and Blacks no longer have the mark of Cain and other ridiculous beliefs that were once considered as absolute truths. God changes because knowledge relegates these kinds of beliefs to the fringe, and therefore we are no longer bombarded on a daily basis with these errors.

    That is why the Bible is divided into an Old Testament and a New Testament. It is really a pretext for suggesting that there is an old and new understanding. Those who wrote the books of the Bible never knew that what they wrote would be separated into old or new. Truth is never old or new. Truth is truth. The world has always been round even if at some time some thought it was flat, and found scripture to support it.

    And stridency is in the eye of the beholder. The most strident of statements is to believe that my knowledge of God is the only or absolute truth. It leads us not only to devalue the experience of others but to distort even the knowledge we already have. So the statement of Jesus that “I am the way, the truth and the life, no man comes to the Father except through me” becomes easily interpreted as “my religion is the only way,” or “my denomination is the only way” or “my doctrine is the only way.” The latter do not derive from the former.

    After listening to the debate between Hitchens and Pastor Mark D Roberts, I came away with the feeling that Hitchens defended his positions quite well. Perhaps if Hitchens had been made to understand God from Saxon Harding’s perspective, he probably would have come to the conclusion that God is indeed great.

  36. Brad Says:
    June 11th, 2007 at 12:21 am

    If Mr. Hitchens were able to prove that the concepts of hell were invented by Jesus it would prove not disprove the divinity of Christ. After all, it was Jesus that brought us a new and unexpected path from original sin. Unbounded free will gives us the choice to take that path or the path to hell. Repugnant yes; unfair no. It’s our choice, not God’s. God does not send us to hell, we walk there of our own volition. Would we demand that free will be rescinded?

    The Bible says we were created in the image of God. The Bible gives us an Example to follow. The Bible gives us rules to follow. Either the Bible is right or it’s wrong.

    Studying the commentary of others, be they Sartre, Nietszche, Pastor Roberts or Mr. Hitchens (or each other) can be interesting and helpful. Still, you either see God as He is revealed in the Bible, or you make up a new god for yourself. Mr. Hitchens sees the God of the Bible, and shakes his fist at Him. What choice will you make?

  37. *Ken Says:
    June 14th, 2007 at 12:10 pm

    Dr. R.,

    your not-picking on these topics is telling, you can’t see the forest for the trees. It’s like you are taking the scattershpot approach and hopin g the greater themes get lost … but they don’t.

    That Q is not the source of all of the gospels is not as important as that they are mostly derivative and liley corrupted.

    That reminds on of your defense of non-literate history telling and how you claim these oral historians were expert at staying consistant … you contradict yourself here, since there was writing at that time, there are plently of texts from that time and even handwritten texts change over time as all biblical scholars know. The contradiction is here you use written tests top defend, but were there are gaos you use the amazing ( and false ) accuracy of oral tradition to back you up.

    Of course you assume that all this passing down of the stories was meant to be taken as fact and not myth … how do you know this crucial fact, perhaps the original story tellers felt they were passing on a great mythic tale that contained good life lessons.

    and why so hung up on HELL, Hitchens stands correct but you bring up this one point as two errors.


  38. БaкинcкийPoмaн Says:
    July 13th, 2009 at 7:39 pm

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