Deconstructing Christian Apologetics

The following is a response to points made by a Baptist pastor (Jonathan) during our debate over the concepts of heaven and hell at a Skeptics in the Pub event in 2016. The pastor maintained, using entirely theological arguments unsupported by any actual history, that ideas of the afterlife are original to the Jewish tradition. I argued, using scholarly references, that ideas of an afterlife in heaven and hell did not emerge until circa 167 BCE as an existential reaction to the socio-political upheaval caused by the Maccabean Revolt, with these new beliefs encapsulated within the Book of Daniel and the only reference to resurrection in the entire Hebrew Bible, Daniel 12:2.

Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.

The fluid nature of the debate precluded a thorough and detailed refutation of a number of his more evangelically biased assertions at the time, and so here I provide a post-debate breakdown of his apologetic arguments.

Dating the Book of Daniel

Jonathan: For a long time, 50–70 years ago, it was a very normal thing for people to get around and date Daniel at 167…now it’s actually very few people who would hold that particular date for Daniel, for historical and archaeological reasons.

Moderator: From a Christian perspective, Jonathan, is there a concern about the time that these books are written and the order that they are presented?

Jonathan: In a sense, no. And, this is in terms of the theory that is being put forward to this type of dating, which, I don’t think, based on the evidence, is correct.

Over against that, the date of 167 is troublesome now, because some of you have heard of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Qumran community. When they uncovered the Dead Sea Scrolls you’ll know this was overlapping the same period as the Maccabees and the Hasmoneans, and so when they located this, if the theory about Daniel being so late is true, Daniel would be separate from the other documents and it probably wouldn’t be in there because it’s the same period. But, in the Dead Sea Scrolls, Daniel was already part of the codices, part of the documents, which means it was already part of the accepted Scriptures before the 167 date that Jason gave.

What I am trying to say to all of you is the accepted scholarship…are towards an earlier date of Daniel…

…So, now it’s the chance to say, well do I date it late, because I find the theology inconvenient…

Dana Carvey as the Church Lady (Saturday Night Live)

…or do I date it earlier, because all the evidence demands that I do so?

Let’s examine his claims.

One: These “very few people who would hold that particular date for Daniel” are actually the overwhelming majority of leading academic scholars:

As John Collins, Holmes Professor of Old Testament Criticism and Interpretation at Yale University, pointed out in his email to me, quite emphatically, “No legitimate biblical scholar” accepts the points with which the pastor attempted to bluff the audience into believing comprise the majority of “accepted scholarship.”

Two: The claim that “the accepted scholarship…is towards an earlier date of Daniel,” was made as a completely unqualified, unsubstantiated, and baseless statement of fact without reference or citation to back it up.

The pastor never stated who these mysterious scholars were who give Daniel an earlier date, he simply claimed, with the certitude of his religious convictions, that this was the case. However, a brief internet search turned up what he claimed constitutes the majority of current [cough] scholarly opinion. An organization known as The Associates for Biblical Research, a wholly evangelical and literal-minded group led by a young Earth creationist who follows the ‘Bible in one hand, spade in the other approach,’ states the following on their website:

Associates for Biblical Research

The ABR are not exactly applying rigorous methodologies to produce unbiased, legitimate results. Presupposing the answer, before finding the evidence, is hardly credible scholarship; especially when they make up such wholesale fabrications as this:

Most importantly, the existence of Daniel in the DSS disproves the skeptical position that Daniel was originally written in the 2nd century BC. This position has been taken by skeptics to avoid the detailed prophecies in Daniel that ultimately came to pass, strong evidence for the divine authorship of Scripture.

As the pastor did in his assertion above, the ABR provide no substantiation for “the detailed prophecies in Daniel that…came to pass,” they just assert, without evidence, that they did.

Christopher Hitchens

Daniel - only apocalyptic book of the Old Testament

Later in the debate, I mentioned that Daniel was the only book in the Old Testament that is entirely concerned with the End-Times. The pastor took exception to my claim, citing apocalyptic passages from other books, which I pointed out were isolated passages; whereas I was citing Professor Collins again:

Daniel contains the only example in the Hebrew Bible of the apocalyptic genre that was of great importance for ancient Judaism and early Christianity.

A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible

Christian knowledge beyond a basic understanding

Jason: How many Christians are actually doing that? How many are questioning and looking at the scholarship?

Jonathan: I can only speak for myself, and I am here to represent that minority.

Jason: So, it would be a minority?

Jonathan: No.


University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies:

The Bible is the most widely purchased, extensively read, and deeply revered book in the history of Western Civilization. Arguably it is also the most thoroughly misunderstood, especially by the lay reading public.

Scholars of the Bible have made significant progress in understanding the Bible over the past two hundred years, building on archaeological discoveries, advances in our knowledge of the ancient Hebrew and Greek languages in which the books of Scripture were originally written, and deep and penetrating historical, literary, and textual analyses. This is a massive scholarly endeavor. . .

. . . Yet such views of the Bible are virtually unknown among the population at large. In no small measure this is because those of us who spend our professional lives studying the Bible have not done a good job communicating this knowledge to the general public and because many pastors who learned this material in seminary have, for a variety of reasons, not shared it with their parishioners once they have taken up positions in the church. . . . As a result, not only are most Americans (increasingly) ignorant of the contents of the Bible, but they are almost completely in the dark about what scholars have been saying about the Bible for the past two centuries.

Bart Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted

Tufts University, Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy & Co-Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies:

Even some conservative seminaries staff their courses on the Bible with professors who are trained in textual criticism, the historical methods of biblical scholarship, and what is taught in those courses is not what the young seminarians learned in Sunday school, even in the more liberal churches. In seminary they were introduced to many of the details that have been gleaned by centuries of painstaking research about how various ancient texts came to be written, copied, translated, and, after considerable jockeying and logrolling, eventually assembled into the Bible we read today. It is hard if not impossible to square these new facts with the idea that the Bible is in all its particulars a true account of actual events, let alone the inerrant word of God. It is interesting that all our pastors report the same pattern of response among their fellow students: some were fascinated, but others angrily rejected what their professors tried to teach them. Whatever their initial response to these unsettling revelations, the cat was out of the bag and both liberals and literals discerned the need to conceal their knowledge about the history of Christianity from their congregations.

Daniel Dennett, Preachers Who Are Not Believers

References to hell in the Old & New Testaments

Jason: There are no references to hell in the Old Testament.

Jonathan: In the Old Testament we have a variety of terms that people usually understand as hell; the usual one is translated as Sheol. You know the first appearance of that?

Jason: Yes, but what was it originally? What did it become?

Jonathan: The first appearance of that is in Deuteronomy…

(Actually, the first appearance is Genesis 37:35 — I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning. Thus his father bewailed Joseph.)

…and it’s the idea of not just hell as a grave, which is where it is very often used, but also as an idea of punishment and burning.

Jason: Not in Deuteronomy it’s not!

Jonathan: If you look, there is a reference there.

Jason: The concept of Sheol as a shadowy netherworld exists in the Old Testament. But, not once does hell show up as a place of punishment. Not once!

Moderator: That’s a fairly strong claim.

Jonathan: I disagree and I would love to give examples, but the rules of the debate state I can’t use my Bible. Deuteronomy, the first occurrence; you can look there. You can also look in Numbers to see the punishment aspect of it there.

So, let’s look in the passages the pastor alluded to and see what they actually say:

Deuteronomy 32:22 — For a fire is kindled by my anger, and burns to the depths of Sheol; it devours the earth and its increase, and sets on fire the foundations of the mountains.

Numbers 16:30, 33 — But if the Lord creates something new, and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up, with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, then you shall know that these men have despised the Lord. . . . So they with all that belonged to them went down alive into Sheol; the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly.

These references are not, in any way, related to a place of punishment and torment. Here the pastor was really stretching the truth. The first reference has absolutely nothing to do with death and/or punishment. The second merely refers to perishing; there is nothing about eternal torment. I am left with the conclusion that the pastor is: a) either ignorant of what these passages actually state; or, b) he is used to making false assertions of scripture to his congregation which go unchallenged and thought the same tactics would work with free-thinking skeptics.

Salve Regina University, Associate Professor of Religion; & Yale Divinity School, Professor of Hebrew Bible and Congregational Studies:

We begin our investigation with a brief overview of the biblical references to hell. There is no hell in the Hebrew Bible. The proverbial pit of fire where sinners are tortured for all eternity is absent. All the dead, righteous and unrighteous, share a common destination, a subterranean world known as Sheol. The Hebrew Bible does have a Heaven….But heaven was the abode of God and the angels, unavailable to mortals, except in special cases. Both Enoch and Elijah bypassed death and Sheol and went directly from mortal life to fellowship with God.

T.J. Wray & Gregory Mobley, The Birth of Satan

Continuing the main theme of our debate:

Jason: Paul makes no mention of hell. Eternal punishment does not enter into Paul’s theology. He calls his opponents Satanic, but there is no mention of hell in his theology.

Here, I was once again citing Wray & Mobley…

Every mention of Satan in the Pauline corpus involves the Devil working through a human aget to thwart Paul’s mission and prevent believers from attaining that quality of personal and social life, “life in the spirit,” that allegiance to Christ and membership in his body offers….

…The seeds of heaven and hell were scattered here and there: in the Enoch and Elijah legends, in the traditions about prophets who had been transported to the heavenly court, and in the widening chasm between Judahites’ experience and their theology. After centuries of unfulfilled hopes, Jewish thinkers in the Second Temple period began to consider the possibility that the Day of Judgment occurred not in this life but in the next….

…The idea of “hell” does not appear in the Bible until the New Testament. The actual word, however, never appears. “Hell” is a Germanic word, the name of an underworld goddess, (“Hel”). The New Testament uses the terms “Gehenna” and “Hades” to refer to the places we know as hell.

Paul, the earliest Christian writer…does not mention hell at all. He has plenty to say about the fates of sinners, though….

…For Paul, those who received Christ would experience resurrection after death (1 Thessalonians 4:14). Sinners and all those who rejected Christ would simply cease to exist, (Galatians 5:19–21, 1 Corinthians 6:9–10). “Sending sinners to hell” does not enter into Paul’s theology.

On the myth of Christian persecution

Jonathan: It’s no surprise, that for a long time these were small groups. I think everybody knows and agrees that historically it was an era of persecution. You can read about it in the New Testament, but you can also read it in the history of the world and the early church fathers.

This is outright Christian propaganda. The persecutions were small and limited, not widespread, nor as vicious as Christians like to pretend they were.

University of Birmingham, Edward Cadbury Professor of Theology:

[The] Sunday school narrative of a church of martyrs, of Christians huddled in catacombs out of fear, meeting in secret to avoid arrest and mercilessly thrown to lions merely for their religious beliefs…Christians were never the victims of sustained, targeted persecution.

Candida Moss, The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom

As to the Church fathers the pastor mentioned in his attempt to support his persecution claim, presumably he meant Eusebius of Caesarea, whose Ecclesiastical History has been discredited as a source of historical accuracy, and is viewed, mainly, as a panegyric.

Yale University, Dunham Professor of History and Classics:

Hostile writings and discarded views were not recopied or passed on, or they were actively suppressed…matters discreditable to the faith were to be consigned to silence.

Ramsay MacMullen, Christianizing the Roman Empire: AD 100–400

University of Basel, Professor of Cultural History:

Eusebius is no fanatic; he understand Constantine’s secular spirit and his cold and terrible lust for power well enough and doubtless knows the true causes of the war quite precisely. But he is the first thoroughly dishonest historian of antiquity. His tactic, which enjoyed a brilliant success in his own day and throughout the Middle Ages, consisted in making the first great protector of the Church at all costs an ideal of humanity according to his lights, and above all an ideal for future rulers.

Jacob Burckhardt, The Age of Constantine the Great

Jason (Diogenes of Mayberry) covers the backstory of Judeo-Christian doctrines to refute evangelical literalism related to socio-political action.

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