Part 4 of series: god is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens: A Response
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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
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
“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
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”
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
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.