Have a scriptural question? Write to our columnist at witheringtonb@staff.beliefnet.com.

In this column, Ben Witherington answers Beliefnet members' questions about:

  • Jesus preaching in Hades
  • Jesus and Moses
  • Praying for pets
  • Genesis and the age of the Earth
  • John, son of Zebedee
  • The thorn in Paul's flesh
  • Aramaic vs. Greek
  • The Second Coming
  • The Sabbath: Saturday or Sunday?
  • The Book of Mormon

    Did Jesus really go down to Hades--Hell--and preach to the saints before his Ascension? --G. Victor W.

    The idea that Jesus went down to Hades and preached to the dead is based on a misunderstanding of 1 Peter 3.19. This text is actually about Jesus proclaiming his triumph to disobedient angels who are incarcerated. The angels in question are those referred to in Genesis 6; they came down to earth and sinned, precipitating the Flood (compare 2 Peter 2.4-5; Jude verse 6).

    In Deuteronomy 18.14-19, who is the prophet that Moses is talking about? And if it's Jesus, how is he related to Moses, and how is he like Moses? --IdrissR

    Many people have certainly interpreted the prophecy you are referring to--one about the rise of a prophet like Moses--in a Messianic way. Of course in the broad sense Jesus was a Jew, and so was of the same lineage as Moses. But it is important to bear in mind that the prophecy in Deuteronomy is not specific; it is more of a character description. The prophet the author has in mind will have certain attributes that Moses also had. Certainly, Jesus had some of these attributes. For example, the feeding of the 5,000 is viewed in the Gospels as an event like the miracle of manna in the wilderness during Moses' day. Or again, many would see the presentation of Jesus' teaching during the Sermon on the Mount as similar to Moses giving the law on Mount Sinai.

    Nowhere in the Bible does Jesus pray for animals. Is it scriptural to prayfor our pets--dogs, cats etc? --Karen L

    We have very few of the prayers of Jesus mentioned in the New Testament, and so silence on this matter does not necessarily mean Jesus would not approve. Much depends on what one would pray about in regard to animals. There surely can be nothing wrong with thanking God for the blessing of animals, or praying for their well-being. What we must keep in mind is that animals, like lower life forms, are not created in the image of God. They do not have the same capacity for relationship with God as humans or angels do.

    Nevertheless, some Jewish writers of the Old Testament envisioned that when the Messianic kingdom comes on earth at the end of history, animals would have a place in that realm, with the "lion lying down with the lamb".

    I was told earth is around several million years old. Do you have any idea as to how many years old earth is? --Debbie T.

    I am not a geologist or any other kind of scientist, but I do have a problem with arguments that fossils and other such evidence only make it appear as if the earth is millions of years old. I have a problem with the notion that God would deceive us about the age of things by "planting" fossils and other evidence to fool us about the age of Creation. More importantly, the Bible does not try to tell us how old the Earth is. One cannot derive an age for the earth by adding up years in the genealogies in Genesis, for the very good reason that those genealogies are partial and piecemeal. They are not exhaustive or complete. We must always keep in mind that the Bible is not intended to be a scientific textbook. It was written for people who lived long before the rise of modern science.

    I'd like to know more about the life of John, one of the Apostles. How did he die and where?

    I take it that by John the Apostle you mean John the son of Zebedee. We are not at all sure where and how John died. The Bible does not say. There is one tradition that he moved to Ephesus, lived a long life and died there. The problem with this tradition is that it is not at all clear that the beloved disciple mentioned in John 13-21 is the same person as John the son of Zebedee, and it also appears unlikely that John the visionary mentioned in Revelation is the same person as John the son of Zebedee.

    What was the thorn in St. Paul's flesh?

    The literal translation of 2 Corinthians 12.7 is "a stake in the flesh, a messenger of Satan." It seems clear from the context of that verse that this is a reference to some sort of physical malady that plagued Paul from time to time. It is possible that Paul had some sort of eye disease, as Galatians 4.13-15 may suggest.