The Bible teaches more about hell than it teaches about heaven. An understanding of hell can give us an appreciation of God’s mercy and God’s love. It can also help us to understand how dangerous it is to be without faith in Christ. Not to be covered by the grace of God, heading towards a destiny the Bible calls hell. This blogpost is a summary of a presentation on this topic by Dr. Xavier Lakshmanan.
Johnathan Edwards preached a sermon titled “Sinners in the hand of the angry God”. He spoke about hell and human beings outside the covering of God’s grace in Christ Jesus, heading towards hell, which is a dangerous thing. Recently I saw a similar title, “God in the hand of angry sinners”. Postmodernity is witnessing the fact that God is thrown into the hands of angry sinners who are tearing apart everything that is noble, everything that is eternal, and everything that is miraculous. We are living in a world in which people do not want to talk about death or life after death or cemeteries or graveyards or corruptibility or decay or disintegration. These are things which aren’t favorable, positive or good. But we must talk about hell because the Bible talks about hell.
What do we mean by “hell”? It’s not life without the presence of God because He is there as the God of justice, righteousness, holiness and judgment. But there is no fellowship with God in hell. It’s a place of fire. It’s circumstances that aren’t normal or acceptable, or favorable or comforting, but are disturbing, or challenging or distracting. It’s eternal. A place of pain, thirst, and solitude. A place for Satan and his followers (demons and unbelievers).
There are some false ideas about life after death, such as the Roman Catholic teaching of purgatory where people are purified after death so they can go to heaven. And the theory of annihilationism, which is the destruction of the wicked after death. These are all extrabiblical.
The Old Testament word for hell is “sheol”. It is used for the unseen state of life; or a grave or pit; or torment. It’s meaning in a particular passage is determined by the context. In the New Testament the word “Gehenna” means a place of torment or a place of perpetual burning with fire. It implies agony, infliction and suffering. This conveys the eternal nature of hell and the experience within hell. The Biblical passages we will look at about Gehenna are horrifying. Much of this language uses figures of speech like parables, similes, metaphors, and symbols to describe things that are indescribable (like something spiritual or divine). Most of the passages about hell were spoken by Jesus. They are true because they were spoken by the Son of God and included in the Word of God (the Bible).
The Bible says the following about hell.
Words represent what they describe. They symbolize what they describe. They are symbols that represent what is real. Hell is a word that represents a real spiritual place. The concept is real.
A passage about the eternal state says, “But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death” (Rev. 21:8NIV). The fire and burning is a symbol of something in eternity. This “fire” can hurt the spiritual bodies of unbelievers.
The Bible mentions three kinds of death:
– physical death is the separation of the soul and spirit from the human body.
– spiritual death is the temporary separation of the soul, spirit and body from God. They are still able to be reconciled with God and obtain eternal life.
– the second death is the eternal separation of the soul, spirit and body from God in hell. Jesus said, “be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Mt. 10:28).
The Bible describes the judgement of unbelievers, “Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life [an unbeliever] was thrown into the lake of fire [the second death]” (Rev. 20:15). Going to church doesn’t make us a believer. Being baptized doesn’t make us a believer. Having Christian parents doesn’t make us a believer. The Bible doesn’t teach that. Instead, the Bible teaches that those who believe that the Lord Jesus Christ suffered for their sins are saved from this punishment. It’s a personal commitment to Christ that makes the difference.
So, hell is real whether we believe it or not. And whether we like it or not. Our beliefs are not going to change the truth. Hell is real. But those who want to comfort others don’t believe that hell is real.
When Jesus returns to establish His kingdom, He will separate those living at that time into believers and unbelievers. This is what Jesus will say to the unbelievers, “Then He [Jesus Christ] will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal [endless or everlasting] fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt. 25:41). This says that hell was not originally intended for people. It was meant for Satan and demons. Unfortunately, it’s also the destiny of unbelievers.
Hell is eternal and the punishment there is everlasting. It’s not going to end. There is no mitigation. The Bible says, “then they will go away to eternal punishment” (Mt. 25:46). Not temporary purification (like purgatory). Not temporary sanctification. Not temporary considerations of suffering. Not annihilation. It’s continual. Forever and ever.
A place of fire
Jesus used a hyperbole to emphasize the need for drastic action to deal with our sinfulness, “It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out” (Mk. 9:43). Can you imagine a place full of fire? An “eternal fire” (Mt. 18:8). This is figurative language from Isaiah 66:24. We can’t image how horrible it will be. But that is what the Bible says.
In August 2018 a national disaster was declared in Northern California due to massive wildfires burning there. And in September 2018, a wildfire forced more than 700 people from their homes in Croatia and Italy. It’s horrifying to be trapped in a wildfire.
A place of worms
Jesus used another hyperbole to emphasize the need for drastic action to deal with our sinfulness, “It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where “‘the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched’” (Mk. 9:47-48). This is more figurative language from Isaiah 66:24. It relates to the garbage dump in the valley of Hinnom (Gehenna in Greek) near Jerusalem where fires and maggots were prevalent. The second (eternal) death is likened to being devoured by worms that never die. It could be a figurative way to refer to a guilty conscience and the memory of shameful things done in this life. It shows that the misery of unbelievers will never end. Hell is characterized by unending suffering.
A place of torment
The Bible says that those who oppose God will be “tormented with burning sulfur” (Rev. 14:9-10). And Satan “will be tormented day and night for ever and ever” in the lake of burning sulfur (Rev. 20:10). Torment means mental agony. No celebration. No peace of mind. What a terrible situation to be in forever.
A place for Satan
We have already looked at, “the eternal [endless or everlasting] fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt. 25:41). Hell wasn’t originally meant for human beings. It was prepared for the angel who rebelled against God. God doesn’t like human beings to be confined in hell. God is gracious. He died for all the people of the world. And He loves each one of us. And He wanted everyone to be with Him in heaven. But unfortunately, if someone rejects the gift of salvation, this is their final destiny.
The Bible says that the great political and religious leaders who rebel against God in a coming day will be “thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulfur” (Rev. 19:20). So, Hell is a place where Satan and his followers, whether they be demons or human beings, end up being tormented forever. There’s no escape. It’s permanent confinement.
Lessons for us
If you are a believer, confirm your personal commitment to Christ by displaying godliness and the fruit of the Spirit (2 Pt. 1:10). Strengthen yourself. We are not heading to hell. Hell is not a fearsome thing for a believer. But we are heading to heaven where the joys of heaven will carry us through eternity. And “Preach the word [the good news about Jesus]; be prepared in season and out of season” (2 Tim. 4:2). Remember many people are heading towards hell. Make use of every opportunity to witness for Christ. We don’t want anyone to perish in hell.
If you an unbeliever, or if you are unsure, Paul says, “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord’, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9). Trusting Jesus as the One who took our punishment when He died and is now the Lord of our lives is the only way to escape the horrors of hell.
Acknowledgement: This blogpost was sourced from a presentation by Dr. Xavier Lakshmanan on this topic. Dr. Lakshmanan is Head of Theology in the Australian College of Christian Studies.
Written, October 2018
The World Cup is being played in Russia under the FIFA Regulations and the International Football Association’s laws of the game. Disobeying the laws can result in a yellow card or a red card. So far there have been three red cards in the 2018 World Cup. The Bible contains God’s laws for humanity. It tells us about our world and shows us the best way to live. And it tells us what God has done for us.
Paul summarized the good news in the Bible about Jesus as:
“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for (because of) our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4NIV). He says that Christ’s death, burial and resurrection occurred in the way they were foretold in the Old Testament. Likewise, we will see that believers are to follow the New Testament.
In Isaiah 52:12 – 53:12 the prophet Isaiah describes a righteous suffering servant who will bear people’s sins so they can be spiritually healed. It’s clear that the servant will die:
“By oppression and judgment he was taken away (an unjust death).
Yet who of his generation protested?
For he was cut off from the land of the living (a death before reaching old age);
for the transgression of my people he was punished …
though he had done no violence,
nor was any deceit in his mouth” (Isa. 53:8, 9b).
It will be an unjust death administered as punishment for an alleged crime.
The reason for his death is given as:
“But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed (spiritually).
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:5-6).
The servant dies so that people can receive spiritual healing and peace because he takes the punishment for their sins, iniquities and transgressions.
These predictions were fulfilled when Jesus was crucified. His alleged crimes were blaspheme (Mt. 26:65), subversion and opposing Caesar (Lk. 23:2). Clearly, Jesus died for (because of) our sins. And His death was confirmed by His burial.
The servant’s burial is described as:
“He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
and with the rich in his death” (Isa. 53:9a).
These predictions were fulfilled when Jesus was crucified together with two criminals. And He was buried in a new tomb by Joseph, “a rich man from Arimathea” (Mt. 27:57). The Jewish religious leaders planned to have Him buried as a criminal, but God over-ruled and He was buried in a tomb prepared by “a prominent member of the Council (the Jewish Sanhedrin)” (Mk. 15:43).
In our experience death is terminal and permanent. But the Bible says that Christ’s death was temporary. It was interrupted by His resurrection, which is the reversal of death.
In a song expressing his trust in God for safety when he faced death, David said:
“Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices;
my body also will rest secure,
because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead,
nor will you let your faithful one see decay” (Ps. 16:9-10).
Peter explained that David was referring to the resurrection of Jesus:
“Fellow Israelites, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. For David did not ascend to heaven …” (Acts 2:29-34).
Jesus also said that Jonah’s three days in the belly of a huge fish was sign that He would be in the grave for three days (Mt. 12:40). So Jonah’s near-death experience symbolized Christ’s death and resurrection, including the time frame involved.
These predictions were fulfilled when Jesus was raised back to life. Paul says that people could verify this with eyewitnesses because Jesus appeared to the apostles and to more than 500 people at the same time (1 Cor. 15:5-6).
According to Jesus
Jesus also said that His life was a fulfilment of the Old Testament. He told the Jewish leaders, “These are the very Scriptures (the Old Testament) that testify about me” (Jn. 5:39). Before His death He told the disciples, “It is written (in the Old Testament): ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors’; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me (in the Old Testament) is reaching its fulfillment” (Lk. 22:37). This is a quotation from Isaiah 53:12.
And after His resurrection He told the two on the way to Emmaus, ‘”How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter His glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures (the Old Testament) concerning Himself’ (Lk. 24:25-27).
And He told the disciples, ‘”This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” Then He opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written (in the Old Testament): The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things” (Lk. 24:44-48). In this passage, “the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” means all the old Testament as Psalms was the first book in the writings category of the Jewish Scriptures.
There are three aspects to the good news about Jesus: the death of Christ for our sins, His burial that confirms His death, and His resurrection that shows His victory over death and that God accepted Christ’s sacrifice for sin. We have seen that each of these happened as the Old Testament predicted. The phrase “according to the Scriptures” occurs twice in this short passage, indicating the importance of these Old Testament prophecies (1 Cor. 15:3-4). They are mentioned before the eyewitnesses (v.5-7). So what the Bible says is more important than what someone else says.
The Old Testament prophecies are also important because they show that Christ’s work for us was planned long ago. Likewise, God’s plan for us was recorded in the New Testament many years ago. Because we are under the new covenant instead of the law of Moses, the Scriptures that we are to follow are those written to the church (Acts to Revelation).
The other instance of “according to the Scriptures” in the Bible is, ‘If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well’ (Jas. 2:8ESV). This is the fourth reason that James gives for condemning favoritism. If we really loved our neighbors as ourselves, we would treat them as we want to be treated. We learn from the parable of the Good Samaritan that our neighbor is anyone who has a need which we can help to meet (Lk. 10:29-37). And this is “according to the Scripture” because it’s a quotation from Leviticus 19:18.
Lessons for us
What the Bible says is more important than the laws of football. Jesus lived, died, was buried and rose again “according to the Scriptures” or as the Bible predicted. What about us? Do we live as the Bible (God) says we should? Do we believe Jesus Christ is who the Bible says He is? Do we trust and rely on Him for our salvation? Do we recognize our sinfulness and separation from God? Have we confessed our sinfulness to God? Are we living for God or just for ourselves?
Written, June 2018
In the months leading up to my decision to become a Christian I read the Bible intensely. I remember being impressed that an ancient book could be so relevant in a modern world. Yet, two things stood out most of all for me.
Firstly, the sense I had that God was present as I read. I had never felt this before with any other book. It seemed as though how I responded mattered to God. And the Bible exposed me. It read me accurately. It knew the wrong things I had done – the selfish thinking and pretending to be somebody that I wasn’t. As I read I struggled with the knowledge that experiences can be manufactured by the mind. Did I want there to be a God? Or was God revealing Himself to me? Over time, my struggle with skepticism decreased.
The second thing that stood out was how impressive Jesus was in the four gospel accounts of His life. At the end of Jesus’s famous, Sermon On The Mount, Matthew, the author of the gospel reports that, ‘crowds were amazed at His teaching, because He taught as one who had authority’ (Mark 1:22). I can appreciate this sentiment. Jesus really does teach with wisdom and authority. Elsewhere in the gospels people are in awe at His power over the physical world – demonstrated repeatedly with various, extraordinary miracles. Given the integrity of Jesus’s words, it didn’t seem reasonable that those events were clever deceptions.
So, despite the age of the Bible, it read my need and provided a solution – Jesus. It was Jesus who spoke of the possibility of knowing God and it was Jesus who died on the cross to make the hope of a fresh start with God possible.
In the Bible, the book of Hebrews describes what I, and many others have experienced. It says:
For the word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires. Everything is naked and exposed before His eyes, and He is the one to whom we are accountable.
So, if you’ve never read the Bible, then my encouragement to you is … find a copy and begin by reading the shortest biography of Jesus – Mark’s gospel.
Bible verse: Hebrews 4:12, “For the word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires”.
Prayer: Dear God, thank you for speaking to us through the Bible in ways that soften our hearts and move us to you.
Acknowledgement: Written by Malcolm Williams, Director of Outreach Media.
Images and text © Outreach Media 2018
The Bible is loaded with contradictions and translation errors. It wasn’t written by witnesses and includes words added by unknown scribes to inject Church orthodoxy (Eichenwald, 2014). That’s the opinion of Newsweek.
And Humanists reject the claim that the Bible is the word of God (Sommer, 1997). They are convinced the book was written solely by humans in an ignorant, superstitious, and cruel age. They believe that because the writers of the Bible lived in an unenlightened era, the book contains many errors and harmful teachings.
How reliable is the Bible? Is it trustworthy? Can it withstand objective scrutiny? This blogpost is based on a presentation by Tom Murphy titled, “Do we have the right Bible?”.
Has translating the Bible over and over for almost 3,000 years ruined its reliability? Don’t errors accumulate like messages get changed when they are passed along a line of people in the Telephone game (or Chinese whispers)?
Don’t the many translations of the Bible ruin its reliability?
The Telephone game is a very false comparison. The English translations we have are not the product of a long line of translations. Our current English translations are translated directly from the original languages.
If that’s so, then why are there so many different translations then? Surely if translations are made directly from the originals then we would have only one version.
There are three main reasons we have so many different English translations of the Bible. First, translation research advances with time. Ongoing research helps us to more accurately understand and translate the original languages. Second, changes in modern English. The English language changes with time. New translations are made using modern English, so people can easily understand the Bible. Third, there are different approaches to translating. Some translators use one-word for one-word as much as possible, while others try to translate thought-for-thought.
We have so many versions, not because some shady telephone game has corrupted the text but because we are getting better at translating the Bible and we want translations in contemporary English everyone understands.
But weren’t the books of the bible written hundreds of years after the events they describe? Given that time gap, their messages could all be legends!
Could it all be legends?
Showing the biblical books are not legends begins with showing when they were written. They were not written hundreds of years later. The biblical manuscripts contain four kinds of evidence that indicates when they were written.
Independently verifiable historical statements.
Only a writer living at the time could have known these facts, which we can verify using archaeology or extra-biblical documents. For example, statements like names of places, people, geography, and significant events. Historical accounts that are written long after the events they describe don’t include such comments. Verifiable statements like these strongly affirm the early writing of the biblical books. Famous archaeological examples include evidence for the Assyrian King, Sargon II mentioned in Isaiah 20:1 and the Pool of Bethesda mentioned in John 5:2-9. Prior to the archaeological discoveries that confirmed the historical accuracy of Isaiah’s reference to Sargon II (1843) and John’s description of the pool of Bethesda (1964), both biblical passages were considered to be blatant historical errors on the part of the biblical authors.
Historical events that are not mentioned.
Some historical events are not mentioned that definitely would have been mentioned had they already occurred. This evidence gives time frames for the writing of biblical books. For example, Acts 18:2 mentions the expulsion of the Jews from Rome (AD 41-54) but does not mention the destruction of the Temple (AD 70), therefore Acts dates between AD 41 and AD 70.
Direct manuscript evidence.
Having just a tiny surviving fragment of a book that we can date puts a limit on the latest date it could have been written. For example, as Papyrus fragment P52 from the book of John dates to about 120 AD, John must have been written before then.
Who the writer was and when they died.
Knowing the writer and when they died helps date a book. For example, multiple extra-biblical sources tell us Paul died shortly before AD 68, so all of Paul’s letters were written before AD 68.
This evidence tells us the books of the bible were written very early. Look at the dating of the Gospels to see just how small a gap we are talking about. They were all written within decades of the crucifixion. The liberal dating is invariably later than the conservative dating for two main reasons. First, some biblical books make predictive statements (see Appendix A), like the destruction of the Temple in Mathew 24. Liberal scholars assume that such successful predictions are not possible and assume the book must have been written after the event. Second, some books (like John) show a very high view of Jesus’ divinity. Liberal scholars assume this to be a slow evolutionary development and therefore date the book later.
But these reasons rest on assumptions that presuppose Christianity cannot be true; they reject the idea that God exists and/or that He influenced the authors to make successful future predictions. They also reject that Jesus claimed to be God and that His disciples believed Him.
The Jesus legend hypothesis fails because there was simply not enough time between the historical Jesus and the written records for legends to have corrupted the narrative. Secular historian Professor A. N. Sherwin-White points out that at least two full generations are needed for legendary developments to obscure the core details in a historical narrative. For example, the two earliest biographies of Alexander the Great were written more than 400 years after his death, yet classical historians still consider them to be trustworthy. The fabulous legends about Alexander did not develop until the centuries after these two biographies. After 400 years, Alexander’s history is less corrupted than the Gospel accounts are alleged to be, though the largest gap between the Gospel accounts and the actual events is only about 70 years, even using the most sceptical dates.
The problems for the legend hypothesis get even worse when two other facts are considered.
The Gospels use older source material.
For example, the Passion Story included in the gospel of Mark was probably not originally written by Mark. Rudolf Pesch, a German expert on Mark, says the Passion source must go back to at least AD 37, just seven years after Jesus’s death.
The Gospels are not the oldest texts in New Testament.
Older New Testament texts affirm the supposedly legendary resurrection of Jesus. In 1 Corinthians (written about AD 55) Paul cites what is apparently an old Christian creed: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas (Peter), and then to the Twelve” (1 Cor. 15:3-5NIV). All grammatical and textual evidence tells us that the creed Paul gives came from Peter and James when Paul visited Jerusalem, reaching back to within the first five years after Jesus’ crucifixion in the very city where the crucifixion occurred.
To conclude, both Christian and non-Christian scholars are at a near-consensus that the entire New Testament was written within the first century AD, within decades of Jesus’ death. The texts are so close to the life of Jesus that legendary evolution simply cannot account for the narratives they contain.
But we don’t have the original manuscripts! How do we know that we have what Moses, David, and the Old Testament prophets really said or wrote?
Can we know what the original Old Testament texts said?
With no photocopiers, the original texts were copied by hand as they wore out or more copies were needed. The Jewish people had scribes who oversaw this. They were such meticulous perfectionists that they would count all paragraphs, words and even letters to check they copied correctly. They even knew the middle letter of every book and would count backwards to check for mistakes.
The Masoretic text is used as the source text for translating the Old Testament because we accept the Old Testament that was accepted by the 1st century Jewish community – Jesus’ community. The Masoretic text is a Hebraic and Aramaic text that circulated amongst Jewish communities between the 7th and 10th centuries AD, the oldest copy we have is from the 9th century AD.
For a long time, critics pointed out that this text is very far removed from the original manuscripts, which were penned between the 15th and 5th centuries BC. They questioned if, after so many centuries of copying, we could really have the original words. That’s where the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls was helpful.
Discovered in the Qumran caves in 1947, these well-preserved texts date back to between 200 BC and 100 BC. For example, the Great Isaiah Scroll is a copy of the book of Isaiah. Of approximately 1,000 scrolls found, 225 are Old Testament Books and include every book except Esther. Amazingly, there is a virtual agreement between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Masoretic text from 1,100 years later! The meticulous scribal process preserved the textual integrity for over 1,100 years! This means that we can confidently trust the Old Testament we have today. There is no evidence of grand changes through a great historical game of telephone (or Chinese whispers).
But we can go further. We currently we have four major groups of Old Testament manuscripts in three different languages, transmitted independently of each other over a span of over 1,000 years, yet they all show a high degree of agreement. In addition to the Masoretic text and Dead Sea Scrolls we also have:
The Septuagint, a Greek translation that originated between the 3rd century BC and 2nd Century AD.
The Vulgate, a Latin translation produced by the Christian priest Jerome in the 4th century AD, and
The Peshitta, a Syriac (Aramaic) translation produced in the second century AD.
By comparing all the texts available, we can reliably discern the content of the Old Testament. Of all the apparent variants in the surviving Old Testament manuscripts, none introduce wildly divergent readings from the Masoretic text that can’t be readily explained by a copyist error (such as spelling/grammar mistakes) or an easily identifiable change intentionally inserted by the scribe responsible for producing the manuscript. And the footnotes of any good study bible will point out these variants (there’s about 45 of them; of these only in 9 do translators resort to using the Dead Sea Scrolls over the Masoretic and of the 45 only one influences more than one sentence – it’s a paragraph found between 1 Samuel 10 and 11).
Also, critics assume well-used papyri disintegrate within 10 years at best, meaning many hundreds of copies of copies must separate the original text from the oldest surviving manuscripts. However, studies by historian George Houston demonstrate that ancient manuscripts were actively used anywhere from 150 to 500 years, and each copy would have been used to make hundreds more. For example, The Codex Vaticanus was reinked in the 10th century after 600 years of use. So the oldest surviving Old Testament manuscripts we have may only be a few generations of copies from the originals. For the New Testament, we could theoretically have direct copies of the original texts, or at least copies of the very first copies.
All this means that the conditions were very favorable for preserving the contents of the biblical texts. The close agreement observed across the 1,100-year gap between the Dead Sea and Masoretic manuscripts is evidence of this.
Well that covers the Old Testament. But what about the New Testament? How can we be sure we know what Jesus said, or that we know what Paul and the other New Testament authors wrote?
Can we know what the original New Testament texts said?
The New Testament text is even more certain than the Old Testament. Some surviving fragments date back to 120 AD. That’s only 35-100 years after the originals! Another big help is that there are nearly 6,000 partial or complete New Testament manuscripts in the original Greek. Add to this approximately 10,000 manuscripts of Latin translations and another 9,300 manuscripts in some 13 additional languages. All together we have about 25,000 copies of the New Testament. And these numbers are counted from databases that notoriously lag-behind current developments and do not record manuscripts contained in private collections or in the form of scrolls – it is quite likely that we have well above 25,000 copies of the New Testament to work with.
Let’s compare the date of the oldest manuscripts and number of existing manuscripts with a few other pieces of literature that historians consider accurate. For the New Testament, the time gap is hundreds of years smaller and the number of manuscripts higher by thousands compared to other works from antiquity. This shows that the New Testament is the most trustworthy document from antiquity. By comparing all the manuscripts we possess, scholars easily identify copying mistakes. This process is called textual criticism. Through this process, we can ascertain the wording of the New Testament with about 99.9% accuracy. See Appendix B for more information on copying mistakes.
Well, all this only proves that we know what these books originally said. But, how do we know the right books are in the Bible? It was just people who decided wasn’t it?
Do we have the right books?
Usually when critics argue that people decided what books should be in the bible (which is called the canon), they are using a different definition of canon than Christians do. The critic thinks the church decided to declare some books authoritative and not others – that the canon didn’t exist until church leaders conferred authority on a few books when they wrote canonical lists. But the Christian understanding is different. If God exists and He inspired human writers, then the canon began to exist the moment the author put pen to paper and the canon grew as each God-inspired book was written.
The Old Testament Canon has never been in doubt. It is the exact list of books that the Jewish community has used for thousands of years. It is the exact Old Testament that Jesus declared to be inspired and authoritative (Mt. 5:17). The only differences are in the order and grouping of the books. The oldest references we have to the Old Testament canon comes from the Jewish historian Josephus, who wrote during AD 95 in his work Against Apion that the Jews recognize 22 books as authoritative; this list of 22 books covers all the Old Testament recognized by Protestants, with the exception of Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther. However, Josephus commends these books in his AD 93/94 work Antiquity of the Jews (which also mentions Jesus).
Regarding the Old Testament Apocryphal books. The Jewish community rejected all Apocryphal books as authoritative. Early Jews may have privately read the apocryphal books for insightful historical and/or theological observations – Josephus and prominent 1st-century Midrashic rabbis did this – but they opposed any consideration of these books as Scripture.
What about the New Testament? Did Emperor Constantine decide what counted as Scripture at Nicaea in AD 325. Are the books in the Bible just the politically motivated selections of a Roman Emperor 300 years after the fact?
Was the New Testament decided at Nicaea?
As for the New Testament, the books we have in our Bible imposed themselves on the early church; they were recognized as inspired from the beginning. It’s a common myth that the biblical books the church uses were imposed on Christianity by the Roman Emperor Constantine at the council of Nicaea in AD 325 for political reasons. This is not true. We have ample evidence to show that the New Testament books we use were considered authoritative from their very beginning.
The New Testament writers recognized each other’s words as scripture. Peter wrote, “His (Paul’s) letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction” (2 Pt. 3:16).
We also have very early lists of canonical books produced well before Nicaea that give a nearly identical list of books to our current New Testament today.
- Around AD 180 we have records of the church father Irenaeus listing every book in the NT as cannon, except Philemon and 3 John.
- The Muratorian fragment from AD 180, affirms 22 of the 27 books of the New Testament, in a list remarkably close to Irenaeus’.
- Then in AD 198 Clement of Alexandria had a remarkably similar position, He affirmed the four gospels, 13 epistles of Paul, Hebrews, Acts, 1 Peter, 1&2 John, Jude, and Revelation.
Beyond these lists, we have numerous quotations from early church fathers which quote the books of the New Testament as authoritative scripture. These Church fathers frequently begin their quotation with “It is written”, the same language used before citations of Old Testament scripture. All of this predates the Council of Nicaea by 100-150 years. Therefore, the canon was not “foisted” on the church then. Nicaea could have only ratified the near 200-year consensus the church already held. It is interesting to note that a number of the later church fathers (after AD 150) condemn as heretical some of the Apocryphal texts by name (most notably Acts of Paul and The Gospel of Thomas).
There was never any concern that the cannon the church accepted was wrong. The bigger concern in the early church was that some Christians would be misled into believing that the counterfeit apocryphal books should be regarded as scripture when they really shouldn’t. This was the real reason official lists of canonical books were authorised at various church councils – to combat heretical teachers and apocryphal books masquerading as scripture.
In AD 367 Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, listed all the books that are in the New Testament canon. He also spoke up against books to be rejected because they were “an invention of heretics”. He called these “apocrypha”.
So we have the right Bible because its ancient words have been preserved since it was written.
How does knowing all this help us today?
It’s important to know that we have the right Bible because our entire faith and hope of salvation depend on the historical fact of Christ’s resurrection as documented in the Bible. Paul corrected those who said there is no resurrection of the dead by saying, “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that He raised Christ from the dead. But He did not raise Him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep (died) in Christ are lost (forever). If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead” (1 Cor. 15:13-20). If the apostles were “false witnesses”, their message in the Bible would be unreliable. But knowing that the Bible is reliable gives us confidence and assurance in our Christian faith. The New Testament confirms many times that “Christ indeed has been raised from the dead”. It’s fact, not fiction.
Peter said that what the Apostles wrote was based on eyewitness accounts and not on fabricated stories (2 Pt. 2:3). “For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty” (2 Pt. 1:16). Knowing that we have an accurate copy of what they wrote means that we have access to eyewitness accounts. This means that the Christian faith is based on real objective historical events and not on subjective human ideas or religious concepts.
And Christians are to defend their faith. In the context of criticism, opposition and persecution, Peter said, “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Pt. 3:15). We need to know why we believe what we believe. Our “hope” is our confidence about God and eternity. We can have confidence that we will have eternal life if we believe that Jesus died for our sin. And all this is based on the trustworthiness of the Bible.
Sometimes critics just want to undermine our faith or the faith of our fellow believers. We defend our faith as an act of reverence to Jesus and as a support and comfort to our fellow believers who may be struggling with doubt. And sometimes the critical questions come from a seeking heart and by answering them we might be helping clear away the obstacles that may be keeping someone from coming to faith in Jesus.
The Bible is the most reliable document we have from antiquity. It’s good to know that we have the right Bible. It’s an accurate copy of the message that God gave in ancient times.
Appendix A: Predictive statements in Daniel
Daniel is an example of a book of the Bible that makes predictive statements. Even giving the book of Daniel the absolute latest possible dates critics can give (ca 200 BC based on the Dead Sea manuscript found at Qumran), the predictive statements found in the later chapters of this book still precede the actual events described. Prior to the Dead Sea Scroll findings, critics did indeed try to claim that all of Daniel’s predictive statements came after the fact. The Dead Sea discovery proved that some of the book’s predictions definitely precede the events, even if we were to say that the copies found in Qumran are the earliest manuscripts containing them.
Appendix B: How are variants counted?
Some critics, like Bart Ehrman, say that the New Testament contains over 400,000 variants from the standard text, which is more than the total number of words in the New Testament (about 138,000)! So how is this number calculated? Please note that a “variant” is not an error. It’s where texts are not perfectly matched. Most of these variations are insignificant.
These variants were counted by the number of manuscripts they are found in. For example, if a spelling mistake occurs in just one verse and this mistake is found in 2,000 of the 25,000 manuscripts we have, that one spelling mistake was counted as 2,000 variants, even though it’s just one word in just one verse. So saying there are more than 400,000 variants is a misleading statement. Furthermore, 70% of all variants are one particular scribal error called the moveable-nu; it is the Koine Greek equivalent of accidentally using “a” instead of “an” in English. Of all variants, less than 0.1% are worth even mentioning in the footnotes found in good study bibles. Only two variants affect more than two verses, the end of Mark (Mk. 16:9-20) and the story about the woman caught in adultery (Jn. 7:53-8:11). And no variants at all influence any Christian doctrine or practices. This is largely because the doctrine and practices are taught in many passages of the Bible. They don’t rely on a single passage.
It’s interesting to note that the large number of variants is mainly due to the large number of ancient manuscripts. These increase the accuracy in determining the text of the original manuscript. So, it’s actually a strength and not a weakness!
This blogpost was sourced from a presentation by Dr Tom Murphy (a chemist) titled, “Do we have the right Bible?”.
Eichenwald K (2014) “The Bible: So misunderstood it’s a sin”, Newsweek 23 December 2014.
Sommer J C (1997), “Some reasons why Humanists reject the Bible”, American Humanist Association.
Written, May 2018
Fake news is influencing aspects of our lives as important as our political viewpoints, our relationships with the environment and our life expectancies. But fake news can be extremely hard to identify. Fake news articles often lack sources. People aren’t directly quoted, and source material for statistics may not be provided. Social media and the ease of accessing information has given rise to incidences of news being distributed that is inaccurate, skewed, biased, or completely fabricated. A Google search is often used to source information, but since anyone with access to a computer can publish anything online, it’s crucial that we evaluate the information we find. That means distinguishing fact from fiction. Does the Bible contain fake news?
Some claim that the early chapters of Genesis are more poetic and theological than factual by suggesting they are a creation myth or exalted prose or semi-poetic or a defence of monotheism. And Wikipedia says that Adam and Eve “are symbolic rather than real”. Others say it’s a story that points toward a larger symbolic truth or a metaphor of the relation of God and humanity.
In this post, we will evaluate this claim by looking at what the Bible says about Adam and Eve. Were they actual people or are they symbolic or mythical? Did they live on earth or did they come from someone’s imagination? Are they literal or literary?
The Bible says that Adam was the first man on earth whose wife was Eve and whose oldest sons were Cain, Abel, and Seth (Gen. 2-5). He also had many other sons and daughters (Gen. 5:4). These people differed from animals because they were made “in the image of God” (Gen. 1:27NIV; Ps. 8:5-8). An Israelite named Moses edited these records about Adam when he compiled Genesis about 1450BC (Lk. 24:27, 44).
Adam is also mentioned elsewhere in the Old Testament. In 1 Chronicles 1, the genealogy of Abraham begins, “Adam, Seth, Enosh, Kenan, Mahalalel, Jared, Enoch, Methuselah, Lamech, Noah” (1 Chron. 1:1-3). This means that the Jews who compiled this book in about 450BC (about 1,000 years after Moses) considered Adam to be the earliest ancestor of Abraham. So they confirmed that the account about Adam in Genesis was factual.
Adam is mentioned in six passages in the New Testament – once each by Luke and Jude and four times by Paul. Luke confirms that Adam is the earliest ancestor of Abraham, “the son of Enosh, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God” (Lk. 3:38). Here Adam is called “the son of God” because he had no human parents. This was written about 1,500 years after Moses.
In Romans 5 Paul gives a comparison between Adam and Jesus Christ. “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man (Adam), and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned—To be sure, sin was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not charged against anyone’s account where there is no law. Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who is a pattern of the one to come (Jesus).
But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man (Adam), how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! Nor can the gift of God be compared with the result of one man’s (Adam’s) sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification. For if, by the trespass of the one man (Adam), death reigned through that one man (Adam), how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!
Consequently, just as one trespass (Adam’s sin) resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act (Christ’s death) resulted in justification and life for all people. For just as through the disobedience of the one man (Adam) the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man (Jesus) the many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:12-19). The difference was that Adam’s sin was the reason there is sin and death in the world, whereas the gift of eternal life came through Jesus Christ.
In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul gives a comparison between Adam and Jesus Christ. “For since death came through a man (Adam), the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man (Jesus). For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:21-22). The difference is that the descendants of Adam all die, whereas those who have faith in Christ will be resurrected from death to life.
In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul gives another comparison between Adam and Jesus Christ. “So it is written: ‘The first man Adam became a living being’; the last Adam (Jesus), a life-giving spirit. The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. The first man (Adam) was of the dust of the earth; the second man (Jesus) is of heaven. As was the earthly man (Adam), so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man (Jesus), so also are those who are of heaven. And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man (Adam), so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man (Jesus)” (1 Cor. 15:45-49). The difference is that the descendants of Adam all have a natural body, whereas those who have faith in Christ will be resurrected to have a spiritual body.
In 1 Timothy 2 Paul refers to events in Genesis 2-3. “For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner” (1 Tim. 2:13-14). He recounts that Adam was created before Eve and implies that Eve sinned before Adam.
Jude refers to a prophecy of Enoch against the ungodly, “Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied about them: See, the Lord is coming with thousands upon thousands of His holy ones to judge everyone, and to convict all of them of all the ungodly acts they have committed in their ungodliness, and of all the defiant words ungodly sinners have spoken against Him’” (Jude 14-15). So Jude confirms the genealogy of Genesis 5.
When the Pharisees asked Jesus about divorce, He replied, “Haven’t you read, that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male (Adam) and female (Eve),’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” ‘Why then,’ they asked, ‘did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?’ Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning (from the time of Adam and Eve). I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery” (Mt. 19:4-9). In this passage Jesus quotes from Genesis 1:27 and Genesis 2:24, which in turn describe Adam and Eve as real people.
When Paul preached in Athens, he said, “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And He is not served by human hands, as if He needed anything. Rather, He himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man (Adam) He made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and He marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands” (Acts 17:24-26). Paul referred to the creation of the world from Genesis 1, the creation of humanity from Genesis 2 and the nations from Genesis 10. He obviously believed that Adam was the first man and that these were real events.
Paul also mentions Eve in 2 Corinthians 11, “But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Cor. 11:3). He was concerned that they would be deceived by false teachers like Eve was deceived in the Garden of Eden. He obviously believed that Eve was the first woman and that these were real events.
The method I have used to investigate whether Adam and Eve were actual people or just a mythical story to convey a message differs from the one used most commonly. I have studied what the Bible says about this topic, whereas others usually rely on scholarship outside the Bible. The problem with scholarship that is based outside the Bible (including literature and non-experimental historic science) is that it can change from year to year. What is claimed to be true now, will probably be discredited by future generations. Such knowledge is transient and changeable. And the interpretation of literary genres is very subjective. I prefer a more objective and robust approach that is based on Scriptural facts (the text of the Bible which is unchanging). The best way to interpret a Biblical passage is to investigate the text, the context, what the author says elsewhere and what other Bible authors say about the topic. This is the approach I have used in this post.
Depending on your worldview, you may not agree with my approach. But I think that a worldview based on revelation by the Creator of the universe is more reliable than one based on naturalistic human scholarship.
We have seen that the Old Testament Jews who complied scripture believed that Adam and Eve were real people (1 Ch. 1:1). As they lived over 2,400 years closer to these events, their interpretation of Genesis will be more accurate than any modern scholar.
And the writers of the New Testament believed that Adam and Eve were real people. In particular, Jesus and Paul believed Adam and Eve were real people, and they based key doctrines on what Genesis tells us about Adam and Eve. As they lived over 1,950 years closer to these events, their interpretation of Genesis will be more accurate than any modern scholar.
The fact that Adam and Eve are historical people helps us understand our world. The Bible says that in the beginning God made a good creation which was spoilt by Adam and Eve’s sin. This resulted in suffering and death, which was followed by God’s offer of redemption and restoration. If we deny the cause of sin, then we deny the explanation of suffering and the need of salvation. Then sin and suffering are God’s fault and there is no prospect of relief.
Because Adam and Eve are historical people we are all their descendants and there is no biological basis for racism. We are all related. Paul said, “From one man (Adam) He (God) made all the nations” (Acts 17:26).
Paul sees Adam and Christ as history’s two most important figures. If Adam wasn’t historic, then there could be a tendency to think that Jesus wasn’t historic.
The Old Testament Jews believed that Adam was a real person and that the account about him in Genesis 1-5 describes real events. Also Jesus, Luke, Paul, and Jude all believed that Adam and Eve were real people and that the account about them in Genesis 1-5 describes real events.
Therefore, we should also believe that Adam and Eve were real people and that the account about them in Genesis 1-5 describes real events. So Adam and Eve were actual people that lived on earth, and they were not symbolic or mythical nor did they come from someone’s imagination. They are literal and not literary.
Written, May 2018