Bnonn Tennant (the B is silent)

Where a recovering ex-atheist skewers things with a sharp two-edged sword

What is hell, and is it biblical? Part 6: argument from statistics

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4 minutes to read A response to Jacob McMillen and Josiah Pemberton. In this installment, I briefly demolish their “statistical argument” that if hell were in the Bible, it would appear more often.

Continued from part 5, on J&J’s exegetical fumbles

One of the supporting struts in J&J’s case is an argument from the frequency of hell’s appearance in the Bible:

…we have Judgement mentioned 344 times, Sin mentioned 441 times, and Death mentioned 456 times, and yet we only see Hell mentioned 14 times in accurate translations.

Doesn’t that seem weird?

If hell is such a central part of sin, judgment, and death, wouldn’t it get talked about at least half as often as these associated words? At this rate, Google wouldn’t even know to associate hell with these other words.

Furthermore, IF the common Evangelic view of Hell as a place of eternal, conscious torment is accurate, wouldn’t that warrant significantly more discussion than something like poverty, which is talked about over 2,000 times?

At first I was going to let this slide in the interest of conserving space. But as I reflected on the whole thrust of J&J’s thesis, it struck me that this argument is really indicative of much that is wrong with their overall case. Pointing out their blunders here will help clarify their fallacies elsewhere:

1. They beg the question

Perhaps most egregiously, J&J openly assume what they are supposed to prove: namely, that the Bible only mentions hell 14 times (or 13; they are inconsistent on this point). But they can only make this claim stick by pretending there is no distinction between words and concepts. For example, imagine I said to you, “The ten commandments don’t mention thieving.” You would respond, “Are you mad, sir—did you not read the eighth commandment?” But I, looking very wise, would say, “Oh, you poor benighted fellow, the eighth commandment only mentions stealing, not thieving.” Clearly it would not be you who was benighted in that discussion, just as it is not we who are benighted for thinking the Bible mentions hell more than the 12 times it speaks about Gehenna and the one time it speaks about Tartarus.

Obviously a traditionalist believes that terms like “second death” and “lake of fire,” along with some instances of sheol and hades describe or imply eternal conscious punishment. Similarly, many passages that talk about judgment are either explicitly or implicitly eschatological. It is not as if the biblical evidence for hell is confined to Gehenna references—and J&J know this, for their second article is directly in response to the concept of hell that appears elsewhere in the Bible without the specific word translated as “hell” appearing. But that being the case, their claim that hell is discussed only 14 (or 13) times just looks disingenuous.

2. They rely on a fallacious appeal to intuition

Notice the structure of their implied argument:

  1. If J&J wrote the Bible, and if hell were real, they would talk about it frequently
  2. But the Bible doesn’t talk about hell frequently
  3. Therefore, hell is not real

If this line of argument looks suspiciously familiar (or just suspicious), that’s because it is a syllogized form of this one, which I mentioned earlier:

I wouldn’t do things that way, so I can’t believe that God would.

Needless to say, (iii) is not the necessary conclusion from (i) and (ii). You could equally conclude:

  1. Therefore, J&J did not write the Bible!

That conclusion would have the benefit both of being true, and of highlighting the importance of not relying on human wisdom, lest we recreate God in our own image.

3. They fail to anticipate obvious tu quoque objections

Leading naturally on from the fallacy of intuition, let’s plug a different doctrine into J&J’s appeal. I’ma pretend to be a Unitarian. And I want J&J to find all the times the words “Trinity” or “Godhead” are mentioned in the Bible.

What?! They don’t appear at all?

Safe to say they aren’t important then.

How can the Bible even teach that God is three persons in one essence if it doesn’t mention any of those words?

Perhaps I am being a little snarky, but honestly, when you don’t anticipate this obvious line of response and at least try to head it off, what else can a man do? The same goes for justification by faith. Paul says in Galatians this is a foundational doctrine; without it there is no gospel. Yet it is only laid out explicitly a handful of times—and most of them don’t use the words “justification” or “faith”.

This demonstrates what you hopefully already suspected: that the frequency of a doctrine’s mention in the Bible has no necessary correlation with its importance. Sometimes, the reason doctrines aren’t mentioned very much is because God chose to fully reveal them only late in the history of redemption. Sometimes it is because they are not the primary focus of Scripture. Sometimes it is because they are taken for granted without needing to be stated. If we took J&J’s statistical approach to its logical conclusion, we’d end up with the prosperity gospel, since if their analysis is right, the most oft-mentioned issue in Scripture is poverty.

Completed in part 7, on hell in the early church

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