Thoughts on the possible timeframes of hell…

When writing my previous blog post on the question, “How can a loving God send someone to Hell?” I was aware that there would be more I would have to write on this topic in the future. It’s an incredibly tough subject and one I am not at all comfortable with and more a theological question than an apologetic one.

The associated question: “Why doesn’t God annihilate unbelievers at death?” is one I have often pondered. It is a question that requires in-depth biblical exegesis. However, I believe we can look at Scripture as a starting point of reference to at least begin to formulate an answer.

In this post I offer a some guidelines we can use when searching for the answers to this important question and others like it. In the footnotes, I will also give some follow up links for further study of the topic. 


Whichever doctrinal line we decide to ascribe to we need to remember that the authority of the Holy Scriptures are both our starting point and reference for any study on the topic and we should not interpret them according to what we want to find. It is too easy to find a verse or two that could be interpreted in the way that makes us more comfortable, rather than objectively looking at what the verse actually says in both it’s historical, grammatical and contextual state of being.

We also need to acknowledge that until we personally step into eternity ourselves we can only interpret what may be the answer where there are not definitive supporting scriptures.

To begin let us look at the two predominant thoughts about hell. Whether it is an eternal punishment or if it has an end point culminating in the complete annihilation of an unbeliever’s soul. 

There are many Scriptures that point to the ‘eternal torment’ of unbelievers, but there are also some Scriptures that seem to allude to a possible post-punishment termination point. 

The following is a small list of Scriptures often used to support a post-death annihilation of unbelievers (I have underlined the words pointing to these thoughts):

“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter it are many.” Matthew 7:13

“They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and the Glory of His might,” 2 Thessalonians 1:9 (This verse is also used in support of an eternal torment).

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16

“While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled.” John 17:12

“What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory –“ Romans 9:22-23

“and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God” Philippians 1:28

“And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Matthew 10:28

“But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.” Hebrews 10:39

Although Matthew 10:28 appears convincing, I find these Scriptures unhelpful, as they don’t specifically say ‘cease to exist eternally’; it again comes down to context and interpretation that warrant further study.

The following are verses that speak of an eternal punishment:

“And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest day or night, these worshippers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.” Revelation 14:11

“And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. “ Matthew 18:8

“The he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me. And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Matthew 25: 45-46

“….where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.” Mark 9:44-48

“..and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment.” John 5:29

“These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power,” 2 Thessalonians 1:9

“Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt.” Daniel 12:2

Neither of these lists are exhaustive[1], yet as much as I would prefer annihilation to be the answer for those who choose Hell, I personally cannot find indisputable evidence in Scripture that this will be the case.

If we are going to discard the doctrine of eternal punishment because it feels profoundly unpleasant to us, then it seems fair to ask what other biblical teachings we will also reject, because they too don’t square with what we feel. And if we do this, are we not replacing the authority of Scripture with the authority of our feelings, or our limited understanding? Randy Alcorn[2]

We can and should continue to study this topic and there is a wealth of opinion, both scholarly and otherwise, out there to read and meditate through.[3] In the meantime, the reality of there being a hell – eternal or finite – should move us to do all we can to ensure that we get the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ to as many people as possible. We need to be careful that our study does not distract from the Great Commission. As I stated earlier we may only find clear answers to some of these difficult questions when we step into eternity ourselves.

“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part: then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” 1 Corinthians 13.12 ESV

Let us focus on the call God has placed upon all of us through Jesus and be inspired to action by Spurgeon, who said:

“If sinners will be damned, at least let them leap to hell over our bodies; and if they will perish, let them perish with our arms about their knees, imploring them to stay…If hell must be filled, at least let it be filled in the teeth of our exertions, and let not one go there unwarned or unprayed for.”[4]

We cannot allow our ‘feelings’ about the horror of hell and our very human desire for it to be a false doctrine paralyse, us into doing nothing. Let us err on the side of Hope and work hard to do all we can to stop the flow into hell whilst we continue the search for answers.

[1] For more Scriptures that support eternal punishment read:

[2] This is an excerpt from Randy Alcon’s book  If God Is Good, Chapter 29: Hell: Eternal Sovereign Justice Exacted upon Evildoers.

[3] I suggest reading through some of the following Q & A’s by Dr William Lane Craig: – particularly Point 3.

[4] Charles Haddon Spurgeon, “The Wailing of Risca” (sermon 349, New Park Street Pulpit, December 9, 1860),, as quoted in Randy Alcorns book If God is Good, Chapter 29: Hell: Eternal Sovereign Justice Exacted upon Evildoers.



The Problem of Evil

Introduction. One of the most famous objections to the existence of God is that the joint claims that God is morally perfect and omnipotent are incompatible with the existence of evil and suffering. For if God were all good, the argument goes, he would want to prevent evil and suffering; and if he were all powerful, he would be able to do so. Therefore evil and suffering prove one of three things: That God does not exist, or that he is not all good, or that he is not all powerful. In short: The existence of an all-loving and all-powerful God is improbable given the obvious general fact of human suffering. 

Definition of Terms. Before responding, I need to briefly define a few terms that will be of use in what follows. “Free will” is the power of an agent to perform actions that are influenced but never fully determined by forces external to himself but of itself free will does not necessarily entail the capacity to do evil. God could, for instance, give us free will but constrain its exercise to the choice between different but equally good actions. I will therefore use the term “moral liberty” for the power of an agent to exercise his free will in making choices between good and bad actions; and “moral evil” for the use of moral liberty to perform bad actions. Finally, I will use the term “natural evil” for suffering having causes unrelated to moral evil—the suffering caused by natural disasters, accidents, diseases, and so on.

1. Moral Evil. To see why the problem of evil fails to disprove theism we first need to understand omnipotence in a more careful way. Theologians have always understood omnipotence to mean the power to perform any logically possible action. To note that God could not create a square circle imposes no limit on his powers because creating a square circle is not an action whose difficulty lies in the brute force required to perform it. In fact, it is not an action at all; rather, the imperative Create a square circle is a logically incoherent combination of English words which have no referent in the set of all logically possible actions that belong to omnipotence.

The relevance of this point to moral evil should be immediately obvious. It is logically impossible for God to create agents with moral liberty and ensure that they do not sin. The potential for moral evil is therefore an unavoidable consequence of moral liberty.[1] The question that needs to be asked is whether moral liberty confers any significant benefits upon mankind; and if it does, whether those benefits outweigh the suffering that it entails. In the following paragraphs I will be arguing that it confers upon mankind very significant benefits indeed; namely, that it makes possible the attainment of virtue, the formation of moral character and the capacity for genuine love. 

1.1 The Attainment of Virtue. To understand the importance of moral liberty to virtue, imagine a world from which moral liberty has been removed; in other words, a world in which the only possible exercise of free will is in the choice between different kinds of equally good actions. The result would be a toy universe or pleasure park in which we exist like animals or small children—experiencing comfort and sensory pleasure but without the opportunity to show empathy, courage, patience, self-sacrifice, forgiveness or heroism.  Such thought experiments help to bring out an important moral distinction between innocence and virtue. Innocence is a mere ignorance of evil; virtue requires that one face a significant choice between good and evil and freely choose the good. And since it is logically impossible for God to force us to freely choose the good, any world in which virtue is attainable is a world in which moral evil is a distinct possibility. 

1.2 The Formation of Moral Character. Because we have moral liberty we are continuously faced with the choice between performing good and bad actions. And, as Swinburne notes, humans are so made that when we choose to do good, it becomes slightly easier to choose to do good again at the next opportunity; and when we choose to do evil, it becomes slightly easier to choose to do evil again at the next opportunity. In this way, over time, we are able to change the desires that influence us and form either a very good or a very bad character. Without moral liberty our characters would have and unwaveringly maintain whatever measure of good or evil God elected at our creation and would therefore be completely devoid of moral significance.

1.3 The Capacity for Genuine Love. Love that is induced through the use of potions, hypnotism or spells is not considered genuine. For love between humans to be genuine, it must be freely given. It follows from this simple truth that any world in which genuine human love is a possibility is a world in which moral evil is a possibility. And this is because if you are truly free to give love you must be truly free to withhold it—even in situations where withholding it would be wrong. For a mother’s love for her young children to be genuine, for example, it cannot be forced upon her from above by God; it must be freely given and in that case it must be logically possible for her to withhold it—and so, perhaps, to neglect and abuse her children. All this holds equally for our love of God. To be genuine a love of God cannot be built into us by God. It must be freely given and this entails the freedom to withhold it.[2]  

Moral liberty therefore confers the profoundest imaginable benefits upon mankind. It provides us with the opportunity to attain virtue, form a moral character, and experience genuine love for each other and for God. It is not at all incoherent to suppose that a perfectly good person would choose to create a world in which these supreme goods were possible—even at the cost of moral evil.

2. Natural Evil. In discussing natural evil it is important to recognise that the suffering it entails is often bound up with moral evil. Cheaply built and poorly planned towns, for instance, can significantly raise the death toll during earthquakes and floods; the misuse of certain chemicals can significantly increase the incidence of cancer; the failure of wealthy countries to provide aid to poor countries can result in preventable famines—and so forth. Nevertheless, there is a great deal of suffering on Earth for which no human agent is responsible. And in what follows I will be arguing that such natural evil fulfils three additional and important purposes which moral evil alone could not fulfil: It ensures that opportunities to obtain virtue are universal; it broadens the scope and significance of our moral choices; and, most importantly, it conduces to the religious life.

2.1 It Makes Opportunities to Obtain Virtue Universal. In the section discussing moral liberty, we saw that empathy, courage, patience, self-sacrifice, forgiveness and heroism are all states contributive to virtue. But it needs to be noted that it is not moral liberty alone, but moral liberty and moral evil together, that provide an opportunity to manifest these virtues. In other words, only if someone eventually exercises their moral liberty to assault or abuse you can I exercise mine to show you empathy; only if you are robbed can I make personal sacrifices to provide for you. The question arises whether moral evil alone would afford adequate opportunities for everyone to form a virtuous moral character. In this connection Swinburne writes,

You can show courage when threatened by a gunman as well as when threatened by cancer; and show sympathy to those likely to be killed by gunmen as well as to those likely to die of cancer. But just imagine all the suffering of mind and body caused by disease, earthquake, and accident unpreventable by humans removed at a stroke from our society—no sickness, no senility, no bereavement in consequence of the untimely death of the young. Many of us would then have such an easy life that we simply would not have much opportunity to show courage or, indeed, manifest much in the way of great goodness at all. 

Consider a world without disaster, disease and decrepitude; a world in which the only cause of injury and death is, respectively, assault and murder. It is a mathematical certainty that such a world would provide far, far fewer opportunities for virtue and highly probable that some people would have no such opportunities at all.

2.2 It Broadens The Scope of Moral Liberty. Moreover, with careful reflection it is apparent that the removal of natural evil would also considerably constrain the scope and significance of moral liberty. For instance: The knowledge that poison causes death is unobtainable unless someone is first observed to have accidentally died by poisoning. And knowledge of poisonous toadstools and berries thereafter affords us an opportunity to exercise significant moral liberty: We can use that knowledge to kill off a neighbouring village by poisoning its well or to warn the neighbouring village not to eat toadstools. Earthquake belts, to give another example, give us a choice between building upon them cities that may be destroyed long after we are dead or avoiding doing so. Pathogens give us a choice between making biological weapons that kill thousands or developing antibiotics that save thousands. These examples show that natural evil broadens the scope and significance of our choices so that they are able to benefit or harm others far from us in both time and space. This confers on us a solemn moral responsibility and significance and so plausibly conduces to the aims of a morally perfect creator for his creatures. 

2.3 It Conduces to the Religious Life. If God exists he is the consummation and source of all power, knowledge, wisdom, beauty, rationality and love lying at the very heart of reality. A genuine and eternal love relationship with God is therefore the greatest conceivable good available to us. The question arises: Does a world that contains moral and natural evil conduce to the greatest number of creatures freely seeking the greatest conceivable good available to them? Reason and experience suggest that the answer may be yes. Pleasure and comfort are good and our world, of course, provides both. But a life that offered nothing else would make us complacent, hedonistic, idle and shallow. Suffering and death, on the other hand, force us all to confront questions about the ultimate meaning of life and so, for very many, plays a causal role in developing a relationship with God and living a religious life. 

Conclusion. The objection from evil seems ultimately to rest on the naive assumption that God created the universe to serve as a comfortable habitat for his human pets. However, we have seen that moral and natural evil are an unpreventable feature of any world in which the supreme goods of virtue, moral self-determination, genuine love and knowledge of God are significantly and universally attainable. It is probable that the creation of a pleasure park inhabited by creatures who know endless pleasure and comfort but are devoid of moral and spiritual significance would be a morally good act. But it is not at all incoherent to suppose that, viewed under the aspect of his infinite intelligence and moral perfection, God would know that the creation of a world precisely like ours is a morally better act. This is the so-called “Higher-Order Goods” solution to the problem of evil. Pleasure, innocence and comfort are good; but virtue, moral significance and love are goods of a higher order. And God, being perfectly good, wants to give us the very best things He has to give.


[1] To create agents with moral liberty and constrain them from moral evil is simply to deny them moral liberty. It is logically possible, though hugely improbable, that a planet of agents with moral liberty will by chance alone contain no evil. But, needless to say, this state of affairs does not obtain on our planet

[2] The question arises whether God can freely withhold his love and if not then how, given my argument, it can be genuine. However, the difficulty only arises in the case of finite persons created by God for the purpose of knowing and loving him and each other. For if God created us with an immutable and irresistible love for himself and each other, that love would have its origin in something external to ourselves—namely, God—and would not therefore be freely given and genuine. But since God’s love is past eternal and has no cause external to himself, it is genuine even though by a necessity of his divine nature he is incapable of withholding it.



Foetus in the womb

Abortion: Objections to the Pro-Life Position (Pt 4)

Welcome back for Part 4 of this series, in which I’m looking at common objections to the pro-life perspective on abortion. If you aren’t familiar with the pro-life view, I’d recommend you take a look at some of my previous posts, links to which can be found in the endnotes[i].

“Every child a wanted child”. This catchphrase has been in circulation for decades now, written on signs during protests, boldly printed on Planned Parenthood flyers. Short and pithy, it seems to express a noble sentiment—one which has found a new pop-culture platform via the Netflix hit Orange is the New Black. Orange is the New Black tells the story of a number of women convicted of serious crimes and placed in prison. In one episode, an inmate mourns for several children whom she aborted earlier in life. However, she’s soon approached by another inmate, who captures the essence of “every child a wanted child” when she argues:

The abortions that occurred after [abortion was made legal]… these were children that weren’t wanted. Children who, if their mothers had been forced to have them, would have grown up poor, and neglected and abused. The three most important ingredients when one is making a felon[ii].

The implication is that since these children were unwanted, were going to live traumatic lives, and would wind up in prison, aborting them was the right decision. Therefore, the mourning inmate need not feel any more regret, as her children were spared suffering and life as a felon.

As with many popular arguments for abortion, this type of argument has great initial appeal, but once you begin to assess its logic and draw out its implications, it becomes less and less persuasive. In the following paragraphs, I’ll outline the argument more clearly, and then highlight three flaws that render it unsound.

The Argument

Though there are various ways to develop an argument from unwanted children, most reflect the following sentiments. A number of social problems, such as child abuse, unnecessary financial burden, and poverty are (at least partially) the result of families having to manage unwanted children. Legal abortion reduces the number of unwanted children, and, as such, minimises these problems. Therefore, abortion should be legal. Additionally, unwanted children are likely to live unhappy lives. Since they may suffer physical, mental, and emotional abuse, it is better for the mother to opt for abortion.

  1. Begging the Question

Perhaps the most significant problem with popular arguments for abortion is that they beg the question. As I’ve argued in previous posts, question-begging plagues arguments from rape and the dangers of illegal abortions, and the argument here is no exception. For those of you unfamiliar with what “begging the question” is, it’s a form of circular reasoning in which someone assumes what they’re supposed to be proving[iii]. In this case, the proponent of the argument assumes that the unborn are not valuable human beings, which is what they need to prove in order to justify abortion.

To demonstrate how it begs the question, we can run a parallel argument that replaces every instance of “unwanted children” with “toddler”. Doing so results in the following:

A number of social problems are the result of families having to manage unwanted toddlers. Legal toddler-killing reduces the number of unwanted toddlers, and, as such, minimises these problems. Therefore, toddler-killing should be legal. Additionally, unwanted toddlers are likely to live unhappy lives. Since they may suffer physical, mental, and emotional abuse, it is better for the mother to opt to kill her toddler.

Obviously, it’s wrong to kill unwanted toddlers. Why? Because they are valuable human beings. Similarly, if unborn human beings possess that same value, then it’s wrong to kill them simply because they are unwanted. The real question, then, is not whether children are wanted, but whether they are valuable. And, since the argument from unwanted children must assume they are not valuable in order to succeed, it begs the question.

One might object to this charge by contending that value is attributed to humans precisely because they are wanted. Whether or not one is wanted determines whether one has value, and thus to say that the unborn is unwanted entails that they have no value. On this reading, the argument doesn’t beg the question.

However, it is relatively easy to think of a counter-example to this notion. Imagine that everyone you know suddenly decided that they no longer like you, and no longer want you. Your family abandon you, your partner separates from you, your employer fires you, and your friends snub you. Does it follow from this that you have no value? I suspect that your intuitions tell you that, even in such circumstances, you still have value, and as such it would still be wrong for someone to kill you. But if this is the case, then your value resides in you, not in whether other people want you, which is simply to say that whether you are wanted or not is irrelevant to whether you have value.     

  1. Finding Solutions vs Eliminating Problems

Another problem with the argument from unwanted children is that it confuses the notion of finding a solution with that of eliminating a problem. For example, it’s possible to cure a headache by chopping off one’s head, or to drive out termites by burning down the house. These courses of action do, in a sense, eliminate problems. However, given that they violate certain unspoken criteria within which one seeks a solution (e.g. to cure a headache but to remain alive, or to drive out termites but retain a home, or to eliminate unwanted-ness without killing human beings), they aren’t really solutions. As Francis Beckwith writes of a similar example:

One can eliminate the problem of poverty by executing all poor people, but this would not really solve the problem, as it would directly conflict with our basic moral intuition that human persons should not be gratuitously exterminated for the sake of easing economic tension. This “solution” would undermine the very moral principles that ground our compassion for poor people – namely, that they are humans of great worth and should be treated with dignity regardless of their predicament.[iv]

Granted, aborting unwanted children does eliminate a problem, namely, that of children being unwanted. But is this really a solution? My contention is that, given that the unborn are valuable human beings (which I’ve argued here), solving the problem of unwanted children by killing them in the womb is comparable to eliminating poverty by killing impoverished people. In both cases society rids itself of a problem by ridding itself of the humans who have the problem. Unwanted-ness does not justify this “solution”.

  1. Killing vs Potential Suffering

Katharine Whitehorn, columnist for The Guardian, exemplifies the argument in question when she writes “there’s a lot to be said for preventing babies from being born who are going to be unwelcome and therefore have a rotten childhood”[v]. Take note of the reasoning here—since the child will be unwelcome she will have a rotten childhood, and since she will have a rotten childhood, it’s better to prevent her from being born (which is a euphemism for killing her). There are at least two problems with this line of reasoning.

Firstly, Whitehorn’s argument hinges on the assumption that certain death is better for a child than potential suffering. But is this really true? Although unwanted children may suffer more than wanted children, there’s no guarantee that they will. Therefore, her claim must be that the probability that the child will suffer gratuitously is high enough that they’re better off dead. But how can we determine this probability? Given the countless variables in any individual’s life, it’s impossible. Furthermore, what level of suffering is sufficient to outweigh the drawbacks of death? An answer to this question depends on subjective considerations—how much suffering an individual can endure—and objective considerations which are hotly debated—e.g., what happens after death. It seems, then, that it’s simply too difficult to determine whether this assumption is true, and therefore it doesn’t provide a firm foundation for making life or death decisions.

Secondly, the idea that death is better than suffering is contrary to many of our intuitions about comparable situations. Take, for example, the following case. Someone at a warehouse climbs onto a shelf several metres above ground in order to remove a heavy, awkward item. In so doing, they fall from the shelf, landing on a hard concrete floor. They’re knocked unconscious, but a nearby First Aider rushes to the scene and determines that they’re breathing, despite having broken their spine and having suffered a deep gash to the head. To keep them alive, the First Aider rolls them onto their side to prevent their airways becoming blocked. By doing this, the First Aider has acted upon the assumption that it’s better for the injured person to remain alive and endure potentially lifelong suffering (i.e. paralysis, brain damage), rather than for them to die. Few people would approve of a First Aider who decided to let the patient suffocate because of the possibility of future suffering. This assumption, however, is contrary to the assumption underlying the argument from unwanted children. Although this example isn’t a knock-down argument in favour of keeping people alive despite suffering, at the very least it should prompt further reflection on the role that the potential suffering of a child might play in deciding whether or not to terminate a pregnancy. Is certain death the solution to potential suffering?

Recall that pithy catchphrase from earlier: “every child a wanted child”. It’s true that children fare better when they are loved and wanted.  It’s also true that abortion does provide a sort of “solution” to a profound problem. But is it the right solution? Does it take into account the value of human beings, and does it exemplify love and care for the unwanted? Allow me to make a bold suggestion: perhaps the problem is not that some children are unwanted. Perhaps the true problem is that we as individuals and as a society are not willing to love, care, and nurture those whom we don’t want. Perhaps we’d find that if we were willing to acknowledge the value of all human beings—even the unwanted ones—we’d eventually come to see that value ourselves, and our attitudes might be changed. The implications of this extend far beyond the abortion debate. My hope is that you’ll weigh and consider what is written in this post, and, if the reasoning is sound and the cause just, consider the implications for you, and for those around you. Perhaps, in time, every child can be a wanted child. 



[i] Making the Case: Part 1Part 2Part 3. Addressing Objections: Part 1Part 2, Part 3


[iii] For example, suppose a well-meaning Christian were to argue for the reliability of scripture by saying “scripture is trustworthy because the Bible says so”. This statement begs the question, as it’s only by assuming that scripture is trustworthy that we can trust what the Bible says, which is the point our Christian friend is attempting to prove.

[iv] Beckwith, F. J. (2007). Defending life: A moral and legal case against abortion choice. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, pp. 97-98.


The Criteria of Historical Authenticity

The so-called “minimal facts” are four facts about Jesus and the early Church that are accepted by the vast majority of critical scholars with terminal degrees in a relevant field. As such they form the “explanandum” or “thing to be explained,” in any informed and responsible discussion of what occurred on the first Easter Sunday. The minimal facts are,

Crucifixion and Burial. That after his crucifixion and death under the governorship of Pontius Pilate, Jesus was buried in a tomb by one Joseph of Arimathea.

The Empty Tomb. That days later the tomb was found to be empty by a group of Jesus’ female followers.

The Post Mortem Appearances. That thereafter various individuals and groups, at various times and places, had experiences that completely convinced them that they had seen, touched, spoken to and eaten with the risen Jesus.

A Sincere Belief in the Resurrection. That these experiences completely transformed the disciples, inspired a belief among them that God had raised Jesus from the dead and led to the formation of the Church.

Before weighing up the different hypotheses that have been put forward to account for these four facts, it is important to understand how they have come to enjoy such widespread assent among critical scholars.

Criteria of Historical Authenticity

Anyone can claim anything in writing—a point which applies to modern authors and, a fortiori, ancient authors since in the case of ancient authors we cannot appeal to contemporary eyewitnesses. On what basis, then, can we affirm that one historical claim is more likely to be true (or more likely to be false) than another? It is here that critical scholars apply what are called “critieria of historical authenticity.”

Before listing these it is important to first note that they state sufficient but not necessary conditions of historicity; in other words, that one or n number of criteria apply to p is further reason to regard p as historically authentic but that only one or none of the criteria apply to q is not a reason to regard q as historically inauthentic. It should also be borne in mind that they are not infallible guides to authenticity; rather, we should regard them as “Indicators of Authenticity.” We could summarise all this by just saying that the probability that some saying or event in the New Testament is historical is greater for its satisfying the criteria than it would be if it did not.

Early Multiple Attestation

According to this criterion the historicity of p is more probable if p appears in early, multiple and independent sources near in time and space to the alleged occurrence of p. It applies at many points to the New Testament of which I will give just one example here. The Resurrection appearances are multiply attested in Pauline and Gospel sources and were quickly proclaimed by the first Christians in the very city where Jesus had been crucified and buried. In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul says that the risen Jesus was seen by as many as five hundred witnesses at one time—and adds that many of those witnesses are still alive to be questioned. If Paul made up this claim and then announced it in the place where, within living memory of his audience, it was alleged to have occurred, he would have been exposed as a fraud. This gives us further reason for thinking that it is historically reliable.

Attestation has particular force when it originates in a hostile witness and we see this throughout the New Testament also. To again give just one example: The Sanhedrin, the Jewish court which engineered the crucifixion of Jesus, responded to the Christian claim that he had risen from the dead by accusing the disciples of stealing the body. This is an incidental admission from hostile witnesses of a fact that actually corroborates the Resurrection Hypothesis; namely, since the Sanhedrin would certainly have produced the corpse of Jesus if they could, the accusation strongly suggests that the tomb of Jesus was empty which is precisely what the Christians claimed a group of women had discovered on Easter morning. As Paul Maier notes, “if a source admits a fact that is decidedly not in its favour, the fact is to be presumed genuine.” 


This criterion states that the historicity of p is more probable if p is dissimilar to the prior beliefs of those claiming its occurrence. The death and Resurrection of Jesus satisfy this criterion very clearly: Since first century Jews expected a Messiah who overthrows the Roman occupiers and a general resurrection at the end of history, a Messiah who dies and is individually resurrected in the middle of history represents a very strange and dramatic mutation within the Jewish worldview. N. T. Wright makes this point central to his massive study The Resurrection of the Son of God in which he argues that only the Resurrection itself can satisfactorily account for the emergence of a sincere Jewish belief in a dying and rising Messiah. The historicity of the New Testament claim that Jesus rose from the dead is thus highly probable on the criterion of dissimilarity.


The criterion of embarrassment states that the historicity of p is more probable if p is problematic for the one who claims the occurrence of p—on the logic that an author fabricating a claim does not fabricate a detail that undermines the credibility of his own claim. It applies to many New Testament claims but to none more obviously than the crucifixion of Jesus. Prior to the Resurrection the Apostles had believed that Jesus was the Messiah prophesied to defeat the foreign occupying power and restore the throne of David in Jerusalem. His ignominious execution by the very foreign power his followers expected him to overthrow was therefore a profound embarrassment: It dashed their hopes of his triumph and appeared to confirm the Sanhedrin claim that Jesus was a false prophet accused by God. On the criterion of embarrassment the historicity of the crucifixion is highly probable.

The Criterion of Embarrassment applies again to the burial of Jesus. To appreciate this it is enough to know that Joseph of Arimathea, the man who both supplied the tomb and buried Jesus in it, was a member of the Sanhedrin; and the Sanhedrin was the Jewish court which had engineered the crucifixion of Jesus. If the Gospel authors wished to fabricate a story about the death and burial of Jesus they would not have given the Sanhedrin the dual role of murdering Jesus and then humanely laying him to rest. According to John A. T. Robinson of Cambridge, the entombment of Jesus by Joseph of Arimathea is, “one of the earliest and best attested facts about Jesus.”

It also applies to the discovery of the empty tomb by specifically female followers. And this is because, in first century Jewish culture, the eyewitness testimony of women was held in such low esteem that it was not permitted in a court of law. It is for this reason highly improbable that the Gospel authors would have hung a pivotal event in their story on the testimony of those witnesses least likely to be believed. The criterion of embarrassment suggests that both these inconvenient details—the burial of Jesus by a member of the Sanhedrin and the discovery of the empty tomb by a group of female followers—are truths reluctantly but dutifully recorded.

Historical Congruence

This criterion states that the historicity of p is more probable if p coheres with known historical facts about the context in which p is said to have occurred. This criterion applies at many points of the New Testament of which I will mention just one: The New Testament claims that Joseph of Arimathea requested the body of Jesus from Pilate so that he could bury it before the Sabbath; that Joseph and Nicodemus together bound the body in linen and placed it in a hewn tomb; and, finally, that when the Sabbath was over a group of female followers of Jesus arrived at the tomb with spices to anoint the body. Because all of these details are congruent with our knowledge of Jewish burial customs in the first century the criterion of historical congruence gives us further grounds for affirming their historicity. 


This criterion states that the historicity of a New Testament sentence p is more probable if it contains traces of an Aramaic or Hebraic origin. Since the New Testament was written in Greek and Jesus spoke Aramaic, traces of Aramaic in the Greek of the New Testament argue in favour of a primitive tradition that originates in Jesus. We see this, for example, in Paul’s quotation of a creedal tradition in Corinthians. “I delivered to you,” he reminds the Corinthians, “what I also received,” suggesting the transmission of an oral tradition. Paul then recites a list of eyewitnesses to the risen Jesus which, as Habermas and Licona point out, contains numerous hints of an Aramaic origin that would seem to vouch for its authenticity—including the fourfold use of the Greek term for “that,” hoti, common in Aramaic narration, and the use of the name Cephas (“He appeared to Cephas”) which is the Aramaic for Peter.

 Whatever hypotheses one defends will have to account for the four minimal facts mentioned above. And while I think it can be demonstrated almost beyond dispute that the Resurrection Hypothesis is an inference to the best explanation here, that is a topic for another post.