For this week’s readers’ mailbag I have chosen three unusually unrelated questions, one on whether we should be afraid of going to hell, one on how I prepare for public debates, and one on how we got the name Jehovah from the Hebrew name of God, YHWH. This shows just how wide ranging your questions can be on this blog! If you one you would like me to address in the future, let me know.
What would you say to someone who is scared of going to hell?
I suppose the first thing I’d say is that I understand the fear very well, from the inside, as I too used to have it. This was especially a problem for me when I first began to realize that I didn’t believe the Christian message any more, the claim that one had to believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus to be “saved” and that anyone who didn’t believe would be condemned to the eternal torments of hell. One of my greatest fears in “leaving the faith” was: What if I’m wrong? That could be costly. Eternally!
It took me years to get over it. I have lots of thoughts about the doctrine of hell – and am thinking, in fact, of devoting a book to “The History of Hell” (or possibly “The Origin of Hell”) where I deal with the topic at length. Here let me just say one thing about it.
I have come to think that if there is a God in the universe, he is either relatively indifferent to us (which is why he would allow such awful pain, suffering, and misery for literally billions of people) or he is good. I’m probably heavily influenced by my past in thinking that he would probably be good. If God is good, would he really want to torture a person for trillions and trillions of years – and that would only be the beginning – in exchange for disbelief of a few years?
What do we think of humans who torture others for, say, three hours? We think they are among the lowest life-forms in the universe. Do you mean God is worse than that? Trillions of times worse? That he is gazillions times worse than the most malicious and evil Nazi the world has ever seen? I simply don’t believe it. And if someone does believe it, well, I think it would be interesting to explore why people would believe that a good God was at heart totally evil. (I know that people who believe in eternal punishment would say that God is not evil but “just.” But “justice” means, among other things, devising punishments that fit the crimes. We don’t torture people for months for robbery. Surely God is better than us, not worse. Quadrillions of years of torture in exchange for, say, ten years of disbelief is by any standard incommensurate. I just don’t believe it’s true.)
How do you prepare for debates? What makes a good debater? If your grandchild wanted to learn to become a good debater what advice would you give them?
I have a public debate two or three times a year. There’s a simple answer to how I have prepared for them. I have spent forty years of my life preparing for them, intensely studying the New Testament and early Christianity in most of my waking hours. What do I do in preparation for a particular debate? Very little, as a rule. I come up with a PowerPoint presentation of my opening speech and casually wonder what the other person is going to say. That’s about it.
I suppose I’m a good debater because I have a lot of experience, starting when I was fourteen years old and joined the high school debate team. When I was a seventeen-year old senior, I and five of my colleagues won the Kansas state debate tournament. Anyone who wants to be a good debater should do what anyone needs to do to become good at something, whether it is shooting baskets, writing essays, or building bookshelves. They should do it a lot. Hopefully with some guidance from someone who knows what they’re doing.
Being a good debater means understanding all of the ins and outs of an issue; knowing the data; knowing what scholars have said about the data; knowing how to evaluate a good argument, and a bad one; knowing how to expose the weakness of the views of others; knowing how to present a persuasive case, one that will be convincing not just to oneself but to others; knowing how to speak publicly in a way that’s both interesting and compelling.
What would I advise my granddaughter who wanted to become a good debater? Study hard and join the debate team!
My one question is related to how many syllables there most likely were in the pronunciation of the name YHWH? The Jehovah’s Witnesses argue that many of the abbreviated names in the Bible that contain a part of the tetragramation contain 2 syllables of the divine name, indicating that YHWH possibly had 3 syllables much like Jehovah, and not 2 like Yahweh.
OK, this one is tricky. Here’s the short answer. The tetragrammaton literally means the “four letters,” and is a technical term used to refer to the name of God in the Hebrew Bible, YHWH. Ancient Hebrew was written without vowels. Only the consonants were represented. Readers knew how to pronounce the words by providing the appropriate vowels. But we don’t have records of their pronunciations, and so we have to reconstruct them as best we can on the basis of surviving evidence.
Scholars have long maintained that the name YHWH was probably pronounced as a two-syllable word, Yahweh. Since this was God’s actual name, it was treated with special reverence, to the point where, eventually, it was no longer thought to be appropriate even to pronounce it. It was too holy. And so, when Jewish readers would come to the name, instead of saying it they would say the Hebrew word for “Lord,” which was Adonai.
When early Bible translators began rendering the Hebrew Bible into English, they had to decide how to translate the tetragrammaton. And what they (some of them) did was to take the four letters of YHWH (originally a two-syllable word) and add to them the vowels of Adonai (a three-syllable word). That ended up as something like YaHoVaiH, which came into English as Jehovah. Jehovah, then, is a made up word, based on the consonants of the tetragrammaton and the vowels of Adonai, the word “Lord.”
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