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In the last installment of “Invasion of the Bible Snatchers” we investigated Ray Comfort’s claim that the text of Job 26:7 affirmed that our planet was “freely floating” in space. As I pointed out in that post, Comfort’s bad science led to bad exegesis. Today we continue looking at Comfort’s claims that come from his book Scientific Facts in the Bible.
Comfort quotes Hebrews 11:3 from the NKJV: “By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible.” He then writes,
The Bible claims that all creation is made of invisible material. Science then was ignorant of the subject. We now know that the entire creation is made of invisible elements called “atoms.”1
Let’s begin with the scientific problems before we move on to the exegetical ones. The epistle to the Hebrews is anonymous and while some have attributed the letter to the apostle Paul, that connection remains dubious.2 It was likely written around 90 CE. But for the sake of argument, let us suppose that the epistle was written by Paul before his death in the 60s. Did Paul have advanced knowledge of the atomic world that he wrote down in the epistle to the Hebrews? Is Comfort right that “[s]cience then was ignorant of the subject”? The answer is “no” to both questions.
The Pre-Socratics and the Atom
The word “atom” is derived from the Greek word atomos, from the negative particle a, and the word tomos, “cutting.” It appears one time in the New Testament where Paul writes that the resurrection will take place “in a moment [atomō], in the twinkling of an eye” (1 Corinthians 15:52). The idea conveyed by atomos is of something indivisible, so fundamental that one cannot go beyond it. Paul compares atomos to “the twinkling of an eye,” the idea being that the process of resurrection will be instantaneous.
Centuries before Paul was a twinkle in his father’s eye, the idea of an atom was being toyed around with by pre-Socratic philosophers. In the fifth century BCE, the Athenian philosopher Anaxagoras posited a world in which the material cosmos consisted of tiny bits of matter that could not be seen with the naked eye. Similarly, Democritus (460-370 BCE) reasoned that if you take a material object and began dividing it into smaller and smaller pieces you would at some point reach a piece that was atomos – “uncuttable.” Democritus believed that the material world was made of these “atoms” that were uniform, homogenous, and invisible.3 This was the birth of what has become known as “atomism.” And while atomism did not win the day in Greek philosophical circles, it was a step in the right direction toward discerning the nature of the material universe.
What this shows us is that if we suppose that Paul was writing of the atomic world in Hebrews 11:3, he was doing so centuries after Greek philosophers had already done so. And since the tag line to Comfort’s book is “Amazing truths written thousands of years before man discovered them,” we can soundly reject that this particular biblical text contains advanced scientific knowledge. It is in fact a few centuries too late.
An Exegesis of Hebrews 11:3
That leaves us to examine the meaning of Hebrews 11:3 in its proper context. The eleventh chapter of the epistle to the Hebrews is perhaps its most famous. It begins with a rudimentary definition of faith (11:1) and includes what some refer to as the “Hall of Fame of Faith” (11:4-11:40). These heroes of ancient Israel are meant to stir up the recipients of the epistle to greater faith in the face of growing opposition and persecution (12:1-3). This is the immediate context in which we find the words in question.
The sequence of chapter eleven follows the general order of events in the Hebrew scriptures. For example, from 11:4 to 11:22 the focus is on the characters in the book of Genesis; from 11:23-29 the focus is on stories contained in the book of Exodus; and from 11:30 to the end there are characters from the books of Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel and more. This suggests strongly that what is described in 11:3 is part of this sequence of events: it is a summary of the creation story we find in Genesis chapter one.
One of the key elements of the first chapter of Genesis is that God speaks words and those words accomplish his purposes. “‘Let there be light,'” God says, “and there was light” (Genesis 1:3). “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters,” he declares, and it comes to be (Genesis 1:6-7). The emphasis is on God speaking things into being. In Greek, when referring to someone’s speech, there is a particular Greek word that can be employed: rhēma. This is the word the author of Hebrews uses when summarizing Genesis chapter one: “By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word [rhēmati] of God.” That is, the world was prepared through what God had spoken.
This helps us understand the second half of Hebrews 11:3 when it says “that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.” What is seen is the world that God created. What is not seen are the words God used to accomplish it. By this exegesis, it is not atoms to which the author is referring – as Comfort would have us think – but rather to God’s speech in Genesis chapter one. For the author of the epistle to the Hebrews, while we cannot see the words which God spoke, we can see their effect and it is by faith we understand that the world around us came from God’s words.
No Atoms Here
Comfort again reveals his sorely wanting exegetical skills. By reading the Bible through twenty-first century eyes and not in its own context he has forced upon it a reading that is not viable. Such eisegesis shows a lack of respect for both the text and its author. Comfort would do well to leave the task of biblical exegesis to those of us who know the Bible and handle it with respect.
No, Ray. There are no atoms in Hebrews 11:3.
1 Ray Comfort, Scientific Facts in the Bible (Living Waters Publications, 2016), 5.
2 There are a total of thirteen letters that are directly attributed to the apostle Paul in the New Testament. Only seven of them (1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Romans, Philippians, Philemon, and 1 Thessalonians) do scholars have a consensus that Paul was the actual author. The Pastoral Epistles (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) are likely forgeries and the authorship of the remaining epistles (Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians) are debated. The epistle to the Hebrews lacks the tell-tale signs of Pauline authorship.
3 Anne Rooney, The Story of Physics (Arcturus, 2011), 18-19.
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