Sleights of Hand in Sodom

How a Common Rhetorical Strategy is Used to Dismiss Inconvenient Evidence

In my last post, Sodom Skirmishes, I summarized some of the debate surrounding a recent study which claimed that the Bronze Age archaeological site of Tall el-Hammam (associated with Sodom) was destroyed by a “cosmic airburst” – a comet or meteor exploding as it descended.

A few years ago, before the final study had been published but after preliminary reports about the site had come out, a skeptic friend of mine sent me an article by science writer Evan Gough discussing the findings. The piece concludes:  

The Bible is interesting from a historical perspective, because it sometimes interweaves actual events from history with the Christian mythology. Now that it seems reasonable that a meteor airburst did destroy the area that may have contained Sodom, we can lay to rest the idea that the Christian God sent down fireballs to punish homosexuality. It looks like once again, it was a perfectly natural event that led to an apocalyptic, mythological story, and that what people once attributed to Gods and Goddesses is just nature.

This response exhibits a complex logical sleight of hand that is commonly used by naturalists, and which often succeeds in confusing theists. I want take this opportunity to dissect it.

The Fallacy of the Undefined Alternative

When you have two competing hypotheses, you need to define which observations will confirm or refute each hypothesis. Often in religious debates, a skeptic will treat “God did it” as the first hypothesis under question, which is then supposedly disproven by evidence for an alternative hypothesis – e.g. “a random comet did it.” However, the skeptic does not define what different observations would have been consistent with the “God did it” hypothesis in the first place.

In the case at hand, “a random comet did it” is presented as the alternative to the theistic hypothesis, and it seems to be supported by several lines of evidence. There are signs of a major impact at the site, as well as traces of elements associated with extraterrestrial, and specifically comet, origins. This fits with the alternative hypothesis that a random comet destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.

But that leaves unaddressed the question of what kind of evidence would support the first hypothesis—“God did it”. What would Tall el-Hammam look like if God had destroyed it?

Classifications of Divine Wrath

In the debate surrounding the destruction of Tall el-Hammam, this information is not provided. So, let me suggest some possible “God did it” scenarios and the evidence that would support them, in no particular order:

Scenario 1. God, thanks to his omniscience, created the universe with initial conditions to result in a comet destroying the city at just the right time. (A friend of mine pointed out that the impatient behavior of the two angels in the Genesis account who were anxious to get Lot and his family out of Sodom is consistent with the idea that the destruction was already “en route,” so to speak, and thus could not be delayed for Lot and his family to take their time evacuating the city. In that case, the biblical account would seem to indicate a foreordained destruction that God was unwilling to interfere with – such as a comet.)

In this scenario, the archeological evidence that would support the theistic hypothesis is the same as the evidence that would support the alternative hypothesis (“a random comet did it”).

Scenario 2. Despite knowing the future, God chose not to create the universe with initial conditions that would result in a comet destroying the city at the right moment. Instead, he intervened some time before the destruction to re-direct a comet towards the city of Sodom.

In this scenario, the evidence that would support the theistic hypothesis is the same as the evidence that would support the alternative hypothesis.

Scenario 3. God created fireballs ex-nihilo, and sent them down to destroy the city.

In this scenario, the evidence that would support the theistic hypothesis depends on whatever is the expected chemical makeup of ex-nihilo fireballs.

Scenario 4. God, a sky god riding in his chariot, snatched a comet out the heavens and hurled it at the city.

In this scenario, the evidence that would support the theistic hypothesis is the same as the evidence that would support the alternative hypothesis.

Scenario 5. God, a sky god riding in his chariot, pulled a divine missile from his pocket and hurled it down at the city.

In this scenario, the evidence that would support the theistic hypothesis depends on what is the expected chemical makeup of divine missiles. (Would they be comprised of elements that exist in this universe? If so, which elements? If not, what characteristic traces and effects would we expect to find from these otherworldly elements?)

Those are all the possibilities I can think of at the moment. I’m sure you can come up with some more.

As you can see, “divine intervention” could take many forms. Several of these options are consistent with the evidence at Tall-El Hammam. Each version’s prima facie plausibility or implausibility depends on the theological framework a person is working with.

Yet often people come to these discussions with a very-vague-yet-somehow-specific idea of what divine intervention would look like, and that amorphous notion is what they are debunking – not the hypothesis of divine intervention itself. Yet without defining the range of possibilities for what divine intervention would look like, arguments based on what divine intervention wouldn’t look like are meaningless.

But you will rarely be provided with a detailed account of what evidence for divine intervention would be, because once that is provided, there is the risk that the described evidence will turn up someday.

The Amazing, Fantastic, Instantly-Changing Alternative Hypothesis

You may have noticed that it seems impossible, in this case, to prove either the “God did it” hypothesis or the “a natural event did it” hypothesis. That is because the archaeological evidence at hand only tells us about the nature of the event itself, not the ultimate origin or the final cause of the event.  

Oh well. That’s how it is, sometimes. But the truth – which is easy to miss, thanks to a rhetorical sleight of hand – is that the original question was never whether the event had a divine origin, but simply whether the event happened at all.

Before evidence turned up for destruction of the city by fire from heaven, the two competing hypotheses were (1) that fire from heaven destroyed a Levantine city, as described in the biblical account, and (2) that the fire from heaven never happened at all – that the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was just a myth, perhaps created to explain the ruins of prior civilizations, which had been destroyed by normal processes such as earthquakes.

As soon as evidence turns up that extraterrestrial fire did rain down on the city, the first hypothesis is confirmed. It is legitimate to then divide the confirmed hypothesis into two competing versions – “God willed it” and “coincidence caused it” – but this should not be done in such a way as to obscure the fact that the hypothesis favored by Christians was confirmed by the evidence.

That confirmation should have been the first takeaway of the study, rather than the fact that the study posited a natural origin for the event – not least because, for any findings to be published in any mainstream scientific journal, a naturalistic explanation has to be posited. “Divine Missile Destroyed Bronze Age City” would never have made it into print.

Daniel Witt (BS Ecology, BA History) is a writer and English teacher living in Amman, Jordan. He enjoys playing the mandolin, reading weird books, and foraging for edible plants.

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