I. What is the essence of Christianity? The doctrine of Christ
II. Who speaks for Christianity? The doctrine of Scripture
III. What must I do to be saved? The doctrine of salvation
A. The doctrine of sin
B. The doctrine of grace
As I write this essay, Christopher Hitchens is probably dying. He was diagnosed with advanced esophageal cancer a few weeks ago and is undergoing chemotherapy. In a way, this fact makes my writing more urgent. My own experience with a brain tumor is still very fresh in my mind (no pun intended) and it made me realize that it is crucial to consider our lives in light of the inevitability of our death. I credit most of the atheists I have met for at least recognizing that the question of God’s existence is important. It is one thing to reject God, to dismiss heaven and hell as figments of our overactive imaginations, and to reconcile ourselves to our finite span of years however we think best. But to ignore the question completely and occupy ourselves with food and clothing and shopping and entertainment is inexplicable from almost any perspective. If there is even a possibility that death is not the end of our existence, then we ought to be radically concerned with the claims of religion, even if they prove to be false. I have been praying for Christopher and will continue to pray for him. I am a living testimony to God’s power to rescue and to walk with us through the darkest valley. Yet in the hospital, my first thoughts were not of my physical health but of my spiritual health. I will be asking God to heal Mr. Hitchens miraculously and completely. But I pray first and foremost that Mr. Hitchens would find reconciliation with God through Jesus. If human beings are really destined for eternal joy or eternal punishment, then our biological life -as important as it is- can never be more important than our relationship with God.
In finishing Hitchens’ God is not great (forgive my capitalization), I completed the third of the four books in the Neoatheist canon, the last remaining one being Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell. Like The End of Faith, God is not great does not primarily try to show that religion’s metaphysical claims are false, but that its claims are evil, as is evident even from the book’s title. For instance, on p. 4 Hitchens enumerates his “four main objections” to religious faith: “that it wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos, that because of this original error it manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism, that it is both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression, and that it is ultimately grounded on wishful thinking.” Notice that only the first of these four items is a clear claim regarding objective fact: that religions misrepresent the origins of the universe. The second two are statements of subjective preference and the last is, at the very least, murky. In reading these last three objections, and indeed much of Hitchens’ indictment of religious immorality and sexual repression, I kept asking myself ‘So what?’
Anthropology would affirm that there are many, many religions which would not claim that God or the gods are necessarily good at all. For instance, the ancient Greeks knew that the gods were not absolutely good, that they were given to bouts of pettiness, were easily enraged, and generally made humans miserable. Humans may wish for a kind, wise, beneficent God who loves them. But to the ancient Greeks, the gods on Olympus were very real and unfortunately not very nice. From the perspective of biblical monotheism, the charge that God is not good is indeed meaningful, since the Bible affirms everywhere that God is very, very good. But as objections to the existence of some generic supernatural Creator, Hitchens’ arguments are actually very poor.
I think Hitchens would agree with this assessment. After all, he admits that he is “a Protestant atheist” (p.11); the God he disbelieves in is the God of the Bible. I’m reminded of the scene in Catch-22 in which Lieutenant Schiesskopf’s wife, in response to Yossarrian’s repeated and vicious attacks on God, begins crying and says “the God I don’t believe in is a good God, a just God, a merciful God. He’s not the mean and stupid God you make him out to be.” In the light of these observations, Hitchens’ last objection of religious wish fulfillment actually cuts both ways. Certainly, Christians find great comfort, hope, and joy in the existence of the Christian God. But Hitchens clearly finds great comfort, or at least relief, in the non-existence of the Christian God, whom he finds so unappealing. So if we are justified in rejecting Christianity as ‘wish fulfillment’, doesn’t the same argument apply to Hitchens’ atheism?
It is important to make the point that Hitchens is a “Protestant atheist” not only because Hitchens himself makes it, but because it really is the only way to address the objections raised by this book. Hitchens’ arguments would only disprove the existence of the biblical God if we also accepted the premise that the real God ought to satisfy all of Christopher Hitchens’ personal preferences, an idea which Hitchens himself would surely dismiss as hopelessly egomaniacal. On the one hand, because the Bible claims that God’s character is the source of morality and goodness and beauty, we ought to see some significant overlap between our moral intuition as human beings and God’s revealed will. On the other hand, because we are sinful, we need to recognize that it is God who reveals to us what is good, and not the other way around. I’ll say more later, but this issue is particularly relevant for modern Americans (including myself) because we so often assume that reality ought to conform itself to our desires. As a scientist, I know this is rubbish. As Niels Bohr is reported (probably apocryphally) to have said to Einstein, “Stop telling God what to do with his dice.”
There are certainly chapters and passages in God is not great which aim at debunking the objective claims of the various faiths. At least with regards to Christianity, other writers have examined these objections in depth and have provided clear, charitable online refutation (see this especially good essay by Dr. Mark Roberts listing the factual errors made by Hitchens regarding the historicity of the New Testament). However, I prefer to address this book in the spirit in which I believe it was written. The question raised is not so much whether it is possible for some kind of supernatural creator God to exist, but whether the various religions describe a God who is worthy of worship. In particular, Hitchens is arguing that it is the biblical God who is not worthy of worship and that it is this God who “is not great.”
To address this claim, I’d like to consider three central beliefs of the Christian faith. Hopefully, these beliefs will provide some answer to those asking the same questions and raising the same objections as Hitchens himself.
I. What is the essence of Christianity? The doctrine of Christ
One of the elements shared by Dawkins and Harris that took me by surprise was their professed admiration for Jesus of Nazareth. Harris states that Jesus’ principle message was that of “loving one’s neighbor and turning the other cheek” (The End of Faith, p. 85) and that his Golden Rule was a forerunner of Kant’s categorical imperative and a distillation of all that is best in ethics (ibid, p. 186). Going even farther, Dawkins once penned an essay entitled “Atheists for Jesus” in which he lauds Jesus as the author of “genuinely original and radical ethics” who advocated “generous forgiveness” which was “radical to the point of subversion”. Now both Dawkins and Harris would be the first to state that they are in no way Christians. Their admiration for Jesus is of the same kind that would be extended to any “nice” person, as Dawkins puts it. And they would reject all of the supernatural, theistic beliefs that Jesus certainly held as a first-century Jew. Yet there remains this undeniable fact: these professed atheists find the character of Jesus attractive.
On the other hand, Hitchens confines his praise of Jesus to a single remark in which he approvingly notes Jesus’ concern for little children (p. 51). Unlike Dawkins or Harris, Hitchens is far more critical of Jesus, noting his promise to reward his disciples in heaven (p. 158), his clear teaching on the existence of hell (p. 175), the impossibility of keeping his ethical injunctions (p. 213), and the scandalous claim that his crucifixion is the only way to be forgiven (p. 209). As a Christian, I might be expected to applaud Harris and Dawkins and to criticize Hitchens for failing to adore Jesus. But as it turns out, I am not going to do that. In fact, I believe that Hitchens is taking Jesus much more seriously than either of the other two authors.
The first question I would like to ask is: What is the essence of Christianity? If Hitchens professes an extreme dislike for the Christian religion, one immediate question we ought to ask is whether his dislike stems from primary or secondary beliefs of Christianity. After all, a dislike founded on matters that are secondary is harder to defend. If I profess an extreme aversion and hatred of all forms of chocolate which is based on my antagonism towards the aluminum foil the chocolate comes wrapped in, I think everyone would recognize that my aversion is based on a fairly substantial misconception about the nature of chocolate. So if we profess an aversion to Christianity, we need to consider whether our dislike is fundamental to the faith itself or grows out of concerns that are matters of fairly low importance.
To determine the essence of Christianity, it is helpful to compare it to some of the other world religions. It has sometimes been observed that it would theoretically be possible to take Mohammed out of Islam or Buddha out of Buddhism and leave the core of the message essentially unchanged because the function of these religious figures was primarily to convey correct teaching about spiritual reality to human beings. However, it would be quite impossible to do the same with Christianity. The claim of Christianity is not that Jesus was a man who came to show us the way to God, but that Jesus was God himself in human form, come to rescue humanity. Our temptation as modern Westerners is to reduce the message of Christianity to that of Jesus’ ethical teachings: we ought to love each other. But that is not and has never been either the message that Jesus proclaimed or the message that the church has proclaimed throughout history.
On this topic, the extensive space Hitchens gives to C.S. Lewis, the Oxford/Cambridge professor and Christian apologist, is quite helpful. On page 119 he quotes Lewis’ famous “Lord, Liar, Lunatic” argument, the core of which I will reproduce here:
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.” – C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
This is the key dilemma (actually trilemma) which I believe Hitchens is wrestling with, and which Harris and Dawkins are not. Now we need to grant that none of the Neoatheist authors have a very positive (or realistic) view of the reliability of the New Testament. But Hitchens, perhaps because of his background in the humanities, engages not only with the highly edited Jesus of liberal scholarship (liberal theologically, not politically), but with the character of Jesus as found in the New Testament documents themselves. Although Hitchens does not treat the New Testament as historically accurate (again, see this essay for the factual problems with Hitchens’ beliefs), he can’t help but address the Person and message that he finds in the texts. But it is the Jesus of Scriptures that causes us such problems.
Almost everyone recognizes, as do Dawkins and Harris, that Jesus was a man of love, meekness and compassion who frequently violated social, political, and economic norms to reach out to those who most needed forgiveness and love. So far, so good. No one (in the West) objects to the Jesus of love and meekness. Yet any honest study of the New Testament shows that Jesus was not only a man of love and meekness, but also a man of integrity, justice, and legitimately terrifying righteousness. He did not preach a fuzzy message of self-acceptance. He taught that we ought to pursue God with our whole heart, mind, soul, and strength (Mark 12:30). He taught that we ought to fear sin more than we fear the amputation of a limb or even physical death (Matthew 18:8-9). He taught that God would one day judge the world and cast those who broke His law into hell for all eternity (Matthew 25:31-46). This is not a message we like to hear. I don’t like to hear it. But this is the Jesus we find in Scripture.
It would be easy enough if Jesus were either one or the other. If Jesus were only compassionate and forgiving but not holy and righteous, then I could accept him as a wandering teacher of love. If he were only holy and righteous, but not compassionate and forgiving, then I could dismiss him as a religious fanatic. But what am I to do with Jesus? Any serious engagement with the Jesus of Scripture really does drive us to the “Lord, Liar, Lunatic” trilemma. In fact, we can see how compelling this argument is by how desperate we are to avoid it. For instance, Hitchens says that even if he were to accept the complete historicity of the New Testament he would still “not accept [Lewis’] reasoning” presumably because he believes that the Liar and Lunatic options are “two false alternatives” (p.119). Similarly, an agnostic friend of mine once wrote in a blog post that believing a few wrong ideas does not immediately make someone a Liar or a Lunatic. Thus, it is unfair to require non-Christians to put Jesus into one of these derogatory categories simply because they disagree with him. In response to this objection, let me raise two points.
First, arguing that the categories of “Liar” or “Lunatic” are unfairly derogatory does not consider the magnitude of Jesus’ claims. If a man were merely to claim that he had received personal messages from God, it would be possible that he was mildly and harmlessly mistaken. But what if that man also claimed to be able to forgive sin (Mk. 2:1-12, Mt. 9:2-8, Lk. 5:18-26, John 8:1-11), claimed that a personal relationship with him was the only way to know God (Matt. 11:27, Lk. 10:22, Jn. 14:6), claimed that he could heal the sick and raise the dead (Matt. 11:5, Lk. 7:22, Jn. 5:28-30), claimed to have preexisted from all eternity (Lk. 10:18, Jn. 8:57-58), claimed that our love for him must be greater than our love for our mother or father or children (Lk. 14:26), claimed that we must love him more than our own life (Mt. 10:37, Lk. 14:27), claimed that our eternal destiny depended entirely on our response to him (Lk. 12:8, Jn. 5:24), claimed that he would rise from the grave three days after being crucified (Mt. 16:21, Mk. 10:34, Jn. 2:19), and claimed that he would return at the end of time to judge all of humanity (Mt. 19:28, Matt. 25:31-46, Jn. 5:28-30)? It is not just the magnitude of these claims but the sustained way in which they are made that is unavoidable. I have deliberately cited Jesus’ statements from across all four gospels and throughout all parts of his ministry. Indeed, the more we read the New Testament, the more unlikely it seems that the neutered Jesus of contemporary liberal scholarship ever existed. It seems far more likely that we have deliberately excised exactly those teachings which are most offensive to us. But if Jesus did make such outrageous claims, then the admittedly strong labels of Liar, Lunatic, or Lord are certainly appropriate.
Second, claiming that the categories of “Liar” or “Lunatic” are unfairly derogatory does not take into account the Jewish context in which Jesus lived. As a first-century Jewish man, Jesus would have been taught from birth about God’s holiness, majesty and transcendence. For a Greek pagan or an adherent of an Eastern religion to claim to be somehow divine would have been unsurprising since these worldviews routinely speak about the gods taking human form. But at the time, Judaism was the only religion to believe in a God so utterly transcendent that creating an image of him or speaking about him blasphemously was a crime punishable by death. Modern Jewish people view even the name of God as so holy that they avoiding speaking it or even spelling it. To claim that Jesus somehow accidentally conceived of the idea that He was the eternal, supreme, omnipotent Creator and Judge of the universe in such a context is ludicrous. When Jesus’ contemporaries heard his claims, they tried to stone him for blasphemy. Again, we are left with the conclusion that either he was deliberately deceiving others or that he was suffering from severe megalomania or that He was who He claimed to be. Given the magnitude of his claims and his historical context, there really aren’t any other plausible options.
So the first question we need to consider if we claim to dislike Christianity is whether this dislike is occasioned by the historical figure of Christ. To say that we are repelled by church doctrine or prominent theologians of the past or the behavior of professing Christians is only to avoid the issue. Jesus himself is and always will be the very center of Christianity and it is our response to Him that is the real issue. So Hitchens is, in some ways, asking the right questions. Throughout his book, he reflects not only on how Jesus’ followers are offensive but how Jesus himself is offensive. It is the latter issue that I think we need to focus on first. If Jesus Christ is a lie, then Christianity is false, no matter how kind, gentle, and compassionate his followers are. But if Jesus Christ is true, then Christianity is true, no matter how sinful his followers are. Certainly, as his disciples, we should strive to make the message of the gospel as attractive as possible. But Christianity begins and ends with Jesus himself.
II. Who speaks for Christianity? The doctrine of Scripture
The second question that is absolutely vital to ask of Hitchens -or of anyone who is repelled by Christianity- is the question: who speaks for Christianity? Throughout his work, Hitchens criticizes (rightly) the appalling behavior of Christians throughout the world and throughout history. As a journalist, Hitchens has observed first-hand the atrocities committed by Christians, and brings them up repeatedly. But when Hitchens speaks about ‘Christianity’ he often uses the term to describe the beliefs of anyone who designates themselves as a Christian. The problem with this definition is that people of wildly diverging beliefs self-designate as ‘Christians’. Thus, it becomes almost impossible to determine what constellation of beliefs constitute ‘Christianity’ .
An illustration might be helpful. Imagine that I am conducting a survey to determine the attitude of Democrats towards taxes. Going from door to door, I eventually find a man who says he is a Democrat. However, upon further questioning I find that he explicitly rejects the position statements of the Democratic National Party, his local Democratic congressmen, and his two Democratic Senators and is in fact wildly opposed to every core principle of the Democratic party. Now the man certainly considers himself a Democrat, but at some point I realize that including him in my poll is going to unfairly skew the results. Am I being arrogant and exclusionary? No, I am simply being practical. In the same way, when Hitchens criticizes Christianity, we need to ask ‘which Christianity’?
There are two dangerous errors to avoid here. On the one hand, we need to avoid the danger of setting up straw men. If there is diversity of opinion among my opponents, my temptation will be to pick out the weakest and least rational of their beliefs and attack it as if it were universally held. This is the temptation that the New Atheists often fall into. For instance, it is hardly fair to hold up doctrines like the Assumption of Mary (p.117) or the adoration of relics (p. 135) as reasons to reject Christianity when these ideas have scandalized Protestants for years. On the other hand, the danger as a Christian apologist is to draw a tight circle around only those whose behavior and beliefs are the most defensible and claim that these and these alone are real Christians. The sad truth is that there is not a single theologian or church leader who is not stained by some terrible deed or some sincerely held but foolish error. Certainly, we can avoid much criticism if we define Christianity to exclude anyone who we have a hard time defending. But in doing so, we not only misrepresent Christianity, we undermine the gospel itself which recognizes that we are saved not by our own moral purity or doctrinal accuracy, but by the atoning work of Jesus.
So how is the believer or non-believer to evaluate the beliefs and behaviors of Christians? I would argue that the doctrine of Scripture is absolutely vital. Briefly, Christians have historically believed that the Bible is not only the words of human beings but also the words of God. This is not to deny that the Bible consists of biographies, histories, and letters written by real human authors and transmitted through a painful process of copying and recopying. But it is to affirm that the Bible is God’s authoritative message to humanity, telling us about Himself, about our need, and about His provision. Before writing off this belief as wildly fundamentalist and unfair, let me make a few points.
First, a belief in the inspiration of Scripture is held by Roman Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, and Protestants and has been affirmed down through the centuries by nearly every (every?) Christian theologian quoted by the Neoatheists including Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and Aquinas. In other words, the belief that Scripture is God’s revelation to humanity is not an eccentric outlying belief, but one that has been central to Christianity since its inception.
Second, Scripture is the only fair basis on which to judge any faith, be it Judaism, Christianity, Islam, or Mormonism. The Neoatheists themselves seem to intuitively recognize that Scripture is the basis by which any faith must be evaluated. In their treatments (and indictments) of the various religions, Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens invariably turn to Scripture, whether it is the Tanakh, the Bible, the Qu’ran, or the Book of Mormon. The reason is that adhering closely to Scripture, as either a believer or a non-believer, should prevent us from veering into the realm of straw-men. Only by considering the documents themselves do we have an objective basis for considering the beliefs of a faith. Obviously, there will be issues of interpretation to deal with, but at least we are considering what most believers acknowledge to be the ‘constitutional documents’ of each religion.
Finally, there is an even more compelling argument for considering the Bible when considering Christianity. As I said in the first section, Christ is the very heart of Christianity. I would certainly affirm that it is possible to be a Christian without believing in the inerrancy of the Bible, since the earliest Christians did not even possess the whole Bible and since the Bible affirms that Christianity is a matter of our faith in Jesus. But when I become a follower of Christ, it is almost impossible to avoid noticing his reverence for, trust in, and saturation with the Old Testament. An examination of the life of Jesus reveals that he believed the Hebrew Scriptures to be God’s inspired words to humanity. He cited the Scriptures constantly, He referred to it in all his teaching, and he even quoted it in the depths of his misery in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross. Additionally, in numerous places within the gospels, Jesus appoints his disciples to preach his message and to record his teaching. In the letters and accounts that make up the bulk of the New Testament, Jesus’ closest followers carried out this commission, explaining to new Christians the significance of Jesus’ life, death, and Resurrection. So if we take Jesus seriously, then we will necessarily take the Bible seriously.
If we are willing to accept the Bible as a rubric for understanding core Christian beliefs, then we actually have an objective standard by which we can evaluate Christian behavior. Once we do so, it is worth noting that the Bible actually condemns much of what the New Atheists condemn. For instance, Hitchens writes of the behavior of Joseph Kony -a former altar boy and the leader of the murderous Lord’s Resistance Army in Zimbabwe – and compares it to that of a Christian missionary doing aid work in the same country. Hitchens asks the missionary ‘How did he know… which of them was the truest believer?’; perhaps Kony, for all his wickedness, actually sincerely believed in what he was doing. In posing this question, Hitchens assumes that sincerity establishes the content of Christian belief. But if Christian beliefs are grounded in the Bible, we can instead ask whether any given action is consistent with the words and deeds of Jesus, as recorded in Scripture.
I run into this issue whenever I consider the atrocities frequently cited by the Neoatheists such as the inaction of some Christians during the Holocaust or the bloody religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries. I find myself wondering not why Christianity condones such behavior, but instead how those who claim to be followers of Jesus could so flagrantly violate His commands to love God and to love our neighbor. Rather than finding my faith in Jesus or in Scripture weakening, I find myself growing in the conviction that I must follow Christ’s commands in Scripture to love, serve, and suffer no matter what is considered socially acceptable or happens to be personally convenient.
It could be objected that almost any religious text can be used as justification for any behavior. Although I would sadly agree with this statement, I would not conclude that all texts are therefore meaningless. Human beings have shown their capacity to find any excuse, religious or otherwise, to subjugate, oppress, and tyrannize their neighbors for their own gain. Because Scripture can be twisted to violate its intent does not thereby render its intent nonexistent. Even more pertinently, I would point Christians to what Jesus himself taught. Even Harris or Dawkins agree that the essence of his ethical teaching was to love our neighbor as ourselves. As Jesus’ disciple I must always ask myself whether I am submitting to Jesus’ command. If not, I merely demonstrate my own sinfulness, not the sinfulness of Jesus’ teaching.
In this section, I certainly do not want to imply that there is nothing in the Bible that non-Christians will find repugnant. Just as I find offensive those statements that oppose my own dearly beloved sins whether they are idolatry, pride, lust, racism, greed, or sexual immorality, all of us will find the Bible offensive at some point. But as in the previous section, I am trying to show what I think are the right questions to ask. When we see the misbehavior of Christians, or Muslims, or Jews, we should not immediately conclude that their religion is therefore false or even that their religion condones such actions. Instead, I should consult the Scriptures themselves and see whether they are acting in accordance with the dictates of their faith or in violation of them. For this reason, I have found the objections of the Neoatheists to the historical and present-day atrocities of the Christian church of vital personal importance but ultimately of little philosophical import. The real question is not whether Christians can flout and ignore Jesus’ teaching, but what Jesus taught in the first place.
III. What must I do to be saved? The doctrine of salvation
Although a distaste for the historical Jesus and the teachings of the Bible are near the center of Hitchens’ atheism, they do not represent the core of his objection to religion. The Neoatheists authors often speak of a ‘religious mindset’ versus a ‘scientific mindset’ to refer to the difference between those who accept beliefs on the basis of faith and those who accept beliefs on the basis of evidence. However, when Hitchens speaks of the ‘religious mindset’, I think he has something quite different in mind.
A recurring theme runs through Hitchens’ book. I do not refer to his refrain that ‘religion is manmade,’ a statement which is either objectively true or false, but to Hitchens’ deep inner conviction that religion requires us to accept a narrative that is intrinsically hateful to him. As a journalist, Hitchens has an ear not only for the prose of religion -such as its objective truth claims or its historical origins- but for the poetry of religion. As I’ve said before, it is not just that religion is false which bothers Hitchens, but that something about religion is counterintuitive and jarring and hideous to him: namely that religion inculcates humanity with “a maximum of servility” (p.4). It is this bowing and scraping, this lying in the dust, this prostrate attitude towards God that he ultimately cannot bear.
Now certainly, almost all religions feature some element of humility and prostration before God simply because of who He is. After all, if the personal God of theism exists, then He created the Universe. He knit us together in our mother’s womb and invented the laws of quantum electrodynamics. If we tremble to meet a local celebrity, and gaze in awe at the night sky, it would be implausible to the highest degree if real contact with God did not move us to any kind of reverence. But I think the humility that Hitchens has in mind is of a different character than mere awe and wonder at God’s greatness.
What is it that Hitchens so radically objects to in Christianity? I will quote him at length:
I am told of a human sacrifice that took place two thousand years ago, without my wishing it and in circumstances so ghastly that, had I been present and in possession of any influence, I would have been duty-bound to try and stop it. In consequence of this murder, my own manifold sins are forgiven me, and I may hope to enjoy everlasting life… What are the … implications? They are not so reassuring as they look at first sight. For a start, and in order to gain the benefit of this wondrous offer, I have to accept that I am responsible for the flogging and mocking and crucifixion, in which I had no say and no part, and agree that every time I decline this responsibility, or that I sin in word or deed, I am intensifying the agony of it. Furthermore, I am required to believe that the agony was necessary in order to compensate for an earlier crime in which I also had no part, the sin of Adam… (p. 209)
Although there are certainly elements here that are incorrect, Hitchens has more or less captured the core message of the Christian gospel: Jesus died for our sins. Unlike the other New Atheist authors, Hitchens seems to grasp, not just at an intellectual level but at an emotional level, the core of the Christian message. If we understand that it is this message which he dislikes, suddenly much of his writing falls into place.
In reflecting on this objection, I believe Hitchens has actually hit on the fundamental reason that most people reject Christianity and Christian beliefs. Why do we object to the doctrine of hell and eternal punishment? Why do we find the commands of God not just difficult, but offensive? Why do we find the wrath of God and the judgment of God not just terrifying, but abhorrent? There are many objections we could make to all of these ideas and I would certainly admit that -like anyone else- I find God’s wrath hard to accept at times. But underneath all of our objections is the hidden assumption that, after all, we are really not so bad; that we really do not deserve judgment or wrath or punishment. Beneath all of our objections, whether rational or evidential or philosophical or emotional, this premise lies buried. As a friend and pastor once said, the biggest obstacle to people becoming Christians is not their intellectual objections to the faith, but the deep unspoken conviction that they are not really sinners who deserve judgment and are in desperate need of forgiveness.
To examine this claim, let’s consider briefly what the Bible says about our condition and what it says about its remedy.
A. The doctrine of sin
First, what does the Bible say about sin? It is true that, from what I can tell, the Bible does teach the doctrine of original sin (see Romans 5:12-21). That is, the very first man and woman chose to reject God and set themselves up as their own Lords and Masters. However, the doctrine of original (or inherited) sin does not deal exclusively (or even primarily?) with our objective guilt but with its implications. The Bible states that as a consequence of Adam’s sin, our human nature was radically corrupted. As human beings, all of us are born with an inherent bent towards evil and self-centeredness which displays itself in many different ways. So even if we dismiss the notion of original sin as the source of our corporate objective guilt, we still need to grapple with the presence of sin as an existential reality.
Consequently, in response to Hitchens’ objections I would not point back to the doctrine of original sin but would ask a more relevant question: has he (have we?) led a blameless life of love and goodness? If God were to judge us not by His own standard of perfect goodness, but even by our own imperfect, self-indulgent standards, can any of us honestly say that we have lived up to them? More relevantly, Jesus said that God commands us to love him with our whole heart and to love or neighbor as ourselves. And yet we find that we fall radically short of this beautiful and good standard. Hitchens freely confesses that he has led a far from exemplary life (p.188) and I personally know that I have not. I find that it is far easier to love myself than to love God. I find that selfish deeds are easier to perform than selfless ones. These are the empirical results of original sin which I can observe in a few moments of honest introspection.
Even worse, once I come to an awareness of my sin, I find that all my own efforts at a remedy only exacerbate the problem. Let’s say that I became truly convinced that God will one day punish evil. I would immediately try to fix up my life, live better, act morally, go to church, engage in religious activities. In short, I would start obeying God. But why? Out of fear. All of my religious activities would be selfishly motivated. I would do good only to escape the torments of hell, not because I really loved God or my neighbor. So even my obedience would be nothing more than veiled disobedience. I would still be breaking God’s great command to love Him supremely, to center my life and my happiness on him.
Sin, as defined in the Bible, goes far beyond merely the outward breaking of rules. It cuts to the very root and core of evil in each of us, which is our personal antipathy towards God. We disobey God because we want to be our own god. We can be our own gods either by openly disobeying God’s commands or by pretending that we keep his commands when our hearts tell an entirely different story. I don’t know of any other religion with such a pessimistic (or realistic) view of mankind. Even our best deeds cannot make us acceptable to God. Sin has tainted our every action and every thought. So we ought to come away from the biblical doctrine of sin deeply humbled and broken of our self-righteousness. Our wound is incurable and we have no strength in ourselves to heal it.
B. The doctrine of grace
But if the Bible has a radically pessimistic view of man, it also has a radically optimistic view of God. If human beings are opposed to God, then how is it possible for anyone to be accepted by God? In fact, why are we permitted to continue eating, drinking, playing, and enjoying all of God’s goodness while spurning God’s advances and spitting in His face? Jesus had an answer. He told his followers to love their enemies because your heavenly Father “is kind to the ungrateful and wicked” (Luke 6:35). God is a God of free grace.
I think that most people would define the central message of all religions in this way: “If you live right, God will accept you.” Although this may indeed be the message of other religions, it is exactly the opposite of the Christian gospel which says: “God has accepted you in Christ; therefore turn your life over to him.” If anyone opens up the Bible they will find this radical message proclaimed and pronounced and declared. Because we are all dead in sin, salvation must come as a totally free gift. If God can accept anyone at all, from the holiest, kindest humanitarian to the most evil, filthy villain, it must be all of grace. Salvation must come to me not because of my goodness but in spite of my wickedness.
The implications of the gospel are summed up in an astonishing way by Jesus himself in a narrative from the gospel of Luke. While Jesus was at the home of a very religious man, a local prostitute came and wept at Jesus’ feet. The host was disgusted by this behavior, so Jesus told him the following story: “Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?” When the man replied that the one with the bigger debt would love him more, Jesus told him that he had judged correctly. After praising the love and care of the prostitute when contrasted with the indifference of his host, Jesus concludes with this astonishing statement: “For this reason I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.” Notice that Jesus here is not saying that she was forgiven because she loved him, but that she loved him because she had been forgiven. That is the entire point of the story. The debtor who is forgiven the most, loves the most. When we see the riches of God’s forgiveness, we respond with astonished and joyful love. In fact, I would go further. Only when we see the riches of God’s forgiveness will we respond with genuine love.
Incidentally, this is the solution to the problem of religion that Hitchens states so eloquently on p.212-213, either the choice between a ‘sprititual police state’ or a ‘spiritual banana republic’. Either the impossible requirements of God’s law force us into the cycle of ‘hysterical confessions of guilt, false promises of improvement and loud, violent denunciations of other backsliders’ or they force us into ‘organized hypocrisy’ (p. 213). While I agree that God’s law can lead only to these two alternatives, the gospel provides a completely different basis for relating to God. On the one hand, the gospel keeps me from the trap of failure and despair because it promises me that God has forgiven me once and for all. Because I am forgiven on the basis of Jesus’ death and Resurrection, I can have assurance that I am completely acceptable to God. On the other hand, the gospel keeps me from the trap of hypocrisy and self-righteousness because it tells me clearly and unflinchingly of my sin. I can finally look squarely at God’s law and be honest about my own failures. I seek to live a good life and to honor God not because I think I am earning his approval, but because He has already given me his approval.
Ironically, in his indictment of the Christian faith, Hitchens does not see that the very doctrines he thinks are so terrible are actually our only sure source of joy and hope. The poetry of Christianity is a continual source of delight, wonder, awe, and praise to those who have embraced it. Yes, we are implicated in Adam’s sin. Yes, God holds us accountable for our subsequent wickedness and our whole lives’ worth of despising, disdaining and fleeing from Him. Yes, God will one day punish wickedness and utterly destroy evil. But what if God so loved the world, that He caused all of this wrath and all of this just anger to fall on his own Son rather than on us? What if Jesus was cut off from the land of the living for the sake of his people, to whom the blow was due? What if Jesus was raised from the dead so that repentance and forgiveness of sin could be preached to all the nations and so that Christians everywhere can declare: “Come whoever will and drink freely from the water of life.” This message is either true or false. But Hitchens is certainly wrong in this: if it is true, it is not bad news; it is the best news we will ever hear.
I wish I had Hitchens’ knowledge of history and literature, and this essay has no doubt fallen miserably short of the literary standard of his own work. In spite of my deep sorrow and frustration over Hitchens’ worldview, I nonetheless found myself admiring his grasp of the humanities. To be on a first name basis with great authors of history, to know them not from one or two books of required high school reading but from long hours of personal enjoyment, is a very beautiful and desirable thing. But what I lack in style, I hope I have made up for in earnestness. As Hitchens faces illness and death, it is almost certain that his worldview will offer him little happiness and little hope. Unlike Sam Harris, who believes that atheistic spirituality can provide comfort, happiness, and fulfillment, Hitchens recognizes with the great atheist thinkers of the past that a universe without God is ultimately a very bleak and miserable place. All the more reason, then, to seek to know the God who really exists and to lay hold of the only hope that will sustain us in life and in death. I pray that Christopher will.