Thursday, November 5, 2009

Christopher Hitchens on "How Religions End"

I am reading God is not Great by Christopher Hitchens. The purpose of his book is not to eradicate religion, but to bolster the atheist position in public discourse. Religious conversation, writes Hitchens, is “the beginning—but not the end—of all arguments about philosophy, science, history, and human nature. It is also the beginning—but by no means the end—of all disputes about the good life and the just city."

In chapter twelve, “How Religions End,” Hitchens recounts the story of Sabbatai Sevi, a seventeenth century messianic claimant who was pressured by authorities to either renounce his messianic claims, or submit to a trial by ordeal. Archers would shoot at Sabbatai Sevi, and if God deflected the arrows he would be vindicated as messiah. He did not accept the trial by ordeal, but instead he renounced his claims, embraced Islam, and was deported. His followers, distraught at his apostasy, responded in ways varying from arguing that his conversion was a ruse to claiming that he had ascended into the heavens.

The parallels with the messianic claims of Jesus are noted. Hitchens speculates that had Sabbatai Sevi been executed, we would have another world religion on our hands.
Perhaps. But Hitchens speculation remains just that—speculation.

In The Resurrection of the Son of God, N.T. Wright points out that Jesus was not the only messianic claimant of his day. In fact, even the New Testament attests to others (Acts 5:35–39). Wright argues that people typically did not respond in the way that they did to Jesus’ claims, execution, and supposed resurrection. In most cases, the death of the leader led to the dissolution of the movement. But with Jesus, something else happened. Why?
Whatever happened to Sabbatai Sevi, his disappearance led to the dissolution of his movement. We can speculate about what would have happened had history taken a different course, but that kind of speculation will always be fanciful.

I would refer back to my previous post on “The Tawdriness of the Miraculous and the Decline of Hell,” that the empty tomb and resurrection appearances are necessary but not sufficient grounds for faith. Yes, there are reports that Jesus rose from the dead, and these reports are integral to our faith. But they are not the only grounds of our faith. The continuing work of the Holy Spirit validates the message of the Gospel.

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