Saturday, December 19, 2009

Christopher Hitchens on "Religion as an Original Sin"

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."

Chapter fifteen, “Religion as Original Sin,” is a series of accusations against religion, painting it not as amoral, but immoral. It is a well-thought-out critique of religion in general and of Christianity in particular. Again, Hitchens is a great writer, and one who has put a lot of thought into his disbelief.

Hitchens has three points of contention: (1) the demand of blood sacrifice, (2) the concept of atonement, and (3) the imposition of impossible tasks with eternal damnation as a consequence for disobedience.

Blood Sacrifice. Hitchens tells the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac—that Abraham was commanded to sacrifice his only son, that he went along with it, that he was stopped at the last second (by an angel, not by God himself), and that he was praised for a type of faith that is willing to shed blood in God’s name without questioning. He then goes on to show how adherents to the three Abrahamic faiths continue the tradition by shedding blood in God’s name, even over the right to worship on the very mountain where Isaac was spared.

Atonement. Hitchens grants, for the sake of argument, the historical accounts of the crucifixion in order to evaluate the theology. He writes:

Let us just for now overlook all the contradictions between the tellers of the original story and assume that it is basically true. What are the further implications? They are not as 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. It is useless to object that Adam seems to have been created with insatiable discontent and curiosity and then forbidden to slake it: all this was settled long before even Jesus himself was born. Thus my own guilt in the matter is deemed “original” and inescapable. However, I am still granted free will with which to reject the offer of vicarious redemption. Should I exercise this choice, however, I face an eternity of torture much more awful than anything endured at Calvary, or anything threatened by those who first heard the Ten Commandments.

The tale is made no easier to follow by the necessary realization that Jesus both wished and needed to die and came to Jerusalem at Passover in order to do so, and that all who took part in his murder were unknowingly doing god’s will, and fulfilling ancient prophecies.

Impossible Laws and Damnation. Hitchens mentions several of the commandments that are impossible to obey (thou shalt not covet, love your neighbor as yourself, etc.) and wonders what kind of god would punish these “crimes” with eternal damnation. He writes, “The essential principle of totalitarianism is to make laws that are impossible to obey. The resulting tyranny is even more impressive if it can be enforced by a privileged caste or party which is highly zealous in the correction of error.”

I think Hitchens correctly articulates the religious beliefs of a lot of people. When this theological system is combined with a hostile or abusive human environment, I can’t help but sympathize with anyone who walks away from the God Hitchens describes. However, my views of God, His laws, and damnation are a bit more nuanced than what Hitchens describes.

First, on blood sacrifice. Why does God demand blood sacrifice? Why did the ancient Hebrews have to slaughter an animal to atone/expiate for their sins? Why couldn’t money suffice, or some other form of penance? The writer of Hebrews wrote, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22). Why not? Surely an almighty, omniscient God could have thought of some other plan that didn’t involve escalating violence.

I think sacrifice is an object lesson. The death of an animal is a picture of our own death and the death of humanity, for which sin is to blame. The Apostle Paul wrote, “sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Romans 5:12), “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23), “if you live according to the flesh you will die” (Romans 8:13), and “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law” (1 Corinthians 15:56). Paul saw a cause-and-effect relationship between sin and death—we die because of sin. Death is not a part of God’s creative intent, but an alien element brought in by humanity itself.

When sin is considered something that brings death to the individual and society, then the requirement of blood sacrifice is a little bit more understandable. It was a reminder of the severity of the offense. As Hitchens himself demonstrates throughout his book, we underestimate the effects that sin has on our humanity. It defaces the image of God within us, and it leads us toward death. Animal sacrifice, as horrible as it is, is nothing compared to the effects of sin. Sacrifice is a ghastly reminder of this for our benefit, not something that God enjoys because He is sadistic.

Second, on atonement. Hitchens’ objection to atonement seems more like an objection to original sin. He doesn’t object to people laying their lives down for others, but that things had to play out this way with Jesus. He doesn’t feel that he is that bad of a guy or that Jesus should have had to die for his sin. If he were in charge, he would have found another way to do it.

Did God’s plan of salvation have to play out the way it did? Yes and no. On the one hand, God foreordained before the foundation of the world that it would play out that way, so in that sense it had to. But philosophically, did it have to? I don’t see why it had to.

Again, I think that Jesus death on the cross and subsequent resurrection was a picture of the work that God is doing in individuals and humanity. Jesus’ grisly demise was a picture of the effect that sin has in our hearts and in our lives. His glorious vindication through resurrection from the dead is also a picture of the believer’s destiny. Thus Paul talks about us being “united” to Christ’s death and resurrection in baptism. Jesus died because we’re dying. Jesus rose so that we might rise.

While satisfaction of God’s wrath is certainly one description of what happened on the cross, we can’t downplay the other pictures. Jesus’ death and resurrection is also described as a victory over sin and death (1 Corinthians 15:20–28, 51–57). Death was already a given. The cross made resurrection a part of the picture.

Could God have chosen another way to rescue humanity? Perhaps. But He didn’t.

Finally, on impossible laws and eternal damnation. Hitchens’ seems to understand the doctrine of original sin, but he also seems to forget it at times. No one is condemned for coveting; we are condemned along with Adam for humanity’s rebellion in the Garden of Eden. Our subsequent rebellion is evidence that sin is working in our lives and that we are guilty together with Adam. Thus, the very existence of “impossible” laws testifies against us—they are impossible because we are sinful.

I don’t want to downplay the thoughtfulness of Hitchens’ critique of Christianity in this chapter. Some of the nuances of atonement theory are a little squirrely to human reasoning. But we are reminded that our thoughts aren’t always God’s thoughts (Isaiah 55:8), and God’s wisdom sometimes appears foolish to mere men (1 Corinthians 1:18–25).

Ultimately, I believe that God is not arbitrarily offended by sin, but that He has created us to live in a way that is truly good, just, and beautiful. Sin is a rebellion against such a life and thus it is abhorrent to God. It’s not that God is a fascist and wants us to fall in line with his commandments; it’s that He wants the best for us, and tells us how to live to attain that best. The problem is that we have inherited corrupted minds and corrupted hearts so that we don’t always know what’s best, and when we do know what’s best we don’t always do what’s best.

We’re dying.

God wants to save us from that through Jesus.


John Pleau said...

Great job Matt. I really appreciate you taking the time to going through this book.

Interestingly, we just finished Chapter 5 of The Ragamuffin Gospel by Brendan Manning. His arguments for God are similar to the same type of arguments Hitchens uses against believing in God. Here is an excerpt “There was a time in the not too distant past when a thunderstorm caused grown men to shudder and feel small. But God is being edged out of his world by science. The more we know about meteorology, the less inclined we are to pray during a thunderstorm. Airplanes now fly above, below and around them. Satellites reduce them to a photograph. What ignominy—if a thunderstorm could experience ignominy! Reduced from theophany to nuisance”.

Whitney said...

Very interesting!

Anonymous said...

I understand your eagerness to vindicate your barbaric and archaic belief system, but your reasoning is horribly mangled and proves nothing. This is not so much a debate as it is a recitation of the same old talking points. Why did God use this plan which requires violence and indiscriminate bloodshed you asked yourself; and your answer - because he did. Unbelievable! Show me a religious man and I'll show you a train wreck in reasoning. Religious intellect = oxymoron.

Matt said...

Thanks for commenting, mom! You don't have to be anonymous here.