Monday, September 17, 2007

Christopher Hitchens Doesn't understand the Atonement

It is our contention that atheists have no right to attempt to critique Christian theology. They are stuck, as it were, at the door. Denying the first principle, they then necessarily get everything else wrong. This section of Christopher Hitchens is an example of this at its worst.

"The idea of a vicarious atonement, of the sort that so much troubled even C.S. Lewis, is a further refinement of the ancient superstition [of atoning sacrifice]. Once again we have a father demonstrating love by subjecting a son to death by torture, but this time the father is not trying to impress god. He is god, and he is trying to impress humans."

And what Hitchens is ACTUALLY criticising here is not the doctrine of vicarious or substitutionary atonement, it is the MORAL INFLUENCE theory of Abelard and the liberals. It has itself been roudly criticised by the Reformed. Thomas Jackson Crawford said this in the 1870s:

Suppose - if it be possible to suppose anything so unnatural - that an earthly king should seek to conciliate his disaffected subjects by taking his beloved son, and depriving him of life before them, for no other reason than the avowed purpose of assuring the rebel multitude that his heart is full of clemency and kindness towards them - how would they be affected by such a spectacle? Can we imagine that it would have the intended effect? Even if the child were ever so willing a victim - cheerfully placing his life at his father's disposal - we cannot concieve that the taking away of that life, if no public benefit otherwise unattainable directly issued from the sacrifice, could, as an alleged proof of love towards the rebels, have the slightest tendency to bring them back to their allegiance. Rather we might suppose it to have a tendency to confirm them in their alienationfrom a sovereign whose treatment of his own son was as far as possible from being indicative of a kindly and conciliatory disposition towards his subjects. In like manner I am utterly at a loss to see how the humiliation and sufferings of the Son of God should be held to manifest or commend His Father's love to us, if they were not the procuring cause of our deliverance from forfeitures and penalties which could not otherwise have been averted."

"Ask yourself the question: how moral is the following? 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."

No mention, of course, of substitution. We quite agree (so does Crawford) that the so-called moral influence theory is not moral. If ALL the cross is is a demonstration of God's love, then Hitchens is right. If, however, it is a demonstration of the love of God BECAUSE it is Christ willingly taking the punishment that I deserve for my sins and suffering IN MY PLACE, then Hitchens' objection is shorn of all its force. This is why atheists should not do theology - they invariably mangle it. The Moral Influence theory is NOT vicarious atonement, it is a substitute for it. James Denney said:

"There is something irrational in saying that the death of Christ is a great proof of love to the sinful, unless there is shown at the same time a rational connection between that death and the responsibilities which sin involves, and the responsibilities which sin involves, and from which that death delivers. Perhaps one should beg pardon for using so simple an illustration, but the point is a vital one, and it is necessary to be clear. If I were sitting on the end of a pier, on a summer day, enjoying the sunshine and the air, and some one came along and jumped into the water and got drowned 'to prove his love for me,' I should find it quite unintelligible. I might be much in need of love, but an act in no rational relation to any of my necessities could not prove it. But if I had fallen over the pier and were drowning, and some one sprang into the water, and at the cost of making my peril, or what but for him would be my fate, his own, saved me from death, then I should say, 'Greater love hath no man than this.' I should say it intelligibly, because there would be an intellibible relation between the sacrifice which love made and the necessity from which it redeemed."

Were further proof needed that Mr. Hitchens does not know what he is talking about, we should read the succeeding paragraph:

"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."

Only if you hold to a crassly commercial view of Christ's sufferings as being in direct proportion to the number of sins of those for whom he suffered, something no Christian we are aware of has ever taught."

"Furthermore, I am required to believe that the agony was necessary in order to compensate for an earlier crime in which I 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."

No mention, note, of his owen sin. And how could there be? As to what an atheist scoffer thinks 'seems' to be the case,
Blind unbelief is bound to err
And scan His works in vain.
Yes, and His WORDS as well.

"However, I am 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 to those who first heard the Ten Commandments."

First of all, we cannot tell what Our Lord suffered spiritually at Calvary. Note that Hitchens has no idea of sin as demanding punishment. How could he? He's an atheist and does not believe in God. He does not believe in a creator, therefore to his twisted system, any 'god' is an intruder into a universe that does not need Him, not the sovereign ruler of the skies, the maker of all things and the judge of all men. And UNTIL Hitchens sees this, the cross will remain 'foolishness' to him.


Mathew Wilder said...

I'm not exactly clear what your position is on the reason why Jesus had to be crucified, and how exactly his being crucified takes away sin.

I also wonder why sin requires punishment. Punishment cannot undo the wrong that has been done. Furthermore, since the supposed punishment does not come until after death, it can have no salutary effects in terms of reforming the character of the sinner.

What is the purpose, then, of punishment, especially post mortem punishment? Also, what is the purpose of infinite punishment - how can it possibly be just to punish someone eternally for a finite number of sins? Infinite punishment mangles the idea of justice, which is an idea of balance, out of all proportion.

Mavaddat said...

I have the same problem as Mat, above.

I don't see how the suppos├Ęd crucification of Jesus relieves us or cleanses us of our sins. In fact, why is it not sufficient to be accountable to humankind for our wrongdoings? Why do we need to be accountable to God? Why should we care that God is offended by our sinning? I'm asking this with utter sincerity, not to be flippant. I really want to know.

Are we supposed to believe that Jesus sacrificed himself (the Son) to himself (the Father) in order to spare humanity from a rule (atonement) that he himself created?

Dorian said...

I can see by the date that this is an old post, but it was a "Stumble Upon", so I read it. There is a clear fault with the reasoning behind the atonement. You state it as such:

"If, however, it is a demonstration of the love of God BECAUSE it is Christ willingly taking the punishment that I deserve for my sins and suffering IN MY PLACE, then Hitchens' objection is shorn of all its force."

Faulty! Because if your assessment is correct, then Hell would no longer exist. Jesus would have paid for ALL human sin with his sacrifice.

But that's not the case, is it? One must be Baptized, believe in Jesus and accept him as your personal master for eternity, etc..

It's like this. If you don't accept me as your eternal master, then I will send you to be tortured for all eternity.

Some gift! In truth, the ransom is MY soul in exchange for not being tortured forever. Isn't this called extortion?

Long story short. If Jesus paid for my sins, then I thank him honestly. And hell is now forever gone.