Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Hitchens and the Atonement

Christopher Hitchens has a problem with the Atonement. At one point in the recent documentary, Collision—which follows his debates with evangelical pastor Douglas Wilson—Hitchens puts it this way: “I think the teachings of Christianity are immoral. The central one is the most immoral of all—that is, the one of the vicarious redemption. You can throw your sins onto somebody else.”

His opposition to this doctrine predates his debates with Wilson. In fact, he devotes a section of his book, god is Not Great, to trashing the doctrine. But if you read what he says there, you quickly realize that his numerous objections to the doctrine are based on an understanding of it modeled on the ancient practice of human sacrifice performed in order to appease an angry tyrannical deity.

Although I have a great interest in defending the Christian doctrine of the Atonement, I have no interest in defending this particular version.

Even as I say this I'm conscious of the kind of outraged response Hitchens and his followers are likely to voice. It’s the kind of response that’s repeatedly been expressed in response to my book—most recently, in the latest Amazon reader’s review. According to that reviewer, I am guilty of “first re-defining religion so that it no longer matches the target that the New Atheists attack, then defending the re-defined religion, and then finally claiming that since re-defined religion is so easily defended, that (sic) the New Atheists are therefore wrong.”

But here’s the thing. Dawkins, in The God Delusion, does not claim to be targeting the particular version of theistic belief dominant in mainstream religion (or something along those lines). He claims quite explicitly to be “attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented” (p. 36). To point out that his arguments only address one species of theism, and that a more nuanced species exists which is immune to his attacks, is not a case of “talking past” Dawkins. It’s a matter of showing that he’s guilty of a faulty generalization.

And the fact is that the New Atheists in general are on a campaign to stamp out, not fundamentalist religion or dogmatic religion, but religion as such—and they make pains to include “moderate” religion within the scope of their assault. They claim that core religious notions are to blame for the crimes of religious extremists—most notably the concept of “faith,” which is the target of Sam Harris’s unrelenting assault in The End of Faith.

And so, when I say that I am interested in defending the doctrine of the Atonement, but not the version which Hitchens explicitly attacks, I can already see the critics lining up to call foul. But the fact is that Hitchens makes no nuanced distinctions between different versions of the doctrine of the Atonement. He simply says, “This is what the doctrine holds. It is evil.” And it is not illegitimate, in response to such an argument, to say something like the following: “The doctrine admits of many alternative interpretations, and even if the one that you single out is evil, it doesn’t follow that we should throw out every interpretation on those grounds.”

And the fact is that there is no singular, agreed meaning that all Christians attach to Christ’s crucifixion, no one univocal theological understanding of how His death at human hands is supposed to lift the burden of sin from human shoulders.

In a Religion Dispatches article not too long ago, I sketched out one way of conceiving the Atonement. But although I find that understanding important and moving, I am not prepared to declare it to be the One True Doctrine of the Atonement. I have no interest in such entrenchment, in large measure because it shuts down what is perhaps one of the richest fruits of the gospel narrative: namely, the ongoing creative human response to it.

For me, the core gospel narrative, in which Jesus suffers on a cross, dies in agony with the full burden of human sin on His shoulders, and then rises again—this core narrative is like one of those resonant high points in a work of fiction, in which metaphor and symbol merge with human drama to create a wellspring of alternative meanings. At once mysterious and profound, such a narrative comes alive for readers precisely because they must bring themselves to the text, creatively engaging with it in the light of their own experiences and concerns. With such a narrative, we can keep returning to it and each time discover something new, something that speaks to who and what we are today.

The Jewish practitioners of midrash believed that the entirety of the Scriptures were like this, living texts rich with undiscovered meanings. As Karen Armstrong puts it in The Bible: A Biography, the early practitioners of midrash “were not interested in recovering the original significance of a given scriptural passage. Like Daniel, they were looking for fresh meaning. In their view, there was no single authoritative reading of scripture…Scripture was inexhaustible” (p. 81).

In part, this approach was motivated precisely by their conviction that Scripture was a gift from God and a pathway to relationship with God. As the literal surface meaning gives way before the rich array of interpretations, we are afforded a glimpse of the Infinite pushing out against the boundaries of the finite words. As new meanings blossom with each new reading and each new reader, it becomes clear that revelation is found not in the text by itself, but in the living engagement of persons with the text. On this view of revelation, it isn’t the Bible (or some other holy book) that is the revealed word of God. It is, instead, the vibrant, living human engagement with the Bible through which God speaks.

The cross, while not a text, is like that. Its significance cannot be bounded by a single interpretation, a single theological treatise. For Christians, Jesus is the place where the human most perfectly intersects with the divine, and the cross is the place where the import of that intersection is fully realized. The full weight of the infinite is pressing up against that moment of crucifixion, that space between anguish and death.

What does it mean? The answer doesn’t plunk out like a stone to sit there, dead and solid at our feet. To engage with the crucifixion is to pierce a rock behind which endless waters flow. What results is a torrent.

One moment, I look at the cross and I see God manifesting the relentlessness of vulnerable love, persisting even in the face of the most hostile conceivable rejection.

At the next moment I see the incarnate God crying out, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”; and I find in that cry God’s paradoxical way of standing in solidarity with us at the point of utmost affliction, the point at which God is experienced as wholly absent.

I look again and I see God’s repudiation of sin. “This is what sin means. This is how bad it is. It is like nailing God Himself to a cross!”

I look again and I see what it means to choose the good regardless of the cost, in defiance of the torture that a fallen world imposes on those who do not submit to the demands of coercive power. If only we could hold unflinchingly to the good even under the threat of torture and death, then death will have lost its power to destroy who we are. If only the powers and principalities would find themselves unable to manipulate us with the fear of death, then, paradoxically, we would no longer have anything to fear from death. But even when we stand our ground against the darkness, we flinch and are changed by it. By death. But here is Christ, unflinching, forging the pathway to the empty tomb.

I look again and I see the physical crucifixion as but a symbol of a deeper and more profound spiritual one, as Christ faces what we cannot face and endures on our behalf what we cannot endure: the honest subjective understanding of what we have done and left undone in our lives, the unvarnished truth about our finitude and our failings. We do not know the depths of our sin, the gravity of it, because we cannot bear the truth. So Christ bears it for us.

And I hear the words: “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

But when Hitchens looks to the cross, this "man of letters" sees none of these things. Ignoring the rich and varied interpretive tradition, he focuses on the most banal and literal understanding, the narrow fundamentalist one in which an angry tyrant demands blood sacrifice to appease his wrath.

Like most of the New Atheists, he wants to pin poetry to the dirt. And then he furiously points to the dirt stains and declares it filth.

“Yes, that’s filth,” I want to say in response. “But what about the poem?”

What about the poem?

My response to the New Atheists is consistently this: What about the poem that you persistently and almost willfully ignore as you delight in pounding banalities into the ground? It’s true that I am not defending what the New Atheists are most directly attacking. Rather, I am trying to wave in their faces the thing that they aren’t seeing, which they don’t seem to know exists, which they are content to consign to the dump right along with the junk they are explicitly heaving in the trash.

And yet, when it comes to Hitchens’ attacks on the Atonement, my response cannot be purely this. Because there is something that he targets for attack which I have to own. Hitchens accuses the doctrine of vicarious redemption of affording us the chance to “throw our sins onto somebody else.” If the Atonement is about anything, it is about this: the cost of sin, the burden of our errors, is (somehow) lifted from our shoulders and borne in our stead by Christ.

The how may be a richly rendered mystery of the faith, an invitation to endlessly creative re-appropriation—and insofar as Hitchens attacks a particularly banal rendering of the how, his critique means little. But when it comes to the what, Hitchens stands on firmer ground. Amidst all of the diversity of understandings, there remains this consistent them: Christ lifts from sinners the wages of sin.

Of course, not all Christians understand the implications of the Atonement in the same way. One of the chief points of contention has to do with scope. Are all human sins objectively atoned for on the cross, as Lutherans typically believe? Or is the Atonement only hypothetical until the sinner actively accepts Jesus as savior?

My own theological predilections fall in line with the former. But it is the former that is most obviously susceptible to Hitchens’ challenge. He thinks it is wrong, immoral, for us to embrace a teaching which says that we can “throw our sins onto somebody else.” His view seems to be this: We should be responsible for our own actions. And the practice of making someone else a scapegoat for the worst of them is morally abominable.

Of course, there are a number of problems here. First, the Christian doctrine of the Atonement is not one according to which we make Christ into a scapegoat for our sins. It is, rather, one according to which Christ adopts a burden on our behalf that we cannot conceivably bear ourselves, but which Christ can and does bear. This isn’t something we do to Christ, but something that Christ does for us. We aren’t asking Christ to do something that we should be doing ourselves. Christ, out of love, is doing for us what, otherwise, would not be done at all, because we couldn’t possibly do it.

And the doctrine of the Atonement isn’t about responsibility for our actions so much as it is about responsibility for our salvation. It’s the wages of sin that Christ bears on our behalf: guilt, shame, denial, indifference, despair, resentment; all the things that poison loving relationships or cut us off from them, all the things that therefore keep us from the beloved community—either because we think we don’t deserve to be a part of it or because we have put ourselves so deeply into self-righteous denial that we can’t participate. Loving community requires honesty and vulnerability. It requires a sharing of one’s authentic self. The wages of sin are precisely those things which stand in the way of taking that step into true intimacy. Salvation is about removing those impediments, so that the doors of heaven—the doors that close on our own hearts—are cast open.

So what does this mean for Hitchens’ critique of the Atonement?

Obviously, one of the most fundamental differences between Hitchens’ atheism and the Christian worldview is this: for Hitchens this life is all there is, and when it’s done then all of us, the good and the bad alike, come to the same end: oblivion. What does this mean for the wages of sin? It means that, once we are dead it makes no difference. The worst sinners and noblest souls face the same fate in the end.

It means, in other words, that if there is a reason to be good, a reason to cultivate compassion and openness rather than resentment and defensiveness, a reason to favor forgiveness over revenge, empathy over hatred—if there is a reason for any of these things, it won’t be found in some heavenly rewards or hellish punishments. It will be found it what it means for your life and the lives of those you affect, to be good rather than wicked.

In a sense, the doctrine of the Atonement, if it does anything, makes the theistic worldview more like the atheist one in this respect than it would otherwise be. If the wages of sin are borne by Christ; if they can no longer stand between us and our eternal participation in the Kingdom of God, then heavenly rewards and hellish punishments will no longer function as the reason to be good. In a theistic worldview according to which the wages of sin are overcome by the Atonement or something like it, our attention is turned to the intrinsic merits of a life of virtue, rather than towards extrinsic rewards.

In fact, as I have argued elsewhere, I think that anyone who takes the doctrine of the Atonement seriously cannot consistently sustain anything like the traditional doctrine of hell. But even those who do not go this far must, I think, admit something more modest: if there is a hell, given the doctrine of the Atonement it cannot be the case that what puts someone in hell is that they deserve it on account of their wickedness.

Instead, if any are damned, it will likely be because, first of all, damnation just is being so full of resentment and hatred and bitterness and petty self-righteousness that one cannot enter into genuine loving communion with others; and secondly, one has failed to subjectively appropriate the divine gift whereby such things are lifted away.

Once again, it is the intrinsic merit of our moral character that becomes the important thing, the thing that matters. This is what the doctrine of the Atonement does: by lifting the wages of sin from our shoulders, it puts the focus not on the extrinsic rewards and penalties of our actions, but on the intrinsic worth of being a moral agent rather than a wicked one.

And this, of course, is precisely where Hitchens says that the focus ought to be. It is therefore deeply ironic to me that Hitchens’ sparring partner, Douglas Wilson, challenges Hitchens atheism on precisely these grounds.

Wilson repeatedly challenges Hitchens with the example of the prosperous atheist villain who, on his deathbed, declares that he’s “gotten away with it.” Let’s suppose that this is a man who’s truly villainous, having committed horrible atrocities of genocidal proportions, and who has enjoyed immense earthly fortune in the process (I assume it is a man only because the legacy of patriarchy entails that few if any women could achieve the position of influence necessary both to effect genocidal massacre and to become filthy rich in the process). What can you say to such a villain, Wilson asks, if the villain is convinced he’s about to meet the same oblivion he would’ve met anyway had he been saintly all his days?

In response to this challenge, Hitchens makes the standard move: being moral out of a desire for a heavenly reward or fear of a hellish one is not really being moral at all. To be truly good is to do the right thing because it’s right.

But while I agree with this, it doesn’t answer the question. What do you say to this atheist when he chuckles and claims to have “gotten away with it”? Do you really just say, “You should have done the right thing just because it was right”? I think the atheist can say more—at least an atheist who is attuned to the moral life, and knows something about what it’s like to live in the light of justice, compassion, and mercy.

So here’s the answer I propose: “You lived a bad life. You go to oblivion having not mattered to the world, except in a negative way. That you don’t feel bad about this is evidence that you have missed the point of life, and you die in a dark pit of ignorance, having lost out on the sweetest nectar that life can give. You die thinking you got away with something, when in fact you got away with nothing. You came in with nothing. You leave with nothing. And while you were here all of the very greatest goods, goods which are available to those who live with compassion and respect, have utterly eluded you. You will go into oblivion having experienced empty pleasures in abundance, but never any real joy. And so you are the most pitiable of creatures, more pitiable than the many victims of your crimes.”

And this seems to me to be a better answer than the one that Wilson seems to think Christians have at their disposal. Of course, Wilson’s answer to the atheist would be a blunt, “You won’t get away with it! God will smite you in the afterlife!” Perhaps, assuming that Wilson rejects the doctrine of the Atonement or selectively ignores its implications, such an answer is available to him. But it is precisely the doctrine of the Atonement, the doctrine that Hitchens so reviles, which would force Wilson (if only he’d take it seriously) to offer an answer more like the atheist one that I proposed.

Put simply, the manner in which our sins are “thrown” onto Christ in the doctrine of the Atonement has implications that should either lead Hitchens to condemn his own atheism or view the doctrine of vicarious redemption as the best part of Christianity, insofar as it puts Christianity (at least in one important respect) into moral waters similar to the ones in which atheists sail.

Of course, there is something Christians who take the Atonement seriously can say to that atheist monster on his deathbed, something Hitchens and atheists like him cannot say. It isn’t that he won’t get away with it. It is, rather, that despite his wasted life, despite living all his mortal days without ever having tasted anything of real value, despite existing in a pit of meaninglessness in which all the deepest and most fulfilling goods of existence have eluded him completely—despite all of this, and despite the fact that nothing remains of his mortal life in which to find what has eluded him, there’s still hope.

Because God still loves him and doesn’t cast His precious children to the void.


  1. As someone who is unconvinced of traditional theism, but still drawn towards the Christian religion, I think I'd find your book quite interesting. I'll be checking it out.

  2. I agree that New Atheists miss all levels of meaning in the incarnation and sacrifice of Christ. But I’d like to offer something in their defense. It seems to me that theology, and Christian theology in particular, keeps using language that is misleading and sometimes points to exactly the wrong direction. And this not only in the case of televangelists preaching. Serious and knowledgeable Christians, such as William Lane Craig, when asked about the bits in the Bible where God appears to order ethnic cleansing of the worse kind respond that God is not bound by the same morality as we humans are – presumably Craig thinks that defending the inerrancy of the Bible is more important than defending Christ’s admonition that we should try to be as perfect as our Father in heaven is. In his debate with Keith Parsons (who is actively posting at the infidels.org blog by the way) Craig defends the dogma of hell by arguing that God is holy and that therefore the only way for justice to be done is that rejection of God be punished eternally. To which Parsons, very reasonably in my mind, asks: “Why? What good does it do to eternally punish people?” (In the same debate Parsons exclaims that he simply *cannot* believe in a monstrous God who orders babies be slaughtered.) When asked how come living a good life plays no role to salvation, Craig answers that if good works were to earn salvation then everybody would fail, and that salvation is a “free gift” from God. But what kind of free gift is that when those who don’t accept it (or simply don’t see it) are therefore punished in the worst possible way? Makes no sense whatsoever. The very expression “Jesus lifted the wages of sin” is I think misleading. Why should there be wages for sin in the first place? The concept of “wages” makes God appear vengeful and being inclined to pay back evil with evil.

    All of the above is incoherent for it does not comport with the definition of God as the person who is perfect in all respects. I think that what is obviously true is that sin has bad consequences in that it debases peoples’ souls, in the same way that good deeds have the good consequence of consecrating peoples’ souls. Good deeds make us more beautiful and more similar to Christ, and sins make us more ugly and distance us from Christ.

    Now for those Christians who experience the living presence of Christ the misleading language described above may be perceived as so much noise. But to agnostics such language may be sufficient reason to conclude that Christianity, or theism in general, is a very ugly, unnatural, and indeed evil worldview. So I think that we Christians, by resisting or perhaps fearing the evolution of our faith, are ultimately responsible for the New Atheism phenomenon. Which, in my view, makes New Atheism a positive development, for by raising a mirror to see the ugliness we have allowed to pile in our house it will force us to clean it. Excellent books, like the one you wrote, are already a sign of such a response I think.

    Changing the subject, I liked your answer to Wilson’s challenge, but I am not sure that an atheist could coherently give it. For if the atheist says “While you were here all of the very greatest goods, goods which are available to those who live with compassion and respect, have utterly eluded you.” the atheist monster on his deathbed will answer “You know very well that the greatest goods you talk about are illusory and reflect the religious brain washing humanity has suffered for ages. You and I understand the blind and indifferent nature of reality, and I at least was smart enough not to let such bleeding heart emotions keep me from enjoying life to the utmost that my flesh allowed. You say that I only had pleasure but never ‘real joy’. That’s nonsense for I assure you my joys were the real ones, and the joys of compassion and respect you mention are just delusions. Those who don’t do like I do are simply fools, and it’s a good thing that there are so many fools around.

  3. Dianelos,

    Excellent, thought-provoking remarks.

    I agree that highly intelligent Christian theologians/philosophers, such as William Lane Craig, contribute to the moral aversion to Christianity exemplified by atheists such as Hitchens. And when I read and engage with Craig on such issues as the doctrine of hell, I am as appalled as Hitchens--perhaps more so, because I see something precious to me being sacrificed for the sake of--what? Biblical inerrancy? Some concept of divine majesty in which the exemplar for the majestic is Emperor Augustus Caesar rather than Jesus? For the sake of these things, the God of Christianity is systematically stripped of everything that would make devotion morally legitimate.

    And what this means is that Craig's brand of Christian apologetics, whether or not it succeeds in demonstrating the logical coherence of the worldview it seeks to defend, succeeds in rendering Christianity even more appalling than it might otherwise have appeared to those who stand outside of it. In short, it's anti-evangelical.

    I suspect that Craig would respond to this charge with something like, "Well, given the fallen character of humanity, we should expect that those who stand outside the sanctifying effects of the faith would be appalled by its doctrines."

    But my own view is that if the Christian mission to announce the gospel is to make any sense at all, it must be assumed that there is something about the gospel proclamation that resonates with that which is best in those who stand outside the faith. I don't see that happening with the "Craigian" version of the proclamation. As such, this version of Christianity fails a crucial test of theological adequacy. In fact, I may develop this thinking in a later post.

    As to your other comment--about what an atheist may or may not be able to say in response to the genocidal monster on his deathbed--I think you are right about what that monster would likely say in answer to the response I proposed. But I think the monster's answer would be mistaken, and I think many atheists would intuitively SEE how mistaken it is based on their moral experience and intuitions. The interesting question, then, is whether the experience and intuitions that underlie the response to the monster are ones that can be justified in naturalistic terms, or whether the monster is correct that this experience and these intuitions would be delusional if theism is false.

  4. Eric: another excellent, thought-provoking post. Your comments on hell prompted me to post my own similar thoughts (rehashed from something I wrote earlier) over on Miss Atomic Bomb (shameless self-promotion, I know!). As for the Hitchens/Wilson debate, the tendency of either side to unfairly generalize the opposition is, unfortunately, an old and common tactic.

  5. 1. I am concerned by your lack of scripture references to evidence your opinions in the above article. You have voiced your opinion regarding the atonement and hell but not shown that your opinion is scriptural.
    2. Do you accept the inspiration of the Bible?
    3. Why do you feel that the atonement should harm the orthodox teaching on hell? It is not clear from what has been stated above.

    1. All three questions should be more than answered in my and John Kronen's book, GOD'S FINAL VICTORY, which will be available in paperback in April. For a free overview of my thinking on these issues, see the dialogue between myself and Chris Tilling on the Evangelical Universalist Forum.

  6. Wow, Eric, your post really resonated with me. You were movingly lyrical at times.

    If anyone is wanting to read alternative Christian treatments to the traditionalist doctrine of the atonement, I have compiled an extensive Amazon listmania that may help. Not trying to plug my list but the many excellent resources written by a diversity of first-class Christian theologians.