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A Brief Response to Christopher Hitchens' God is not great

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
IV. Conclusions
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 Unweaving the Rainbow. 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

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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

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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, Luniatic, 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.

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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 fragrantly 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.

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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,

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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 repentence 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.

IV. Conclusions
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.

Related essays:
Brain Tumor Letters
Why I am a Christian
A Brief Response to Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion
A Somewhat Lengthy Response to Robert Price's The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man
A Lengthy Response to Sam Harris' The End of Faith

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