Christianity is an absurd death cult. That was the expressed belief of the late Christopher Hitchens, one among the so-called “new atheists” who engaged in an aggressive sort of anti-evangelism. Hitchens once sketched his view of the incarnation thus:
In order to be Christian, you have to believe that for 98,000 years our species suffered and died… [enduring] famine, struggle, viciousness, war, suffering, misery, all of that for 98,000 years – heaven watches it with complete indifference – and then 2,000 years ago [God] thinks that’s enough of that, it’s time to intervene. The best way to do this would be by condemning someone to a human sacrifice somewhere in the less literate part of the Middle East…
Hitchens’ presentation of Christianity highlights one of the greatest challenges to Christian apologetics. Increasingly, a dichotomy has been offered between reason and faith. Ayn Rand defined the two concepts as opposites, and the co-relation of religion and atrocity has been increasingly cited as evidence that faith literally kills.
This Christmas Day, I offer a preview of an ongoing project to begin here at PJ Lifestyle in the new year. Working through books on the topics of reason, individual rights, and the Christian worldview, we will explore how we might reconcile our human perception with divine revelation.
Let us begin with common ground, the literal Earth under our feet. Reason serves as our chief tool for discerning truth. We can only apply our reason to that which we perceive, and our senses are limited to objective realty. This stands as a prevailing challenge to theism. Belief in God embraces a supernatural claim, the idea that something exists beyond the bounds of nature and past the limits of our perception.
If we wish to entertain any attempt to reconcile these seemingly irreconcilable concepts, we cannot begin with the presumption that God does not exist. On the contrary, in order to criticize the Christian claim, we must proceed as though it were true.
Hitchens did. While he clearly did not believe in God, and unequivocally condemned Christianity as nonsense, he nevertheless framed his criticism within a rhetorical laboratory where this hypothetical God could be judged on His hypothetical merits. So, on this day that believers celebrate the incarnation of Christ, let’s consider how that event – if true – would radically change everything we understand about our lives.
Reason leads us to conclude that we each have rights as individuals. The nature of a human being requires him to act rationally in pursuit of conceived values to survive and thrive. We are not animals. We do not survive on instinct. We must think, and then act upon our thinking to obtain that which we need to live. In a social context, where we live among others who must also think and act upon their thinking to survive, it becomes clear that physical force – either through assault or fraud – prevents us from being able to live. From this we discern rights, the idea that each man is entitled to live by his own judgment without duress.
If there is a God, then his nature would also imply a set of rights. Just as a human has rightful ownership over the product of his labor, God would have a rightful claim on the product of his – namely us. He could define the standard for his creation, and control for quality as He saw fit. In Christian theology, we call the standard “holiness,” and we call any deviation from the standard “sin.”
What leads some to believe that Christianity is obsessed with death and “human sacrifice” is the solution it offers for sin. Christ was sent into the world, born to grow and die a sinless man, and thus pay the price for the sin of all men. That’s about as far as critics like Hitchens like to go. Christ’s was a “human sacrifice,” a morbid and barbaric act which couldn’t logically redeem anything:
I think the teachings of Christianity are immoral. The central one is the most immoral of all. That is the one of vicarious redemption: you can throw your sins onto somebody else…
I can pay your debt, if I love you. I can serve your term in prison, if I love you very much. I can volunteer for that.
I can’t take your sins away, because I can’t abolish your responsibility, and I shouldn’t offer to do so. You’re responsibility has to stay with you. There’s no vicarious redemption. There very probably, in fact, is no redemption at all.
In the particular example Hitchins offers, where the burden of bearing the sin of mankind falls upon him (or any other sinful human), he’s absolutely right. Christopher Hitchens cannot take away your sin. But then, that’s not the Christian claim.
The Christian claim is that God came into the world, incarnate as fully man and nonetheless fully God. He not only died in substitutionary atonement for the sins of mankind. He subsequently rose from the dead! That’s kind of a big deal. In fact, it’s the whole deal. It’s everything. The apostle Paul wrote “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain.” The Christian claim rests not upon a man like Hitchens, but upon the infinite God who created the universe.
Thus Christianity ends not with sacrifice and death, but restoration and life. Indeed, our whole notion of sacrifice should be utterly transformed by the work of Christ. Without Christ, sacrifice proves irrational. Why would you give up what you have in service of something you don’t value? Why would you give up your home, your food, your child, your life, or anything at all for the sake of another? Without Christ, sacrifice is just loss. But with Christ, with the Infinite Resource that is God, loss becomes archaic. You can’t lose with Christ. You can’t run out of Him.
This changes everything. This is the “comfort and joy” we sing about in the Christmas season. This is why the wise men “rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.” God laid down his right and humbly took up the cross so that none should perish who believe.