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Atheistic Atonement

Christopher Hitchens weighs in on the atonement and John Calvin.

I just finished reading Christopher Hitchens’ atheistic screed God is not Great. Demanding the end of all religion and proclaiming that belief in God is harmful to individuals and to society, Hitchens attempts, at least in portions of the book, to mock and even to deconstruct Christian theology. I found his remarks on the atonement to be of particular interest, primarily because the atonement is a hot topic even within the church these days. I wondered, would an atheist make some of the same criticisms as supposed Christians do? If a person who proclaims Christ looks at the atonement and declares it cosmic child abuse, how much more repulsive must it appear from beyond even the semblance of faith?

So here is what Hitchens says about the atonement:

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. 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.

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 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 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.

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. (Absent the gnostic version, this makes it hopelessly odd that Judas, who allegedly performed the strangely redundant act of identifying a very well-known preacher to those who had been hunting for him, should suffer such opprobrium. Without him, there could have been no “Good Friday,” as the Christians naively call it when they are not in a vengeful mood.)

Myriad questions spring to mind. But it makes little sense to answer Hitchens’ charges one-by-one. It would, I think, accomplish little. Still, it’s interesting to see how they compare to charges made by those who hate the doctrine of the atonement and yet claim to love the One who gave His life as an atoning sacrifice.

Before I sign off, I thought my fellow Calvinists would enjoy this excerpt. “Calvin’s Geneva was a prototypical totalitarian state, and Calvin himself a sadist and torturer and killer, who burned Servetus (one of the great thinkers and questioners of the day) while the man was still alive. … Calvin may seem like a far-off figure to us, but those who used to grab and use power in his name are still among us and go by the softer names of [cue scary organ music] Presbyterians and Baptists.” (You can read my take on the Servetus issue here: The Servetus Problem).

You’ve got to watch for those Presbyterians and Reformed Baptists. We’re a scary, totalitarian bunch.