One of Christopher Hitchens's best quoted passages suggests that, though a brilliant orator, he misunderstood Christian theology

This quote is doing the rounds of facebook and a lot of people are “liking” it. The author is the great Christopher Hitchens, who sadly died last week.

Let’s say that the consensus is that our species, being the higher primates, Homo Sapiens, has been on the planet for at least 100,000 years, maybe more. Francis Collins says maybe 100,000. Richard Dawkins thinks maybe a quarter-of-a-million. I’ll take 100,000. In order to be a Christian, you have to believe that for 98,000 years, our species suffered and died, most of its children dying in childbirth, most other people having a life expectancy of about 25 years, dying of their teeth.

Famine, struggle, bitterness, war, suffering, misery, all of that for 98,000 years. Heaven watches this with complete indifference. And then 2,000 years ago, thinks “That’s enough of that. It’s time to intervene,” and the best way to do this would be by condemning someone to a human sacrifice somewhere in the less literate parts of the Middle East.

Don’t let’s appeal to the Chinese, for example, where people can read and study evidence and have a civilization. Let’s go to the desert and have another revelation there. This is nonsense. It can’t be believed by a thinking person.

On the surface this seems pretty unanswerable, doesn’t it? Several of the comments that it has attracted claim that when used against Christian apologists, it has the effect of silencing them completely.

Let me try and provide some sort of answer.

First, it is true that to be a Christian you have to believe that “for 98,000 years, our species suffered and died, etc”. But not only Christians have to believe this, everyone does, because it is a simple historical fact. And not just for 98,000 years. People are still suffering and dying, and life expectancies, especially in some parts of the world, are remarkably and woefully short. Human suffering is a fact that has to be acknowledged by believer and unbeliever alike.

Hitchens then asserts: “Heaven watches this with complete indifference.” How does he know what heaven feels? How indeed does anyone? But while Hitchens assumes divine indifference, there has been a constant human belief that assumes the opposite, namely that Heaven watches what goes on below with concern. From the beginning of human history we have evidence that human beings believed that Heaven was interested in human existence: hence humanity’s religious practices. The great poet Lucretius thought that the Immortals did not care about what human affairs, but his views were never popular. Of course, Hitchens would view ancient religion as completely mistaken in its belief that heaven cared. He might even point to some ancient religions that seem to posit an uncaring, even hostile, deity.

But where Hitchens goes onto the thinnest of ice is in his next statement. He imagines that the Incarnation of the Son of God represents some sort of huge gear shift by the Deity. God, from not caring, suddenly decides to be caring, by sending his Son.

This is deeply misleading. Before the Incarnation took place, which does of course represent God’s greatest act of love for humanity, God did care about humanity. Before he sent his Son, he sent the prophets, and he gave the law to Moses. These were acts of love. Moreover, even those, the vast majority, who were not Jews, were included in the love of God. He did not leave them in ignorance, but he gave them reason, and the ability to know what was good and true. Hitchens seems to think that we Christians believe that the time before the Incarnation was some sort of Age of Ignorance. We do not believe this, and we never have. Before Christ there was knowledge, there was insight and there was charity.

As for the doctrine of redemption, this is caricatured as “a human sacrifice”. Hitchens once more seem to be attributing to Christians a doctrine that most of them reject, namely the doctrine of penal substitution. In crude terms, God murdered his own Son to satisfy his own blood-lust. Love had nothing to do with it. This represents a misunderstanding of what happened don Good Friday, and a misunderstanding of the way Jesus voluntarily, and out of love, sacrificed himself.

Finally, Hitchens seems to think God made a bad choice in choosing the land of Israel as the locus of the Incarnation. Contrary to what he thinks, the Jews were highly literate, being people of the Book, and also highly sophisticated, being monotheist, having long abandoned the crude polytheism of the nations around them. Hitchens seems to miss the fact that the revelation of Jesus, as the scriptures make clear, is not just for the Jews, but for all nations. A revelation for all nations has to start somewhere, and the Jews were the best prepared to receive the revelation of the Incarnate Son. That seems reasonable enough to me. The Greek speaking world of the time of Christ was most certainly a place “where people can read and study evidence and have a civilization.”

So, what in the end is Hitchens’ point? Is it that to believe in the Incarnation is intrinsically ridiculous? Well, yes, it would be, if you had an extremely reductive vision of what constitutes divine revelation. While Jesus is the fullness of revelation and its summit, this is not to say that before the time of Christ people were utterly ignorant of God. They had reason and they had conscience to guide them. What about all those people suffering and dying in the Stone Age, for example? We do not know what comfort they received from their metaphysical beliefs, though we can hazard a guess thanks to archaeological finds. Those people, incidentally, knew nothing of modern science, but they produced the cave paintings of Lascaux and Altamira; they were emphatically not people who knew nothing; their art hints at lives they themselves thought worth living.

Hitchens, in his dismissal of the pre-Christian era, shows himself to be a brilliant orator and controversialist, but someone with little understanding of the subtleties of theology and existential philosophy. He certainly did not like God, and he certainly failed to see (at least judging by this quote) just how much humanity has been, and still is, comforted by religion, particularly in the face of human suffering. He himself faced his own sufferings without relying on anything but his own courage, which is in a way admirable, and certainly honest. This is one reason why so many people, who did not share his views, liked and admired him. He would be outraged by any of us saying it, but – may he rest in peace.