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Christianity did not begin with a ‘human sacrifice’

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

By on Wednesday, 21 December 2011

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.

  • emmaus53

    Thanks for this, and I agree completely, including the comment about the inappropriateness of penal substitution.  However, I did think this was the official Catholic position.  The catechism of the catholic Church (615) indicates “by His
    obedience unto death, Jesus accomplished the substitution of the suffering
    servant who ‘makes himself an offering
    for sin’, when ‘he bore the sin of many’…..Jesus atoned for our faults and
    made satisfaction for our sins to the Father”  This is my understanding of penal substitution”?

  • Poppy Tupper

    Don’t misrepresent Christopher Hitchens. He did not suggest that God ill-avdisedly chose the “land of Israel” as the place of the incarnation. There was no “land of Israel” 2000 years ago – a fact that I know Hitchens would have been well aware of.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    As far as I know – but this is not my branch of theology – how Our Lord achieved our salvation is something of an open question – but the one thing that the Church rules out is penal substitution. These passages in St Paul that speak the language of penal substitutiuon, are, as far as I can see, using an analogy. To me the matter is summed up in the language of the second Eucharistic prayer which talks of Christ freely going to his death.

    Incidentally I notice that many non-Catholics attribute Penal Substitution to the Church…. the one doctrine it has strenuously opposed as a Protestant heresy… no disrespect to our evangelical brothers and sisters intended by the way.

  • ConfusedofChi

    Awaiting Hitchen’s comments to the piece as he could add something interesting now!
    As you say Fr., RIP

  • emmaus53

    But Alexander. my quote is directly from the catechism?

  • emmaus53

    It is remarkable similar to the evangelical position, eg this summary ”

    “The Father,
    because of his love for human beings, sent his Son (who offered himself
    willingly and gladly) to satisfy God’s justice, so that Christ took the place
    of (substituted for) sinners.  The punishment and penalty we deserve was
    laid on Jesus Christ instead of us, so that in the cross both God’s holiness
    and love are manifested” .  Schreiner,
    Thomas R.  “The Penal Substitution View”.
    In The Nature of the Atonement,
    edited by James Beilby & Paul R Eddy, 67. 
    Illinois: IVP 2006

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    I think the Catechism is quoting Isaiah and Isaiah is using the idea of penal substitution as an analogy…. I notice the evangelical summary highlights (for me) the difficulty with SA ie that the Father punisgd his Son… how could he when he loves him so much?  Yes, I know thatt he scriptures talk of a father chastising the son he loves, but… it just can’t be reconciled with the anyure of the Trinity as far as I can see. But as I say, this is not my field.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    The land of Israel is a phrase freely used in the OT… and it has a theological meaning rather than a reductively geographical meaning.

  • emmaus53

    I completely agree with you, but remain unsure the Catechism does!  but thanks.

  • Joel Pinheiro

    Humans existed for 98000 years before Christ and for only 2000 after, so far. But if we consider population numbers instead, then God came very nearly at the beginning of mankind, since the total human population that lived before Christ is but a minuscule fraction of the total population that has lived since His coming.

  • David Lindsay

    To the very end, Christopher Hitchens lauded the Russian Revolution for its effect on his reviled Orthodox Church.
    Although the Syrian Social National Party that beat him up in Beirut for vandalising a war memorial is not itself a Christian organisation and in fact subscribes to the separation of Church and State as well as to various weird racial theories, nevertheless its base is among the Antiochian Orthodox, so it is no wonder that it was not too keen on the antics of the less important Hitchens brother.
    He was in Lebanon, not as a guest of the alliance backed by Syria (Christian-majority provinces, Christian festivals as public holidays), but as a guest of the rival alliance, which is backed by Saudi Arabia. And by Israel, to the resistance to whose occupation had been erected the memorial that he defaced.
    The latest edition of Private Eye has the measure of Hitchens, calling him “The Hic”, and printing supposed quotations from him on such figures as Mother Teresa (“A malignant little Albanian dwarf with a tea towel on her head”) and George W Bush (“A great and brave leader with a brain the size of a planet”) that might as well be genuine, so faithfully do they reflect both his views and his style.

  • Gregory DiPippo

    The subheadline should really read, “Every single thing that
    Hitchens wrote about any and every religion screams at the top of its
    lungs that he know absolutely nothing about it.”

  • Tiddles the Cat

    I hope he got a shock when he reached the end of the bright, narrow tunnel.

  • Ianlogan

    HItchens is not great.

  • James

    I’m sorry he’s dead and all, but I’m already becoming very irritated by the way Hitchens is being rapidly canonised as some kind of secular saint.

    He was motivated by hatred of God, of faith, of religiosity. Regardless of how articulately he got his message across, this was a man entirely motivated by hatred. His spiteful words on Mother Teresa, someone whose shoes he was not fit to lace, still grate with me and I find it hard to speak well of him now.

    He will be judged by God alone, but if we believe that Hell is a state of being separated from God, and that this is ultimately something that we choose by our words and deeds, then it is very difficult to imagine that he is now anywhere other than Hell. How many souls I wonder, were led astray by his misuse of the gifts God gave him?

    He was an enemy in life, and we are called to love our enemies, so we should indeed pray for him now, but let’s not kid ourselves on that he was someone to be admired.

  • Adam

    Worth also noting that during the 98,000 year period that Hitchens gives only 2% of the human beings who have ever lived actually lived during this period.

  • Thomas Dowson

    As an archaeologist, the logic of the arguments in this piece alone, put aside its author’s (mis)understanding of the development of humanity, are flawed. Just because many thousands of people find comfort in religion, it does not follow that god exists. It has also been stated that Hitchens did not know anything about christian theology, even if that were true (it is not something more prominent religious commentators seem to agree with), he did have an infinitely superior grasp of logic. But then that’s the god Delusion for you!

  • Thomas Dowson

    I would happily admire a man for his views, no matter how controversial, over an organisation that has for centuries condoned, and continues to do so, some of the most treacherous acts of violence towards other individuals. 

  • SkyDancer

    He wouldn’t at all be outraged by your RIP comment, he understood more than you appear to credit him for.

  • James

    What’s that got to do with Hitchens?

  • Anonymous

    Rene Girard, who writes from an anthropological background, has some interesting things to say about this. After examining the role of the scapegoat in ancient Greek and Jewish cultures, he compares this to Jesus’ role as the sacrifice. The difference according to Marion is that previously (and, still, today) the scapegoat is someone on to whom blame is transferred and is considered by the group to be guilty, although is innocent. The Christian advancement (again, according to Marion) was to show the innocence of the scapegoat and expose how this mechanism operates in groups. The crucifixion in his reading is a trap set for Satan — it uses his own methods against him. The cruficixion ‘s is subverted.

    Not sure if he would be considered precisely orthodox (nor does he present himself as such but writes primarily as an anthropologist) but he does provide some interesting food for thought in my opinion. Good interview here:

  • Lewispbuckingham

    Christopher,which means Christ Bearer, Hitchens made many think of the Atheistic belief system.If the Christian God was so bad,why not then believe in an indifferent God anyway?If there were a good  God,why not believe that the merits of redemption could precede the redemptive act if that God were timeless,as Christians believe,’the aforseen merits of Jesus Christ’,however few or many homo sapientia were on earth.Why not believe that Christ”s act of his redemption was his whole life and preaching,made with free will in total union with the Father,which inevitably must lead to death on a cross under Roman rule.
    Reading one of his recent books the answer is clear.The ultimate problem for him was that there was no objective ,scientific,empirical proof for God,and the suffering of the world and those he loved made no sense.This was underlined by his problem with miracles,which at best can scientifically be defined as events that cannot be explained with present knowledge.
      Once one reaches this point it is impossible to get out,other than by an act of grace.This is because it is impossible to set up a controlled experiment with controls where God is excluded,the ‘out of contact controls’.Such “experiments” with feeble methodology attempt to see if eg.prayer will affect the survival of cardiac patients.Scientific method becomes a blunt instrument in the empirical quest for God.
    Christopher Hitchens had a good mind,and famously declared that all children began at conception,which saved a lot of lives and prevented much suffering and death,which he so hated.He clearly acted on his conscience in this grave matter,as in others,and that,through the merits of redemption,is how he will be judged.

  • Anonymous

    “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.”

    ## If that is so, he was guilty of intellectual incontinence & arrogance in presuming to discuss & dismiss a subject he was pig-ignorant about. As Jesus said, “Don’t cast your pearls before swine, lest they turn again and rend you”.

  • Anonymous

    Well said. It’s good someone said that – It is sickening to see Christian soft-soaping of his attitudes, which a Christianity with more guts & more grace would have had no qualms about calling sinful. They were sinful, and should be described as such, because atheism is an enormous evil. No Calvinist would have praised his efforts to extend ignorance of God; & thank God for that.

  • Anonymous

    It’s a much richer doctrine than that. The CCC’s coments on predestination are sadly inadequate too.

  • Anonymous

    “Christ['s] freely going to [H]is death” is totally compatible with penal subsittution. I’ve never heard of PS being called a heresy by the Church, or even being discountenanced by it. There may be unorthodox forms of PS – but that is a different matter. Talk of predestination suffers from this very confusion :( *AFAIK*, there are in Catholic theology several “permitted” models for both – though other models of the Saving Work of Jesus may now be more prominent.

  • Anonymous

    How is that unorthodox from a Catholic POV ? If anything, it looks to be in accord with some very important OT models used in the NT for talking about the Work of Christ. It looks like a fusion of passages about the the Servant of JHWH in Isaiah 53, some themes from the kingship theology of the OT, the Passover Lamb, & the “universal” passages in the Prophets. Put together with a few more things, and applied to Jesus, they result in doctrine of PS. PS does at least take the Wrath of of God seriously – as do both Testaments: there’s a lot about the Wrath of God in the NT, most famously perhaps in the OT passage that is taken over into Revelation 6 & applied to the Lamb as well as to God (it’s also used in a text in the Silmarillion, but that is BTW).

  • emmaus53

    i can’t see how a doctrine that sees a god so trapped in his own holiness he is forced to seek a sacrifice, or belief in a god that actively seeks the punishment of the Son as coming anywhere near the non-violent, no anti-violent, God we see revealed in the Jesus of the Gospels.  How is the requirement that a price be paid for our salvation anywhere close to the God who is the Father of the prodigal son.  No, I think the Orthodox have this one right.

  • whytheworldisending

    Sympathies and condolences on his passing, but I do not think you can be a great orator if you talk about things you don’t understand, and that’s what he did when he tried to ridicule Christianity. Richard Dawkins does the same thing. He may be a good scientist, but it is obvious from the start of his book The God Delusion, that he doesn’t know what he is talking about, and it gets more obvious with every page.

  • Peter Hardy

    Your logic is poor- where does the article claim that comfort implies existence? The point was merely that most people believed that God was with them all along, such that it is not *necessary* to believe that God was indifferent as Hitchens appeared to be claiming.

  • Peter Hardy

    Did anyone else notice that Hitchens quoted a person he believed to be incapable of thought (Francis Collins, a Christian) as an authority on science? Poor guy.

  • Peter Hardy

    Everything I’ve read by Catholic theologians has corroborated my view that popular evangelical conception of penal substitution is and should be a heresy. As Alexander said the language of suffering for the sins of others is not literal. There was not an amount of suffering that God required and Jesus exhausted it. Jesus’ God, the God of forgiveness does not *require* the suffering of anybody. If and when we suffer for our salvation this is only an accidental part of the change of heart that itself is necessary, due to our own faults. Jesus does not take away our suffering, he transforms it in a prayer reconciliation that is acceptable to God.

    What does God incarnate pray to God transcendent as he is murdered for his very goodness? “Forgive them they know not what they do.” In this prayer we see that the cross is the supreme revelation of God as love -a love of forgiveness- and not a revelation of judgment or wrath. This is the best and easiest Catholic view to read: (by Fr. Stephen Dingley PhD)

  • Kevin

    They found the Ark of the Covenant where Moses placed the 10 Commandments, in a cave under Golgotha.

  • theroadmaster

    Christopher Hitchens like other celebrity Atheists believes the Creator to be whimsical and highly irrational who only chooses to intervene directly occasionally as in the case of the sacrificial offering of His only Son in ancient Palestine over 2000 years ago.  Without an underpinning knowledge or appreciation for the Christian or Judaic history or texts, one could be tempted to accept Hitchen’s opinion at face value.  His assessment is a blunt,pessimistic description of the lot of humanity in past and present eras.  The coming of the Messiah was the ultimate show of love by God for His earthly creatures to overturn the effects of the dark clouds of death and sin.  The Jewish tribes of Judea and surround lands were to be the chosen messengers to spread the life-affirming Good News of the gospels throughout the known world and which in turn has led to the global phenomenon that it is today.  Salvation history demonstrates that God has not abandoned His people but will accompany them to the end of time.

  • Guest

    You write ”First, it is true that to be a Christian you have to believe that “for 98,000 years, our species suffered and died, etc”.’This is nonsense. I am a Christian who believes, like Christ, in a global flood and a seven day creation from which the species suffered for about 4000 years until the coming of Christ. Many many Christians down the centuries have believed this, and many still do- so Hitchens indeed misrepresents us. 

  • Adam Thomson

     1. I’ve had a look at those links, but they don’t seem to say very much. You explain Penal Substitution by saying, ‘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 on Good Friday, and a misunderstanding of the way Jesus voluntarily, and out of love, sacrificed himself.’

    Then in the comments you respond to emmaus53 by saying, ‘These passages in St Paul that speak the language of penal substitutiuon, are, as far as I can see, using an analogy. To me the matter is summed up in the language of the second Eucharistic prayer which talks of Christ freely going to his death’ and later you speak of ‘the difficulty with SA ie that the Father punished his Son… how could he when he loves him so much?’

    None of this seems to present any substantial objection to substitutionary atonement. I doubt if a single believer in S.A. denies that Jesus ‘voluntarily, out of love, sacrificed himself’ or that he ‘went freely to his death.’ There is no contradiction between the Father laying our punishment upon his Son and the Son freely accepting and submitting to that.

    2. Neither do believers in S.A. doubt the eternal and infinite love of the Father for his Son. You ask, ‘How could [the Father punish his Son] when he loves him so much?’ But how is that a problem confined to one particular theory of the atonement? You believe that Christ suffered terribly. He suffered physically under cruel Roman soldiers – scourging, beating, mocking – to such an extent that he could hardly carry his own cross. He suffered the appalling physical pains of crucifixion. And he experienced mental anguish leading the cry of dereliction. And the very prospect of all this was sufficient to cause him to sweat as it were great drops of blood in Gethsemane.

    But all this happened according to the will of God! On any Christian theory of the atonement, one must surely accept that God willed these things to happen, and that he did so for man’s salvation. But if they happened according to the will of God, surely that itself must lead to the question ‘how could he when he loves him so much?’ Whatever theory of the atonment we hold, the same question arises : How could God give the Son he loves so much to suffer like this?  We cannot get away from the fact that Christ did suffer these things, and that God willed that he should. And to some of us, the moral necessity that is embedded in the theory of Substitutionary Atonement best answers the question, ‘How could he?’

    3. You keep refering to Penal Substitution as a ‘Protestant heresy’. If it is a heresy, the church must have condemned it. Can you please tell us where?

    Thank you!

  • Adam Thomson

    Sorry. The above post was misplaced. I’ve posted it again among the comments on the ‘Liberation Theology, not Calvinism’ article.

  • Hywel

    I was one of those souls, and I thank Hitchens for this!  I’m also an anti-theist, and Hitchens truly is a secular saint.  To say he was motivated by hate only betrays a vast ignorance, or an ugly bias that prevents you from seeing how grotesque the idea of monotheism truly is.  To be of the opinion that you are born sick and commanded to be well only by turning your entire life over to a great dictator in the sky is at best ugly, and at worst an attack on us all in our deepest integrity.  The post above does a fantastic job of avoiding the most obvious point…religion is man-made.  Our ancestors had no idea that earthquakes were down to plate tectonics, and so postulating the idea that God was punishing us for our sins was just a good way of coping.  We should, as a species, have grown up and out of this immature method of employing ancient coping mechanisms, but alas! we still have a vast population of believers in a whole host of conflicting religions that offer weak, easily refuted answers for our existence.  

    By the way, if you think Mother Teresa was a good person then you are simply lazy.  If you value facts and evidence then one evening’s research will unlock the truth of what this vile woman did, and how right Hitchens was to dispel the myth of her greatness.  And to use your hideously judgemental and obnoxious assertion that Hitchens is in Hell (which if it exists, I know he’d be glad to be there) then please, do that research on Mother Teresa and accept that she too is surfing that lake of fire as you read these words.

  • Guest

    You don’t have a single scrap of evidence to vindicate your belief. No Christian does, fundamentalist or otherwise. That’s the problem.