Answering Christopher Hitchens’ Challenge – Part 2

“Here is my challenge . . . name one ethical statement made, or one ethical action performed, by a believer that could not have been uttered or done by a nonbeliever. And here is my second challenge. Can any[one] think of a wicked statement made, or an evil action performed, precisely because of religious faith? The second question is easy to answer, is it not? The first — I have been asking it for some time — awaits a convincing reply. By what right, then, do the faithful assume this irritating mantle of righteousness? They have as much to apologize for as to explain.” Christopher Hitchens, “An Athiest Responds” found here.

Christopher Hitchens

In a previous post, the first challenge was answered.   Though Hitchens clearly sees no need for an answer to the second, there are aspects to it that must be fleshed out.

Challenge Two: Is there a wicked statement or evil action performed by a Christian precisely because of religious faith?

If “religious person” is substituted for “Christian” the answer is indeed obvious, for some religions have as their core teaching some ideas that are repulsive to most people, and which, if acted upon, can make for a rather unpleasant environment.  But let me state again, I’m not an apologist for religion, per se, but rather the historic Christian faith.  Additionally, it is true even with Christians that at times we do things out of religious zeal that ends up being wrong.  Hitchens would be right on that charge.  But he actually proves the Bible’s point on this.  It is not from scriptural commands that we do evil, but because we choose to ignore those commands that evil is done.  Therefore what I would argue is this: there is no wicked statement or evil action performed by a Christian precisely because of a biblical command to do so.

In this challenge Hitchens assume both parties are in complete agreement.  It seems obvious to all that religion has done all kinds of heinous things in the name of God.  But here I want to make a couple of arguments.  First, we must distinguish what God has said and commanded from what man has said and commanded.  Second, Hitchens himself is appealing to a moral law in his use of terms such as “wicked” and “evil.”  If he has a foundation for his moral code, he needs to state it, otherwise it’s just his opinion.

Skeptics such as Hitchens cite two examples that prove to them that Christianity is evil.  One is that Christian history is replete with examples of the church gone wild, killing heretics, burning witches, etc.  Two, the OT is full of Israel’s genocide of whole people groups, as well as commands against women and slaves that make them second class.  These are common arguments made time and time again on message boards and in the media.  Let’s look at both charges.

The church has done much evil.

By now everyone has heard of the horrors committed by the church, such as the inquisition, burning of witches, oppression of women, the crusades, and imperialist missions.  If you didn’t learn of these in school, you’ve surely heard them repeated on TV, radio, and internet message boards.  It’s as if these are the ultimate evils committed in human history.

Well, let me first say that much of the outrage is justified.  The church has perpetrated its share of evil during the centuries.  But my argument is that these atrocities are in direct contradiction of the Bible’s clear teaching.  Therefore, though it can be accurately stated that religion caused evil, it is not correct to say that the Bible has caused evil.

Jesus himself said: “My kingdom is not of this world.  If my kingdom were of this world my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews.”  “If someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”  “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”    “If someone strikes you on the left cheek, turn your other cheek.”  Paul wrote: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.”  And Peter wrote: “Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing” (John 18:36, Matt. 5:38,44; Rom. 12:20, 1 Pet. 3:9 ESV).  We see that there is not the slightest hint in the NT that Christians should harm anyone, let alone those who oppose them.  Rather, these verses teach us to be gentle and peaceable to everyone, including our enemies.

Illustration: Stop Sign

If someone barrels through a stop sign and strikes another vehicle, killing other passengers, do we blame the stop sign, or the person who disregarded the sign?  Now suppose this driver had been a staunch advocate of stop signs.  Does this affect our view of the stop sign’s innocence?  Of course not.  The driver, who proves himself a hypocrite in his disobedience, is to blame, and not the command itself.

In the same way the Bible is full of good instructions, many of which have been disobeyed, much to the church’s shame.  But it would be an error to blame the Bible itself for this; rather the rogues who ignore the clear instructions-even when done in God’s name-are to blame, since they are not relying upon the scriptures, but their own flawed wisdom.

The OT is full of evil acts.

The OT is another favorite whipping boy of the atheist and skeptics of all sorts.  A whole slew of verses are said to demonstrate that the God of the OT was some kind of evil tyrant, killing innocent people and commanding bizarre and unnecessary rituals.  To someone like Hitchens, this is ample proof that religion – and biblical religion at that—indeed causes evil.

Several things need be said here.  First, it must be pointed out (and it’s simply amazing to me how few get this) that these commands to the Israelites are not general commands for all time.  In other words, Christians today would be in serious error to assume that God desires them to carry out the same killings and rituals demanded of the Israelites.  This needs pointed out, because it’s often alleged that Christians want to instill OT law back into society, and this (rightly so) causes great fear and anger among non-Christians.  Yes, there are some who think this way, but the vast majority want nothing to do with such an idea.

Second, regarding the killing of life, how can God command such a thing?  Doesn’t this prove that the Bible is full of evil?  This is indeed a hard question, one that theologians and pastors have wrestled with for centuries.  But it can be answered.  We must first realize that God is the author of all life, and he is the sustainer of all things.  As the creator, he has complete rights over his creation to do what he wants.  Remember that God already takes life through old age, disease, accidents, murder and suicide, war, hunger, etc.  If God decided to remove lives through the sword of Israel, how is this worse than if those same lives had been drowned in a flood?

Third, atheists such as Hitchens must appeal to an ethical norm, a higher moral law, in order to discredit the Bible and Christianity.  The problem is that atheism does not allow for a transcendent moral code that can define for all people what is right or what is wrong.  All ethics must be either culturally defined or individually determined.  Often it’s both.  But if either cultural or personal in nature, how is it appropriate to pass moral judgment on another without making a specific culture’s view, or one’s own view, the standard by which others are judged?  This is what I call “the bane of atheism.”  Much more can be explored on this topic and I hope to do a post soon on this topic.

In our examination of Christopher Hitchens’ challenges we find his logic to be flawed.  First, he misunderstands Christian theology and ‘cherry picks’ from Christian history.  Like a politician, he plays to the crowd by exaggerating perceived flaws, then emphasizing them, then condemning it all as dangerous nonsense that should be avoided.  Yet most all biblical and historical scholars understand that both belief and history is complex and must be understood in its own context.  Hitchens simply does not see his error in this – or maybe he does.

Second, Hitchens  fails to see that his worldview cannot supply a moral code to condemn anyone.  This second point cannot be overemphasized.  It is his opinion that Christianity is full of evil and is bad for society.  But he must answer how his view is any better than anyone else’s.  Hitchens cannot do this, so his challenges end up being doomed from the outset.

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