Another Atheist-Christian Debate

Christianity Today is hosting a spirited debate between Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson on the topic of "Is Christianity Good for the World?" Douglas Wilson is author of Letter from a Christian Citizen, senior fellow of theology at New Saint Andrews College, and minister at Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho. Christopher Hitchens wrote, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything(Twelve Books). Hitchens is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair and a visiting professor of liberal studies at the New School.

The debate is a quick read, but to me the most interesting aspect of the debate is that Hitchens uses penal atonement as one ground of attacking Christianity, and Wilson simply ignores the argument twice! Here is the first instance:

Many of the teachings of Christianity are, as well as being incredible and mythical, immoral. I would principally wish to cite the concept of vicarious redemption, whereby one's own responsibilities can be flung onto a scapegoat and thereby taken away. In my book, I argue that I can pay your debt or even take your place in prison but I cannot absolve you of what you actually did. This exorbitant fantasy of "forgiveness" is unfortunately matched by an equally extreme admonition—which is that the refusal to accept such a sublime offer may be punishable by eternal damnation. Not even the Old Testament, which speaks hotly in recommending genocide, slavery, genital mutilation, and other horrors, stoops to mention the torture of the dead. Those who tell this evil story to small children are not damned by me, but have been damned by history and should also be condemned by those who shrink from cruelty to children (a moral essential that underlies all cultures).

After Wilson failed to respond to this point (he instead focused solely on the Old Testament point in this paragraph), Hitchens again launched an attack on the basis of atonement:

Since Wilson does not even attempt to persuade me that Christ died for my sins (and can yet vicariously forgive them) or that I am the object of a divine design or that any of the events described in the two Testaments actually occurred or that extreme penalties will attend any disagreement with his view, I am happy to leave our disagreement exactly where it is: as one of the decreasingly interesting disputes between those who cling so tentatively to man-made "Holy Writ" and those who have no need to consult such texts in pursuit of truth or beauty or an ethical life.

To this Wilson merely promises to discuss salvation in a later post:

And I am extremely glad that you would like me to begin talking about the death of Christ for sin—which I fully intend to do. But the pattern the New Testament gives us is to address the need for repentance first and then to talk about the need for faith in Christ as Savior. Within the boundaries of our discussion, repentance would be necessary because you have embraced the internal contradictions of atheism, all for the sake of avoiding God (Rom. 1:21; Ps. 14:1-2). So we will get to the gospel, but I am afraid I am going to have to ask you to hold your horses.

While I think that atonement requires a much more complicated discussion than Jeffrey Johns gave in his short radio address, it seems to me that Hitchens attack on Christianity on the basis of penal substitution (and Wilson's failure, so far at least, to confront it), suggests that Johns was correct when he said that penal substitution had become a stumbling block in modernity.

For my own effort to remove this stumbling block, while remaining orthodox, read this old post.

Here are some other related posts as well:

Jeffrey Johns on Atonement

More on Atonement

The Lamb: Slain from the Foundation of the World

The Mad Priest Has the Same Theory of Atonement as the Guy in the Pew

I also recommend a very thoughtful discussion of atonement by Father Jake in this post.


imj said…
God has to change a heart to the point where the words in the bible "taste" right and "taste" good.

We cannot win a debate against anyone. We don't have to win. All that God requires is that we present our faith to the world.

The Lord He be God, only God can change a heart and only if the heart is in agreement with God.

Here is an excellent example:

Like most North Koreans, Son Jong Nam knew next to nothing about Christianity when he fled to neighboring China in 1998. Eleven years later, he died back in North Korea in prison, reportedly tortured to death for trying to spread the Gospel in his native land, armed with 20 bibles and 10 cassette tapes of hymns.

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