Is Christianity Good for the World: Atheist and Apologist in Collision

“Is Christianity Good for the World?” Thus asks a new book co-authored by Christian philosopher and pastor, Douglas Wilson, and media maven and everyone’s favorite curmudgeonly atheist Christopher Hitchens. What started as an email exchange was picked up by Christianity Today and later by Canon Press. Finally, the whole thing was turned into a documentary that is strangely incendiary and cordial at the same time.

 

I’ve watched this film with fascination. In this blog, I’ve already alluded to the fact that I like a good battle of wits. And both these guys are consummate wits. They are intellectuals at the height of their powers. If you are looking for discussions about the arguments for God’s existence you won’t find them in the movie (I haven’t read the book) what you will find is a fascinating discussion about the argument from evil which is the primary offensive weapon of the new atheism (their weapon of choice is usually ridicule and the occasional incredulous stare which can’t be refuted since only arguments can be refuted. No one can refute an incredulous stare). The earliest form of the  argument from Evil takes for common beliefs and argues they are incompatible:

1) A perfectly moral God exists

2) An all powerful God exists

4) Evil exists

Epicurus the Greek philosopher argued that all three of these can be reasonably affirmed. Its often called the riddle of Epicurus:

Here’s something that brings me comfort: Arguments can only go wrong in a few ways. 1) One of the premises is false 2) The conclusion doesn’t follow from the premises so that even if they were true it wouldn’t prove anything about the conclusion. 3) Some term in the argument is being used ambiguously (i.e. a person is a rational being vs. a person is single example of a particular kind–all humans are human persons) and 4) some term is missing. That’s it. If you want to question someone’s argument that’s what you have to work with.

Technically Epicurus’ riddle is missing one premise but its sort of assumed. But you know what they say about assumptions. So let’s include it because Wilson and Hitchens definitely do:

1) A Perfectly good God exists

2) An all powerful God exists (this would include being all knowing as well, by implication)

3) If God is all powerful he could prevent evil and if God is perfectly good he would want to prevent evil

4) Evil exists

_______________________________________________

Therefore: Either God is not all powerful or God is not all good, or  evil does not exist.

Its a trilemma. You can’t hold to 1,2, and 4 is the claim. Hitchens however in his characteristic aplomb and iconoclasty suggests a stronger claim. If God exists, the demands of Christianity would be evil, irrational, and totalitarian.

This strikes me as an important objection worthy both of Hitchens honest intellect and our attention. Is substitutionary atonement patently unethical? I suppose the fact that it rarely been considered by millions of Christians means at the very least it is patently obvious that it is. However I consider this Hitchens best objection and one that deserves serious thought. If you are waiting for an reply, you may be waiting for sometime. The best I have right now is that there may be a morally significant difference between the concepts of substitution and vicarious atonement.

Be that as it may, Wilson doesn’t try to tackle this point because he has a much simpler reply “Where do you get this concept of evil?” You can’t claim objective universal ethics without some standard which Hitchens physicalism (they like to be called physicalists now not materialists which can be confused with some sorts of capitalism.) cannot put up with–or as Hitch would say “Something of which we cannot put.” Consider the command of God in 1 Samuel 15:

Thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘I will ]punish Amalek for what he did to Israel, how he set himself against him on the way while he was coming up from Egypt. 3 Now go and strike Amalek and utterly destroy all that he has, and do not spare him; but put to death both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’”

Wilson challenges Hitchens to provide a moral justification for why it is wrong to do this if the universe is nothing but matter and energy. After all, isn’t this killing merely some matter interacting with some other matter resulting in that matter becoming dead matter rather than living matter? Now one might reply that its wrong to do this because human beings are supposed to survive and evolution has hard-wired us to think killing is wrong because it is advantageous to the survival of the species. . However that won’t do because if God exists, by definition, he is outside of evolution and it would not be advantageous for God to be hardwired against anything. So Hitchens is faced with a dilemma. Either he must affirm that killing the Amalekites could have been moral given some conditions or he must provide some objective transcendent morality that God should have followed and not ordered the Israelites to slaughter the Amalekites. Either morality just is eternal and uncaused or God could be moral in his command. And after watching the movie, I never find Hitchens ever giving a straight answer to this challenge. Wilson does have a response:

(by the way, I don’t agree with the title of this clip. I don’t think that it shows Hitchens is stumped or “owned” as the kids say. Be wary of videos that claim some has been “shutdown” or some such (Hitchens’ fans call it “hitchslapped”)

Don’t get me wrong. As an ethicist, the slaughter of the Cannanites troubles me. It give me moral distress.  As a Christian I am conflicted. However, that is a debate within  Theism. I can be a theist and still worry about this. Atheists however must show how its immoral even if God exists.

All in all, Collision is a fantastic film that is fair, entertaining, and worthy of your attention. I welcome your comments about the argument from evil, Epicurus’ tri-lemma, and especially Hitchens challenge about the morality of atonement.

 


Comments

Is Christianity Good for the World: Atheist and Apologist in Collision — 2 Comments

  1. I don’t understand why anyone it would think it was immoral for someone to offer to pay the debt of another? Jesus laid down His life willingly for His sheep. (John 10:11) His life was not taken from Him. Nor would it be immoral for someone to accept payment from someone who is able and willing and is offering to pay the debt of another. It would be immoral to forcibly take payment from someone who does not want to pay for another’s debt (tax payers being forced against our will to bail out poorly managed businesses comes to mind as immoral) this is called stealing and it is morally wrong. And no one is forcing the debtor to accept the substitutionary payment made on their behalf. They are free to turn the offer down and make payment themselves.

    Our debt for our sins (payment with our life) is owed to God. God offers to pay for that debt with his own life in the person of Jesus and also to credit to us His righteousness from the perfect life He lived. God the Father graciously accepts this exchange as satisfaction of payment. Nobody forced anyone to pay or accept payment against their will. Why would this ever be thought to be immoral?
    Is it just? No. Is it unjust? No! It is non-just, it is grace and good news in deed for any debter. God gets to decide what He will accept as payment since it is His law that was violated.

  2. I haven’t been following this debate (maybe now I’ll have to).

    Maybe Hitchens could explain why God would have to subject to the moral law (created by God for sinful men), or a moralist in order to be judged “good”. God is much more than “morally” good.

    Christ did exactly that (lowered himself by submitting to the moral law) once for all time. However, I don’t believe God is eternally subject to moral laws (or any other laws meant for us, the subjects of His creation, for that matter). He is certainly above that law.

    I’m not a moralist, so the answer or conclusion to Epicurus’ riddle “Either God is not all powerful or God is not all good, or evil does not exist” is meaningless. This is where I think Wilson may have a problem.

    God’s standard of “good” is far superior than the morality meant for mortal men. Something a physicalist/materialist like Hitchens could never accept, because it’s beyond his and our understanding.

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