October 17, 2007

Colluding With Death

In his recent debate with Alister McGrath, Christopher Hitchens lumped Christianity in with other religions as seeing death as the way out of this life and into the next. That Hitchens is able to make this claim and be taken even slightly seriously indicates a severe problem with modern Christianity. From it's inception Christianity has asserted that death is the enemy of God and his good creation. God is the Living One whose creation was made to exist eternally free from decay. Humanity bears the image of the Living God, and for one of God's image bearing creatures to die is a departure from his intention and an attack on his sovereignty. Thus, in the death and resurrection of Christ, the Living God has accomplished redemption, not unto death, but freedom from it. The New Testament has little to say about what happens to a person when they die. It certainly never envisages the death of the physical body to be the final state of being for one who is in Christ. The biblical writers had a consistent vision of the final resurrection of the body and ultimate new creation, a world free from bondage to death and decay. For those who would like to follow this up in the text see Romans 8:18-25, 1 Corinthians 15, and Revelation 19-22.

The problem is that modern Christianity has largely lost sight of the doctrine of the resurrection. This is evident in the way we train people to share the gospel. The old Evangelism Explosion tactic of asking potential converts, "how do you know you'll go to heaven when you die," sends a message that the moment after death is the final state of being for a person. This is misleading. It is half a gospel at best and a perversion of the gospel at worst. I've heard Christians say things like, "When I die, I'll be more alive than ever." My response is, "No, you'll be dead." Only when Christ appears bodily, and the bodies of the dead raised and the living transformed to a state of imperishability and incorruptibility, will we be able to say we are alive in the fullest sense of word.

So, Hitchens' conclusion that Christianity is one of many religions that sees death as the pathway to the next life, should send up some red flags for Christians. This indicates that we are not doing a good job of preaching the doctrine of the resurrection, neither of Christ nor of believers. This is a problem because, according to 1 Corinthians 15, if you don't have the doctrine of the resurrection, then you don't have Christianity. Modern Christianity is in danger of losing one of it's essential tenants. The above evangelism example indicates that, in practice, the doctrine is all but lost already. I recommend N.T. Wright's For All the Saints? (to whom I owe the title of this post) as a brief but helpful introduction to Christian beliefs about death and resurrection. In our preaching and in our living we must rediscover and emphasize the doctrine of the resurrection! Everything depends on it!

Grace and peace,

MO

October 16, 2007

McGrath-Hitchens Debate

Here is a link to a recent debate on Christianity and Atheism between biochemist and theologian Alister McGrath and author Christopher Hitchens. Following are few comments on this important debate.

1. Christopher Hitchens is arguing against what is largely a caricature of Christianity. Few, if any, of his claims could be validly posed against historic orthodox Christianity. For example, early in the debate Hitchens indicates that he believes it immoral for a religion (Christianity) to implicate him in the actual death of Jesus of Nazareth. Well, okay. I'm not aware of any Christian teaching that claims anyone other than the Jewish temple establishment and the Romans were directly responsible for the death of Jesus. In Acts, Peter is quick to point a finger of blame, not at himself and everyone else, but at those whom he took to be responsible for Jesus' death (2:36). If there are Christian sects that teach some sort of universal human responsibility for the death of Jesus, I'm not aware of them and I don't take them to be representative of historical orthodox Christianity. Hitchens is attributing to the whole the alleged characteristics of some few parts. This is called the fallacy of composition and Hitchens commits it regularly. Someone needs to call the old chap on this one.

2. Hitchens also has a thoroughly inadequate understanding of Trinitarian Theism. This shortcoming appears on at least two occasions. First, he takes the idea that God would pour the punishment of all humanity on one human to be immoral. However, he never approaches the idea that this human is also God incarnate, the second person of the Holy Trinity. Thus, it's not just about God dumping his wrath on some poor human scapegoat. The atonement involves God taking God's wrath against humanity upon himself. In Christ, God himself mercifully becomes the scapegoat for humanity's sin against God. Second, Hitchens reveals that he conceives of God in a deist framework. He likes to talk about whether or not God intervenes in the world to do various things. He doesn't think of God as continually present in the world by virtue of his Holy Spirit. He doesn't think of God as one who is near and longs to dwell in and among his human creation. Again, this stems from a severely lacking understanding of Trinitarian Theism on the part of Hitchens.

3. Hitchens also made the claim that religion is always looking for death as the way to leave this world and go to the next. He claims that religion is only interested in the destruction of the world. Hitchens, once again, here betrays the inadequacy of his understanding of the Bible and the Christian religion. Historic orthodox Christianity has held consistently that the Triune God has no intention of destroying this world. Rather, he will renew it in every way by flooding it with the glory of his personal presence. New creation is the message of the Bible from cover to cover. Death is always the enemy of the Living God. Christianity never sees the destruction or the death of the created order as the goal. Quite the opposite, Christianity envisages a world free from death and decay, a "world without end" as the Gloria Patri says.

4. I greatly appreciate the work of Alister McGrath and his willingness to engage people like Hitchens in public debate. However, McGrath often appears to be on his heels in these types of debates. He often deals with minor defensive points rather than going at Hitchens on the level of his inadequate worldview or on his gross misrepresentation of Christianity. Hitchens' style of debate is one of shock and awe. He does not appear to be as interested in dialogue as he is in offending and demonizing those who do not agree with him. McGrath is much more of a gentleman and approaches the debate with a more dialogical tone. McGrath did claim that Hitchens' atheism could not support moral/ethical claims. However, McGrath did not press Hitchens on this point. Also, McGrath, an historical theologian, certainly knows the extent to which Hitchens misrepresents historical Christianity. However, he did not go far in challenging Hitchens on these misrepresentations.

If Hitchens is to be debated successfully, someone is going to have to unabashedly say that he is wrong and that his assertions are based on misrepresentations. Further, the validity of Hitchens moral claims needs to be targeted as well. His atheistic worldview cannot sustain claims of morality.

I'd love to hear comments and reactions to the debate.

Grace and peace,

MO