The Temple Fires are Extinguished

In his next chapter, Christopher Hitchens takes on religion as original sin. In this chapter, he demonstrates that he understands the Christian gospel better than many televangelists do, but at the same time, that understanding is suffused with the kind of hatred that brings a different kind of confusion.

Hitchens says here that the behavior of various religionists is sometime “exemplary,” but that centain foundational tenets of religion are “positively immoral” (p. 205). He lists five such tenets. The first is presenting “a false picture of the world to the innocent and the credulous. Second is the “doctrine of blood sacrifice,” and the third is the related “doctrine of atonement.” Fourth is the “doctrine of eternal reward and/or punishment.” Last is the imposition of “impossible tasks and rules.”

He deals with the first of these in passing because it has been previously covered in the book.

“All the creation myths of all people have long been known to be false, and have fairly recently been replaced by infinitely superior and more magnificent explanations” (p. 205).

Well, magnificent is one word that comes to mind. One day there was almost-mathematical-point-nothing, and then it blew up. There was a problem in the reactors I believe. There was a lot of hydogen involved, which eventually turned into Ralph Nader, the Dalai Lama, and Paris Hilton. If you doubt this compelling science, you need to subscribe to National Geographic and watch more of the Discovery Channel.

With regard to his fourth and fifth objections, it is not necessary to spend a great deal of time with them. As earlier, he mentions eternal punishment, but does not really develop his objections. There is not enough there to engage with. And with regard to his last objection, it seems to me that to be told to stay away from one tree in the world does not fit my definition of “an impossible task.”

But that is all right. The heart of this chapter, and the heart of the issue between us, is the matter of human blood sacrifice and substitutionary atonement. And on this, the central issue, Hitchens writes with clarity and force, and shows that, despite his best efforts, he is perilously close to the kingdom, and needs to watch his step.

“Before monotheism arose, the altars of primitive society reeked of blood, much of it human and some of it infant” (p. 206).

This is very true. And this was not unique to paganism. Hitchens brings up the story of Abraham, which, rightly understood, is a glorious one.

“There is no softening the plain meaning of this frightful story . . . At the last available moment his hand was stayed, not by god as it happens, but by an angel, and he was praised from the clouds for showing his sturdy willingness to murder an innocent in expiation of his own crimes” (pp. 206-207).

Hitchens says rightly that there is no honest softening of this story. But there are some clarifications, corrections and additions, which make the story more potent, not less. So let me reassure Hitchens of what I am not trying to do. This is a story about human sacrifice, and I am not about to try to “explain that away.” To do so would be to try to explain away our only hope and glory.

That said, there is no indication that Abraham was offering Isaac up as a guilt offering for sins that Abraham had committed. It was more likely an ascension offering — representing entire consecration to God. At the same time, it was a type of the guilt offering — of course the death of Christ was the antitype. Abraham was told to take his son, his only son, and offer him up. The echoes of Christ as the only Son of God are unmistakable. In addition, Abraham traveled with Isaac a great distance to get to the place where God required it to be done — the region of Moriah. This was the same place where, several thousand years later, Christ was offered up as the supreme (and final) human sacrifice.

And last, the test here was not of Abraham’s love for God — “Do you love me enough to kill your son?” As Hitchens recognizes, this would be a macabre test of love. The test was of Abraham’s faith. God had told Abraham explicitly that his descendants would be as the stars in the sky, and that they would be reckoned through Isaac. Abraham therefore knew that Isaac was coming back down off the mountain with him. This was not only a type of the crucifixion, it was a type of the resurrection also. Abraham knew this, although he was mistaken in one detail. He thought Isaac was actually going to be raised up again (Heb. 11: 18-19), when God had determined that he was to be “raised” up again. But in either case, Abraham knew that Isaac was going to come down off the mountain alive with him. That is what he told the servants, in faith. We will go to that mountain and worship, and then we will return to you. The test was faith, not love.

I said a moment ago that human sacrifice is not unique to paganism. The Christian faith is a faith that centers on human sacrifice. Other ancient religions did the same. But there is a key difference between pagan mythology and the Christian story in this regard. Paganism sacrifices humans and sublimates the whole thing — drawing the necessary benefit from the sacrifice while desiring to avoid ongoing explicit acknowledgement of what they are actually doing. A veil of edifying mythologies is always drawn over the founding murder, and the sustaining sacrificial murders. Because of this, the cycle of sacrificial violence never ends — the idol must always be satisfied, and because sins are never taken away for good, the idol always demands fresh blood.

The Christian faith declares a gospel that is the opposite of this. It is not opposite because there is no human sacrifice. Rather it is opposite because the sacrifice is preached to the world as an open scandal. There are no edifying lies. A veil is not drawn over it. The bloody violence is there for the world to see, and God has required us to preach this message (without tidying it up) until the end of the world. When we tell ourselves the truth about the need for human sacrifice, human sacrifices end. When we lie about the need for human sacrifice, wanting instead a more uplifting religion, the carnage is ongoing.

I think that Hitchens instinctively understands this. He tells a story about murder from the contemporary Middle East (pp. 207-208) which shows that he understands any murder in the name of religion as being the same thing as ancient blood sacrifice. “The curse of Abraham continues to poison Hebron, but the religious warrant for blood sacrifice poisons our entire civilization” (p. 208). This is a very important point. I think that Hitchens would agree that it is sublimated human sacrifice, but it does display the deep, driving need that mankind has for blood atonement. Men need it so badly that they will generate crusade after crusade, which consistently end in mass graves. But the reason for this is not that men are inspired by Abraham’s prefigurment of the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. It is because, like Hitchens, they are refusing to look straight-on at the death of Christ for the sins of the world. When the wracked body of Christ on the cross is truly seen, this is the completion and end of all our vain attempts to save ourselves through blood.

The choice between faith and unbelief is not a choice between non-violence and violence. It is between violence unveiled and violence veiled. It is between sufficient sacrifice and insufficient sacrifice. It is the difference between blood in the holy place of heaven, blood that is accepted by the Father, once for all, and ongoing bloodshed to vindcate murderous sinners, bloodshed that never seems to be quite sufficient. This is why every generation seems to generate its own wars.

In the death of Jesus, we have the death of death. In the sacrifice of Jesus, we have the last sacrifice. In the sacrifice of Jesus, we have the death of sacrificing. And because Hitchens turns away from this, he is turning from the only thing that will ever be able to deal with the lunatic bloodletting which so appalls him. Hitchens objects to what he calls “propitiatory murder” (p. 208), but in this objection, he is unwittingly helpin to prepetuate it.

“Once again we have a father demonstrating love by subjecting a son to death by torture, but this time the father not trying to impress god. He is god, and he is trying to impress humans” (p. 209).

On the contrary, He is not trying to do anything. In the death of Jesus, God was reconciling the world to Himself. Therefore the appeal to Christopher Hitchens needs to be — “be therefore reconciled.” God has done it. Come therefore to what He has done. And what He did was not to impress humans, but rather to redeem them. Because of our corporate guilt, nothing was sufficient to deal with it short of the execution of the human race. This happened in the death of Jesus, the last Adam. Adam died so that the human race could die, and we died in him. Adam rose from the dead on the third day, and we were enabled to rise in Him, in order that we might walk in newness of life.

But Hitchens still objects.

“For a start, and in order to gain the benefit of this wondrous offer, I have to accept that I am responsible for the flogging and mocking and crucifixion, in which I had no say and no part . . . Furthermore, I am required to believe that the agony was necessary in order to compensate for an earlier crime in which I also had no part, the sin of Adam” (p. 209).

But it is simply not true that Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson had no part in the rebellion of Adam. This is where Hitchens’ unquestioned faith in modernity comes to the fore. He is an individualist, and he has an unquestioned philosophical commitment that requires him to think of individuals as so many marbles in a box. But we are more like individual leaves on a tree — distinct from one another, and yet still connected, always connected. A word coined by Rene Girard comes to mind — we are interdividuals. As leaves on a tree, we all partake of the Adamic rebellion at the root. We behave the way we do because we are sons and daughters of Adam — and not, as Hitchens is fond of saying, because we are mammals.

“We cannot, like fear-ridden peasants of antiquity, hope to load all our crimes onto a goat and then drive the hapless animal into the desert” (p. 211).

Correct. A goat won’t do. What Hitchens misses is that the ancients who lived by faith were not fear-ridden peasants, as he represents them. They knew that the blood of bulls and goats were insufficient in themselves. They knew that the scapegoat was not carrying anything out into the wilderness. Sacrifices and burnt offerings God did not require, but a humble and contrite heart. To obey was better than sacrifice. God desired mercy, and not sacrifice. The ancients knew this. They knew, like Abraham, that they were merely using a ritual to point to the day when the ultimate, final, and complete sacrifice would be made. And on that glorious day, all the sacrificial fires in all the temples of man were in principle extinguished. And God told His apostles and ministers to go out and proclaim this blessed news to the entire world. The annual tributes of blood were over. The propitiation was complete. The sacrifice was accepted. The smell of physical blood in worship is done and done forever. But it is only done in the gospel, the declaration of Christ and Him crucified.

“But I cannot absolve you of your responsibilities. It would be immoral of me to offer, and immoral of you to accept” (p. 211).

Leave aside for the moment the fact that an atheist has no basis for declaring anything immoral. And also leave aside the fact that he is correct that not one of us can absolve anyone else. Only God can forgive sins. But He does it in this way — so as to be just and the one who justifies.

God does not wave a compromise-wand over us and declare us to be forgiven. That would justify us, but He would not be just. Or He could send us all to hell — then He would be just, but not the one who justifies. Rather, He sent a new Adam. He established the whole human race all over again — Jesus Christ established a new way of being human. But the only way to get out of the old human race and into the new one is by means of death and resurrection. This is why there is no injustice in the gospel. I do not just walk away from my sins. Sinners are guilty and all sinners must die. What the cross does is provide us with a way of dying with reurrection as a promised consequence. Jesus did not die so that we might live. He died so that we might die; He lives so that we might live. This is our hope, and this is our glory. And God in His kindness has authorized His people to extend this offer — full of grace — to Christopher Hitchens.

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