Thursday, September 2, 2010

Is Vicarious Redemption Immoral?



In this video, Christopher Hitchens argues that the doctrine of vicarious redemption--which he calls human sacrifice--is immoral. He concedes that a person can pay the debt of another, but he doesn't believe that one person can relieve another of his or her responsibilities. However, he appears to agree with C. S. Lewis that it is morally acceptable for us to forgive offenses against ourselves.

He frames the discussion in the context of Lewis' argument that if Jesus was just a man and not God, it would be preposterous of Him to claim to be able to take our sins upon Himself and forgive offenses against others. Lewis explains that Jesus cannot be just a good moral teacher--He has to either be a lunatic, a devil from hell, or the Son of God. Hitchens says: "Lewis, who had argued so well up until then can't complete a syllogism. Poor guy, he never quite could do that. He said, 'Since I don't think He was a devil from hell, I have to conclude that He was the Son of God.'"

I find it ironic that Hitchens accuses Lewis of failing to complete a syllogism, since Hitchens himself does exactly that--in several different ways.

Hitchens very correctly states that human sacrifice is "revolting." God calls it "detestable" in the Old Testament, so the two of them are on the same page so far. However, the sacrifice of Christ has about as much in common with human sacrifice as a heroic act of self-sacrifice has in common with premeditated murder. Both involve death, but that is about it.

First, the sacrifice of Jesus was voluntary--He could have chosen not to go through with it (Matthew 26:53), and He denounced all violence against His aggressors (Matthew 26:52). Human sacrifice, on the other hand, is an act of violence against an unwilling victim. Second, God never commanded anyone to kill His Son; His executioners simply acted according to their evil inclinations, and God permitted it and used it for good. Human sacrifice, on the other hand, is ostensibly at the command of the gods. Third, the redemption was an act of self-sacrifice by God, while human sacrifice is the selfish taking of someone else's life.

Hitchens also failed to complete his syllogism with respect to the Lewis quote by concluding that the redemption is immoral without even addressing the point Lewis made about Jesus being God. He simply assumes throughout the video that even if Jesus existed, He was only a man, and therefore what He did was immoral.

If Jesus had in fact been just a man, even the Bible admits that He would have had no power to redeem someone else. "No man can redeem the life of another or give to God a ransom for him--the ransom for a life is costly, no payment is ever enough--that he should live on forever and not see decay" (Psalm 49:7-9). 

So Lewis and Hitchens are both in full agreement with the Bible up to this point. Then Hitchens claims that Lewis failed to complete his syllogism by concluding that Jesus was not a devil from hell and is therefore the Son of God. And Hitchens fails to complete his syllogism by never even addressing the issue of whether Jesus was the Son of God and simply concluding that Jesus was either evil or deluded. This is circular reasoning. "If Jesus was only a man, it would be immoral for Him to pay the penalty for someone else's sin. He was only a man. Therefore, His redemption was immoral."

If Hitchens wants to argue that Jesus never existed or that He was not God, that is one thing, but if he is going to argue that some aspect of Christian theology is immoral, he has to allow for the sake of argument that the claims of Christianity are true. Otherwise he cannot address the issue in a logical way.

Finally, Hitchens concedes too much upfront. He allows that one person can pay another's debt. He also concedes that we can forgive others for offenses against us. But he says that we all have to take responsibility for our own actions. However, if I forgive someone a wrong against me and also pay the person's debt, I have effectively absolved the person of responsibility. Hitchens has no problem with the first clause of that sentence, but he strongly objects to the second clause. Since the second clause follows logically from the first clause, Hitchens appears to have failed to think through his logic.

Still, he has a good point about taking responsibility, but the Bible never teaches that vicarious redemption absolves us of responsibility. Even though God has in Christ forgiven our sins, we still have to be reconciled to those we have wronged (Matthew 5:24). And even though we are saved by faith, good works are evidence of true faith (1 John 2:3).

So God has simply leveled the playing field by offering a fresh start and His enabling power to anyone, regardless of genetics, environment, or past sins. Only humility will give us an advantage. But ultimately He will judge us all impartially (1 Peter 1:17).

21 comments:

stranger.strange.land said...

He also concedes that we can forgive others for offenses against us. But he says that we all have to take responsibility for our own actions.

I would say that "taking responsibility for our own actions" includes admitting and confessing our own sins and guilt. But seeing that the penalty is more than we can bear, there is open to us the option of "throwing ourselves on the mercy of the court."

Jesus Christ as my representative paid my penalty and satisfied the demand of Justice; I am eternally indebted to Him.

Craig

Anette Acker said...

Very true. But as John Piper says, "The same faith that justifies also sanctifies." If we are being sanctified, that is a sign that we have been justified. The tax collector Zacchaeus paid back everyone he had cheated--with interest.

stranger.strange.land said...

Hi Anette.

Sanctification surely is evidence of our justification. I was thinking of our debt to God as the one being more than we are able to pay in order to justify "the books."

Of course, as you say, we make restitution to all to whom we are indebted. Monitary, apologies, etc.

Craig B

Anette Acker said...

I agree with you, Craig. We can do nothing to deserve eternal life and God's forgiveness. And the more we recognize the magnitude of God's grace toward us the more that grace transforms us. But I think that sometimes Christians forget that vicarious redemption doesn't absolve us of responsibility to other people, and I'm wondering if that is in part what Hitchens is reacting to.

QED said...

Anette

You wrote:

This is a classic case of circular reasoning. "If Jesus was only a man, it would be immoral for Him to pay the penalty for someone else's sin. He was only a man. Therefore, His redemption was immoral."

I don't think this is actually circular reasoning. Circular reasoning occurs when one assumes as a premise the very thing he/she is trying to prove (or a premise which entails what is to be proved). In this case you have the argument:

p1: If Jesus was only a man, then in it would be immoral for him to pay the penalty for another's sin.

p2: Jesus was only a man.

C: Therefore, it was immoral for him to pay for another's sin.

The argument form here is actually what is known as a modus ponens and is perfectly valid reasoning. Notice that C is not also p1 or p2 nor is it entailed by either alone. Thus, the reasoning is not circular.

This, of course, does not mean that the reasoning is sound, for you could still object to the truth of the premises. I suspect you will take issue with p2. So, your complaint, then, is that Hitchens does not substantiate p2.

QED said...

Anette

You wrote:

However, the sacrifice of Christ has about as much in common with human sacrifice as a heroic act of self-sacrifice has in common with premeditated murder. Both involve death, but that is about it.

Why? You claim:

First, the sacrifice of Jesus was voluntary--He could have chosen not to go through with it (Matthew 26:53), and He denounced all violence against His aggressors (Matthew 26:52). Human sacrifice, on the other hand, is an act of violence against an unwilling victim.

I wonder if Jesus really could have chosen not to go through with it? Presumably if God planned from the beginning to save mankind in this manner, then it could not have happened any other way. In similar vein, Jesus constantly talked about scripture being fulfilled. If He had chosen not to go through with things would not God be made a liar? This idea that Jesus could have changed His mind seems to wreak all kinds of theological havoc.

As you likely know, many ancient cultures practiced human sacrifice. It seems, however, that your implied definition of this act is too restrictive. Are you really suggesting that if participants are willing, then it is no longer human sacrifice? Who says that the "victim" was always unwilling?
A better argument, IMHO, would include the fact that those who killed Jesus had no sacrificial intentions. Instead, it was an execution. Nevertheless, you still seem to have the issue that Jesus was offering Himself as a human sacrifice.

Second, God never commanded anyone to kill His Son; His executioners simply acted according to their evil inclinations, and God permitted it and used it for good. Human sacrifice, on the other hand, is ostensibly at the command of the gods.

This seems a bit disingenuous to me. God certainly intended for it to happen and could be said to have "commanded" Jesus to sacrifice Himself. The basic fact, here, is that God ultimately demanded the sacrifice of Jesus in order to pay for the sins of others.

Third, the redemption was an act of self-sacrifice by God, while human sacrifice is the selfish taking of someone else's life.

So it was self-human-sacrifice? Again, why do you suppose that every instance of human sacrifice was/(is?) "selfish" in nature?

Anette Acker said...

Hi QED,

I don't think this is actually circular reasoning. Circular reasoning occurs when one assumes as a premise the very thing he/she is trying to prove (or a premise which entails what is to be proved). In this case you have the argument:

p1: If Jesus was only a man, then in it would be immoral for him to pay the penalty for another's sin.

p2: Jesus was only a man.

C: Therefore, it was immoral for him to pay for another's sin.

The argument form here is actually what is known as a modus ponens and is perfectly valid reasoning. Notice that C is not also p1 or p2 nor is it entailed by either alone. Thus, the reasoning is not circular.


I think that Hitchens' argument in the video is circular, even though I may not have summarized his circular logic as accurately as I should have.

He agrees with Lewis that Jesus would have been either a lunatic or a devil from hell if he was not God. Lewis argues that because Jesus did not seem evil, nor did he seem insane (based on the record), he was therefore the Son of God.

Hitchens, on the other hand, concludes that Jesus was either insane or evil because of what he calls the immoral teachings of Christianity, which include vicarious redemption. But it would only be immoral if Jesus was not divine, which was the whole point of Lewis' argument. Therefore, by taking for granted that Jesus was only a man, Hitchens does assume as a premise what he has to prove, and his logic becomes circular.

Anette Acker said...

I wonder if Jesus really could have chosen not to go through with it? Presumably if God planned from the beginning to save mankind in this manner, then it could not have happened any other way. In similar vein, Jesus constantly talked about scripture being fulfilled. If He had chosen not to go through with things would not God be made a liar? This idea that Jesus could have changed His mind seems to wreak all kinds of theological havoc.

The mere fact that He didn't change His mind, that there could not have been salvation any other way, and that He had foreknowledge that He wouldn't change His mind, doesn't mean that He didn't have free will.

His statement about appealing to His Father who would send more than twelve legions of angels to His rescue indicates that it was voluntary.

However, even if we assume that He no longer had free will at that point, which contradicts the text, He still voluntarily planned this all along. The will and nature of Jesus is exactly like the will and nature of the Father. So it was always voluntary.

Who says that the "victim" was always unwilling?
A better argument, IMHO, would include the fact that those who killed Jesus had no sacrificial intentions. Instead, it was an execution. Nevertheless, you still seem to have the issue that Jesus was offering Himself as a human sacrifice.


If human sacrifice had been accepted in the Bible, then you could rightfully compare the redemption to human sacrifice, but Yahweh calls it "detestable" in the OT, and the Jews were forbidden from the practice at a time when it was relatively common.

And when the OT typifies the redemption it always uses an animal. For example, God covers Adam and Eve with the skin of an animal. God provides an animal for Abraham to sacrifice instead of Isaac.

For that reason, combined with the fact that Psalm 49:7-9 says that one human cannot redeem another, this is not human sacrifice. Jesus acted in His divine capacity.

You are right that from the perspective of those who killed Him it was an execution. But from God's perspective it was self-sacrifice for the good of humanity, something that most people consider the highest virtue.

This seems a bit disingenuous to me. God certainly intended for it to happen and could be said to have "commanded" Jesus to sacrifice Himself. The basic fact, here, is that God ultimately demanded the sacrifice of Jesus in order to pay for the sins of others.

If He had commanded the executioners to kill Jesus, then you would be right. But He did not command anyone to kill. All He did was bring good out of evil by intending for it to happen.

As for God "demanding" the sacrifice of Jesus, that is not quite accurate. Keep in mind that Jesus was "all the fullness of Deity in bodily form," and "in the very nature of God," so the Father did not will anything of Him that He didn't want to do. They are united in nature and in purpose.

In fact, Hebrews 2:14 says that Jesus dies so that "through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil." So it was not about an angry God demanding that someone die. The redemption was an act of love.

QED said...

Anette

You wrote:

Therefore, by taking for granted that Jesus was only a man, Hitchens does assume as a premise what he has to prove, and his logic becomes circular.

Perhaps, but that depends on what he was setting out to prove. If he was making an argument for why Jesus was but a human, then yeah he's got some circular reasoning. However, if he was only attempting to argue that Jesus' (self) sacrifice was immoral, then the particular argument you mentioned was not circular, only, perhaps, unsupported and presumptuous.

QED said...

Anette

You wrote:

The will and nature of Jesus is exactly like the will and nature of the Father.

Is it? What about "...not my will, but yours be done"? Those words of Jesus do not sound like a description of identical wills.

If He had commanded the executioners to kill Jesus, then you would be right. But He did not command anyone to kill. All He did was bring good out of evil by intending for it to happen.

Now it sounds as if we are playing games. If someone orders a hit on another person as opposed to merely manipulating events to bring about a person's death, will you really argue that there is a legitimate difference in responsibility?

Anette Acker said...

"The will and nature of Jesus is exactly like the will and nature of the Father."

Is it? What about "...not my will, but yours be done"? Those words of Jesus do not sound like a description of identical wills.


On the one hand, Jesus as the Second Person of the Trinity planned this from the very beginning. As I mentioned before, the first three chapters of Genesis contain a lot of typology of the redemption. So His will was united to the Father's.

However, in the Garden of Gethsemane his words of submission are significant because it shows His obedience to God as a Man, and it shows that He also took upon Himself every human emotion.

Still, since the Trinity is one, there would have been complete agreement from the very beginning. And the submission of Jesus was voluntary. "Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death--even death on a cross!" (Philippians 2:8)

"If He had commanded the executioners to kill Jesus, then you would be right. But He did not command anyone to kill. All He did was bring good out of evil by intending for it to happen."

Now it sounds as if we are playing games. If someone orders a hit on another person as opposed to merely manipulating events to bring about a person's death, will you really argue that there is a legitimate difference in responsibility?


God did not manipulate events so that Jesus would be executed. He knew it would happen and allowed it to happen. However, those involved chose to execute Him.

Even if God had not be omniscient, He still could have predicted that Jesus would be martyred, because the people stoned and imprisoned the prophets. They subsequently killed Stephen and the apostles. 2 Timothy 3:12 says, "Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted." But when that happens, God works in the situation for good. Joseph, who was a type of Christ, said to his brothers, "You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives" (Genesis 50:20).

QED said...

Anette

You seem to be contradicting yourself. Could you clarify? On the one hand you state:

God did not manipulate events so that Jesus would be executed. He knew it would happen and allowed it to happen. However, those involved chose to execute Him.

and on the other:

... Jesus as the Second Person of the Trinity planned this from the very beginning.

If God planned it from the beginning, then "He" either manipulated the events or purposefully created everything to work out this way.

Anette Acker said...

It was God's will that Jesus die for our sins, but those who killed Him also acted according to their inclinations. The Bible is filled with instances where people make choices and God fulfills His purpose through those choices. For example, in the story of Joseph, his brothers acted according to their inclinations but God worked through that situation for good. Judas was an evil man who betrayed his friend and Master, but God's purpose was accomplished through that act of betrayal. Peter denied Jesus, but through that act of cowardice he gained much-needed humility.

So it may seem like the idea of God fulfilling His purposes through our choices is an oxymoron, but that is what the Bible consistently says.

QED said...

Anette

That something is said consistently is not the same as that something being consistent.

Anette Acker said...

That is true. However, the Bible contains a number of paradoxes--ideas that appear to be contradictory--and many of them are difficult to conceptualize. If the Bible was random about these paradoxes, it would be fair to conclude that it contains contradictions. However, it is extremely consistent about the paradoxes, so it is rational to conclude that they represents ideas that pertain to an infinite God, but that are difficult for a finite mind to grasp.

This idea of God's sovereignty coexisting with human will runs straight through the Bible, and most books of the NT will reference both--often in the same chapter.

For example, Romans 8:13 says that we are to "by the Spirit" put to death the deeds of the flesh (the "flesh" means living by our own power as opposed to the power of God). This implies action, but the action is by the Spirit of God. That verse also makes it clear that we can choose to live according to the flesh, which means death. And Romans 8:28 restates theologically the words of Joseph in Genesis 50:20: "And we know that God causes all things to work together for good for those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose."

QED said...

Or it could be that the biblical authors didn't think very carefully about these matters.

Anette Acker said...

Sorry for taking so long in getting back to you, but I figured since I was debating you and two others on AC, you would understand.

Or it could be that the biblical authors didn't think very carefully about these matters.

I do not think that is the explanation. I am finding that the better I understand the Bible, the more it makes sense, and the more consistent it appears to me.

Here is an analogy (and since I haven't done any math in a long time, please be merciful if it flops): When you do a mathematical proof, each step along the way has to be correct. Likewise, when an interpretation of the Bible is correct, there is no contradiction anywhere in the Bible. It fits from every possible angle. This is true of the paradoxical concepts as well.

On a different note, I wanted to raise an issue with you: I've noticed that you really like to debate, and that's great, except that studies show that when we defend a position, we tend to identify more and more closely with that position regardless of the evidence for the opposite position.

I noticed that you said on AC that you now self-identify as an agnostic and the first time I talked with you on AC you called yourself a Christian. There may be many reasons for that, but I hope that, by debating you on these issues, I am not becoming an unwitting accessory to your deconversion by forcing you to identify with the atheist position. That's not really the effect I want to have on people.

Hopefully this doesn't seem patronizing, but I wanted to raise this issue so you can ask yourself honestly whether you think that is happening.

Julia said...

I think each of us, to some extent, practices vicarious redemption for our children. We rescue them from their mistakes, bail them out of situations and take the blame for their failures. We would not consider otherwise for our children. Is it surprising that our heavenly father would redeem us similarly? I think not...

-Julia

Anette Acker said...

Julia,

Thank you for stopping by!

I agree with you--most of us are willing to do anything for our children if it can help them. And God is certainly not less loving than a human parent.

michael said...

All of this discussion is still ignoring Hitchen's ultimate point: abandoning your family and giving no thought to the morrow are immoral actions in our society. I think what he hints at, and I've heard other people say this, is that following Christ stems from a degree of Narcissism. (I don't think I agree with that.)

But Hitchen's always incorporates one of his key points: though we may feel God on an emotional level, we can never come close to proving his existence in a sufficient manner.

Julia said...

I believe that Isaac Newton said that "the proof of God is in his works". Of course, that wouldn't satisfy an avowed atheist.

Joseph Campbell said "I don't need faith; I have experience". I think God is an experience that we are blessed to have. And if one opens one's heart and invites it, it will come.

I would add also that we cannot prove love. I don't think Hitchens would deny the existence of love. He has been married multiple times and been "in love". We can't see love, taste it, touch it, smell it. Yet we know it to be so because it is in our hearts.

I know the existence of God as I know love or any other emotion... And I had only to open my heart to find it...

-Julia