Christopher Hitchens and Jesus

July 12, 2010

Christopher Hitchens

Most people recognize the name Christopher Hitchens even if they can’t quite place him. Besides being arguably the most famous atheist in the world, he also wrote the bestselling book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. A few days ago the New York Times published his review of a book by Philip Pullman called The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ.

Just to be sure we have this straight, this is one atheist (Hitchens) reviewing a book by another atheist (Pullman) who is writing about Jesus. Here’s the relevant quote from Hitchens’ review (HT to Justin Taylor):

Belief in the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth and belief in the virtue of his teachings are not at all the same thing. Writing to John Adams  in 1813, having taken his razor blade to the books of the New Testament and removed all “the artificial vestments in which they have been muffled by priests,” Thomas Jefferson said the 46-page residue contained “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.” Ernest Renan, in his pathbreaking “Life of Jesus” in 1863, also repudiated the idea that Jesus was the son of God while affirming the beauty of his teachings. In rather striking contrast, C. S. Lewis maintained in his classic statement “Mere Christianity”:

“That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God; or else a madman or something worse.”

As an admirer of Jefferson and Renan and a strong nonadmirer of Lewis, I am bound to say that Lewis is more honest here. Absent a direct line to the Almighty and a conviction that the last days are upon us, how is it “moral” to teach people to abandon their families, give up on thrift and husbandry and take to the stony roads? How is it moral to claim a monopoly on access to heaven, or to threaten waverers with everlasting fire, let alone to condemn fig trees and persuade devils to infest the bodies of pigs? Such a person if not divine would be a sorcerer and a ­fanatic. 

Hitchens make a hugely important point. If we take Jesus seriously, then we have to take seriously what he said about himself. You cannot separate the words of Jesus from the identity of Jesus.

C. S. Lewis says Jesus is the Son of God or a madman or something worse. Hitchens agrees. Lewis says he’s the Son of God. Hitchens thinks he might have been a sorcerer or a fanatic. This brings us back to the famous “trilemma.”

Is Jesus Lord?
Is Jesus a liar?
Is Jesus a lunatic?

Hitchens is absolutely right to insist that the so-called “moral teachings” of Christ make no sense unless he is indeed the Son of God, a conclusion Hitchens utterly rejects. Christians would say that Hitchens is right on the first point but wrong in his conclusion. But at least he frames the issue correctly.

Two thousand years have passed since Jesus walked on the earth, and men still wrestle with the same question Jesus asked his disciples at Caesarea Philippi (Matthew 16:13-16). It’s the question every person must answer sooner or later:

“Who do you say that I am?”

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?