Hundreds of Christians and atheists were pouring into the ballroom in Dallas, all eager to hear well-known “anti-theist” pundit Christopher Hitchens debate four prominent Christian apologists on the theme, “Does the God of Christianity Exist, and What Difference Does It Make?” I was there to serve as moderator. The predebate buzz in the atheist blogging world was intense. In contrast to the rest of the convention, which was sparsely attended, the atmosphere here was electric. The organizers made sure there were two police officers and a couple of security guards on hand—just in case passions got out of control.
Hitchens, an accomplished editor and columnist before he died, wrote God Is Not Great and other rants against religion. With a sonorous British accent, an engaging personality, and an attacking, take-no-prisoners style, the formidable Mr. Hitchens is an agent provocateur, and on this bright, early spring afternoon, he would not disappoint.
The night before I had briefly met Hitchens at a book signing (his) and told him sincerely that I was looking forward to the discussion. The way he looked at me suggested that I—or perhaps my disability—had caught him off guard. Sometimes the disabled have a sixth sense, some might call it an oversensitivity, for the way “normal” people see us. Regardless, the encounter got my mental wheels turning.
If the panel were going to examine whether Christianity has done any good in the world, it made sense to me to at least ask Hitchens whether his atheism could withstand similar scrutiny. I wanted to move the discussion beyond just an academic exercise into something more personal and practical—and to give him something to think about that perhaps he had not considered. And I think I succeeded.
So after the audience was seated and the guests had made their opening statements, I turned to Hitchens and said:
“Before I came on this business trip, I got a call that the car was sitting outside. I hurriedly went to grab my bag, threw myself off balance in that moment, and ended up on the floor. Quickly I got up, hoping that no one saw me—I don’t think they did—but it’s happened before, and it will happen again.
“But I’m wondering, Christopher, it seems to me that your anti-theism is a philosophy for the strong; it’s a philosophy for the intelligent; it’s a philosophy for the well-connected. And my experience is that Christianity has something to say for people who are not strong, for people who are not intelligent, for people who fall down. Christianity gives people a reason for dignity, human dignity: we’re all created in God’s image, and Jesus took on our suffering and our frailties and our sin.
“It also gives us a reason for hope, because he conquered death; he conquered the things that hold us down, and I know that as a believer, in the future I will receive a resurrection body, and these limitations that I’ve had to deal with, for whatever reason God has, will one day be taken away from me.
“And I guess my question for you, Christopher, is, regardless of the truth or falsity of my beliefs, I would like to know what your anti-theism has to offer in the way of dignity or hope for those who are not as intelligent as you, who are not as strong as you, who are not as well-connected. What hope do you and your philosophy give to people like me and, frankly, people who are much worse off than I am?”
My question, at its root, was an attempt to contrast the love of God—as evidenced by the compassion of Christ and countless of his followers down through the millennia for the outcast and forgotten—with the evident randomness and purposelessness of atheism. Christians can point to countless hospitals, clinics, orphanages and the like built for the glory of Christ. What can atheists point to? Without a loving God, what hope do people really have? It was an appeal not to the head, but to the heart. And the answer Hitchens gave revealed a stunning contrast in perspective.
“First, I don’t believe it’s true that Christianity is a religion of the weak, the downtrodden, the lost, the abject—those, perhaps, who have been dealt a bad hand by life in the first place,” Hitchens replied, attacking my premise. Then he responded to my question with one of his own.
“What does it mean to believe that there is a divinely supervising Father—not just that there is a Creator—in other words, not a deist belief that there must be a first cause—but a theist belief that there’s someone who knows and watches and cares? What does it mean to believe that?”
Countless Christians down through the ages would say that the knowledge of a personal God whose image we share and who cares for us is incredibly freeing. But for Hitchens, the effect is the precise opposite, creating fear of a celestial tyranny, akin to Kim Jong-Il’s North Korea:
“We are subject all the time to a permanent, unending, round-the-clock surveillance that begins at least when we’re born—some would say before—and doesn’t even quit when we die. There’s no privacy, there’s no freedom, there’s nothing you do that isn’t watched over, and you can be convicted of thought crime. . . . Is this for the weak? No, it postulates “hideous strength”, to borrow a C. S. Lewis term—a horrible, unchallengeable despotism that could never be voted out or overthrown or transcended, and a parody, a horrible parody of the idea of fatherhood. . . . It’s the utter arrogance of absolute power.”
When the bluster was over, I pressed Hitchens to actually answer my question: what dignity and hope does atheism offer? His answer, stated indirectly, finally was that we must accept “conclusions that may be unwelcome,” and that choosing to reject something—atheism—simply because we don’t like its implications would be “babyish.” In other words, atheism provides no basis for hope or dignity for the weak, and wishing otherwise won’t make it so.
Actually, I suspect that most of the New Atheists, Hitchens included, find atheism’s conclusion, that there is no God who sees and cares, as most welcome, and that they reject Christianity, which Hitchens labels as “a horrible, unchallengeable despotism,” precisely because they don’t like its implication, that they and their freedom are accountable to the God who made them. So much for intellectual honesty.
Of course, the biggest problem for the New Atheists isn’t in their heads; it’s in their hearts. God’s love, which should cause them to experience warmth and joy, produces in them only a cold dread. God calls them into a loving relationship as Father and, unforgiven, all they see is their Judge. The love he offers is twisted into a smothering dictatorship, because they will not submit to his loving rule.
The New Testament records nearly three hundred questions from the lips of Jesus. Some are duplicates in the Gospels, but that is still an amazing number! Yes, as Hitchens feared, God is divine Lawgiver and Judge, but he is no dictator. Dictators do not ask questions and listen to answers. They give orders, pure and simple. God is not a celestial despot, and we are not mindless slaves. He has lips not just to order, but to question, and ears to listen.
And God expects us to answer, and with the quickening of his Spirit, we can not only answer, but lay down our weapons and join him as his dear children.
Let’s share this good news with the world. Adapted from my book All That Jesus Asks, Baker Books, 2010. (I plan to release a new edition next year.)