Jesus' Most Offensive Teaching
As Frankencold worked its way through my body last week, one thing became clear to me: getting sick now is way better than it was in the 90s. Back then, I spent my sick days eating Cup Noodles and watching our very limited selection of VHS tapes.
These days, I still enjoy Cup Noodles when I'm sick. But the contemporary smörgåsbord of internet videos is incomparably more edifying than our family collection of movies. I learned so much during self-quarantine! A small part of me is actually looking forward to the next manufactured pestilence that lays siege to my immune system.
As I perused my online options this time, the algorithms and I decided I'd enjoy watching several debates and discussions about Darwinism.
One of my favorite videos was a debate between Christopher Hitchens and David Berlinski. Some of you might know Hitchens as the well-spoken British atheist who habitually criticized Christianity, liked the Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky, and (oddly enough) supported Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. On the other side of the debate, his opponent Berlinski is a secular Jewish philosopher and mathematician who is surprisingly critical of atheism and Darwinism. He made some great points. You can watch the debate here: https://youtu.be/MBZXqsC89RY.
There is one moment in the debate I want to share with you. About 53 minutes into it, Hitchens gets a question from the moderator, “What specific teachings of Jesus do you believe to be evil or poisonous?”
What answer would you expect? Maybe criticism of Christ's narrow sex-ethic? Or perhaps the doctrine of following Jesus alone? Maybe he hated Jesus' teaching on hell? The resurrection? Nope. None of that.
Hitchens answered, “The concept of vicarious redemption is the most repulsive, I think, and the most central.” He continued, “The idea that by throwing your sins onto somebody else, onto a scapegoat, you can have them annealed, abolished. That is a disgusting and immoral doctrine. If I care for you enough, I can pay your debt, even if you incurred it out of your own stupid irresponsibility, if I wished.”
Why would he have a problem with that idea more than any other in Jesus' teaching? He explained, “You cannot relieve people of their responsibility and it’s immoral to do so. And it would be disgusting if it could be done. So the moral rot of Christianity is, I think, exposed in its central doctrine of vicarious forgiveness. It’s an abdication of moral responsibility.”
To Hitchens, if you forgive people of their sins by means of a scapegoat, you stop them from taking responsibility for their actions and cause them to rot away morally.
But the Bible says the opposite is true. According to Scripture, Jesus' death not only paid our penalty but liberated us from slavery to sin.
“For what the law could not do since it was weakened by the flesh, God did. He condemned sin in the flesh by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh as a sin offering, in order that the law’s requirement would be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” (Romans 8:3-4)
That means that when we stop trying to pay for our own sins, but trust in Jesus to do it, not only does God forgive us, but the Spirit empowers us to live righteously. The Spirit causes us to live obediently, something the law could never do. Hitchens never took the Pepsi challenge on that promise. But I did. And I will gladly vouch for the efficacy of Christ's cup of forgiveness rather than the law's cup of moral culpability.
There's another remarkable thing about Hitchens’ answer. When he calls forgiveness through Jesus’ death “disgusting”, he proves the Scriptures correct. That’s the normal reaction that unbelievers have to the gospel, apart from the Spirit changing their heart. Remember 1 Corinthians 1:23, “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles”. Hitchens’ critique shows that nothing has changed in 2000 years of the gospel being preached. The world has always hated the idea that the sinless Christ suffered on behalf of unworthy sinners.
Remember Wescott's sermon on Sunday? “But one of them, seeing that he was healed, returned and, with a loud voice, gave glory to God. He fell facedown at his feet, thanking him.” (Luke 17:15-16)
When you experience Jesus’ mercy in the form of forgiveness, it doesn’t promote more sin. It fills you with gratitude that leads you to the feet of Jesus in worship and thanks.
As sad as I am that Christopher Hitchens hated Jesus’ offer of forgiveness, I'm grateful to be reminded that vicarious redemption is the central doctrine of Christianity. I know that I would be stuck in a bitter, joyless life of sin apart from God showing me grace through Jesus’ death and resurrection. The most offensive part of Christianity to the world is the most precious part to those of us who are being saved.