Sunday, February 19, 2012

Do Atheists Understand?

I watched a debate between Christopher Hitchens and Alister McGrath last night. I found two things interesting. First, I was disappointed that McGrath did not engage the issues Hitchens raised. Not that McGrath did not present good responses to the topic of the debate, but it seems he missed an opportunity.

The second observation was that Hitchens seriously misunderstood some basic things about Christianity. One of those things was forgiveness and the cross of Christ.

Hitchens considered the sacrifice of the life of an innocent party (Jesus) for the wrongs someone else did to be perverted and inexplicable. The truth is far different.

The forgiveness transaction begins with an injury done to an innocent person by a responsible person. If my neighbor intentionally damages my car because he didn't like the fact that I had a new car and he had a old car, for example, I have been injured. I did nothing to deserve the injury. I was innocent. My neighbor is guilty. But now I have a choice. I can demand he pay for the damage, or I can forgive him and pay for the repair myself. Either of those two acts will set the wrong right. (I could also get revenge by damaging his car, but that solves nothing.)

If I forgive, I choose to bear the cost of the damage without requiring repayment, and I choose not to allow the injury or the cost to stand between me and my neighbor. I choose to regard him as a friend just as he had been in the past. There is clearly a cost, but I choose to bear it. It is not as simple as waving the hand and saying it doesn't matter, no harm done. There was harm done.

The forgiveness transaction is something that everyone who has ever forgiven anyone understands. It is what happens when a parent forgives a child for dropping and breaking a glass. It is what happens when someone forgives a drunk driver for killing a husband or wife. The two, of course, are quite different. In the first, the cost is small. Forgiveness is easy. In the second, the cost is huge. Forgiveness is very hard.

What Hitchens may not appreciate is the seriousness of the injury sin does and, of course, to whom, since as an atheist he does not believe in God. But in fact, sin does immeasurable damage. It resulted in the destruction of the perfect creation, and my sin, each sin, continues to destroy the perfection God purposed for creation. Every sin is equally destructive; it does not matter if it is small in comparison with other sins or large. All sin destroys. All sin is primarily against God.

The price to make right the injury is death and eternal separation from God and all good. As the responsible party, I can pay the price to make it right, though the cost is awful to contemplate. Or God can pay the cost and forgive. And that is what God did.

Jesus is God incarnated in a man, Jesus of Nazareth. In the man Christ Jesus, God suffered death. Jesus experienced separation from the Father. He experienced hell. His death was the price that I owed for my sin. That price set right the wrongs I have done. By bearing the cost himself, God forgives.

There is one more aspect to forgiveness. It is the restoration of relationship.

Even though I have forgiven my neighbor for damaging my car, our relationship is not restored until he admits the wrong he did and accepts my forgiveness. Denying responsibility prevents my neighbor from experiencing my forgiveness. So too, though God has forgiven my sin and has paid the price, I must admit my wrong and accept God's forgiveness if I am to enjoy the forgiveness God offers.

That requires that I humble myself. And that may be the sticking point for Hitchens. It may well be pride rather than misunderstanding that is the issue for him.

No comments: