In an interview on Revelation TV (UK Christian satellite channel) on 10 March 2011, retired biology professor and atheist Richard Dawkins attacked a central Christian teaching arguing “...that a sin by somebody else has to be paid for by a different person, which is a horrible idea. Everything about it is an obnoxious doctrine.” He must think this is an unanswerable argument because he repeated it on BBC1’s The Big Questions (8 May) which was debating the question, “Is the Bible still relevant today?” When asked about the morality of the Old Testament, Dawkins responded by questioning the God of the New Testament asking, “Why was it necessary to have a human sacrifice?” He went on to add, “Is that not the most disgusting idea you have ever heard? Why didn’t He just forgive the sins?” In response, Michael Nazir-Ali, until recently Bishop of Rochester, pointed out “Professor Dawkins has a view of cheap grace. Real forgiveness comes from restitution...” Whilst he could not expand on this fully in the setting of a live show, the Bishop did provide an important insight into how this question reveals Dawkins’ ignorance rather than the Creator’s lack of morality. After Dawkins’ Revelation TV interview I published on my blog a rebuttal of his objections which is available here. Below I summarise why it is not possible for the Christian God to sweep our dirt under His carpet.
First, we must remember that this God is not simply a God of love, but that He is also equally committed to righteousness and justice. Furthermore, His love is not sentimental like ours, but He loves all equally. To some extent this commitment is reflected in human legal systems the world over. Human judges cannot acquit guilty people, because their freedom is restricted by the justice they seek to uphold. Human legal systems are not solely concerned with the punishment of the guilty, but also seek to provide justice for those who have been treated unjustly. Even in societies which reject the Biblical definition of right and wrong, people still have moral awareness about what they should and should not do. More importantly they know how they think others should and should not treat them, for we all want to be treated with fairness - ask the modern politician if this is not the case. We seek justice not only for ourselves, but we also think that it is something our family and friends are entitled to. However, human nature is such that beyond those close circles and apart from any special interest groups, our desire for justice for others grows thin quite quickly. All crime is committed by those who undervalue, even disregard, their victim’s right to be treated with justice. The idea of justice underpins every legal system in every human society. I doubt whether even vocal ‘new atheists’ like Dawkins would argue that justice is not an important social issue, though they object vehemently to it being based on a moral code derived in part from the Bible. Justice is a principle which is embedded in the human mind even though we might dispute the fine details of what does and what does not constitute just conduct.
Justice is important to the God of the Bible. It is important because He values those who are treated unjustly. Six out of the Ten Commandments, the best known summary of morals in the Bible, address how people treat other people. When we wrongly think of sin as wrong done against God only, we forget that so often it is other people whom we have treated unjustly by our actions. Whilst people are often denied justice in this life, a God of justice must provide it for them in the context of eternity. There would certainly be an outcry against any god who allowed some of history’s despots to escape justice forever. The much maligned Old Testament principle of “an eye for an eye, a life for a life, etc.” was in fact given to prevent passion for revenge overriding the higher moral requirement for justice. This highlights how we all struggle with the idea of justice for others as well as ourselves. Our emotions not only draw us to seek more than we are due, but also lure us into failing to recompense those we treat unfairly. Most people therefore subconsciously hope that in the long term justice will not be done, because we have all cheated others on an almost daily basis - be that in the big things our peers would condemn or in those common smaller matters they would turn a blind eye to because of their own complicity.
Christians of course are confident that atheists are wrong when they argue that because we are nothing more than a collection of borrowed chemicals, death will absolve us from all the responsibilities we had in this life to deliver justice to those we have wronged. The Christian doctrine which Dawkins so despises is firmly based in the conviction that long after our bodies have decayed, the real us - commonly described as our spirits - will be held accountable for all the wrongs we have committed whilst we inhabited our physical body. It also reminds us that the need for all people to receive justice for the oppression they have received - be that school-ground bullying, petty pilfering or death at the hands of another - will not be written off when they die either. The Christian gospel assures us that a righteous God will provide them with the justice they are due. By contrast, human legal systems actually major on punishment and deterrent, though they are in theory also concerned with delivering justice to victims. Human courts normally require the offender to ‘pay’ for their own transgressions, but they are commonly blind to justice in the matter of fines and compensation imposed. Where such penalties are decreed, the important issue to the courts is that the money is paid, not by whom it is paid. However, this blind-spot does not extend to situations where those convicted of wrong are required to spend time behind bars, or to suffer corporal or capital punishment. In normal circumstances no human court would knowingly take one life in substitution for an offender who has been sentenced to death. But we do hear of out-of-court situations from time to time where one person gives up their life for another: the solider who lay on a land mine to save his comrades; the boy caught in the Queensland flood who insisted that his younger brother be rescued first; the husband who was killed as he pushed his wife out of the way of a car. To die for the benefit of another, whilst not a legal provision in society, is an important human experience. Such sacrifices rarely deliver justice, but they commonly express grace.
I am sure Dawkins would not say it is immoral for a father to pay a son’s fine or a friend the legal costs incurred by another. I am sure he would not decry the sacrificial solider, brother or husband, so why does he denounce the Christian doctrine which says the Creator is concerned to do what satisfies justice as well as love? What makes him argue that it is morally bad for the guiltless to stand in the place of the guilty when justice is being administered? Why is this principle obnoxious and offensive to him? Perhaps it is because he has only garnered a caricature of Christian teaching rather than sought the truth for himself. Perhaps, disliking the thought that he will be brought to justice for his own wrongs, he has fallen head over heels for a philosophy which assures him that justice will never be done! Or is it because he is so full of himself that he believes he has never done anything wrong? Possibly it's because he has constructed his own moral code which informs him that he is as good as anyone else that leads him to reject the Biblical affirmation that we are all as bad as each other! Whatever it is that has caused him to hate Christian teaching as much as he does, I suspect that his heart is not as comfortable as he would like it to be. If it were, then he would not be such an vehement opponent of those who are convinced otherwise.
Bishop Nazir-Ali was right to tell Dawkins that he was advocating cheap grace by calling for God to ignore human wrong. By contrast, the Christian gospel is built around the essential need of justice for all. Those who have done wrong and those who have been wronged will together receive the just recompense for their actions and their sufferings. What we all know within ourselves is that none of us has the resources to fully compensate for the damage we have done. Perhaps Christians have overused the word ‘sin’, which these days tends to carry with it religious implications rather than practical ones. What the Bible describes as sin are those occasions when we act wrongly towards our Creator or towards our fellow human beings; when we fail to treat them as righteousness demands. Sometimes we do that through acting in a way we should not, and at other times through not doing the good that what we could. We can deny justice to others in our minds, with our tongues or through our actions. The Christian gospel contains the bad news that we are to be held accountable for our failures to act with justice, as well as the good news that a just Creator has a solution to our self-made predicament. The pseudo-gospel Dawkins and his fellow atheists promote is that the guilty will ultimately escape justice and the oppressed will never receive it! Which of these is the most disgusting idea you have ever heard?
If we were honest enough to face up to our selfish disregard of justice and the enormity of the accumulated claims against us by other humans never mind a righteous God, I am sure there would be very few of us so determined to pay our own way that we would refuse the offer of a loving Father to meet the debt of their wayward child.
A version of this article was circulated in the Creation Research UK Newsletter in July 2011, and afterwards was contacted by someone who was of the opinion that the points made in not only challenge atheists, but also provide strong arguments against those Evangelicals who promote annihilationism. Annihilationism, and its sister doctrine of “conditional immortality”, argue that no human will spend eternity in Hell - only those who are saved will live for eternity. Essentially, this is a liberal doctrine which has become popular amongst some who are seen as Evangelicals. The late John Stott, in a 1998 book called Evangelical Essentials, triggered the resurgence of this teaching, and later admitted that he had held it to it for most of his life (A Global Ministry, p.354). Amongst others who teach this view are Michael Green, Roger Forster and Clark Pinnock.
Why do people want to embrace annihilationism? For much for the same reason as others promote universalism, which is the teaching that every human being will be finally saved. Both these false doctrines have their roots firmly embedded in the notion that God’s love for people is based on the same emotions as human love, and not on righteousness and justice. Whilst His agápē love for those He created is self-sacrificial in every respect, He cannot deny justice to the oppressed. As our supporter correctly understood, if the unrepentant who have refused to put their faith in Christ as their Redeemer are to cease existing at death, then they will escape justice. When men and women tamper with the plain reading of the Scriptures, they inevitably seek to re-create The LORD in their fallen image. Annihilationism is a clear example of liberal thinking which ultimately turns the Creator into the very opposite of a God of love.
This paper was first
published as part of the July 2011, Creation
Research UK Update.
Further copies are available on my website here.
I can be contacted via email by following this link.
Amen Website Home Page
© Randall Hardy, 2013