Kimberly and I have discussed the merits of the classic Metallica ballad Unforgiven. She expressed her dislike of the song and subject material as far as being dubbed unforgiven, which is understandable. I explained that the idea of the song was not simply declaring there is no such thing as forgiveness but that it followed a narrative of classic British whipping boy and was dealing with the ideas behind it.
It is the metaphor of the whipping that is important. A young boy learning the rules, losing his own will so that he feels like a whipping boy even though he is the one actually going through it all. The picture behind the phrase is of course the idea that another boy can serve the punishment for a more prominent boy, this is the issue, or rather injustice is. He sings that it is unjust that he had to adopt another’s rules just as it would be unjust that someone else pay for the sins he committed. The song continues that the boy later grown into a man says that even though he sought their forgiveness through learning the rules, it is not he who needs forgiveness but them for forcing him into this position, but he does not grant it. So the song may be about the unforgiveness in his own heart and I suppose it is up to the listener to decide the merits of such. Catchy tune.
This idea however of the whipping boy and the injustice of one boy suffering for another indifferent kid interests me. The history was that nobody could lay a hand on royal blood, thus he could not be punished, so a suitable other boy would be brought up along side of him that he would hopefully care about and thus not desire his punishment. This was a practice in the 16th and 17th centuries.
This picture of the whipping boy conjures a lot of emotion, why should one boy suffer for another? Especially when being familiar with the stories around it we think of boys misbehaving so the other would be punished. Shouldn’t all boys be punished for their own sins? What does this have to do with the late Christopher Hitchens?
Well hearing the song again after having read his book God is not Great and being inspired by his brother Peter, I see a bit of his problem. Christopher Hitchens admits he had a problem with vicarious atonement. He called it amoral. He called the torture and human sacrifice of somebody for somebody else amoral. He said if he liked you well enough that he can pay your debt. But a person cannot take away another’s sins because that takes away their responsibility. He claimed the very basis of morality requires that we face it ourselves. He concludes it is scapegoating, which it literally is. He said it is not a free offer because it is refused on pain of death. He said this is celestial dictatorship and slavery. He kinda was right.
It does my heart good to know that he has at least rightly assessed the Gospel in this respect, but what he didn’t understand is that he was already under slavery. The point of the Gospel is to rescue an already captive people from a mortal slavery and to enter into a new life-giving one. Hitchens is right, God is a King and we are subjects but what kind of King? He is gracious master, a merciful sovereign, but it is more than that, we are not simply hired hands or forced work. We are both a slave because we recognize the true master’s right to rule and we are invited up to the house to becomes sons of the most high.
This is called grace, it looks like paying for sins. Hitchens said sins cannot be anyone else’s responsibility. Well he is right again. Sin is our responsibility which is why we have a choice in the matter. We can decide that our sins will be paid for by our merits, as he wishes to do more or less, or we can decide that we need help. God acknowledges this problem. The Bible teaches with Hitchens that sins are in fact our own responsibility. Ezekiel 18 is all about this.
He hates the idea of human sacrifice and so does God actually. God prevented Abraham from doing it and required his own people to abstain from the practice. But God does require blood for sin, this is taught in both Testaments. (Leviticus 17:11, Hebrews 9:22) This is the very definition of responsibility. If you want to question why this is, well this is a question that only God can answer, but I believe it gets to his very nature. If we fail to recognize his holiness we will always fail to recognize his justice. To put it another way if we refuse his holiness, deny his right to govern, dismiss his claims to Deity then of course we will always have a problem with his justice.
He liked to go to C.S. Lewis on this point that only God himself can be offended on others behalf, only God himself can offer forgiveness on others behalf because it comes down to whose law and holiness is actually violated. He took this point to the obvious conclusion that if Jesus is not God and makes these claims then he would be wicked and this is the point. Is Jesus God or not? He rightly said that it can’t be proven with facts in a court of law and so he resists it, but God only asks for our faith.
God doesn’t leave forensic evidence behind for his case but he does leave enough information and testimony to make a decision. This is the point: handling our sin is our responsibility and it does require something from us. It requires us to decide if the world the Bible presents is a world you want to live in? Do you want to live in a world with a gracious and merciful God who grants pardon, who enters into his creation to forgive because he understand that it is entirely us against him morally? Do you want to live in a world that was created where relationship with the maker is possible where life and choice really do matter beyond simple effect? Do you want to live in a world where forgiveness is possible and restoration and eternity is a reality? Do you want to live in a world where true love is real or, do you prefer survival of the fittest? That is your responsibility as Hitchens says is so important, and it is, we haven’t escaped anything. Choose this day whom you will serve God or yourself? Take your morality into your hands and choose.
His further problem with religion is what he said that it has done. Ironically people will use this as reason to refrain from using their volition with regards to Christ. They instead build cases so that they do not have to choose. But when you read his book about how God not being so great, it becomes something anyone would say when presented with such a one-sided argument. It is a straw man. The book reads like a naughty and nice list of world religions with all the nice pages being ripped out. He further ignored that what he was actually compiling was the accomplishments of man and not God. God teaches his people in a very different way than a lot of what happens in history. Weird huh? People sin and that is the point, they need a savior and history only confirms this. Sure people have done some wicked things in the name of religion but we have the manual, we have the teacher’s edition. People got it wrong and continue to do so. One could just as easily compile a list of things Godless regimes have done and it wouldn’t look nice.
His idea however fails to recognize both the true state of man and the true state of God. Man is not simply guilty, but walking dead simply waiting for their burial day.
God understands that left to our own we would never reach reconciliation, it is more than a scale of deeds this way or that. This is why even our attempts at religion fail, this is partly what his books fails to see, even religious people need forgiveness. It is a condition of humanity that we are born with because of Adam, this is why we do the bad things. Sin is a humanity problem.
While I disagree with I do appreciate Christopher Hitchens for his thoughtfulness and communicative prowess. I will admit that I could never have won a debate against him because he demands proof for God which will never come. The Bible quite clearly acknowledges that we walk by faith and not by sight. Now I like Peter Hitchens his brother a great deal. He has taken the journey out of atheism into faith, he escaped the mental prison of atheism of his late brother and journeyed to God. He recognizes that faith is a choice and happily makes it. He recognized that you are choosing what kind of world you want to live in. The atheist anger comes about because the Bible has the audacity to claim to know the results of either choice. The atheists see the sin problem and blames God and religion, but now who is scapegoating?
I agree that morality does require responsibility, so do we want to be like the bitter man from the song Unforgiven and declare people as such, or do we simply recognize that we need help and want to live in a world with hope? So whose righteousness do you want to rely upon?
Decide, is Jesus alive or not? Forgiven or unforgiven?