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12/05/2012 11:38 am ET | Updated Feb 04, 2013

The Gospel According to Christopher

Christopher Hitchens, one of our era's most eloquent atheists, died a year ago this month, and in his memory I thought I might share my favorite Hitchens quote with you. It speaks clarity into some of our nation's post-election identity crisis, and it's the kind of thing both believers and non-believers should cherish about Hitchens' work.

While being interviewed by minister Marilyn Sewell on Dec. 17, 2009, Hitchens was asked a proto-typical question about Christianity:

Sewell: "Mr. Hitchens, the religion you cite in your book is generally the fundamentalist faith of various kinds. I'm a liberal Christian, and I don't take the stories from the scripture literally. I don't believe in the doctrine of atonement -- that Jesus died for our sins, for example. Do you make a distinction between fundamentalist faith and liberal religion?"

Hitchens: "Well, I would say that if you don't believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you're really not in any meaningful sense a Christian."

Hitchens was known for his sharp words, but in this case his sharpness is ironic. He agreed with Marilyn Sewell on many issues. He simply thought she was deceiving herself in thinking she could deny the main tenets of Christianity and yet call herself, with any accuracy, a Christian. Words have socio-historical meanings we can't simply alter. One can no more be a Christian who denies the clear teaching of Christian Scripture than a Marxist who denies the clear teaching of the Communist Manifesto.

The kind of misapprehension which Hitchens exposed in the interview has historical roots. In the late Enlightenment, many elites in the West -- especially in Europe, where I live -- decided they didn't believe in the core Christian message. But because they desired to remain a part of the establishment, most of those elites kept using Christian language to describe their newfound ideologies.

In their most candid moments, theological giants like Schleiermacher and Bultmann, who shaped generations of thinkers, admitted that their theology was no longer Christianity classically understood. Others started innovative campaigns to cast classic Christianity -- what Christians everywhere had always believed up until the 19th century -- as something new, radical and extreme.

In his fascinating encounter with Sewell, Hitchens makes a compelling argument that -- whether believer or not -- we should not be deceived by such campaigns. He says plainly that the worldview held by people like Marilyn Sewell, and presumably also Schleiermacher and Bultmann, is qualitatively not Christianity, and that labeling Bible-believing, resurrection-affirming Christianity a new, unwelcome addition to the Christian camp is both sociologically naïve and historically inaccurate.

Hitchens' erudition precedes him on this point, and it hints at another thing often forgotten in the midst of culture wars and charitable dialogues: the truly controversial thing about Christianity is not something embraced only by ultra-conservative fringe groups. The truly controversial (and for many intolerable) part of Christianity is in fact its most basic claim, the one shared by Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox alike: that man is the orchestrator of his own demise, and that God, by the sacrifice and resurrection of His Son, is the orchestrator of the only possible path to human redemption.

Considering the demands that Christ makes on human life, as well as the way Christian practice can make one look foolish and backwards in the eyes of so many today, I have never understood why anyone would try to claim to be a Christian if not totally convinced. But it still seems to happen. When it does, it causes confusion in our public discourse.

I am a Christian theologian, so naturally Hitchens and I would disagree on many things. Yet I confess that the "Gospel According to Christopher" is essentially the same thing as the Gospel as explained by Mathew, Mark, Luke and John. Those men believed, and Hitchens didn't, but Hitchens at least did us the honor of trying to understand our position on its own terms.

As the empirical pluralism of our nation continues to grow, the danger of playing rhetorical games with religious jargon will only increase. Regardless of the side of the religious divide you fall on, I propose we join in affirming Hitchens' unencumbered definition of Christianity, and to that end, I encourage you to consider taking these simple steps in the new year:
  1. Spend time researching the resurrection, giving experts on both sides your due attention.
  2. Dare to pray the agnostic's prayer, "God if you're there, show me," while reading through a book like the Gospel of John.
  3. If God reveals himself to you and you come to faith, submit your life to Christ.
  4. If that doesn't happen, don't call yourself a Christian.
The world of the 21st century is a confusing place, but we need not be nearly so confused on this point.