I saw this debate, from which this excerpt is taken, some time ago, but I fell across it again, recently.  I find what Hitchens says in the middle of the video quite interesting, and it punctuates something I wrote about in an earlier post.

Now, on matters of religion, I typically don’t agree with the things Christopher Hitchens says – though I sympathize with much of what he says.  I find that his arguments are somewhat weak, philosophically.  (Although, his wit is quite appealing, and his accent makes it all the more engrossing.)  Moreover, I don’t at all agree with Hitchens’ views towards – or against, I should say – religion.  I think religion is indispensable to the human project of existing in the world.  I also think religion is a good thing – despite the grievances religion and religious adherents have inflicted upon and in the world.  Despite these disagreements with Hithchens, what he says on vicarious redemption is very engaging.

Admittedly, I am not an Evangelical Christian.  And I began moving away from such a perspective quite awhile back.  Thus, I don’t really want to make this post – or this blog – an enduring polemic against evangelical views I no longer hold.  Such a conscientiously confrontational posture is tiresome.  What’s more, doubtless no one really cares.  (Although, I do know some people, personally, who find my theological shift a matter of great concern – one them being my closest friend/brother.)  So, instead, I want to raise a question about ethics, as it pertains to the teaching of vicarious redemption, which some strands of Christianity maintain as a doctrinal truth.

Does the idea of vicarious redemption somehow demean the ethical vision and framework of the one who adheres to the belief?  If your sins – and, consequently, your responsibility for those sins –  can be put off on someone else, is the Christian ethical life diminished or blurred or faulty?  Does responsibility play a key role in living ethically?  If, however, you are under the persuasion that you can be absolved from such responsibility, does that belief muddy the waters of ethical living?

[Note: To be sure, some people who hold to vicarious redemption – if not all – would not agree with Hitchens (and myself) in saying that vicarious redemption absolves the believer of responsibility.  After all, the Bible does say that all – including those believers whose sins have been removed in the passion of the Christ – will give an account for the lives they led while on earth.  However, in the final sense, it doesn’t seem like that “account giving” involves a robust sense of responsibility.  After all, if a person who committed moral atrocities against humanity – and God – all his/her life, only to come to faith in their last hour and thus receive the reward of eternal bliss, in what sense can they be said to have been held duly responsible for their injustices?]


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4 thoughts on “hitchens on vicarious redemption

  1. I always remind myself of how Eph. 2:10 comes after vv. 8-9 and Titus 2:14 after vv. 11-13. A true conversion by the Gospel will always produce a workman being zealous to display, both in word and deed, the love of Christ to a lost and dying world.

    • Thanks for the comment, Travis. Your references are noted, but they both seem to amplify the problem in question.

      In the first place, the doing of God works does not nullify or somehow compensate for the fact that one did not pay for their own sins – did not take responsibility for their own injustices.

      Secondly, even the good works are not fundamentally our own. “We are God’s workmanship,” Paul says. The believer was prepared beforehand to walk in this way. In the end, then, what we have is a person who not only doesn’t takes the fault for their own grievances, but only lives a blessed life under the influence of God’s supervening / intervening Spirit. In this schema, responsibility becomes even more blurry. The believer doesn’t hold the final responsibility for his/her sins, and (s)he isn’t responsible for his/her good deeds.

      Finally, it should also be noted that everyone doesn’t fall within the bounds of Paul’s statements. Some Christians don’t end up living a life that proves them as “zealous for good works” and yet they are true believers. Moreover, some people die before they have the ability to live out a life of goodness and love (e.g. the thief on the cross).


  2. Well if someone’s left to pay for his/her own sins, their conscience will always leave them guilty. I think responsibility for sins being propitiated by Christ is the only hope for one to have his/her slate cleaned; this promise stems from a God who will “remember their sins no more.” This Gospel (which is the only one), Paul exhorts that it must not be abused, as if we should sin more in order to receive more grace. And with that, both believers and non-believers, will stand before God and give an account for every thought, word, and deed. Sounds like your concept of justice is out of line, and maybe Jesus lied to that thief on the cross?

    • I’m not quite sure I understand your first statement. Are you saying that if someone is left to pay for his/her own sins, their conscience will always leave them guilty…and therefore the payment isn’t really complete – i.e. because they still have a guilty conscience? If this is what you’re saying, I’m not so sure that is true.

      Many people who receive due punishment for their injustices feel as though they have rightly paid their debt to society and that justice was vindicated. Thus, when the payment is made, they recognize it and don’t walk around with a guilty conscience. Of course, there are some who continue to feel guilty, but that isn’t particular to people who pay for their own sins. Can you not name many Christians who, despite having their sins paid for, continue to have a guilty conscience? I know I can. Now, you may simply respond by saying that such people aren’t fully internalizing the fullness of the gospel – that they aren’t realizing the fact that their sins have truly been wiped away. However, the same can be said for the person who pays their own debt. If the criminal who has paid his/her debt continues to have a guilty conscience, then it can be argued they haven’t fully internalized the fact that they have truly paid their debt to society and that justice was duly vindicated.

      Concerning your second point – i.e. about having one’s slate cleaned: I think you’re presupposing your own worldview on this one. In other words, you are speaking of a slate being cleansed on a cosmic, divine scale. But not all appeal to such divine scales of justice. The criminals who serve their sentences and suffer the due consequences of their various injustices do have their slates cleaned. They have served their debt to society and, legally speaking, are no longer consider guilty under the law. For those who don’t share your worldview, this sort of slate-cleansing is all that matters. They need not have their slate cleaned before the Christian God, because, of course, they may not subscribe to such an entity.

      Concerning Paul, you are right in noting his exhortation about not abusing grace. However, that is neither here nor there. Even if grace is not consciously abused by a believer, the fact of the matter remains: they did not bear the responsibility for their injustices/unrighteousness. This is my major hangup. I’m not so much concerned with the issue of sanctification, but justification. There seems to be a very off sort of justice at work when someone can commit injustices and then get off scotfree by having someone else bear the responsibility.

      What’s more, believing in such a view seems somewhat disingenuous, because I’m sure you (and others who accept this view of vicarious redemption) wouldn’t maintain this position in relation to matters of justice here. We cry, “Unjust!” if criminal behavior is not met with judgment on the criminal and yet, with vicarious redemption, we say, “Praise the Lord!” That seems very much backwards. It’s a double-standard. Vicarious redemption is great when you’re the offender, but awful when you’re the victim. Thus, it seems like my concept of justice is entirely consistent – not off by any means. The person who believes in vicarious redemption is the one who has trouble reconciling an ostensible double-standard.

      I don’t think Jesus lied to the thief on the cross. I don’t know if and/or how I communicated a belief that Jesus was somehow being untruthful. If I did, I didn’t mean to.


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