Posts Tagged ‘Christopher Hitchens’

Hitchens on Palin

September 9, 2008

In a Slate article subtitled “Don’t Patronize Sarah Palin,” Christopher Hitchens patronizes Sarah Palin.

[A more accurate subtitle would have been “Do Patronize Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and the Clintons.”]

A little more about Hitchens, and a lot about Hell

April 10, 2008

Previously in this space, I mentioned that there were interesting points embedded in Christopher Hitchens’ explanation of Martin Luther King’s patent atheism. Specifically, in this passage:

…it is only in the reported observations of Jesus that we find any mention of hell and eternal punishment. The god of Moses would brusquely call for other tribes, including his favorite one, to suffer massacre and plague and even extirpation, but when the grave closed over his victims he was essentially finished with them unless he remembered to curse their succeeding progeny. Not until the advent of the Prince of Peace do we hear of the ghastly idea of further punishing and torturing the dead.

HellThat is surprisingly close to being correct. The New Testament, and Christianity, are indeed much more focused on the afterlife, as both reward and punishment, than are Judaism and its scriptures. Search for the word “Hell” in the NIV, and you’ll only find results in the New Testament.1

The early Israelites do not seem to have had much concept of individuals’ survival after death. Having their progeny succeed and multiply was a far more meaningful “life after death.” But there are obvious exceptions, most strikingly the summoning of Samuel’s spirit for Saul by the witch of Endor.2

And there is an abode of the dead in the Hebrew scriptures. Sheol is very much the equivalent of the Greek Hades (which is how the Septuagint translates it), a sort of gloomy half-world, where all the dead go, whatever they were in life. It is not a place of punishment, and indeed can provide a welcome (if metaphorical) rest from the woes of earthly life. From Job 3:13-19:

For now should I have lain still and been quiet, I should have slept: then had I been at rest, with kings and counselors of the earth, which build desolate places for themselves; or with princes that had gold, who filled their houses with silver: or as an hidden untimely birth I had not been; as infants which never saw light. There the wicked cease from troubling; and there the weary be at rest. There the prisoners rest together; they hear not the voice of the oppressor. The small and great are there; and the servant is free from his master.

In older translations of the Bible “Sheol” is often rendered as “Hell”; in newer ones, as “the grave,” or “the pit.” (Hence the specification the NIV, a translation I don’t particularly like, in the search above.) It appears most frequently in the more poetic books—Job, and the Psalms—or in the allegorical prophetic books, and hence may have been more a literary device than a statement of belief.

The Inferno, by BarolomeoThe Gospels do (apparently) introduce another version of Hell. In the synoptic Gospels, Jesus refers to “Gehenna,” the exact nature of which is not clear, but which seems very bad indeed. It’s a place of fire and torment, where not only bodies but souls are destroyed. It is the negation of the Kingdom of Heaven. The word is derived from the valley of Hinnom, just outside Jerusalem. According to the historical books of the OT, and the prophet Jeremiah, human sacrifices were performed there, an practice that was ended by King Josiah. By Jesus’ time it had taken on a more abstract and otherworldly meaning, no longer an earthly abomination but a place of endless torment.

That is one manifestation of a more general phenomenon: in general the New Testament is abstract where the old is concrete. Compare, for example, the Magnficat with its original, the Song of Hannah. We should perhaps be cautious in extrapolating from the texts themselves to their authors’ and adherents’ beliefs, as concrete language can be interpreted abstractly and abstract language interpreted concretely. This is especially true of Jesus, who (very much in the early rabbinical tradition) spoke figuratively and taught in parables. He certainly went into no detail about the nature of Gehenna3, and may well not have meant to imply a literal eternal punishment.

What Christopher Hitchens—he got us here originally, remember—gets wrong is that this use of Hell, even assuming it means what later Christians think it means, was new with Jesus. It certainly was not. Jesus was after all a first-century Jew, who lived and worked entirely among other first-century Jews, and used language and ideas that were familiar to them. These could vary considerably from the language in the Old Testament, most of which (the apocrypha and the book of Daniel being the exceptions) was written hundreds of years previously, before the arrival and infusion of Hellenistic culture and ideas, in a language that few common people of Jesus’ time knew.

When Jesus4 used the term Gehenna he was quoting early versions of the Targums, translations of the Hebrew scriptures into Aramaic (see this article by Frederica Matthewes-Green and this by Craig Evans; in the second you should probably ignore the top part of the page completely and scroll to the quoted article). And the concept of an afterlife, including eternal punishment for the wicked, was certainly not foreign. Josephus ascribes such beliefs to the Pharisees (Jewish War II.8.14): “They say that all souls are incorruptible, but that the souls of good men only are removed into other bodies,—but that the souls of bad men are subject to eternal punishment.” In this he was probably wrong—the Pharisees more likely believed in the resurrection of the body, a belief long metaphorically associated with the rebirth of the nation of Israel5—but his citation is at least evidence that the belief was not unheard-of.

SatanHow Satan—previously a senior member of God’s court—came to be the ruler of Hell is story for another time.


1 See this handy chart for all the “Hell words” in the Bible, excluding the apocrypha.
2 Here is an article by James Tabor about the afterlife in the Bible.
3 unlike some of his later followers, who so delight in the details of how the God of Love will burn, dismember, impale, and otherwise torture the apostate and the heretical.
4 Or rather, the evangelists, who wrote decades after Jesus’ death. And we can’t even be sure of what the evangelists themselves wrote, as the earliest extant copies of the Gospels are from later still, and may represent considerable editing. See this blog post by April DeConick.
5 See Daniel 12:2, and that most vivid of prophetic visions, Ezekiel 37.

Christopher Hitchens explains Martin Luther King

April 5, 2008

When you find someone citing an opponent saying something outrageous, it generally behooves you to check the source. It’s easy to take statements out of context, to twist their meaning, to make things up altogether. So when I read in Chris Hedges’ I Don’t Believe In Atheists that Christopher Hitchens said of Martin Luther King that “In no real as opposed to nominal sense, then, was he [King] a Christian,” I thought I should check the source. And in fact it was misleading to strip the sentence of its context. The whole passage is far less believable:

Christian reformism arose originally from the ability of its advocates to contrast the Old Testament with the New. The cobbled-together ancient Jewish books had an ill-tempered and implacable and bloody and provincial god, who was probably more frightening when he was in a good mood (the classic attribute of the dictator). Whereas the cobbled-together books of the last two thousand years contained handholds for the hopeful, and references to meekness, forgiveness, lambs and sheep, and so forth. This distinction is more apparent than real, since it is only in the reported observations of Jesus that we find any mention of hell and eternal punishment. The god of Moses would brusquely call for other tribes, including his favorite one, to suffer massacre and plague and even extirpation, but when the grave closed over his victims he was essentially finished with them unless he remembered to curse their succeeding progeny. Not until the advent of the Prince of Peace do we hear of the ghastly idea of further punishing and torturing the dead. First presaged by the rantings of John the Baptist, the son of god is revealed as one who, if his milder words are not accepted straightaway, will condemn the inattentive to everlasting fire. This had provided texts for clerical sadists ever since, and features very lip-smackingly in the tirades of Islam. At no point did Dr. King—who was once photagraphed in a bookstore waiting calmly for a physician while the knife of a maniac was sticking straight out of his chest—even hint that those who injured and reviled him were to be threatened with any revenge or punishment, in this world or the next, save the consequences of their own brute selfishness and stupidity. And he even phrased that appeal more courteously than, in my humble opinion, its targets deserved. In no real as opposed to nominal sense, then, was he a Christian.

[God Is Not Great, pp. 175-176]

So MLK could not possibly have been a Christian because he wasn’t vindictive enough.

I already knew that Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins, and other “New Atheists,” demonstrate no real understanding of religion, judging it entirely by its most viciously stupid (and unfortunately, loudest) examples. And I knew that they are fond of the rhetorical trick of defining terms such as “religion” and “Christian” and “atheist” so that anyone they (and their intended audience) admires is classed among the irreligious. But this is even more than I had expected. When the result of a line of argument is that patently absurd, you have to wonder about the arguer.

Where to start? There are some genuinely interesting and subtle specifics in there about the relationship of Christianity to Judaism, and the milieu in which Jesus and the evangelists lived, and about the links between the old and new testaments. But I’ll ignore those for the moment, and hope to come back to them in a later post. For now I’ll just mention that even among the most literal of literalists the relationship of what sacred tests actually say and what people believe and how they act is subtle. Yes, Christianity does have a long and deplorable tradition of condemning heretics to Hell. It has an equally long and altogether admirable tradition of forgiveness. Yes, Jesus said “Fear him, which after he hath killed hath power to cast into hell,” but he also said “Judge not, that ye be not judged,” and “Turn the other cheek.”  Mainline Christians (whom Hitchens et al seem to regard as irrelevant and somewhere between pathetic and contemptible) tend to ignore the hellfire bits altogether now, and in my experience evangelicals and fundamentalists (real ones, not televangelists) value forgiveness and love, not vindictiveness and schadenfreude.  They are genuinely concerned with the welfare of your soul, annoying as that can be.  The possibility of your spending eternity in a lake of fire is something that bothers them, not something they exult in.  They genuinely mean it when they say, “Hate the sin, love the sinner.”

Hitchens goes on to say that

This does not in the least diminish his standing as a great preacher, any more than does the fact that he was a mammal like the rest of us, and probably plagiarized his doctoral dissertation, and had a notorious fondness for booze and for women a good deal younger than his wife.  He spent the remainder of his last evening in orgiastic dissipation, for which I don’t blame him.  (These things, which of course disturb the faithful, are rather encouraging in that they show that a high more character is not a precondition for great moral accomplishments.)

It should be noted here that Hitchens is generally fond of vice, and so this paragraph is not necessarily the insult it sounds like.  And he actually has a point about goodness and greatness, and saints with feet of clay—whatever the truth of the allegations about King (which I feel a bit bad quoting).  Perfect saints are boring and not terribly interesting, and are not useful as role models.

Now I should mention here that Hitchens himself doesn’t really believe what he says, or at least he has himself said the opposite.  (I’m not sure he can be said to believe in anything, and he is admirably unbound by any foolish consistency.)  In his review of Ann Coulter’s screed Godless, he says in response to her equation of liberalism and Godlessness and to her “crass choice” of the word “lynching”:

The umbrella group in this campaign was even called the ‘Southern Christian Leadership Conference’, not that this prevented many secularists and atheists from participating in it. Finally, I think we can safely say that Dr Martin Luther King “appeared” to believe in god.

Hitchens is an enormously entertaining writer, even when—especially when, come to think of it—he is at his most vitriolic and infuriating.  In that he is not unlike a saner and more literate (if less leggy) Ann Coulter (do read that review, which is funny).  But don’t take anything he says seriously without a heavy dose of critical thinking and fact-checking.  Perhaps he would tell you the same thing.