Mark D. Roberts

Mark D. Roberts


Some of Hitchens’s Misunderstandings or Distortions, Part 2

posted by Mark D. Roberts

Part 7 of series: god is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens: A Response
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Yesterday I began looking at some of the many misunderstandings found in Christopher Hitchens’s book, god is not Great. Today I’ll examine a few more before I press on to further considerations of the book.
Hitchens Oddly Derides and Distorts the Teachings of Jesus
He writes:

But many [of the teachings of Jesus] are unintelligible and show a belief in magic, several are absurd and show a primitive attitude to agriculture (this extends to all mentions of plowing and sowing, and all allusions to mustard or fig trees), and many are on the face it flat-out immoral. The analogy of humans to lilies, for instance, suggests–along with many other injunctions–that things like thrift, innovation, family life, and so forth are a sheer waste of time. (“Take no thought for the morrow.”) This is why some of the Gospels, synoptic and apocryphal, report people (including his family members) saying at the time that they thought Jesus must be mad. (pp. 117-118)

Some quick responses:

• Admittedly, the teachings of Jesus are sometimes challenging. Yet the person who claims that the teachings of Jesus are unintelligible is telling us more about himself than about the teachings of Jesus. By design, Jesus’s sayings are not simple. But unintelligible? And absurd? Perhaps to Hitchens. Probably not to Jesus and those who have actually tried to understand them.
• The “primitive attitude to agriculture” comment makes me laugh. Indeed, Jesus used illustrations from His world, which in fact had a primitive attitude to agriculture. It’s called effective communication. Had Jesus instead spoken of irrigation and tractors, I fear Hitchens would have criticized Him for showing off.
• The claim that some of Jesus’s teachings are “flat-out immoral” deserves careful scrutiny. Who would you choose to be a judge of what is moral? Jesus? Or Christopher Hitchens? Now before you vote for Hitchens, please note that his example of the immorality of Jesus’s teachings is based on a serious misinterpretation of Jesus’s meaning. From a passage where Jesus is teaching people not to worry, Hitchens thinks that Jesus is somehow against “thrift, innovation, family life, and so forth.” His textual proof is “Take no thought for the morrow,” which appears in Matthew 6:34 in the King James Version of the Bible. In fact, the verb translated four centuries ago as “take no thought” means “do not worry” (Greek, merimnao), as is seen in every modern translation I consulted. If Hitchens had made an effort to understand what Jesus was actually saying, then he’d be relieved to know that Jesus doesn’t oppose sensible preparation, just anxious preoccuption.
• It’s highly unlikely that people thought Jesus was mad because of His primitive agronomy or encouragement not to worry. Jesus was thought to be mad for much greater reasons, largely His proclamation of the kingdom of God. Hitchens shows no indication that He understands what Jesus actually did proclaim as the center of His message.

Hitchens Finds the Commonplace Shocking
He writes:

Overarching all this is the shocking fact that, as Ehrman concedes: “The story [in John 8 of the woman caught in adultery] is not found in our oldest and best manuscripts of the Gospel of John . . . .” (122)

First, Ehrman didn’t have to concede anything. He was quite pleased that this story wasn’t in the early manuscripts of John because this fact seems to support Ehrman’s anti-Christian argument. More importantly, there is absolutely nothing shocking about this whatsoever. Christians have known for ages that this story was not in the early manuscripts of John. Every modern translation of the Bible that I have seen puts this passage in brackets and adds a comment indicating it’s uncertain history. I wonder if Hitchens has read a modern translation of the Bible. If not, such an exercise would at least help him to understand that which he intends to criticize before he misspeaks.
Hitchens Misunderstands the Nature of Jesus’s Resurrection
He writes:

This supposed frequency of resurrection [in the New Testament] can only undermine the uniqueness of the one by which mankind purchased forgiveness of sins. (143)

One might argue that the frequency of resurrections in the New Testament actually strengthens the case for their historicity, but for obvious reasons Hitchens doesn’t go there. What he misunderstands is the unique nature of Jesus’s resurrection. The other people raised from the dead were raised to ordinary life. We have every reason to believe that, after their coming back to life, they lived ordinary lives and died like everybody else. Jesus’s resurrection was in a unique category as the beginning of resurrection to life in the age to come. Jesus’s resurrection body was different from other bodies, as is seen from the Gospel accounts and 1 Corinthians 15. None of this proves that Jesus actually rose from the dead, of course, or that His resurrection purchased forgiveness of sins (which, by the way, was more about His death than resurrection). But it does show that Hitchens simply does not understand what the writers of the New Testament believed about the resurrection of Jesus.
Interim Conclusion
I’m going to stop examining Hitchens’s misstatements now, though I could keep on going for a long time. I think it’s obvious that he simply doesn’t “get” Jesus or the New Testament writings very well at all. His grasp of the New Testament reminds me of my grasp of the Grand Canyon. I’ve seen it, but only from an airplane. From that perspective, the Grand Canyon looks like a bunch of reddish ruts in the ground, and that’s about it. It doesn’t look that big or that impressive. Plus, from a plane I’ve never seen any evidence that it was carved by a river, or that people hike it, or that it’s worth more attention than a quick flyover. I might be inclined to say that the reality and beauty of the Grand Canyon have been greatly exaggerated by confused people who aren’t to be believed, and therefore I will never go out of my way to visit it on the ground. But if I were to say this, I’d be telling you more about my inexperience, indeed, about my own foolishness, than about the Grand Canyon itself.



  • Chris

    From my agnostic view, Roberts’s Grand Canyon/New Testament analogy may be apt—that someone might not understand its beauty unless they visit it. But Roberts becomes the starry-eyed tourist who visits the Grand Canyon and then proclaims it’s the most beautiful place in the whole universe. The WHOLE universe. No, you don’t get it—Tourist Roberts has found the BEST PLACE in the WHOLE UNIVERSE!
    Through 2000 year old, imperfect writings, Roberts is claiming on his vacation to Grand Canyon National Park he bumped into the God who created the Crab Nebulae, set off the Big Bang, and developed the chemical and physics formulas that make Halley’s Comet sparkle pretty in the sky every 76 years, etc. And that’s an infinitely long, infinitely complex “etc.”
    But Hitchens is saying, and I agree, it’s a lot tougher being a god in 2007 than it was in 0007. We’re a tougher, more knowledgable crowd about the superpowers needed and the scientific journal articles required.
    It’s true like Hitchens said that “great claims require great evidence.” Maybe a New Testament scholar like Roberts can get in and find some of Hitchens’s details vague or invalid. But Roberts is swatting the flies on Hitchens’s 800 pound gorilla.

  • Religious Zealot

    Chris,
    The problem with your example is that Hitchen’s “800 pound gorilla” is nothing more than 800 pounds of flies in the shape of a gorilla. His arguments, as Mark as abundantly shown, are “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

  • Evan

    As I commented previously, I do not have a problem with Hitchens’ assertion that “Great claims require great evidence.” Hitchens simply uses that credo to raise the bar so high it cannot ever be achieved when the topic is Jesus. And what is quite striking to me is that Hitchens initially begins by asserting that there is no credible evidence that Jesus ever even existed, but then cites Jesus’ teaching on worry and concludes, This is why it is reported that people (including His family members) thought Jesus must be mad. Hmmmmm, He never existed, but no wonder folks reported He must be mad.
    But all of the above, and even the debate on the radio, is really beside the point. Hitchens zinged Roberts, Roberts zinged Hitchens, I have zinged Hitchens, I may get zinged myself; if Jesus is indeed on the throne, how well we argue it does not change the truth of it, and if He indeed never existed, no argument changes that. At the risk of repeating myself, you analyze the data and form a theory, one way or the other, that cannot be proven in a laboratory, and your theory is therefore Faith. Hitchens has Faith in “non-Faith,” simply put. It may be useful to discuss his analysis of the data, but Christian faith will ultimately come down to what Peter Marshall called “the Tap on the Shoulder.” When the Living God makes contact, how will you respond?
    “Great claims require great evidence.” In Mark 3, a man with a withered hand has it restored to to complete health while an entire synagogue looked on. What was the reported response of some of those who watched this miracle? “The Pharisees immediately took counsel with the Herodians as to how to kill Jesus.” A stone cold miracle happens, and they want to kill the one performing the miracle! Indeed, I am reminded of Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16. The rich man asks Abraham if Lazarus might be sent back to warn his brothers not to do what he did and land in torment in Hades. Abraham responds, “They have Moses and the Prophets (the Scriptures), let your brothers listen to them.” The rich man protested that they would surely listen to someone who rose from the dead! Abraham responds, “If they will not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.” Indeed.
    How much greater evidence can there be than rising from the dead? If Hitchens wants to refuse to believe any evidence presented, that is all well and good, but let’s not have this patronizing business that “Great claims require great evidence.” If Jesus did not provide enough evidence, the game is rigged. Reject the evidence if you want, but let’s not say it was not offered.

  • Chris

    Evan,
    The problem with the evidence is that you’re working from a drafty 2,000 year old book to claim God. Hitch’s point that great claims need great evidence. I’d make this comparison: take the moden day great evidence and witnesses that there were WMDs in Iraq. Greater quality and amount of evidence, far lesser claim than your God claim. Oopsy, they were wrong, and Colin Powell if you haven’t seen him lately on TV is really peeved he was fooled. So to deny Hitch and to follow Roberts leading from far, far weaker evidence to THE Greatest Conclusion In The Universe seems absolutely silly to me as an agnostic.
    So I agree with you. We’re back to “the tap on the shoulder” as the proof. But look at it my way— if you and Pastor Roberts are willing to stretch your belief system out of shape to take a 2000 year old iffy-at-best book as hard evidence to prove you have the Guy who designed the antennae on a brine shrimp, the atomic structure of uranium, and the speed of Pluto’s orbit around the sun, well—does it seem strange I can’t trust your judgement when you claim you know Who is tapping you on the shoulder?
    You might think it’s my Eternal loss. I think it’s my Lifelong and wonderful gain since I’m closer to the truth than you are.

  • Evan

    4. Chris, you can certainly say you refuse to accept a “drafty 2,000 year old book.” Where I take issue with Hitchens is that he is
    perfectly fine with accepting very sketchy attribution to Shakespeare. (As far as the WMD business, if your point is there was
    better evidence for WMDs than for Jesus and it was “wrong,” ergo the Jesus evidence, being lesser is therefore also “wrong,” does
    that not throw out virtually all ancient history? What we “know” about Alexander the Great begins with biographies that came 300
    years after the fact, and he claimed to have conquered most of the known world. The list of such historic figures for whom we have
    a paucity of documentation is pretty large.) If Hitchens’ starting point were that he feels Jesus’ sayings have been misreported, misapplied, etc., we at least have a starting point to apply scholastic discussion. But it is not. Hitchens feels that there is no credible evidence whatsoever that Jesus even existed, and evidence that works fine with any other historic figure gets tossed out when it comes to Jesus, because the standard has been raised. It is very disingenuous.
    One could come back and say that Hitchens’ claim that there is no God is such a great claim that HE has to come up with extra superlative evidence to “prove” such a claim, but that is the same error in the opposite direction. There is no discussion possible because the standard of proof can be made impossible to achieve.
    I would also offer, as gently and kindly as I can do so in prose, that the “Tap on the Shoulder” is “a” proof, not “the” proof. C. S.
    Lewis, for example, concluded that his atheism could not be logically supported long before he ever had any fellowship with God. I am not relying on the Tap as my only evidence for concluding there is a God. My point was that there is no utterly dispositive, “game-set-match” evidence either way. It comes down to “faith.” Hitchens has no such dispositive evidence; he is looking at the data and formulating a theory. Is the Tap God or mere wishful thinking? Everyone has to decide when it happens. But as in the examples that I cited, if the resurrected Jesus appeared to Hitchens on a given day, would Hitchens end up rationalizing it away? It is possible to have a vision that is an illusion, after all, and not really God in the flesh. How do you fit the data into your worldview? I simply wonder if Hitchens has raised the standard so high that even a personal appearance by Jesus Himself would not be dispositive. It all comes down to faith, one way or the other. It cannot be proven or disproven. View the data and make your theory.
    If we have a common understanding of what constitutes data, we can discuss how useful a given theory to interpret it is. The point in all of this is that Hitchens’ analysis does not seem to be consistent, and his logical processes seem to hop a few curbs, rendering any discussion impossible. Neither side has a dispositive “clincher,” though Hitchens seems to feel he has several, and it is not possible to discuss them because he changes the standards of proof he will accept. It is all quite sad, actually.

  • David Walser

    With regard to Hitchen’s misunderstanding of the Master’s instruction to “take no thought for the morrow”, isn’t it possible that this instruction was not general but was directed to a select few? If His instruction was meant only for those who He would send out into the world to preach the gospel, it doesn’t matter whether the meaning is “don’t worry” or “don’t take thought”.

  • David Walser

    Edit: “…isn’t it possible that this instruction was not INTENDED FOR THE general POPULATION but was directed to a select few?…”

  • http://thebronxblogger.blogspot.com Matthew Goggins

    Mark, you seem to have a bee in you bonnet over the idea that Chris Hitchens “misspeaks” and makes “mistakes” and seems to you to be a particularly sloppy thinker.
    Mr. Hitchens’ sins, in your view, cast doubt on his main points: Christianity is false; and religion, by its very nature, is always a pernicious influence on people.
    I myself agree with Mr. Hitchens that Christianity is false, and I agree with you that religion is not always a pernicious influence on people. However, I want to comment further because I believe that your attacks on Mr. Hitchens are not serving your case very well.
    For example, when Mr. Hitchens states, in his heavy-handed way, that
    But many [of the teachings of Jesus] are unintelligible and show a belief in magic, several are absurd and show a primitive attitude to agriculture (this extends to all mentions of plowing and sowing, and all allusions to mustard or fig trees), and many are on the face it flat-out immoral.
    he is not attempting to be a biblical scholar writing an analysis for a peer-reviewed journal, or a scientist carefully reporting the results of a carefully executed experiment.
    He is being a preacher, using rhetorical devices and gimmicks to grab the reader’s attention and to provoke an emotional response (which would hopefully be followed by reflection and introspection on the part of the reader).
    Now is the above quote by Mr. Hitchens about Jesus’ teachings true?
    Well, he believes it, and you do not.
    I would say that he gets the more factual bits correct: Jesus’ teachings do show a belief in magic, and do demonstrate a “primitive attitude to agriculture”.
    I would also say that the remaining bits (“unintelligible”, “absurd”, and “on the face it flat-out immoral”) are arguably true or arguably false, depending on what one precisely means by the terms that Mr. Hitchens uses. And I would also say that Mr. Hitchens is using these terms to express his deeply-held opinions on the matter, and that he expects intelligent readers like yourself to react strongly and negatively to his language — he is goading you.
    Why is he goading you, and others like yourself?
    Because he honestly believes (he would say he that he knows) that religion is pernicious, and that the only way to reach people who are religious is to grab them rhetorically by the shoulders and try to shake some sense into them.
    So when you latch onto Mr. Hitchens’ inflammatory language and say, “Aha, he cannot prove this — he is an ignorant rascal!”, I believe you are missing the point. He understands that he is subtly, or not so subtly, mixing his opinions in with his facts and his factoids. He is doing so quite deliberately, and with a very calculated effect in mind.
    And when you miss the point of what Mr. Hitchens is trying to accomplish, it is like you are trying to storm the walls of a sturdy castle when someone inside has forgotten to raise the drawbridge. You should be walking straight into the keep of Hitchens’ fortress and attacking him there, instead of getting distracted by his high-octane theatrics.
    If you were to attack his main points (as you did in your radio debate with him on Hugh Hewitt’s show), I think you would enjoy much greater success.
    For example, you were able to meet Mr. Hitchen’s challenge when he asked you to furnish a moral belief or act that an atheist cannot do in good faith. You responded that an atheist cannot kneel by his child’s bedside and pray for him or her.
    You also made an excellent point when you told Mr. Hitchens that you believed there was much more to love than what science could tell us. He never responded to that point during the rest of the debate.
    Good luck to you, Mark, and thanks for the interesting debate so far. Both you and Chris Hitchens are very smart, very good people, and I am glad that you have engaged each other.

  • Andy

    I will look at another of Mr. Hitchens’ errors of fact, or at least a misrepresentation of fact. Mr. Hitchens made comments on the Scripture that alluded to God saying that He will visit the sins of the fathers on the children to the next generation. To paraphrase Jesus, since he did not take the time to learn the Scripture or to learn about God, he has erred. Here is the complete idea that the Scripture was dealing with :
    For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, (6) but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments. Exodus 20:5&6 NKJV
    You will note that the afflicted generations are those that hate God. The ones that love God are shown mercy. Once again we can affirm that the god of Christopher Hitchens does indeed not exist.
    I was a bit surprised that Dr. Roberts did not make this point, but then he is more focused on the New Testament. I ain’t a skolor, and I was able to pick out this error pretty easily, having read the material in question. To me this just lends more weight to the question of Mr. Hitchens’ research in this book. It seems he is just repeating stories he has read on the restroom walls.

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