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From Christopher Hitchens’s review of Phillip Pullman’s new revisionist book on Jesus and early Christianity, published last week in the NYT:

Belief in the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth and belief in the virtue of his teachings are not at all the same thing. Writing to John Adams  in 1813, having taken his razor blade to the books of the New Testament and removed all "the artificial vestments in which they have been muffled by priests," Thomas Jefferson said the 46-page residue contained "the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man."

Ernest Renan, in his pathbreaking "Life of Jesus" in 1863, also repudiated the idea that Jesus was the son of God while affirming the beauty of his teachings.

In rather striking contrast, C. S. Lewis maintained in his classic statement "Mere Christianity":

"That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic -- on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg -- or else he would be the Devil of hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God; or else a madman or something worse."

As an admirer of Jefferson and Renan and a strong nonadmirer of Lewis, I am bound to say that Lewis is more honest here.

Absent a direct line to the Almighty and a conviction that the last days are upon us, how is it "moral" to teach people to abandon their families, give up on thrift and husbandry and take to the stony roads?

How is it moral to claim a monopoly on access to heaven, or to threaten waverers with everlasting fire, let alone to condemn fig trees and persuade devils to infest the bodies of pigs?

Such a person if not divine would be a sorcerer and a ­fanatic.

HT: Steve Laube

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8 thoughts on “Hitchens on Pullman, Lewis, and Jesus”

  1. I pray that Jesus saves Hitchens (and Penn for that matter) before he dies. Both Hitchens and Penn seem to “get it” when it comes to Christianity, but they hate it. I’m not sure if that makes them any better than the uneducated Atheist, but it gives me an “Oh you’re so close!” feeling when I read what they write. They are so close and yet infinitely far away.

  2. Paul C says:

    A striking observation and a seeming concession from Hitchens, though he is obviously calling the Lord Jesus an irresponsible lunatic. Though you wonder what, if anything, might be happening below the surface. Not trying to draw a parrallel here by any stretch, but you wonder the impact of Stephen’s preaching and then the laying of his clothes at Saul’s feet. Was there something niggling his conscience that caused such vehemence towards the Lord?

  3. Mark Trover says:

    Commendations to Hitchens, who gets the issue precisely: the deciding and defining issue is “Who is this Jesus?”, not “What did he teach?” The man is insightful, which is admirable in a thinker and a critic. He’s also honest. After questioning the morality of some of Jesus’ hard teachings he doesn’t simply dismiss them because they seem objectionable to his mind. He qualifies his conclusion. Note the three most important words: “Such a person IF NOT DIVINE would be a sorcerer and a fanatic” (my emphasis). He’s just saying, quite rightly, that if Jesus is who he claims to be it changes all of our assessments of his teaching. Suddenly, we couldn’t simply dismiss them–or revise them as Phillip Pullman does–because their divine origin would imply divine authority. And then we who are not divine would simply have to come to terms with what he said, like it or not. Sadly, Hutchins is wrong on the key issue–but at least he knows what that issue is, and how it would change everything.

  4. Joey says:

    Something I almost never say (except when he says things like “today is Thursday” and it is), I am inclined to agree with Hitchens. Also, how appropriate that, of the three people he looks at, the one who actually believed in Jesus is the most honest about Him…

  5. Very interesting quote – one of the things that I’ve found fascinating about Hitchens is that he really does seem to understand the issue, that you can’t take one part of Jesus without the other.

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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