The Atheist Jesus

Things are not always as they seem. When the late Christopher Hitchens published his 2008 book ‘God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything’, I was deeply drawn to the title. I was supposed, I think — as a person of faith — to be annoyed, perhaps even shocked. Truth be told, there was much in the book that did annoy me. I remain unconvinced by many of Hitchen’s arguments, even if he was always an intriguing and enlightening arguer. On his quest, though, I am 100% sold. To the extent that his book set out to divest God of his greatness, and to prove that the human instinct for religion has done more harm than good in our world, I stand with him, and I do so as a follower of Jesus. Why? Because these are precisely the two goals Jesus came into our world to pursue.

If the Christian narrative, and especially its cross, say nothing else to us, they say that our creator no longer wishes to be ‘great’. The deity formerly known as great has chosen, in Christ, henceforth to be known as love. Greatness — power, strength, victory, omnipotence, dominance — are attributes of a God perceived by the people of Israel through the haze of their own limited experience and education. All gods, surely, carry greatness as their calling card? The bigger the god — and the stature of a god was often tied, like an index-linked pension, to the geographic spread of the territory he ruled over — the greater we can assume him to be. I say ‘he’ inclusively, though in reality most of them were. The newly-freed Hebrew slaves were surrounded by tribes playing a deadly and constant game of ‘my god’s bigger than your god’. Joining in was a no-brainer. No matter how hard Yahweh might try to tell them otherwise, they couldn’t talk about him in any other language.

Until Jesus. For victory, Jesus substitutes defeat. For greatness, love. For dominance, a bruised body incapable of even taking a drink. Jesus didn’t come to win. He came to lose and, by losing, to change the game. I wonder whether a review copy of ‘God is Not Great’ was sent heavenward, and if so was it greeted with a long-held sigh of ‘at last, someone gets it’?

And religion? Religion is the very structure a crucified Christ dismantles. Religion is pleasing the gods; making sacrifices; bringing offerings. Religion is behavioural adjustment; sin management; living on the knife edge of our maker’s wrath. In religion the gods reject us until we pay them off. Our performance — of worship, of morality, of alms-giving — is a necessary precursor to their changed mood. In religion if you do nothing you get nothing. In Christ you do nothing and get everything. There’s no irony here: everything about Jesus suggests that he, too, believed that religion poisons everything.

An atheist Jesus? Not if you take the strict definition of atheism as the denial or rejection of the existence of God. But if you recognise a second strand to atheism — it’s desire to end religion, then Jesus stands out as an early champion.

It’s too late to ask Christopher Hitchens, and we can only speculate from his writings on how he might respond, but for others taking a similar stance, the question bears asking. If you discovered a god who chooses not to be great — who rather than waiting for you to divest him of his greatness, throws it to the ground himself — might your deep desire to reject him be mitigated? If you knew that God, like you, can see the harm the human instinct for religion has perpetrated — that he has taken steps to subvert and swallow up this very instinct, might you begin to see him as a co-belligerent in your struggle?

Perhaps the bold determination Hitchens showed to rid the world of this judgmental poison; the wit with which he did it; the razor-sharp conscience; the unshakable courage in the face of a perceived injustice: perhaps all these were the gifts of a gracious creator. Evidence, indeed, that love persists, and has a source.

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