What kind of God asks you to kill your son?
Christopher Hitchens, one of the “New Athiests”, posed this question in a lecture I heard recently. With great eloquence, Hitchens put God under the microscope and found Him wanting. How could God have asked Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac on Mount Moriah? What would we think of any human leader who asked us to kill our children to prove our loyalty and obedience? Surely, we would call such a leader a megalomaniacal despot, an egotistical maniac? That was the gist of his argument against God. It is Hitchens, after all, who wrote a booked entitled: “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything”.
A sincere Christian cannot leave such a challenge unanswered…
The Unique Nature of God
If a human being were to demand this act of another human being, one would certainly have to question his motives and his character. No human has the right to take the life of another. We are all on the same level, so none of us has the right to practice the power of life and death over another, or even over himself. That is why the consistent Christian is opposed to both abortion and euthanasia.
And yet, we do not mind killing lesser creatures for good reasons. I have no doubt that even Hitchens occasionally sits down to enjoy a nice meal of roast lamb chops. I wonder, this make him a megalomaniacal despot and an egotistical maniac? How dare he participate in the brutal slaughter of a poor and innocent fluffy little lamb, merely to satisfy his selfish desire for protein?!
Now it is true that there are vegetarians in this world who for conscience’ sake refuse to eat the meat of living creatures. But they still eat vegetables and fruits and nuts, which once were also alive in their own way. They too grew and flourished, only to be cut down ruthlessly in their prime merely to please the palate of the human eater. It may seem a silly comparison, but if God is who we think He is, then the difference between a celery and a human is nothing compared to the difference between a human and God. If the human is justified in eating a celery because it is so far inferior to him as to be considered expendable, then God must certainly be justified in sacrificing a human, because a human is far, far more inferior when compared to God. What is more, humans eat fruits they have not created. They merely plant and water them, but no human makes a plant grow out of his own power. Yet God is the One who made each of us out of nothing. Without Him we would not exist. Does not the Giver of life have the right to take it away if He so chooses?
The Sublimity of Surrender
The above looks at the matter from the perspective of God, but looked at from the perspective of Abraham or even of Isaac, Hitchens’ argument is equally unacceptable. Hitchens is guilty of a mistake that is common in modern Western society: the destruction of the good name of Submission.
For the modern thinker, surrender is the ultimate evil. If we look at relationships as a power struggle, then indeed to submit to another is a defeat. In many areas in this world, the strong defeats the weak and forces him to submit. Moreover, this submission is often designed in such a way as to humiliate the loser, to cruelly rub their face in the dirt.
But for a God of Love, submission is not a power struggle, but an indication of strength: the invincible strength, in fact, of true, divine, aghape love. Think of a father carrying his small daughter, perhaps two years old. This father allows his child to play with his nose, to grab it and pull it painfully, and then laugh at her achievement. He is submitting to his daughter. She is the victor, he the vanquished. But this is not a power struggle. This is a relationship of love, and the father’s willing submission is an expression of that love. He would in fact give anything for his daughter, perhaps, his own life in order to save hers. That is his free choice, a choice he makes because it is the nature of love to give without expecting anything in return. This is the beauty and the nobility of love.
This is the love shown by Abraham. God never forced Abraham to sacrifice his son. He did not threaten him with punishments if he refused. He merely asked him to do it, and the choice was completely up to Abraham whether to obey or not. In the same way, young Isaac must have willingly submitted to his father’s wishes. There is no sense of a struggle in the story. It is true that the Bible tells us that Abraham bound Isaac with thongs upon the altar, but there is no mention of resistance from Isaac. Very likely, he trusted his father as implicitly as his father trusted in God.
Abraham was willing to give back to God the most precious thing he had in his life: his one and only son. After a lifetime of Abraham and Sarah longing for a son in vain, after finally receiving the son of their prayers in old age, what an incredible sacrifice it must have been for Abraham to give that son back to God, and to do so with his own hands. It is an action that bespeaks tremendous faith and trust in God, and submission; freely chosen submission that came from love, not from weakness. He could easily have said ‘no’.
Thus does the human father test his daughter by asking if she would give up her favourite toy for him to play with. He does not need the toy and it is not the toy he is interested in. He is interested in his daughter’s reaction, whether she will love and trust him enough to give up her toy to him, whether her heart is selfish or generous. With such gentle tests, the father teaches his daughter what it means to love and to give. And when she gives him her toy, he immediately gives it back to her, together with so many hugs and kisses of genuine affection for his gracious little dear. This is what the incident of Moriah is all about.
The Historical Context
In this test of faith and love, God also gave Abraham an important message. Many tribes of Abraham’s time, with whom Abraham would no doubt have come into contact, practiced the cruel sacrifice of their children to their gods. These tribes actually did kill their own children in a bloody frenzy of madness and misguided devotion to false gods. We cannot even begin to imagine the horrors that must have played out in these people’s minds over the years.
Abraham was susceptible to following the example of these tribes. But on Moriah, God showed him that such a thing was unnecessary. It was as if He was saying to Abraham: “I know that you are willing to go even as far as killing your son for Me. Your devotion is at least as fervent as that of the pagans. But it is more than theirs, just as I am more a true God than their gods. Do not follow in their footsteps and do not imitate them, for you see, I have no need of their kind of sacrifice. I will bless you for what is in your heart, and not for your external actions only.”
So much of the pagan religions of ancient times seems to have been external. Yet here was God pointing out to Abraham that it is his willingness to obey and to submit that really matters, not the killing of his son. God is not interested in having children sacrificed to Him. He is interested in kind of heart His children have. This approach to worship must have been absolutely revolutionary for Abraham’s time and environment. It is easy to see how it fits in with the teaching of Jesus and prepares us for it.
A Base and Narrow Mind
Finally, I cannot help wondering at the kind of mind that can only see such horror in something so beautiful. If anything, I think Hitchens’ comments reveal far more about Hitchens that they do about God. He and his fellow critics of religion look upon the astounding sacrifice of love of the Cross of Christ and see only vileness. Richard Dawkins describes the Cross as “sado-masochistic” in The God Delusion. Somehow, he manages to keep himself completely blind to the love that the Cross represents, the supreme act of humility, of noble giving of oneself, of total and utter devotion to the beloved. Instead, he can only view the Cross from the point of view of selfishness. Upon the Cross, if Dawkins is to be believed, we see only God satisfying a base aberration of the human mind: the Father being sadistic to the Son; the Son enjoying the suffering in a fit of twisted masochism. “Religion poisons everything” says Hitchens. Who is doing the poisoning now?
What kind of mind can reduce noble love to animal violence? What’s next, I wonder? Nursing mothers only care for their child because they have a perverted desire to fatten them up and eat them? This is perhaps one of the most repugnant aspects of the New Atheists. They really seem not have thought things through to their logical conclusion. They seem unaware that their philosophy leads eventually to everything we hold dear in life losing its value, and in the end, to a sort of nihilistic fatalism where nothing matters anymore.
But that’s a topic for another day.