Recently the so-called Four Horsemen of the New Atheism lost one of their members, as Christopher Hitchens succumbed to esophageal cancer in December of 2011. Although the remaining horsemen—Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris—often irritate more than intrigue, with their crass materialism and strident rejection of all things religious, I always found Hitchens too fascinating to ignore. His spirited challenges to Christian theism, both in his book god is Not Great1 and in his numerous public lectures and debates, continue to shape my theological reflections. While perhaps no less a materialist and certainly no less a critic of religion than the other popular New Atheists, Hitchens was clearly a man of letters, a most gifted writer, a formidable debater, and a public intellectual with an impressively quick wit. What I admired most about Hitchens was his consuming sense of justice and his sense of moral outrage. As a polemicist and controversialist par excellence, Hitchens tirelessly sought to demand justice whenever and wherever he found it wanting.
Some theists, especially those of a more academic stripe, scoff at the fad of New Atheism. They speak of its intellectual inferiority and draw unflattering comparisons between today’s atheist celebrities and past philosophical giants of atheism, such as Arthur Schopenhauer, Ludwig Feuerbach, Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud. Nonetheless, I suspect that what many theists, including many Christians, find troubling about the New Atheism are not the questions that can too easily be answered but those questions that, if we are honest, we struggle to answer or simply cannot answer. In this regard, I find several of Hitchens’s favorite attacks on Christian theism to be noteworthy and, as I will highlight, many of his best polemics against religion return in various ways to one core issue: the problem of evil.
During a debate held at the March 2009 Christian Book Expo in Dallas, Texas, Hitchens sat on a panel with four different Christian apologists: William Lane Craig, Douglas Wilson, Lee Strobel, and Jim Denison. The moderator of the debate, himself also a Christian, spoke of his struggles with cerebral palsy and suggested that Christianity offers great consolation to those who suffer. He then wondered what the highbrow, intellectual atheism of Hitchens could offer to the suffering. Hitchens responded by telling the story of an Austrian woman who was abused by her father over the course of twenty-four years and posed a series of questions to his Christian interlocutors. How can the Christian justify such terror as part of God’s plan? How can the Christian justify heaven’s indifference to such suffering? Is the Christian answer merely a glib supposition that this woman will have, in Hitchens’s words, “a better time next time,” as heaven somehow makes good all the horrors that happen here below such that the divine permission thereof is morally sound after all?
Of Hitchens’s Christian interlocutors, I found Douglas Wilson’s response most valuable. Wilson spoke of hope in the face of evil and of the ultimate victory of justice. Far from justifying the violence performed against the woman in question, he explained, the Christian regards such abuse as deeply evil and sinful (categories that may or may not be equally available to the atheist). Further, and more importantly, the Christian does not seek to justify the evil under discussion but rather trusts in God’s power to overcome and annihilate it. The Christian response to the problem of evil, which is often called a “defense” or a “theodicy” depending upon its logical framework and structure, should never be a matter of defending evil. The Christian response to evil must instead entail a theology and praxis of hope in which all evil is condemned as such and the divine promise to abolish evil and establish justice is proclaimed.
But what is the properly theological foundation for such a response, a response that seeks not to justify evil in light of a divine plan but seeks to resist and overcome evil in light of divine justice? My contention is that the doctrine of the Trinity provides the most fruitful foundation from which to defend the justice of God in the face of evil and to announce hope to suffering humanity. In developing this argument I will draw deeply on the insights of the great twentieth-century Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, particularly from those texts in which the connections between Trinity and theodicy are most explicitly considered, Mysterium Paschale and the final two volumes of his masterful Theo-Drama series.2
Von Balthasar’s theology of the Trinity relies heavily on the concept of kenotic or self-giving love. The Greek word kenosis indicates an “emptying” or “pouring out.” The most significant single biblical referent for the Christian concept of kenosis is Philippians 2:5–7, which uses the verb form of the term: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (NRSV; emphasis added). Balthasar speaks of Christ’s kenosis as the Eternal Son’s emptying of himself to become incarnate or human, even to the limit of accepting death on the cross and descending into hell. What is striking about the theology of von Balthasar is that he uses this idea of kenosis as the hermeneutical or interpretive key for understanding not only Christ, the Incarnate Son, but the very inner nature or life of God.
In von Balthasar’s theology, the doctrine of the Trinity most fundamentally means that God’s essence is an eternal interplay of kenotic love. The dynamic love at the heart of God is the sort of love by which lovers give themselves away for the sake of the beloved. This central idea of self-donation is more than an abstract concept; it is a term brimming with existential content. The experience of authentic love, the feeling of pouring oneself out for the sake of another, cuts to the heart of human existence. This lived experience of self-sacrificial love can provide a means for our deeper understanding of the Trinity. In the context of classical theism, the guiding analogy for approaching the Trinity may have been the threefold nature of the soul, that is, the soul itself, the soul’s self-knowledge, and the soul’s self-love. This rather closed-in intrapersonal model is perhaps best replaced by a more interpersonal approach, in which we conceive of the triune life of God less in terms of the essential operations within an individual soul and more in terms of reciprocal loving relations and communion among distinct persons. Our guiding analogies for understanding the God of the Trinity can become the human family or community—human relations of love and reciprocity—not merely the interior life of the soul, which is often conceived along Platonic or Neoplatonic lines.
For von Balthasar, the content of the doctrine of the Trinity is essentially nothing other than “God is love” (see 1 John 4:8 and 4:16). At its root, the doctrine of the Trinity means that interpersonal love—love selflessly shared among distinct persons—is the very nature of God. In von Balthasar’s theology of the Trinity, the Father begets or generates the Son in an act of self-emptying love. This outpouring of love is so primordial and constitutive both of God’s essence and of God’s relation to the world that von Balthasar speaks of the Father’s begetting of the Son as the act of supra-kenosis or Ur-kenosis which undergirds all other acts of love, both divine and human: the Father utterly pours himself out, entrusting his very being and divine essence to the Son, letting go not only of all that he has but also of all that he is in his generation of the Son. The Son, in an act of total, reciprocal self-giving love, returns himself fully to the Father. The Father’s perfect gift of love and total gift of himself to the Son elicits or engenders the fully matching or mirroring kenotic love of the Son. All that the Son has and is he receives only from the Father, and the Son returns himself without remainder to the Father in a perpetual act of filial love and trust. The Holy Spirit is the personal expression, the We, of this personal, primordial exchange of pure love, such that the Father and Son stand in an I-Thou relation to one another, while the Holy Spirit is the We, or the Spirit of communal love shared between the I-Thou of Father-Son.
In a world of individualism, the doctrine of the Trinity confronts us with a God whose nature is social and communal. In a world of consumerism, consumption, and the grasping of the ego, the properly Christian view of God as triune envisions the divine essence as a life of love in service only of the Other, a life in which every I prefers the welfare of the Thou over and above all self-interest. The consuming individual ego, so much taken for granted in the modern West, is the very opposite of God’s nature as revealed to us by the doctrine of the Trinity. While sinful humankind seeks modes of domination, the assertion of one’s will-to-power over against any competing factors, the truth of the Trinity shows us another way. In the life of God, the life of the Trinity, into which we are all called as our final destiny and beatitude, we discover love that lets go, forgoes power, and puts oneself at the disposal of the Other.
The immanent Trinity, God’s own eternal inner nature considered in and of itself, is expressed historically in the economic Trinity, which is the self-revelation of God as manifest in salvation history. I have primarily discussed the inner life of God, but Christians believe that God’s nature is expressed or revealed historically, through salvation history, through what is often called the economy of salvation. Indeed, the entire life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Son, reveals the inner nature of the Triune God.
At the base of the Mount of Olives at a place called Gethsemane, Christ throws himself on the ground and prays, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want” (Matt. 26:39) and shortly after, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done” (Matt. 26:42). These prayers from Son to Father reveal not merely the man Jesus beseeching God but rather the Incarnate Son in relation to his Father. The deepest context of the prayers of Christ at Gethsemane is the Trinity. The Incarnate Son, in the face of great suffering, indeed in the face of accepting all evil onto or into himself, prostrates himself before his Father and prays “your will be done.” Christ entrusts or gives himself to the will of God the Father, both within salvation history and eternally in the life or dynamism of the immanent Trinity.
In the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, Jesus’s sole words from the cross are “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46; cf. Mark 15:34). This cry of abandonment comes from the opening line of Psalm 22, and thus Jesus’s prayer must be interpreted in the tradition of the faith of Israel. Once more, we do not merely behold the man Jesus crying out in anguish to God. Instead, in the context of the Trinity, what we discover is no less than the paradox of God Incarnate confessing his Godforsakenness. If Christ is not merely human but also divine, how then can God experience abandonment by God? The answer lies only in the mystery of the Trinity. God the Son through his full solidarity with sinful humanity has entered into the deepest reality of sin, alienation from God, such that the Son experiences separation from the Father. For von Balthasar, such economic separation, that is, separation of Father and Son within salvation history in the event of the cross, is possible only as grounded in the immanent Trinity, that is, in the infinite distance among the divine persons eternally present within God’s inner nature.
The grounding of Gethsemane and the cross in the Trinity, and the implications of these events for our salvation, are made more clear through the sacraments of the church and in the Eucharist above all others. Christ gives himself completely to us, humbles himself so as to be present under the forms of bread and wine, and entrusts himself fully in his body, blood, soul, and divinity to humanity for the sake of our salvation. Christ’s gift of self upon the cross, the sacrifice of his body, and the shedding of his blood make possible the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup, which become sacramentally nothing less than the gift of the body and blood of Christ. This sacrament of Holy Communion draws us through the self-sacrifice of Christ into the communio of the inner life of God, the communio of the Holy Trinity. The sacramental reality of the church as a whole, the mystical body of Christ, subsists within the triune nature of God. The many members of the church can dwell together as one body only within the context of participation in God’s trinitarian being, in which the three divine persons dwell together in the one divine essence. The communal reality of God’s own nature is the foundation for the life of the church.
At this point, we can begin to perceive the contours of the Christian and trinitarian answer to the problem of evil that I would like to propose. Rather than relying on the largely pat answers of the free-will defense (the argument that God must permit evil so as to leave intact human moral freedom), the notion of some necessary balance between good and evil, or the claim that all suffering is a test didactically provided by God, the theodicy of the Trinity reveals that human suffering, united to the cross and to the descent of Christ into hell, becomes a gateway into the life of the Triune God and a gateway through which evil is annihilated and suffering and death are transformed. The broken relationship between humanity and God (due to sin) is undone in the spiritual space of the perfect relationship of love between Father and Son; it is undone by the power of the Holy Spirit. Human suffering and death, when united by divine grace to the suffering and death of Jesus Christ, become not only conformed to Christ but also thereby brought up into the transforming life of the Trinity. Sin-conditioned suffering and death become converted—through the incarnation and the paschal mystery—into the kenotic love and life of self-abandonment that is the Trinity.
I must clarify what I am proposing by delineating what I am not proposing. I am not justifying the maltreatment of human persons as a strange way of rendering said persons closer to God. I am not giving any spiritual or religious excuse for cruelty toward human persons, or toward any sentient life for that matter. Nor am I providing theological warrant for neglect or indifference toward those who are undergoing great anguish. I am not suggesting that a person caught in a situation of abuse ought to accept his or her abuse as the will of God and thus a situation not to be fought or escaped. I do not assume that a victim of horrendous evil, one who has been broken down or disintegrated physically or psychologically, will be able to or called upon by God to make an active or self-conscious use of his or her suffering for spiritual advancement. Rather, my point, which includes an eschatological dimension, is that God himself redeems, in Christ by the cross and within the life of the Trinity, all forms of human suffering. It must be said, especially today when the entire enterprise of theodicy often comes under great suspicion—and not without reason—that the goal of a properly Christian theodicy is to proclaim hope to all who are suffering and to proclaim a hope that is clearly grounded in the mystery of the God of Jesus Christ. Far from endorsing abuse or neglect, the theodicy suggested by the theology of the Trinity of von Balthasar ought to inspire us to bring God’s transforming grace into every evil so that the world may be restored through Christ in the embrace of the Triune God.
But let us return to Christopher Hitchens. Have I really answered his challenge? Hitchens, of course, was aware that the traditional Christian answer to the problem of evil points toward the figure of Jesus Christ on the cross; however, he regarded the very notion of vicarious atonement as itself immoral. Hitchens liked to say that one person can pay another’s debt or serve another’s jail term but for one person to take away the personal moral responsibility of another is an impossibility or, in any case, an immoral proposition.
That the one who offers to remove sin and guilt from our lives is not merely human but God Incarnate must be part of the Christian’s reply to this objection, but perhaps an even better reply would be to note the profoundly participatory character of Christian redemption in the paschal event. The cross does not simply remove evil from the world in any superficial or unilateral sense. Indeed, human beings sin no less today than they did prior to the time of Christ. Suffering is just as omnipresent, death just as inevitable, and the all-too-human problems of guilt and anxiety remain with us as much now as ever. What then has the cross accomplished? As a past event, whereby salvation is merely accomplished on our behalf by someone else, perhaps the cross accomplished nothing—not to overstate the point. The true meaning of the cross draws us into the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ. It is not that we do not suffer; it is that we suffer with Christ or in Christ. Death still stands as (seemingly) the ultimate terror, but those who die in Christ also rise in Christ. In short, the nature of Christian salvation is as participatory as it is vicarious. Sin is abolished by the cross, and sin-conditioned suffering and death are transformed, but only by our active and participatory inclusion into the body of Christ and through Christ into the life of the Trinity.
Finally I want to highlight perhaps the best of all of Hitchens’s attacks upon the credibility of Christianity. Hitchens employed this argument more in his frequent live debates with Christian apologists than in the text of his god is Not Great; thus, in the summary just below, I paraphrase his case as best I can. Hitchens would set up this argument by first noting that human beings have apparently existed for roughly one hundred thousand years, though estimates of the exact time span vary. Given this vast time frame of human existence, to be a Christian means having to believe a most incredible story, namely that God simply watched humanity living in great misery—constantly at war, enduring a pitifully low average life expectancy, subject to famine and plague, ignorant of the workings of the world around them, forced to live in constant fear—for some ninety-eight thousand years. Then, after watching “with folded arms” for all that time, God finally decides, a mere two thousand years ago, that enough is enough after all. It is at last time to intervene. But how? By staging a “gruesome human sacrifice” in the “unlettered desert” of the Middle East. An innocent man is to be tortured to death, and that shall be the long overdue salvation of miserable humankind.
Even more than the notion of God watching indifferently or sadistically the travail of the world below, Hitchens often criticized the concept of God as “celestial dictator.” God appears as the eternal supervising authority, the ultimate totalitarian ruler, always standing ready to convict us even of thought crimes. To paraphrase Hitchens’s quip, God is a sort of heavenly and eternal Kim Jong Il. Further, God cruelly creates humans as innately sick but then orders us under the pain of ultimate judgment and condemnation to be well.
Despite the frequency with which Hitchens seemed to repeat this polemic against God as dictator, I always found this particular aspect of his argument against Christian theism markedly weak. It is almost as if the Christian doctrine of God were formulated for the precise purpose of refuting this false concept of God, in relation to which we all ought to be atheists. The God of the Trinity, the God of interpersonal love, the God whose very essence is love selflessly shared among distinct persons, is the utter opposite of the image of God attacked by Hitchens, just as the God of the cross is the exact inverse of Hitchens’s God who stands by with folded arms as we suffer. The Triune God does not create us as sick with the disease of sin; sin is instead the freely chosen condition into which we fall by pride, as famously dramatized in Genesis 3. Nor does God simply order us to make ourselves well, but in an act of ultimate solidarity—a key concept for Hitchens himself—the God of the Trinity enacts our redemption in the theo-drama of the cross.
Nonetheless, Hitchens’s delightfully barbed parody or satire of the Christian story, I believe, constitutes a serious challenge to Christian faith in the face of evil. I maintain that the ninety-eight-thousand-years challenge can only be partially answered in terms of Christian theological reflection as it has been developed thus far. Thus, I want to conclude this short article with an open challenge. How do we account not only for the tens of thousands of years of human history prior to Christ, and indeed prior to Abraham, but also for the millions of years of sentient life on this planet, life that has seemingly from the start been subject to pain, suffering, death, decay, predation, and parasitism? I am here invoking both the prehistory of humanity and the crucial question of natural evil. Christian theology, undertaken at the foot of the cross and within the framework of the Trinity, must address this daunting problem and must do so in terms that are coherent and cogent for theology in a post-Darwinian context.
1. Hitchens, god is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York, NY: Twelve, 2009 ).
2. Von Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale: The Mystery of Easter, trans. Aidan Nichols (Edinburgh, UK: Clark, 1990); The Action, Theo-Drama 4, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius, 1994); and The Last Act, Theo-Drama 5, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius, 1998).