End Notes: The ‘Immorality’ of Vicarious Redemption

It is odd in war-time to have vicarious suffering regarded as the single biggest obstacle to accepting Christianity. Christopher Hitchens made this claim in last issue’s “Christianity From the Outside”: “The largest problem [with Christianity] is a simple one. The doctrine of vicarious redemption—of the casting of our sins upon a scape-goat—is positively immoral and an evasion of personal responsibility.’

He holds that it is immoral to be redeemed by someone else: But is it immoral to have one’s safety assured by someone else? Is it immoral for most of us in a society to have our peace and tranquility assured by the sacrifice and even death of others? Is it immoral to have one’s debts paid by someone else? Hitchens seems to have a moral intuition I have been denied, since these analogous cases don’t set off any sirens in my conscience. I wonder if they do in his. Granted, we aren’t used to thinking of members of the military and of the police and fire departments as scapegoats, but their sacrifices are often the price of our safety.

Someone as bright as Hitchens could have something deeper in mind. Perhaps he regards God as a ferocious deity who out of some sort of blood lust demands that His Son suffer and die a brutal death to make up for our sins. If Hitchens meant this, then the immorality charge would shift from us who benefit by this redemption to God who asked it of His Son.

But Hitchens can’t mean this because it does not sit well with the second charge he brings—namely, that to be redeemed by another is an evasion of personal responsibility. Surely he doesn’t mean that if God the Father had suffered for us, his difficulties with Christianity would be removed. God the Father isn’t in need of any redemption, so He doesn’t benefit vicariously from the sufferings of Christ.

So Hitchens must mean that there is something abhorrent and immoral in our benefiting from the suffering of others. Perhaps he knows the line from Francis Thompson’s poem “Daisy”: “For we are born in others’ pain, / And perish in our own.” Being human would seem to entail benefiting from what others do all the time, from first to last, and often what they do involves self-sacrifice and pain.

Hitchens will doubtless question these analogies. Soldiers and the police are not atoning for my sins and faults, after all, so the benefit is different from Christ dying for my sins. It is, but it is not so toto coelo different that Hitchens hasn’t a lot of explaining to do before he even arrives at difficulties with Christianity.

I am no theologian, nor is this idle boasting, but even I know that Hitchens’s second point exhibits a radical misunderstanding of the human situation. He seems to be suggesting that the moral thing for me to do would be to save myself. I am the one who sinned so I should redeem myself. Well, Pelagius was a Briton, so I suppose Hitchens comes by this mistake honestly. There is a lot more involved here than an apparent shifting of the burden onto someone else that I could have carried myself.

Sin is what we are being redeemed from. Sin is an offense against God. A creature, who without God’s continuing causality would be nothing at all, defies his Creator. How can he return to the status quo ante? The incommensurability between creature and Creator makes it impossible for the damage to be repaired by the creature. That is the Christian belief. Hitchens may accept or reject it, but he really shouldn’t speak as if it isn’t so.

He is, of course, right to emphasize moral responsibility. Just as my sins are my responsibility, so is my salvation. I cannot bring it about without the salvific sacrifice of Jesus, but redemption is not something that just happens to me. I must freely accept the grace Christ offers. Redemption is not the evasion of personal moral responsibility; it simply underscores what the conditions are for my free act to be meritorious.

So of Hitchens’s two objections, the first involves a rejection of an ineradicable feature of human existence, and the second is a Pelagian misunderstanding of how redemption can come about. Even so, I award him a Christopher medal and hope he will earn the etymology of his name.


Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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