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By Mark D. Roberts | Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Part 1 of series: god is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens: A Response
Permalink for this post / Permalink for this series

A few hours ago I had the opportunity to debate Christopher Hitchens on the subject of his recent bestseller: god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. For three hours (including commercials) Mr. Hitchens and I stood toe-to-toe (electronically speaking) on the Hugh Hewitt Show, a talk-radio program. (Note: if you missed this program live, it will soon be available on the Internet. Check this website. Picture to the right: Christopher Hitchens holding forth.)

The specific topics for the debate were selected by Hugh, who moderated the program. Though he and I are friends, he did not tell me what the topics would be in advance. He and I both knew it was important for us to play fair in this debate (which meant, of course, that I way over-prepared, since I needed to be able to cover every possible topic raised by Hitchens’s book). Some of this over-preparation will now pay off as I begin to blog about god is not Great.

To be honest, I felt pretty nervous before the debate. Though I have some expertise in Christianity, and especially in the field of New Testament, and though I have been a pastor and adjunct seminary professor for many years, I am not one who regularly engages in apologetic defenses of Christian faith. Others are much better than I at such efforts (such as Dr. Craig Hazen and his Biola colleagues, including Greg Koukl and Dr. John Mark Reynolds. Prior to my conversation with Hitchens, I spoke with these three brilliant defenders of Christian faith, and am grateful for their counsel. It’s good to have smart, godly friends!)

My pre-debate nervousness was increased by the fact that Christopher Hitchens is a bright, well-educated, quick-thinking, widely-read, rhetorically-brilliant and dagger-tongued debater. Plus, for the last month he’s been going around the country sparing with religious and academic types about his book. By now his attacks and defenses will have been finely tuned for maximum effectiveness. Plus, there’s the fact that Mr. Hitchens speaks with a British accent, which means he’d sound better than I no matter the content of our presentations.

There is also the issue of the format. Talk radio, in most cases, is not well suited to careful, reasoned, extensive discourse. It’s much better for soundbites, which Hitchens cranks out in droves. But this makes it challenging to engage in logical discourse, especially when the issues are complex. One could easily win the argument, logically, but lose the war in terms of the impact on listeners.

I had hoped that both Christopher Hitchens and I would have done the debate from Hugh’s radio studio. I looked forward to the chance to talk with Mr. Hitchens face-to-face. Human communication is usually better this way, even in a debate format. Unfortunately, however, he preferred to call in his part over the telephone, which is common in the radio business. I can imagine that Christopher Hitchens is, by now, pretty tired of debating us religious folk. I don’t blame him for wanting to phone it in.

How did the debate go? Overall, I think it was fair and reasonably informative. As I think over my responses, I’d love to go back and change a few. By far the hardest thing about debating Christopher Hitchens is his tendency to throw out a lot of critical claims all at once. I found myself needing to choose which to pick up and which to leave on the table. This was frustrating, since I feared that one might assume I agreed with things I just didn’t have time to refute. My blog will give me the chance to be both clearer and more complete.

I mentioned a number of resources in the debate, and will put up links to these in case you want to track them down. Then I’ll say a bit more about the last resource on the list:

Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony

Owen Gingerich, God’s Universe

Francis S. Collins, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief

N.T. Wright, Simply Christian

Elaine Howard Ecklund. “Religion and Spirituality among University Scientists”

Mark D. Roberts, Can We Trust the Gospels?

Bart D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus

I did not bring up the Ehrman book. Hugh did, I believe, because it figures prominently in god is not Great. Though there are many fine insights in Misquoting Jesus, I don’t generally recommend it because it has much that is distorted and unhelpful. In fact, I wrote a substantial critique of this book shortly after it was published.

In our conversation about Ehrman, Hitchens mentioned something he said in his book, that he chose Ehrman “on the basis of ‘evidence against interest’: in other words from someone whose original scholarly and intellectual journey was not at all intended to challenge holy writ” (p. 122). Apparently, Hitchens believed that Ehrman was still some sort of Christian or theist, albeit not of the fundamentalist stripe. Hitchens seemed taken aback when I noted that Ehrman is not a believer, but gave up his faith a long time ago. Hitchens said he would check this out.

In my off-the-cuff comments on Ehrman, I was essentially correct, though I got a couple of details wrong. I think I said that he lost his faith in grad school, and has been an atheist for three decades, and has during that time published literature opposing orthodox Christianity. After the debate I checked my facts, and found that Ehrman considers himself an agnostic, not an atheist. Moreover, given that he finished his PhD in 1985, it would be more accurate to say he’s been a non-theist for over twenty years, not thirty. Nevertheless, the fact that he hasn’t been a Christian for his entire professional and publishing life doesn’t make Ehrman a good example of “evidence against interest.” It’s obvious, especially in Misquoting Jesus, that Ehrman has plenty of interest in debunking Christian belief. He isn’t hiding this fact, even as I don’t hide the fact that I am a Christian and that this influences my thinking and writing.

My source of information about Ehrman’s rejection of Christianity is a little essay he wrote called “An Agnostic Reflects on Christmas.” There he explains how, even though he no longer believes in the message of Christmas, he is still touched by Christmas stories and celebrations, especially Christmas trees. Ironically, Bart Ehrman and I agree profoundly on this last point. I am also a big lover of Christmas trees, as I have made abundantly clear in past blogging. I’m happy to say that Ehrman and I part company on the truth of Christmas, however.

In my next post in this series I’ll begin to examine aspects of Hitchens’s case against God and religion, and why I believe this case is less than convincing.

Topics: Hitchens: god is not Great |

31 Responses to “Introduction”

  1. RJS Says:
    June 6th, 2007 at 7:13 am


    I’ve enjoyed reading your blog for quite awhile now.

    Debates like this are often at best neutral - because neither the opponent nor the audience is interested in reasoned discussion, but in rhetoric and points - “sound bites”. Hitchens, after all, is not a scholar but a polemicist. I am looking forward to your posts engaging his book.

    Ecklund’s study is interesting and meshes fairly well with my experience - although it should be noted that while hostility toward religion in general is minor - hostility toward anything smacking of “evangelical” Christianity is much more prevalent, reflected in the jokes more than anything else.

  2. Ed Says:
    June 6th, 2007 at 8:40 am

    I thought Dr. Roberts did and excellent job debating Hitchens, and yes, Hitchens tends to throw out numerous assertions that require rebuttal or at least relevant distinctions to be made. Were one to attempt to respond adequately to each such assertion the thread of the conversation would be lost.

    Especially egregious I thought was Hitchens repetition of the now tired claim that Pope Pius XII was “pro-Hitler.” John Cornwall, author of Hitler’s Pope, has said that his original thesis was ill advised and that Pius was not in a position to do very much concretely at the time. In Shirer’s Berlin Diary, his entry on the day of Pius’ election notes that the election of Pacelli will please everyone except Hitler. The New York Times during WWII singled out the Pope as a lone voice against Nazism and facism. There are extensively documented accounts of how the Pope saved the lives of Jews in Rome and elsewhere. Golda Meir and Albert Einstein praised Pius XII. Mostly notabely Eugenio Zolli, the chief Rabbi of rome during WWII converted to Catholicism, inspired, in part by the example of Pope Pius XII. (He took “Eugenio” as his baptismal name in honor of Pius whose Christian name was Eugenio Pacelli). It is really absurd that this slander against Pius XII is repeated with such glee by some.

    Anyway, good job Dr. Roberts! I thought it was a fine debate. You especially shined when discussing the historicity and reliability of the Gospels and Hitchens seemed to be at a loss on that point.

  3. Jason Says:
    June 6th, 2007 at 9:01 am

    Dr. Roberts,

    Have you studied the apologetic resources of fellow Harvard alum Richard Pratt, or Yale alum John Frame?

    I’m curious how you would make use of a presuppostional approach to apologetics.

  4. Mark D. Roberts Says:
    June 6th, 2007 at 9:10 am

    RJS: Thanks for the comment.

    Jason: I have read a bit of Pratt. I would never read Frame because he went to Yale. (Just kidding!) Actually, I have read some of his stuff too, and I heard him lecture some years back. But, honestly, I haven’t interacted with this material in some time, so I’m not in a place to make any reasoned response, other than to say that I think there are a variety of approaches to Christian apologetics. Each approach has both strenghts and weaknesses. Thus we are best served by a wide range of strategies.

  5. Kevin Says:
    June 6th, 2007 at 10:15 am


    I listened with great interest to parts of the debate last night on my drive home. One of the mistakes I think would-be defenders of Christianity (such as myself) make is to assume a defensive posture rather than counterattack the underpinnings of a critic’s beliefs. For example, I think one of the hardest things for someone
    like CH to defend is moral atheism. First, if in the end all returns to dust, than all actions (moral or otherwise) are ultimately inconsequential - a “chasing after the wind” (as Solomon would put it). Secondly, in the absence of an authoritative, absolute moral code from an unimpeachably reliable source, all we are left with are “rules made by men” and so who is to say which are right and which are wrong? Why would cannibalizing someone be any more moral or immoral than giving to the poor given that a) acts are ultimately inconsequential and b) no one can by any means prove that one is certainly, for all time, better than the other.

    I should think the only honest form of atheism would be one marked by hedonism and amorality. And once someone has had his fill of pleasure and suffering, his only subsequent course of action would be to end his life. The first philosophic question, to quote Camus, is suicide. An atheist should certainly not seek to judge others by, or
    impose upon them, a given moral code. Or, if they did, it would only be an instance of amoral playacting - surely nothing done in earnest.


  6. rdeis Says:
    June 6th, 2007 at 11:49 am

    Kevin- I have seen one logical argument for moral atheism that’s at least colorable, and that is based upon what seems to be naturalistic notion of “the good of the species.”

    In that argument, the moral code is based not upon any sort of authoritative idea about what is good or evil, but rather based upon an emperical evaluation of whether the choice improves or worsens the chances of survival of the mankind.

    It’s an extremely difficult standard to work with for a number of obvious reasons, but it’s not inherently dishonest.

    Mark, I have enjoyed your book reviews, and most especially the treatments of the gnostic gospels, which I refer to whenever the subject comes up. I look forward to your writings on Hitchen’s book.

  7. Bonnie Says:
    June 6th, 2007 at 12:51 pm

    Dr. Roberts,

    I would like to thank you for stepping up to debate Christopher Hitchens. I read the transcript, as I didn’t get a chance to hear the interview. From what I read, I think you more than held your own against him.

    As an ex-atheist & current agnostic in the process of studying the Bible, I appreciate your honest defense of Christianity. Hitchen’s statements were just more of the same, as far as I was concerned, not anything new to someone of my background. In my reading, he sounded extremely condescending, an attitude with which I am extremely familiar, as I’ve been there. Your responses, however, were polite and informed & encourage me to study more. I will be ordering your book.

  8. Kevin Says:
    June 6th, 2007 at 1:31 pm


    Thanks for the feedback. I meant “honest” more in the sense of being realistic than anything else. Personally, I cannot think of implementing a moral code so as to improve mankind’s chances of survival as anything but a futile attempt to forestall the onset of nothingness - sort of like Guggenheim thinking his offering a toast to the other wretched souls about him might somehow keep the Titanic from sinking.

  9. Mark D. Roberts Says:
    June 6th, 2007 at 3:39 pm

    Kevin, rdeis, and Bonnie: Thanks for your comments.

    Kevin: I agree with you about moral atheism. I did try to make this point. In fact, it was my last point and perhaps my first also (can’t quite remember). But Hitchens is very adept at responding to this, even though I think his arguments don’t hold up. See, for example, his debate with Doug Wilson at Christianity Today.

    The problme with trying to argue this point, especially in a medium such as talk radio, is that Hitchens can sound like a perfectly rational, reasonable man with a strong conscience. In fact I think he does have a strong conscience about some things. Hitchens can end up sounding more moral than the one who argues, rightly, that he doesn’t have adequate ground for his morality.

  10. Harold E. Walker Says:
    June 6th, 2007 at 4:19 pm

    Dr. Mark, thank you for showing such respect and kindness to Mr Hitchens. A couple of points:
    1. After the discussion, I would be willing to suggest that you included Hitchens in your prayers before retiring for the evening, as opposed to Mr. Hitchens activity prior to his trip to bed.
    2. The Bible teaches that God has two wills, one revealed and one not revealed. It’s the later that Bible scholars accept, and non-scholars can’t accept.
    The overall respect shown by Hitchens may be indications of a changing heart. Keep up the good work

  11. Mark D. Roberts Says:
    June 6th, 2007 at 4:26 pm

    Thanks, Harold. In fact I have been praying for Christopher Hitchens, that he might experience God’s presence, grace, and peace.

  12. Geoff Says:
    June 6th, 2007 at 6:06 pm

    Dear Dr. Roberts:

    Two things. Go read the debate Hitchens had with Douglas Wilson had online over at Christianity Today. It did not go well for Hitchens.

    Wilson used a presuppositional approach and, while he wasn’t mean or nasty, didn’t let Wilson get away with the fact that he has no rational basis for judging anything good or bad, which undermines his argument against religion.

    Secondly, you really have to hear an interview Ehrman did on the radio show Issues, Etc.

    Ehrman admits that we pretty much know what the authors of Scripture wrote. It was a stunning admission. If I may be so bold, it was like someone standing up to a bully. When he is on PBS, the interviewers aren’t usually acquainted with textual criticism. Well, this interviewer did know a thing or two and Ehrman.

    It has been a while since I listened to the show, but I’m pretty sure my memory is correct about it.

  13. Geoff Says:
    June 6th, 2007 at 6:09 pm

    Sorry, didn’t see that you already referenced that debate.

  14. Mark D. Roberts Says:
    June 6th, 2007 at 6:37 pm

    Geoff: No problem. It’s worth a second reference. Thanks for the link to the Ehrman piece. I’ll have to check it. This is almost exactly my main criticism of Ehrman’s book, that he disproves his own insinuation about the unreliability of Scripture.

  15. Andrew Knutson Says:
    June 6th, 2007 at 8:21 pm

    Dear Pastor,
    I felt you held your own very well.
    I once heard Ms. O Haire describing her descent into atheism, that the brutality that God ordered in the old testament was what turned her off. I noticed that Mr. Hitchens had similar problems and your response seemed weak. I asked the Holy Spirit what his answer would have been and this is what I got, ” She doesn’t understand how evil, evil is.”
    I don’t expect this to be persuasive to an atheist but may give you something to ponder.
    Thank you for your diligence

  16. PapaGiorgio Says:
    June 6th, 2007 at 11:23 pm

    I was somewhat disappointed with the debate. While I think the main focus of the debate was to come across as civilized, which was accomplished by God! The many opportunities that presented themselves and were ignored were astounding. I think a J. P. Moreland, Gregory Koukl, or a William Lane Craig could have (hopefully will have) the more polemical chance at defending the faith. Because as one commentator pointed out, people do not listen to logic, but they will to sound bites. This is why someone taking on the likes of Hitchens better have some apologetic zingers that catch the fancy of the average listener.

    Even the points Hewitt and Roberts had more knowledge in (manuscript evidences for instance) were not explored with the average listener involved. When the discussion move to comparative manuscript examples I can – as I am sure Hugh and Mark could as well – picture in my minds eye the graph found in Geisler books, or McDowell books with the columns, number of manuscripts and the like. This needed to be painted a bit more for the listeners “mind’s eye.” Why? Mainly because this broadcast will be forever immortalized via I-Tunes and Townhall.

    I apologize for being somewhat negative, but, Dr. Habermas is the model of debating that would have best been followed here. Habermas became close friends with Antony Flew and showed this hardened [ex]atheist the love and compassion of Christ… but when it came to debate time, the boom was lowered.

    Papa Giorgio,
    an arm-chair apologist.

  17. Ed Says:
    June 7th, 2007 at 8:39 am

    Many theologians distinguish two ways of speaking about God’s will which I think is helpful in responding to points that Hitchens made based on this Christian belief that everything that happens is the will of God.

    There is God’s “active” or “direct” will in which He positively wills a given end. The creation of the natural order would be one example as would the Incarnation. Likewise God wills the salvation of all men. Here, the word “will” is used in a plain and univocal sense.

    Clearly, not all that occurs in this world is actively willed by God. God does not directly will evil. Many would argue, as Hitchens seems to, that the existence of various kinds of evil in the world disapproves the existence of an infinitely good God. On this point theologians have made the distinction that while God directly wills certain things, other events are allowed by God and are attributable to what some have termed His “permissive” will. God allows certains evils to occur, as Aquinas, argues in order that some greater good can be brought about by them. Thus, the fall of man was allowed and in the unfolding of providence the greater good of man’s redemption was effected.

    It seems to me that this permissive will is a necessary adjunct to the existence of creatures with free will. And, without free will how would love be possible?

  18. Mark D. Roberts Says:
    June 7th, 2007 at 8:44 am

    Ed: Good point about God’s will. Thanks.

  19. Kyle Says:
    June 7th, 2007 at 10:45 am

    I think Pastor Roberts did a fine job showing the gracious love of Christ. Mr. Hitchens and others may read *Can We Trust* and other Christian apologetics with a different mindset after having participated in this debate and others. I truly do wish that the Gospel had been stated clearly during the debate. If it was there, I missed it. Seems to be a big miss.

  20. rw Says:
    June 7th, 2007 at 11:00 am

    To co-incide with the factual errors you’ve already found is one thing I picked up from the transcript that encapsulizes much of how atheists argue their points. To wit:

    (CH)”The Gospels were written a great deal after the events they purport to describe. And they contradict each other on every important aspect of the life story.”

    After a great point-by-point answer from you, Hitchens goes on to respond to the contradiction issue this way:

    (CH) “Well, I don’t say at every point, but I mean, annoyingly, I’m just for once in a hotel that doesn’t have a Gideon Bible.”

    Well, he in fact DID say at every important point just prior. The ‘not having a bible’ dodge was also a classic.

    Smart guy, but you can’t have it both ways.

  21. rw Says:
    June 7th, 2007 at 11:04 am

    Mr. Hitchens, that is.

  22. Mark D. Roberts Says:
    June 7th, 2007 at 11:49 am

    Wow. I had once envisioned being able to respond to each comment, more or less. Now I realize this isn’t going to work, because I have plenty of other things to do with my life beside engage in this debate. (I realize this will make some of you happy.)

    Let me say that I am glad for honest and respectful conversation and disagreement, and that’s what I try to do myself, whether I’m talking with Christopher Hitchens, blogging, or whatever. I’m not suggesting that I always attain to this goal, only that I try. I believe that we and our world will be better off if we all, no matter our beliefs, can learn to listen well to each other and treat each other with mutual respect and kindness.

    I hope those who found my performance in the debate to be a flop will at least be willing to read what I write. I’m generally better at sustained argument than short clips and sound bites.

  23. Doug Stone Says:
    June 7th, 2007 at 1:30 pm

    Mark, your lame reasoning just goes on and on! Please explain how a THREE HOUR DEBATE is “short clips and sound bites”?

  24. Hewitt listener Says:
    June 7th, 2007 at 4:02 pm

    I listened to all the debate, and while it was decent radio, I think you did a substantial disservice to your argument by suggesting he read other books to ‘help’ him understand.

  25. dennisw Says:
    June 8th, 2007 at 1:27 am

    No one has brought up Islam yet and Islam is the main problem, not the militant atheism of Hitchens. Chris Hitchens is very strong against Islamic terror and conquest. He knows the Muslims are overrunning Europe.

    So have your debate but Chris Hitchens is a friend and ally however much he spreads his anti God virulence. He could never behave this way in a Muslim nation. But he can in the West and this is a freedom we are defending against Islamic irredentism

    Ali Sina is another atheist who is a great debunker of Islam and its false prophet. He has helped many Muslims to though off their shackles. His website is and you better believe I appreciate his efforts. He is doing God’s work same as Hitchens is.

  26. Is God Great? | Goodword Editing Says:
    June 8th, 2007 at 7:31 am

    […] Why? Mark D. Roberts—I think I can call him my friend, Mark D. Roberts—has done something wonderfully gutsy. He debated Christopher Hitchens on Hugh Hewitt’s Townhall, and now he’s blogging a more thoughtful, less interrupted response.  […]

  27. PapaGiorgio Says:
    June 9th, 2007 at 1:24 am

    I responded to a friend that is an example of how I would have also responded to Hitchens during the beginning of the debate:

  28. Kobayashi Maru Says:
    June 9th, 2007 at 10:54 am

    Good going, Mark. I listened eagerly. Your diligent and reasoned follow-up here is invaluable.

    Hitch kept referring to ‘morality’ in a way that made it sound like something powerful and righteous and free-standing, without reference to an enduring, common, authoritative framework for it. Whose morality was Hitch claiming to speak for, exactly? How can we determine what is moral? Who says? All were questions Hitch didn’t address.

  29. Roberts vs. Hitchens at PastorBlog Says:
    June 19th, 2007 at 8:17 am

    […] Introduction […]

  30. 4Simpsons Blog Weekly roundup « Says:
    July 27th, 2007 at 11:35 pm

    […] series of responses to “god is not Great - How Religion Poisons Everything” by Christopher Hitchens.  […]

  31. Winter Says:
    June 18th, 2009 at 12:39 am

    Весьма спорно, но как вариант имеет право на существование


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