Definition by Opposites
How would you define the word black? And who gave it its original meaning anyway?
One handy online dictionary definition of black offers this: “Being of the color black, producing or reflecting comparatively little light and having no predominant hue.”1
But, thinking it through, doesn’t this explanation sound a bit circular:Black = “being of the color black”?
The remainder of that definition, however, may be more helpful; it offers a way of designating what is black: that which reflects little or no light. So to know what is black, it seems it would be necessary to know what light is.
All of which is somewhat analogous to an issue that arises sometimes in discussions among those who believe in God and those who don’t. Such dialogues often produce less light and more, well, something that resembles black. But they are almost always stimulating.
In an online article, for example, addressing the question “Is Christianity Good for the World?” Christianity Today published a lively and stimulating debate in 2007 between Douglas Wilson and Christopher Hitchens.
Douglas Wilson is an evangelical theologian at New Saint Andrews College, Moscow, Idaho, and a prolific author, blogger, and speaker. Christopher Hitchens, until his death of cancer in 2012, had been known for decades as an impassioned and articulate defender of atheism and critic of all organized religions.
In that 2007 debate, Hitchens, who was once dignified by being named number five on a list of the “Top 100 Public Intellectuals” by Foreign Policy and Britain’s Prospect, made this observation: “Many of the teachings of Christianity are, as well as being incredible and mythical, immoral. I would principally wish to cite the concept of vicarious redemption, whereby one’s own responsibilities can be flung onto a scapegoat and thereby taken away.”2 Hitchens found this concept of what Christians call “substitutionary atonement” to be utterly repellent. For him, it defied the concept of fairness; it just didn’t make sense. “I can pay your debt,” he went on to explain, “or even take your place in prison, but I cannot absolve you of what you actually did.”3
According to an online dictionary, absolve is defined as: “1. To pronounce clear of guilt or blame. 2. To relieve of a requirement or obligation.”4
Certainly, Hitchens isn’t referring to the second of these definitions. “To relieve of a requirement or obligation” is entirely within almost all human systems of justice to grant a pardon for one’s wrongdoing.
With regard to the first definition, however, even if someone were pardoned—set completely free—this doesn’t set aside the guilt. It doesn’t exonerate the culprit. Neither does it declare that the wrongful act was never committed.
Interestingly, Hitchens uses the word immoral. Where did that concept come from? He appeared to be implying that there is some moral standard, some transcendent rule of fairness, that surpasses—or overrides—human systems of justice. If someone can pay my debt or take my place in prison for some crime that I have committed, as Hitchens suggested, from what authority do I still need absolution? By what standard is my behavior judged?
Even the question “Is Christianity good for the world?” implies some kind of opposite—something utterly contradictory—to bring understanding of the meaning of the word good. From where does the concept of goodness originate? Or, for that matter, what is meant by the word badness?
In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis closes the first chapter with this conclusion: “These, then, are the two points I wanted to make. First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it. These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in.”5
“If things can improve,” writes Lewis elsewhere, “this means that there must be some absolute standard of good above and outside the cosmic process to which that process can approximate. There is no sense in talking of ‘becoming better’ if better means simply ‘what we are becoming.’”6
In discussing the idea of values, for example, Francis Beckwith and Gregory Koukl address the same kind of definition by opposites as Lewis: “Even those people with no scruples whatsoever can be said to have ‘their own’ morality. . . . How can we make sense of an alleged morality [however,] that functions the same as not having any morality at all? If a thing cannot be distinguished from its opposite, then the distinction between the two is meaningless.”7
And even though the brilliant provocateur Christopher Hitchens may have been considered during his illustrious life one of the top five intellectuals in the world, he himself would hardly have ever claimed to be the arbiter of all that is good or bad. We’re in trouble when we’re relying on any merely human definition of what is moral or immoral.
Yet, humanly speaking, it is only natural to trust oneself. One good look at the world around us makes it very clear that we cannot fully trust one another. So, while our heroes rise and fall, we as individuals learn to trust only ourselves—and our own personal judgments.
Yet Scripture reminds us that to depend solely on our own individual human judgment is tragically inadequate: “There is a way that seems to be right, but in the end it is the way to death” (Prov. 16:25).8
Neither is there safety in numbers. To count on human consensus alone for what is fair and just has proven monstrously wrong at too many times in history. Throughout the long, disappointing story of humankind, any totalitarian regime—whether religious or secular—simply decides unilaterally what is acceptable and what is not. Too often so-called justice has been based on the concept that might makes right. There is no balloting, no town hall meeting, no show of hands.
But justice in God’s design is not based on democratic principles either. There is ample testimony in Scripture of God’s awesome power—His omnipotence. This is a theme that recurs throughout the music of David, as shepherd, warrior, and king: “‘Yours, O Lord, is the greatness, the power and the glory, the victory and the majesty’” (1 Chron. 29:11). Astonishingly, however, God has refused to use His might to make things right, but instead sacrificed His only Son.
To return to Christopher Hitchens’ assertion, “I cannot absolve you of what you actually did,” he is absolutely correct. He cannot do this. But there is Someone who can—and has proven with His very life that He will. And He is also the ultimate definition of Light.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
1. http://education.yahoo.com/reference/dictionary/entry/black? Accessed May 7, 2013.
2. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2007/mayweb-only/119-12.0.html. Accessed May 7, 2013.
3. Ibid., italics supplied.
4. http://education.yahoo.com/reference/dictionary/entry/absolve. Accessed May 7, 2013.
5. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1981), p. 7.
6. __________, God in the Dock (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1970), p. 21.
7. Francis J. Beckwith and Gregory Koukl, Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1998), p. 30.
8. Unless noted otherwise, all Scripture references in this column are quoted from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible.