Were you disappointed by the Dawkins/Pell debate? You’re not alone – all Christians I know, were unhappy. Not because our ‘gladiator’ lost the contest to the atheist ‘gladiator’, but because he seemed to lose the plot and mangle the gospel.
As debaters go, Cardinal Pell was surprisingly good. Most people considered it a mismatch – for Professor Dawkins is such an experienced media debater and performer and the cardinal is not. However, it was the cardinal who rattled the professor with some classic debating tricks such as referring to precise quotes or page numbers. At some points the professor looked uncomfortable, getting angry with the audience and even confessing to jetlag. Naturally, at the end of the debate, each side claimed victory; the atheist trounced the Christian in the eyes of the atheists and the Christian beat the atheist in the eyes of the Christians. But that’s the trouble with debates; they have the appearance of rational discourse and persuasion but generally do little more than reinforce entrenched prejudices.
TV debates do not allow participants to explain themselves with care and accuracy. Such debates are more like playing cards than writing an essay; you can only play the cards you are dealt. The ABC dealt the cards by choosing the questions and by their compère, Tony Jones, continuing to pressure the debaters by his interventions. At some points, it was not Richard Dawkins that George Pell was debating, but Tony Jones.
However, even taking into account the occasion and difficulty of the situation that Cardinal Pell found himself in, and noting with admiration the firm and clear manner in which he graciously opposed atheism and stood up for God and Jesus, many Christians felt badly let down. He stood so boldly for following Jesus’ words, confronting Professor Dawkins with, “I’d much prefer to listen to him (Jesus) and take his word than yours.” But that was just the problem; he seemed to ignore Jesus’ words.
For most Christians, this became apparent when the cardinal declared with certainty that atheists would go to heaven. Not all atheists, he still believed in a hell for those, like Hitler, whose actions were so evil that to give their victims justice would require some punishment. But he was certain that moral and good atheists will go to heaven. He argued that atheism is not evil, and as God loves all people, he will judge the atheists by their movement “towards goodness and truth and beauty”; for all such movements are “towards God”.
It was not just Christians who were troubled by this, even the atheist Mike Carleton quoted the words of Jesus “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life: no man cometh unto the Father but by me.'' For the New Testament is replete with the promises such as: “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:11); and warnings such as “whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father” (Mark 8:38); and declarations such as “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12); or “Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also” (1 John 2:21-23).
Certainly the Bible speaks against those who profess orthodox belief but whose lives are lived in opposition to the word they proclaim (e.g. Mark 7:1ff, Romans 3:17ff, James 2:14ff). But this does not justify those who reject the words of the gospel, the person of the Lord Jesus Christ, his sacrificial death, and the God who created them. It was Jesus who declared that we must be “born again” to see the kingdom of God and that it is by believing in him that we “have eternal life” (John 3:3, 15). The apostle Peter declared that our rebirth to eternal life comes through Jesus’ resurrection, declared to us by the words of the gospel in which we have believed (1Peter 1:3ff). And James wrote about being brought forth by the word of truth, the implanted word that is able to save our souls (James 1:18f).
However, the cardinal’s certainty about atheists going to heaven, was only the tip of the iceberg. From the beginning he did not attack Professor Dawkins parody of the atoning cross of Jesus, but accepted the issue of atheists’ social morality as the basis for acceptability with God. A weakened view of the holiness of God, the goodness of humanity, and the relational nature of sin were all foundational to the eternal acceptability of atheists. The Cross and Repentance were not central because the cardinal believes in “the place of purification” (i.e. purgatory) between heaven and hell.
Evangelicals should not have been disappointed with Cardinal Pell, for they should never have expected him to represent them, or to present the gospel accurately. He is a Roman Catholic, defending and promoting his understanding of Catholicism. We may have a common opponent in the new atheists like Richard Dawkins, but we do not have a common gospel. The ecumenical and irenic spirit of our age must not seduce us into forgetting that we are Protestants. Our protest is against Rome, for as the Anglican Articles declare “the Church of Rome hath erred not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies but also in matters of Faith” (XIX).
Personally, I admire Cardinal Pell as a trustworthy man of great integrity, clarity of thought and courage of conviction. His performance the other night only increases my admiration. But, as he would agree, admiration is not the same as agreement.