Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011)
It might seem a little odd that a Christian apologetics web site should pay respect to the passing of a militant atheist who was so fervently opposed to the Christian religion, but in all honesty I rather enjoyed the contributions he made to the culture of dialogue between Christians and atheists. He was inarguably a man possessed of considerable rhetorical skill and sardonic wit who managed to articulate his antipathy for religious convictions with an eloquence that was engaging and thought-provoking. Despite the fact that his arguments were sophomoric and did not present any cogent challenge to biblical Christianity, he nevertheless forced believers to think critically and do their homework regarding the points on which he attempted to hang his arguments, and in my books that is always a good thing for it produces a more informed believer. And in the forge of his blazing vitriol, combined as it was with the likes of Richard Dawkins and the other “four horsemen” of neo-atheism, my own apologetic was tempered and refined to contend with a new breed of antitheism.
Say what you will about his venomous language but one can hardly dispute that the man was a gifted writer, “the vocation of his life, one in which he excelled,” pastor and theologian Douglas Wilson admitted (2011, para. 2). Hitchens himself confessed that writing was not just his living and livelihood but his very life; after having received some injection to relieve the pain in his hands and fingers, a side effect of which is a numbness in the extremities, he greatly feared losing the ability to write. “I feel my personality and identity dissolving as I contemplate dead hands and the loss of the transmission belts that connect me to writing and thinking,” he confessed toward the end of what would be his last essay (2011, para. 20). In spite of the stark antithesis between the convictions and values of Hitchens and myself that is one thing that we both shared in common, a passionate and consuming need to write and an abiding appreciation for its capacity to serve as a conduit for shaping not only our own thoughts but also the thinking of others. Although he used his craft as a rhetorician and author to distill and augment his enmity with God—and maybe that is one sense in which we can take Tom Gilson’s comment that Hitchens’ rhetorical effectiveness “was in many ways his undoing” (2011, para. 4)—there is little room for doubt that he was powerfully eloquent and captivated his readers, both admirers and critics alike. He may have been convincing only to the already convinced but to just about anyone he was eminently readable, engaging, and entertaining.
Nobody of course knows what will be his ultimate fate other than the fact that, like everyone else, he will stand before the judgment throne of God. It is unfortunate that he cultivated such an atheistic celebrity because it practically cemented his obdurate rebellion against God and repentance. So worried was Hitchens about the potential for reports of a deathbed confession that he crafted in advance a narrative to combat that sort of thing. As he told his friend Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic in an interview (Goldberg, 2010; video clip 2:56–3:26):
Now might be the time to say, I guess, that in the event of anyone reading or hearing a rumor of any such thing [as a deathbed confession] being made it would not have been made by me. The entity making such a remark might be a raving, terrified person whose cancer has spread to the brain. I can’t guarantee that such an entity wouldn’t make such a ridiculous remark. But no one recognizable as myself … could possibly say something so silly.
As Wilson observed, it was almost as if Hitchens was “afraid of letting down the infidel team,” so to speak (para. 10), as if to express a sort of concern that his antitheistic legacy might be robbed of its credibility should he quite inexplicably turn to Christ in repentance and faith at the end. If you hear something like that coming out of my mouth, he said, then it was not me saying it. He wanted people to know that if he confessed faith, then the Christopher Hitchens we all knew “should be counted as already dead,” Wilson said (ibid.). What Wilson found most interesting was that the advance narrative Hitchens prepared, while yet manifestly in his right mind, did not involve someone claiming to have heard him cry out to God and thus misrepresenting yet another unbeliever (as had been done with Charles Darwin, for example), but rather involved Hitchens himself uttering such a thing. Was Hitchens thus implying that it was conceivable to him that he might (and thus he had to discredit it ahead of time)? I have to agree with Wilson: it is interesting that Hitchens framed the advance narrative in the way that he did.
But I bring this up because of something that I found particularly interesting beyond what Wilson observed: the biblical truth inadvertently lurking within the narrative that Hitchens crafted. If he should turn to Christ in repentance and faith at the end, then we should understand that it was not him saying it, that the Hitchens we all knew would never do or say any such thing, that in the face of such a statement he should be counted as already dead. And that is precisely what would be the case, for that is the very nature of what happens for anyone who turns to Christ in genuine repentance and faith. It is a new creation that emerges from regeneration, that is, being born again of the word of Christ and power of the Spirit; the old person is gone, having given his life up to God for Christ’s sake: “For through the law I died to the law so that I may live to God. I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:19-20). It is true that if Hitchens had turned to Christ in repentance and faith it would not have been the Hitchens we all knew who had done such a thing; indeed that Hitchens would be counted as already dead if he went from loving sin and hating God to loving God and hating sin, because those who are “in Adam” are morally and spiritually incapable of such a thing. And the one who believes in Christ will live even if he dies (John 11:25). The unintended irony of his advance narrative is that it was entirely consistent with a pronouncement of saving faith he was trying to distance himself from.
We do not know if he turned to Christ; there is no reason to suppose he did and plenty of reasons to think he did not. And that is a sad and sober thing, for on the day that he stands before the throne of God he would have nothing to which he can appeal but the 62 years he lived from April 13, 1949, until December 15, 2011, a life during which he heard the light of the gospel in many ways and from many people but preferred the darkness of life apart from Christ, the Son of God he defiantly reviled. That is not by any means something to celebrate and I want nothing to do with the Westboro Baptist type of people who would disgrace themselves and bring shame to the name of Christ by doing so. It is something that we should reflect upon soberly as we include his wife, family, and particularly his brother in our prayers.
As for me, I am going to miss him.
The deep pain that is felt at the death of every friendly soul arises from the feeling that there is, in every individual, something which is inexpressibly peculiar to him alone, and is therefore absolutely and irretrievably lost.
— Arthur Schopenhauer
(See Peter Hitchens, “In Memoriam: My courageous brother Christopher, 1949-2011,” Daily Mail Online [2011, December 16]).
(See also Larry Alex Taunton, “My Take: An evangelical remembers his friend Hitchens,” CNN Belief Blog (2011, December 16). This is a powerfully evocative piece and well worth the read. It gives you a peek at a side of Hitchens that few got to see.
There are others in the Christian apologetics community who have commented on his passing. Please take the time to read their reflections on this event:
- Douglas Wilson (Christianity Today).
- Tom Gilson (Thinking Christian).
- James White (Alpha & Omega Ministries) (video)
- Carson Weitnauer (Reasons for God).
- Jay Wile (Proslogion).
- Mark McGee (Faith and Self Defense).
- Rob Lundberg (The Real Issue).
- Frank Turek (Cross Examined).
Tom Gilson, “On the passing of Christopher Hitchens,” Thinking Christian [blog] (2011, December 16).
Jeffrey Goldberg, “Hitchens talks to Goldblog about cancer and God,” The Atlantic (2010, August 6). See also Goldberg, “On the possibility of Christopher Hitchens finding Jesus” (2011, December 13).
Christopher Hitchens, “Trial of the Will,” Vanity Fair (2012, January).
Douglas Wilson, “Christopher Hitchens Has Died, Doug Wilson Reflects,” Christianity Today (2011, December 16).