Lessons from an Atheist: The Death of Christopher Hitchens

He is perhaps to most well-known atheist of the past two decades. He became infamous for his attacks on religion and religious figures seeing all religion as dangerous and destructive. It didn’t matter to him if you were an Islamic suicide bomber or Mother Theresa, who he accused of being an ambitious self promoter who was willing to take money from anyone in order to keep the poor even more poor. His books have been huge best sellers if for no other reason than the provocative nature of the titles. Who would not react to a book titled, God is Not Great?

In June of last year Hitchens found out that he had cancer. It eventually took his life this week. Along the way folks prayed for him, including his younger brother Peter who wrote a wonderful book titled Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith, that was the antithesis of Christopher’s life. (By the way, I highly recommend that you read Peter’s book no matter what your religious convictions. It is a fascinating study in how two people can take a similar path and yet in the end diverge to vastly different destinies.) In addition to people praying for Christopher there where some whose actions would only seem to confirm his view of religion. It wasn’t unusual to hear or read comments that made it clear that people were convinced Hitchens would get his just punishment in the end. The sad thing was that some of those commentators seemed pleased by that knowledge. Now I have no problem with believing in a doctrine of Hell and that there is a just punishment to come. What I do have a problem with is people who don’t grieve the possibility of someone ending up there. Jesus himself wept over the people of Jerusalem because they did not understand the fate that awaited them in this life or the next. Should His followers respond any differently?

In thinking about the life and death of Christopher Hitchens it occurred to me that there are a few important lessons for Christians in particular and religious people in general.

Lesson Number One: Not All Criticisms of Religion are Groundless.

Hitchens had a point when he spoke of the danger of religion. Lets not be blind to the fact that people have used religion as an excuse for all sorts of heinous crimes. Granted the case can be made that it is people who have distorted the rue message of a faith but such hairsplitting is hardly convincing to a radical atheist and hardly comforting to the person who was tortured or killed in the name of religion. One common response is to list all the good things religion has done, founding hospital, funding orphanages, fighting slavery and so on. Getting into a back and forth listing of virtues and sins hardly changes anyones mind. The Christian response should really be one of honest acknowledgement of the truth and repentance over it. From there it would behoove followers of Christ to do everything they can to live according to the teachings of Jesus and call others to that radical life of self-sacrifice, loving your enemies, and loving God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. We can’t change the past but we can learn from it and shape the future.

Lesson Two: Religious People, especially Christian, Need to Sharpen Their Intellectual Game

Far too many people who claim to follow Christ are flat-out lazy when it comes to understanding what they believe and why. There is no place for lazy or sloppy thinking in the Christian world. Paul urges Timothy to be a diligent student of the Bible. Peter urges us to always be prepared with an answer for the reason of our hope. Particularly in the church in the west there is no excuse for a follower of Jesus not being able to explain and defend what they believe. The resources and training available are so abundant as to be almost obscene. Yet in spite of that, the average Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness causes the average evangelical Christian to quake in their theological boots. But if we are to in any way engage people and their ideas and have any impact in directing them to Christ, then we must be better students of the faith and know our Bibles far better than we do currently. I am convinced that much of the anger shown to Hitchens over the years comes from religious people who are insecure in what they believe and threatened by someone who believes differently but is not insecure. Anger is a secondary emotion. There is normally a previous emotion that triggers the anger. In religious debates that primary emotion is usually fear or frustration over not being secure in ones own beliefs.

Lesson Number Three: Love, Not Hate is Still Our Greatest Witness

There appears to be little if anything that people could say to Hitchens to get him to even consider the possibility that God exists. However, the love that people showed in praying for him and that I am sure his brother showed him, seemed to at least soften some of the harshness Hitchens so famously exhibited. Jesus made it clear that people would know that we are His followers by the love we have for one another. He also made it clear that we are to love others. Showing Christ’s love to people has a way of breaking down the intellectual arguments that they construct in order to protect their position. There simply is no intellectual defense against sacrificial love. Of course loving people in a sacrificial way is not easy. It requires work, commitment, endurance, and sacrifice. In that way it is exactly like the cross.

Lesson Number Four: We Are More Alike Than We Are Different.

Christopher Hitchens is not much different from me or you. We all go through life trying to understand the world and our place in it.  We all have questions of an ultimate nature, why am I here, is there a God, what happens when we die, am I loved? We all face loneliness, pain, heartache and loss. We all want love, acceptance, safety, and joy. We all end up facing the reality of our own death. Hitchens answered many of the ultimate questions in ways far different from me. But as a fellow traveler and “seeker” of answers, we share a great deal in common.  You do too. That realization in itself should cause followers of Jesus to have a far more benevolent attitude towards people like Hitchens.

If you want to get a wonderful little update on his life and death this NPR article is a great place to start.

If you want to read a fantastic assessment of modern atheism I recommend Why God Won’t Go Away: Is the New Atheism Running on Empty?  It is written by Alistair McGrath. I had the incredible privilege of taking a summer class at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University a few years ago in which McGrath was a featured professor. He is brilliant thinker and writer who has often engaged well known atheists in debate with a winsome and engaging style.

7 thoughts on “Lessons from an Atheist: The Death of Christopher Hitchens

  1. Doug

    I couldn’t agree more with lesson number two. Unfortunately I am part of that group who doesn’t know enough about what it is I truly believe, but I’m working on it. One of the things that struck me about what you said was about the reason we get angry when people question us about why we believe, and you are correct, I’m afraid because I don’t know enough, and that scares me enough to not even want to share my faith with others because I can’t answer those questions. Vicious cycle!

  2. Ken

    Lesson #4……..very weak point. A person who is in Christ should be vastly different from Christopher Hitchens. They shoul be developing the mind of Christ and growing in grace and Christlikeness, and not be wandering around searching for answers, for they have been given to us in God’s Word. As far as wanting to read a “wonderful little update on his life and death”, I simply ask, “Why?” I would suggest using that time to pray, read Scripture, meditate on Christ, or serve another in His Name. Christopher Hitchens was a blasphemer.

  3. Dan Lacich

    Should a Christian be vastly different from Hitchens? Absolutely. Are we completely different with no points of similarity at all? Of course not. If we are to actually love even out enemies then we need to understand and know them better. If we can find points of similarity to be able to connect with them and communicate with them then we are doing just what Jesus did through the incarnation when he came into the world as Paul says, “at just the right time, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us”. The only reason I am any different from Hitchens is because of the death of Jesus Christ. He died for me when I was his enemy. How much more grace should I have for human beings who are God’s enemy still. As to why to read the little biography, again, if you want to reach people who do not believe in Christ and share the Gospel with them, you must understand the questions they are asking and the false answers they believe.
    In Christ

  4. Lesson #4 is what I try to teach my kids on. Thinking we’re different from the world or any better than another person including an Atheist, is a trap laid out nice and perfect for pride. Once we get in that mindset, we elevate ourselves above our fellow creations. We all share the same defect handed down from our grandparents Adam and Eve – sin nature. We all share the same flesh which is weak, but there’s one difference spiritually and that is we’re under God’s grace through faith in Jesus. That’s a pretty big thing, but it’s little separation from those who are lost and it doesn’t change the fact we’re still sinners right along with them. As for celebration, I think Mr. Hitchens was a loss to everyone, even Christians. He intellectually challenged our point of view, and I’m sure many were sharpened pencils from it. This would probably make him roll over in his grave; it sounds to me like the Lord used him just for that purpose, and in fighting against God, he only served his purpose as do all things. Trials, temptations, and persecutions are all used to temper faith – harden that steel! I think Mr Hitchens did us a great service in that area. Sorry this is so long! 🙂

  5. Norm

    Hitchens is not like me and I am not like him. I am alive and being conformed to the image of Christ. I believed scripture as a child and it has been upheld in my adulthood. I am destined to serve the Lord forever. I am a vessel of the Holy Spirit. The Lord will confess my name because I have confessed His. I have been on my knees many times by choice.

    Hitchens is dead and his own image is lost. Hitchens died a wise fool. He is destined to suffer. He is an empty vessel. The Lord will deny Hitchen’s name before the Father because he denied His name before men. HItchens will eventually bow to the Lord as a captured enemy.

    Hitchens won’t stand before the Lord and be able to bring a case that he should get into heaven because Christians were weak and a poor representation. His mouth will be shut and he’ll realize his own stupidity.

    Hitchens is a dime a dozen. I have to talk to 10 of him to get to one teachable one. I’ll reach out to anyone until they die and discilple the living.

  6. Dan Lacich

    Dear Norm,
    Yes in many ways that you mention, you and Hitchens are not alike. But I stand by my main point that there are things in which all people are the same and share with one another. Being made in God’s image is one of those. Those who do not follow Christ were still created in that image. I am called by Christ to love them, even if they are an enemy of the Gospel. If we are going to reach people for Christ we must find the areas of common ground on which to communicate. That is what the incarnation of Christ is about. Jesus came into the world as one of us in all ways, except sin. If He did that for us, should we not be ready to acknowledge how we are like other human being so we can reach them for Jesus?
    I would also say that you are more like Hitchens than you think in that you both have demonstrated how to hold on tenaciously to what you believe.

  7. Norm

    Thanks for your response Dan. I share your notice of the impact that some of my close friends and coworkers are going to be eternally punished. I am committed as you are toward loving my enemies. That will definitely be the power to convince them if that is possible.

    Christopher Hitchens’ notice of weak or hypocritical Christianity was not his real issue. If it was, he would have brought it up in the debate I saw at Biola University. I didn’t know how the debate would be resolved. My faith would have been strong even if Hitchens had prevailed. His arguements melted like ice cream on a hot day. He weathered his weakness in the debate very well. He didn’t seem to care. I heard him talk about the prayers he received. He tasted of the heavenly fruit and did not take the land.

    Your call for more identification with non-believers is undefined. Your call seems only possible in the spoiled country of America. New believers are being rejected by their own families to the point of death in other countries. Many churches are underground. Your points are without assurance for them. If your calling for Christians to suffer in life as non-believers suffer and exemplify a joyous spirit, I agree. If your calling for Christianity on the non-believers’ terms then I have a problem with that. During the 1000 year reign of Christ the world will be made to conform to His standard or suffer immediate judgement. Satan won’t be there to blame. Perfect Christianity and life will reflect perfect God. Yet in the end Satan will be loosed and he will decieve many and they will number as the sand of the seashore. The sobering idea is that these deceived had it all and still rejected the truth. This leaves the idea that they simply don’t want to submit to God. Adding to that, Scripture says that every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. The condemned at that time will not be bowing because they all of a sudden realize that Jesus identifies with them. They will be bowing because they realize who He is.

    Thanks for wrestling,

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