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.

The Beatles said “All you need is love” and then they broke up!

Those words come from a song by Larry Norman. It was his album, “Only Visiting This Planet”  that provided me, a Led Zeppelin listening new Christian, with some great rock n roll that focused on Jesus. That quote from the Beatles and the commentary on their eventual inability to work together tells us something of the worlds shallow and impoverished view of love. Being that it’s Valentines Day it seem appropriate to take a look at what ideal of love really is. For that there is no better place to look than the words of Jesus.

“Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” John 15:13

Those words point clearly to the ultimate expression of love and as such point us to what love is really supposed to be all about. To hear people talk of love today, and talk of their experiences of love, you would be convinced that love is this fickle, emotional, euphoria that sweeps over you without your control. It is a sense of joy and delight that you experience in relation to another person. It is great when you have it but it may come or go on a whim without you being able to do anything about it. It is something you “fall into” and can just as quickly “fall out of”. If life with a person is light and breezy then you must be in love. If it starts to get hard, they disappoint you, you have a difference of opinion, then love must have moved on and you are now no longer in love with them. All I can say to that is “horse-hockey”. (to quote Colonel Potter from M.A.S.H)

That definition of love should have been left behind in 8th grade. It is the stuff of giddy school girls and overly optimistic boys hoping for some action at the school dance. It is a step above the passing of notes that ask, “Do you like me?” Check, Yes, No, or Maybe. It is a sad state of affairs when a vast majority of our culture is stuck at a middle school level of emotional understanding.

The love that the Bible and therefore Jesus, speaks about is a love that is deep and strong and will last through the most difficult of times. It is a love that is not concerned about what we are getting out of the relationship so much as it is what we are investing in the life of the other person. Think about the love of a parent for a child. We have all seen unhealthy examples of parents who derive their emotional sustenance from their children. Their children become little emotional booster shots for them. They find their validation as a person in their children because they make them feel so good inside. When the child starts pulling away or rejecting the parents oversight in some way, their world collapses and they give up being a parent. A healthy love for ones child means that a parent is going to do all the hard things needed as a parent so that their child can grow to love and follow Jesus. They are going to sacrifice their time and energy and heart. They are going to risk angering their child by requiring certain behaviors from them. They are going to have nights of tears and days in prayer over their child. Much of that time will be devoid of warm fuzzies and joyful tingles. It will be hard work. But it is love as Jesus speaks of love.

The same is true of spouses. Paul makes it clear when he writes to the Ephesians in chapter 5 that husbands and wives are to submit their lives to one another. He speaks specifically to husbands saying they are to lay down their lives for their wife, just as Jesus did for the church, His bride. The greatest expression of love comes when we sacrifice for another, not when we get all warm and starry eyed thinking about them.

When we sacrifice for those we love and do it without expecting them to return the sacrifice, then our love for them grows even deeper. There is a very real sense in which love properly understood and properly given gets stronger in the giving. On the other hand love improperly understood and improperly given is drained away and dies a slow death with each expression. The reason for that is the love that focuses on what we feel or are getting out of the relationship can never be satisfied. It is like a drug addict who develops a tolerance to the drug. Over time he needs more of the drug in higher doses to get the same euphoria. If he does not get it, he dies. Self serving love needs more and more of the experience of euphoria to sustain itself. But like a drug it consumes the consumer. Love that looks to give itself away in service to another is something that according to God’s economy, keeps giving and getting stronger the more it gives itself away. To quote another of my heroes, Mr. Spock from Star Trek, “It is not logical, but I have never the less found it to be true”.

The more you give yourself away in love and in the power of Christ, the stronger your love grows. The more you focus on the needs of the other, at least as much as you focus on your own, your love will get deeper. The more you look for ways to honor your beloved and sacrifice yourself for them, the more you will experience being blessed. Because you see, the love that sacrifices for another finds it’s highest reward and blessing in the benefit of the other.

How different might the music scene have been if the Beatles had learned that all you need is love that puts the other person first and sacrifices for them, instead of love that always measures if you are getting more out of the relationship than you are putting in?