*A few more thoughts about Christopher Hitchens I ‘ve had since his death was reported.*
I first heard of Christopher Hitchens by way of the regular interviews he did with conservative Christian radio talk show host, Hugh Hewitt. Hugh had him on his show regularly to talk about mid-East policy, national politics and the threat of radical Islam. His regular appearance on the show is an apt illustration of the dichotomy that was Christopher Hitchens – a former Marxist and staunch atheist having long in-depth and often agreeable conversations with a conservative Christian.
And Hugh Hewitt wasn’t the only Christian admirer Hitchens had. Upon learning that he was sick and in all likelihood dying, many skeptics expected the caustic atheist would be reviled by Christians, when in fact the opposite happened. In part this might be explained by the fact that Christians are commanded to ‘love their enemies’ but the affection expressed even at his death goes beyond mere tolerance – there has been a real sadness at his loss. I think in part that this is because Hitchens strove to be a great truth teller; even if one disagreed with him one always got the sense he was trying to boldly get at the truth of things whether it be the threat of Islamo-fascism or abortion or the existence of God. He wasn’t petty like Dawkins, or prissy like Sam Harris – he was however consistently antagonistic to anyone he saw as dishonest or tyrannical. It was this characteristic that was to cause the left to castigate him for being a ‘neoconservative’, though he was never so easily pegged.
The affection many believers had for Hitchens undermines the New Atheist caricature of Christians. In the modern atheist mythos, Christians are invariably dumb, deluded and dangerous. And yet Hitchens, who himself often spoke this way about believers was often warmly received on by them. He once described the Christian audience into which he was received at a debate as a ‘den of lambs’. His brother Peter, a devout believer made peace with him later in life. Francis Collins, the geneticist and doctor who spoke frequently about matters of faith who is often ridiculed by atheists, aided Hitchens in his fight against cancer. After he announced that he had cancer there was a veritable outpouring of support for him, much of it by way of prayer for which he expressed being ‘touched’ despite not believing them to be effective. Unlike atheists, Christians merely see their opponents as wrong, not fundamentally stupid or insane. We understand that despite his best efforts, Hitchens was no more a sinner than anyone else and no less deserving of the grace than any believer.
Another great irony of Christopher Hitchens’ life is that it only matters if he was wrong. If Hitchens was right about the universe, then he has passed into nothingness and will be soon forgotten – atheists have little love for history except where it serves their purposes and the modern world has an increasingly short attention span. If a face and voice isn’t ever-present on the screen it soon fades from public memory. So the increasingly secular world quickly forgets its own champions; everyone is equally unimportant and inevitably lost in a dying universe.
And yet if Christians are right, Hitchens existed for an eternal purpose. To the degree he championed truth and good purpose; his work inadvertently had eternal impact even if it didn’t result in his own salvation. To the degree that he championed evil notions, even those works will ultimately conform to the will of God. Just as Joseph said to his brothers ‘What you meant for ill, God worked for good’ no one can thwart the eternal purposes of God. Pharaoh and Moses and Pilate and Peter all played their part in the great story that is unfolding, so in the Christian understanding the part Hitchens played is enshrined in eternity, even if he isn’t there to enjoy it.
By his own admission, Hitchens destroyed his own body through the smoke and drink that led to his cancer. He took on tyrants and hypocrites, but he couldn’t conquer the demons of his own desires and the rise above the depth of his own boredom.
The ultimate irony of his life is that believers, who saw in him the Godly virtues of courage and honesty and perseverance, may have valued his life more than he did himself.