The author of the book of Ecclesiastes wrote: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die” (Eccl. 3:1-2). To Christopher Hitchens, his time to die came last Thursday. Christopher Hitchens was born on April 13, 1949 and died on December 15, 2011.
Hitchens, the well-known British journalist and renowned atheist died on December 15 at the age of 62 at a hospital in Houston of complications with pneumonia. Hitchens had been battling cancer of the esophagus for almost two years. He is survived by his wife, three children, and his brother Peter Hitchens.
Hitchens was the author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. His book was an unrelenting critique of religion.
In his book, Hitchens wrote that many of the world’s most serious problems were caused by religion. He said that religion condoned the subjugation of women, that it was against scientific progress, and the cause of many evils in the world. To him, religious faith was nonsense; it was belief in magic and fables.
At the time of his death, it would be easy to criticize Christopher Hitchens for his hate of religion, his criticism of religious faith, and his denial of God. My purpose in this post is to think about the meaning of life and death.
The Bible affirms that all men and women are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26), including people who deny the existence of a creator God. But humans were created as finite beings. The human body has many limitations and the problem of pain and suffering is part of those limitations.
All human beings have one thing in common: sooner or later all of them will experience suffering. It is unfortunate that some Christians have said that Hitchens’ cancer was God’s punishment for his atheism. In fact, many people believe that the suffering they experience is part of God’s will for their lives.
But this is not the way God acts. It is this desire to link the problem of suffering with God’s will that turns many people away from God and from faith. It is clear from Hitchens’ subtitle to his book that he also associated God with the problem of suffering and evil.
God is the creator of life and when he created life, he created it for a purpose. However, people cannot understand the real meaning of life unless they believe in God, the creator of life. Life is more that just accumulating wealth, attaining fame, or pursuing happiness. In the end, our life was created to live in fellowship with God.
Peter Hitchens, Christopher Hitchens’ brother, is an evangelical Christian who came out of atheism to faith in God (red my review of The Rage Against God). He often debated with his brother about the merits of Christianity. Peter understands the meaning of faith and of a personal relationship with God through Christ. He also knows what happens when a person dies without faith in Christ. The Bible teaches that if his brother Christopher died without faith in Jesus Christ, then he died without the hope of eternal life.
In remembering Christopher Hitchens’ life and death, Gene Weingarten wrote the following poem:
Christopher Hitchens ceases to be;
A remarkable life he led.
He isn’t in heaven; he isn’t in hell —
He is simply, emphatically, dead.
But it is not as simple as that. The Bible says: “By God’s law death comes to men once, and after that they are judged” (Heb. 9:27).
Some people said that they were praying that Hitchens’ illness would bring him to faith in God. But Hitchens said that he would never convert.
Jeffrey Goldberg, a close friend of Hitchens and writer for The Atlantic, said “that as Hitchens’ health failed, he made a pre-emptive strike against those who might claim he had a deathbed conversion. One of the things he said to me and other people was, ‘If I lose my faculties, defend my reputation as an atheist.’ Basically, he said: ‘If, God forbid, I say something about believing in God, will you please go out there and say: This is the medication, this is dementia, this is not the Hitchens that we know.’”
In another interview Hitchens said that he would not convert on his deathbed unless he was “very ill” or “half demented, either by drugs or pain where I wouldn’t have control over what I say.”
Christopher Hitchens was “very ill” in his last days, but whether he converted, only the God whom he rejected knows.
Hitchens was a lover of free speech and English poetry, so, it is fitting that I conclude my tribute to Hitchens with a quote from John Donne, the famous English poet who was famous for his religious poetry. The excerpt below is taken from his Meditations:
Perchance he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill, as that he knows not it tolls for him; and perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that.
When [the church] buries a man, that action concerns me: all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.
Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee. Neither can we call this a begging of misery, or a borrowing of misery, as though we were not miserable enough of ourselves, but must fetch in more from the next house, in taking upon us the misery of our neighbours.
Although I strongly disagreed with Christopher Hitchens on his views of God and religion, his death also diminishes me because I am also involved in “mankind,” and like me, Christopher Hitchens was a person created in the image of God.
“The Lord . . . doesn’t want to destroy anyone but wants all people to have an opportunity to turn to him and change the way they think and act” (2 Pet. 3:9 GWN).
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary