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Death of an Atheist

December 16, 2011

It’s a sad day.  Christopher Hitchens died last night.  I only heard about it this morning.

As a Christian pastor, you might think I would be happy that a belligerent opponent of Christianity like Hitchens is dead.  But I’m not.  I truly feel sad about the whole thing.  In my opinion, last night he met the God of the universe that he did not believe in.  In my opinion, Hitchens must have thought, “I missed this one big time.”  In my opinion, he was cast out from His presence and eternally condemned.  And I am not happy at all about that.  It breaks my heart.

I first encountered Hitchens years ago while on a flight.  I can’t remember when it was or where I was going.  I was alone or maybe just sitting alone, apart from my family or traveling friends.  I really don’t remember.  No, he didn’t sit in the seat next to me and so obviously no chat was begun between us.  That would have been much more interesting.  Actually, I sat next to a young man who had Hitchen’s best-selling book, entitled “God is Not Great.”  With a title like that, I couldn’t ignore it.  It was Hitchen’s atheist manifesto, in which he ranted and raved against religion.  After that flight, I intentionally researched this British-native-become-armchair theologian.

I have always said that Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens were two different kinds of atheists.  Hitchens is a journalist.  He uses theatrics and highly emotive words to get his points across.  I thought of him more as a showman than a scientist or a philosopher.  So you can understand why I dismissed him.

Before you throw this guy in with all the other atheists as a liberal thinker towing the party line, you should learn more about him.  This guy is hard to nail down.  He hated religion, not just Christianity.  Many Christians today are concerned about anti-Christian positions that give passes to the other religions of the world.  You don’t have to worry about that with Hitchens.  He was very equal in his hate of all religions.

With Christianity, he simply pointed out the evil that supposed Christians have caused in the world: Salem witch trials, Crusades, KKK, Inquisition, and a plethora of wars.  Christians have not helped our cause through the years.  I would agree that Christian institutions and people have been the cause of great evil in the world.  How could we deny this?  But those things aren’t true Christianity.  It simply is a fallacy that the mistakes of some completely vilify the whole.  But Hitchens wouldn’t have given me an ear on this and would claim that the foundation of Christianity, especially its exclusivity, leads to such extreme acts of evil.

How’s this for contradiction.  Early in his life, he became a famed and self-professed liberal in every sense of the word:  morally, politically, and philosophically.  That is, until he began to criticize his own.  For instance, Hitchens is a guy who claimed that life begins at conception, was outraged at Bill Clinton’s sex scandal, and supported George Bush in his fight against terrorism.  On that platform alone, some of you would have voted for him.  In fact, Hitchens supported Bush’ 2004 election.  Catch the irony:  one of the most famous atheists in the world supporting the same candidate that the majority of the religious-right supports.  Hitchens was a humanist and a hedonist (consuming large amounts of alcohol and cigarettes) with often surprisingly conservative stances.  For Hitchens, 9/11 was just further proof that religion was evil, and it fueled his hatred of Muslims.  Of course, he equally despised Christianity.  Sometimes politics makes for strange bedfellows.

I can’t help but think about the argument for God’s existence by Blaise Pascal, often called “Pascal’s Wager.”  I will share it by applying it to Hitchens (an atheist) and myself (a believer).  Here’s the wager:  If Hitchens was right in his beliefs, then last night he lost nothing.  Last night, he simply stopped existing, and that is that.  However, if he was wrong, then last night he met the God he did not believe in and found that he lost life’s greatest quest.  When I die, if I am wrong in my beliefs, then I have lost nothing – I am in the same situation as Hitchens.  If I am right, then I have gained everything.  Pascal claimed that believers had the possibility of gaining everything at best and losing nothing at worst, but non-believers could not gain everything and could possibly lose everything.

I think Hitchens lost.  Others can disagree.  Regardless, I am sad about this.  I take no joy in Hitchens death, because it was the worst thing that could happen to him.  He died with no hope, and his family has no hope today.  They have finality and loss without redemption and reunion.  That’s heartbreaking for me, not only for this individual, but for all in the world who are in the same boat.

But I must say:  I’m tired of Christians hating their enemy.  Especially since Jesus taught and modeled a bold love for enemies.  Love has no grace until it is given to those who oppose, annoy, harm, or hurt us.  On top of this, if we hate Hitchens and others like him then we prove him right.  We present ourselves as just another man-made religion, with no signs of divine fingerprints upon us.  Hitchens was right in his critique of religion.  Religion kills and fuels hate and pride.  Apostle Paul would whole-heartedly agree, calling religion “the letter that kills.”  But what Hitchens missed is that Christianity is not religion.  Religion is man-made personal justification.  It is the human attempt at self salvation.  Religion without Jesus is death, shame, and blindness.  Christianity is full of grace, infused into our lives through the gracious death of Jesus Christ.  It’s redemption. Christianity is relationship.  Christianity is the dynamic force of God graciously transforming us to people of love and truth.  As Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch put it in their book “ReJesus,” Christianity is anti-religion.  Christianity is Christ, but it is nearly always in danger of becoming something else by the people who claim it.

For some reason, Hitchen’s death has made me love him more.  Through empathy, I care about his destiny.  Through grace, I want something better for him than what he got.  I mourn this man who I never knew.  I mourn the tragic state of all unbelief, whether it would be atheism or theism that excludes Christ.  In both cases, I mourn.

It’s strange that the exclusive claim of Christianity is what Hitchens disliked so much about my faith, and yet it is that same exclusive claim that is making me love him and grieve him more.  Exclusivity should not ever make us more proud and condescending of unbelievers.  It should make us mourn with tears that fuel our passion to seek and save those who are lost.

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