Called to Prayer: Christopher Hitchens Submits to Chemotherapy

Is it OK (in a church-sponsored blog, no less) to confess an affection for someone who is actively seeking to destroy the cause of Christ in the world? I certainly hope so, because last week’s announcement in The New York Times that Christopher Hitchens was interrupting his “Hitch-22” promotional book tour to begin treatment for cancer of the esophagus had the startling effect of revealing to me how much I truly like the man and wish him well. To my great surprise, my thoughts did not even once go to contemplating the subject of “God’s righteous vengeance” on His enemies; instead, I was delighted to find that I was entirely focused on a silent prayer that he make a swift and full recovery.

How did that happen?

How did I come to genuinely care for the life and well-being of an outspoken “enemy?” And more importantly, how can I encourage my heart to carry this level of concern over to enemies living much closer to home? It’s relatively easy to feel affection for someone I have no day-to-day contact with, whose character and intellect is completely confined to words on a page or sound bites within a movie. By God’s grace, I may be convicted by this development to further explore the biblical method of inclining our hearts to those enemies of Christ whose rebellion and unbelief actually have an impact on our daily lives; it’s certainly a lesson I largely have yet to learn. For now, though, let me focus on Hitchens.

I’ll never, ever forget the precise moment when Christopher Hitchens rather impertinently forced his way into my heart. As a Christian, of course, I had previously heard his name bandied about quite a lot as “an outspoken enemy of Christ” but (regrettably) had never bothered to dig beneath that sort of dismissive, junk-drawer designation. Content to remain fixed in this manner of thinking, Hitchens was nothing more than an enemy of the faith, someone to be tossed in the same pigeonhole as Samuel Harris, Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins, given a convenient designation that allowed me, in my intellectual laziness, to more or less ignore him.

That all changed on a Friday evening at the 2009 Desiring God National Conference when John Piper and his crew in Minneapolis screened Collision: Christopher Hitchens vs. Douglas Wilson for the assembled faithful. I am exceedingly grateful that Doug Wilson, the Christian “antagonist” to Hitchens in the film, was a speaker at the conference and therefore on hand to admit that he truly likes Hitchens as well; in fact, he indicated that the two have since become friends. (I think my sigh of relief may well have been audible several rows away.) In hindsight, my creeping sense of panic as the film progressed seems laughable; there is obviously nothing at all wrong – and everything right – in caring for anyone and everyone that bears the image of their Maker, and that includes Hitchens. But to my great embarrassment I can clearly recall a pathetic sense of dread as the film unwound, something akin to “Uh, oh…this guy is brilliant and has a wicked sense of humor…I might actually like the man.”

For this noticeble reversal in an “us vs. them” mentality, I am very much indebted to the Holy Spirit and, secondarily, to Mr. Hitchens. Specifically, I want to thank Hitchens for shaking me up quite a bit and forcing me to rethink several assumed aspects of my belief in the person and work of the God-man, Jesus of Nazareth. For sheer force, Hitchens’ opening salvo against Christianity (see below) blew me away with both its content and his articulate delivery. I found myself wanting to pull out my wallet and/or examine the contents on my Desiring God Conference plastic bag just to make sure I was in the right auditorium (or perhaps just to make sure that I had all five stars on my Reformed Calvinist membership card punched).

My own intellectual struggle with certain orthodox Christian beliefs persists even unto the present day, and so I was enormously encouraged by the late-life conversion of the famous atheist Antony Flew. Flew had the integrity to go wherever the evidence led, and his intellectual honesty ultimately led him to courageously refute his own life’s work and acknowledge that we live in a clearly-ordered universe and that God must, after all, exist. It would not appear that Mr. Flew gave his life to Christ in any meaningful way, but then no one ultimately knows the true heart of man apart from God Himself (Luke 16:15; 1 Samuel 16:7). But I want to hope for the best for Antony Flew and everyone else who denies the singular and exclusive authority of Christ (John 14:6), even though Jesus makes it abundantly clear that most people aren’t going to be in Heaven (Matthew 7:13-14).

And I really do want Christopher Hitchens to make a full and swift recovery, my heart in full agreement with many of those – believers and unbelievers alike – who posted comments on the June 30 cancer announcement in the Times. Life is so much richer for the brilliant people that God places in our midst! Ultimately, though, I hope his journey for truth leads him along the same path trod by Antony Flew…I just hope he gets a little further down the road before the limitations of his mortal coil catch up with him.

Along with asking ESI readers to join me in praying for his health, I’d also like to challenge all believers to strengthen their faith and be able to offer a response to the sort of blistering, well-spoken critiques of faith that Hitchens and others have put forward. I certainly cannot answer every single one of the points Hitchens raises in one of his memorable speeches (reprinted below) but that does not mean that I can be disobedient to Peter’s call that we all are able to give a reason for the hope within us (1 Peter 3:15).

Let’s say that the consensus is that our species, being the higher primates, Homo Sapiens, has been on the planet for at least 100,000 years, maybe more. Francis Collins says maybe 100,000. Richard Dawkins thinks maybe a quarter-of-a-million. I’ll take 100,000. In order to be a Christian, you have to believe that for 98,000 years, our species suffered and died, most of its children dying in childbirth, most other people having a life expectancy of about 25 years, dying of their teeth. Famine, struggle, bitterness, war, suffering, misery, all of that for 98,000 years. Heaven watches this with complete indifference. And then 2,000 years ago, thinks “That’s enough of that. It’s time to intervene,” and the best way to do this would be by condemning someone to a human sacrifice somewhere in the less literate parts of the Middle East. Don’t let’s appeal to the Chinese, for example, where people can read and study evidence and have a civilization. Let’s go to the desert and have another revelation there. This is nonsense. It can’t be believed by a thinking person.

Why am I glad this is the case? To get to the point of the wrongness of Christianity, because I think the teachings of Christianity are immoral. The central one is the most immoral of all, and that is the one of vicarious redemption. You can throw your sins onto somebody else, vulgarly known as scapegoating. In fact, originating as scapegoating in the same area, the same desert. I can pay your debt if I love you. I can serve your term in prison if I love you very much. I can volunteer to do that. I can’t take your sins away, because I can’t abolish your responsibility, and I shouldn’t offer to do so. Your responsibility has to stay with you. There’s no vicarious redemption. There very probably, in fact, is no redemption at all. It’s just a part of wish-thinking, and I don’t think wish-thinking is good for people either. It even manages to pollute the central question, the word I just employed, the most important word of all: the word love, by making love compulsory, by saying you must love. You must love your neighbor as yourself, something you can’t actually do. You’ll always fall short, so you can always be found guilty. By saying you must love someone who you also must fear. That’s to say a supreme being, an eternal father, someone of whom you must be afraid, but you must love him, too. If you fail in this duty, you’re again a wretched sinner. This is not mentally or morally or intellectually healthy. And that brings me to the final objection – I’ll condense it, Dr. Olafsky – which is, this is a totalitarian system. If there was a God who could do these things and demand these things of us, and he was eternal and unchanging, we’d be living under a dictatorship from which there is no appeal, and one that can never change and one that knows our thoughts and can convict us of thought crime, and condemn us to eternal punishment for actions that we are condemned in advance to be taking. All this in the round, and I could say more, it’s an excellent thing that we have absolutely no reason to believe any of it to be true.

Christopher Hitchens
Collision: Christopher Hitchens vs. Douglas Wilson

The Internet Movie Database; Retrieved July 5, 2010.

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