Christopher Hitchens’ Long Argument with the Specter of Death

Reed JolleyCommunity News

In the late 1960s our culture was abuzz about the death of God.  Today, the same voices are prattling vociferously over the death of Christopher Hitchens, one of our era’s most delightful and unpredictable curmudgeons.  Best known for his atheistic attacks on all things religious, especially all things Christian, Hitchens seemed to endear himself to the very people whose faith he attacked even as he alienated himself from those of his own tribe.

After graduating from Oxford, Hitchens became a voice for the left, avowing the doctrines of Trotsky and Marx.  He found himself gifted in both writing and debate, once saying, If you can give a decent speech in public or cut any kind of figure on the podium, then you need never dine or sleep alone.

Hitchens was especially notorious because he seemed to be an equal-opportunity offender.  He called Bill Clinton apathological liar and a rapist and, in a book he wrote on Mother Teresa, called her a fraud. He attacked Sarah Palin on the political right even as he attacked Noam Chomsky on the political left.  He called the Dixie Chicks fat slugs—and later admitted he had never seen a picture of the band. In Vanity Fair he wrote a column entitled “Why Women Aren’t Funny,”arguing that women essentially have no need for humor because they are objects of men’s desire.  Humor is, Hitchens argued, a male mating call by which a man distinguishes himself from other men and thereby attracts a lady’s attention.  Feminists were not amused.  After 9/11, Hitchens came to despise the political left because it blamed the atrocities committed by Osama bin Laden on American foreign policy.  AsSaul Bellow once said, Hitchens was a playboy thriving on agitation.

Christopher Hitchens is best known for his book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.  Published in 2007, the book is essentially a defense of atheism, kind of a Mere Christianity for unbelief.  In that work, Hitchens made much of the oft-used argument that religion is simply outdated in the modern world.  On the one hand, Religion comes from the period of prehistory where nobody… had the smallest idea what was going on.  On the other hand, in our scientific age, Religion has run out of justifications.  Thanks to the telescope and the microscope, it no longer offers an explanation of anything important.

And then came the phone call.  Early in 2010 Hitchens learned he had esophageal cancer that had spread to his lungs and lymph nodes.  His cancer was classified as stage 4.  Writing about his cancer, the 62-year-old iconoclast said this:

I have more than once in my life woken up feeling like death, but nothing prepared me for the early morning last June when I came to consciousness feeling as if I were actually shackled to my own corpse.

Hitchens was indeed shackled to his own corpse but, sadly, he refused the free grace of the only One who could loose the chains that bound him (Romans 7:24).

In April 2011, Hitchens was supposed to speak at the annual American Atheist Convention.  His cancer was advanced to the point that he had to cancel his appearance.  His letter of regret stated, Nothing would have kept me from joining you except the loss of my voice (at least my speaking voice) which in turn is due to a long argument I am currently having with the specter of death.  His letter ended with the words, And don’t keep the faith.

Hitchens was the center of attention during the last months of his life.  Believers sent him messages that they were praying for him, and others wondered if this iconic voice of our times would, in the end, turn to God.  But the British-American curmudgeon remained defiant to the end, stating that redemption and supernatural deliverance appears even more hollow and artificial to me than it did before.

His last book, Hitch-22, is a memoir of his life as a public intellectual, a writer, a debater, and an apologist for atheism.  In the opening pages Hitchens reaffirms his defiance of the inevitable.

I personally want to “do” death in the active and not the passive, and to be there to look it in the eye and be doing something when it comes for me.

Christopher Hitchens was smart, quick witted, articulate, and proud. He was what the scriptures call afool.  He said in his heart, There is no God, and he appears to have been faithful to his creed to the end.

There is a story told of G. K. Chesterton going to the funeral of an atheist early in the twentieth century.  Someone standing nearby noticed how poorly dressed the deceased looked as he lay in his open casket.  The onlooker commented, “All dressed up, with nowhere to go!”  Chesterton replied, “I bet he wishes that were true.”  I bet Christopher Hitchens also wishes it were true.

In the end, Hitchens’ defiance came with its own reward.  As C. S. Lewis wrote in The Great Divorce,

There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened.

Christopher Hitchens was impertinent to the end, and he reaps his reward.  May we be found among those who say to God, even to the end, Thy will be done!