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Atheist Tuesday: Will Hitchens Listen?

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 This story, “JUST LISTEN” by Janie B. Cheaney, is used with permission from WORLD magazine. The original link is here: http://www.worldmag.com/articles/18118

While losing his eloquent voice,
Christopher Hitchens may gain ears to hear 

Christopher Hitchens is not complaining. Or rather, he is, but he doesn’t want your sympathy. Or maybe he does, but for heaven’s sake don’t pity the man! He admits he’s had a good run, and since his diagnosis with esophageal cancer in 2007 he’s been trying, with moderate success, to philosophically take the bad with the good. There’s always something, though; some loss that’s especially hard, or some regret that cuts painfully deep. In his case, it’s his voice. He can’t rely on it anymore. Sometimes he can’t make it sound at all, much less roll out in the mighty, sinewy syllables it could so easily command in years past.

Very few could wield the clever rejoinder, the subtle twist of a phrase, the elegant slash that disarmed an opponent like Hitchens could. I’ve heard debates on atheism vs. faith that he lost on substance but won, hands down, on style. He cut himself out of every tight place and brilliantly scored with the deadly bon mot— touche! And bravo! from the young bucks in the peanut gallery. Not because they wanted their atheism vindicated by him; they wanted to be him, the epitome of cool: the height, the hair, the ready wit, the keen vocabulary, and above all the casually mastered, irresistibly accented voice.

It’s going now. Soon, if reasonable expectations hold, it will be gone.

Many of us don’t fear death in the abstract, but we do in the particular. The idea of annihilation or some mild Hereafter holds no threat, but to have our grip loosened from life, finger by finger, to surrender control and be reduced to someone else’s job, lined up with other patients to wait the convenience of “providers”—that hits us where we live. In the heart, in the pride. I remember following the ambulance that was taking my mother to the hospital for the last time, for “a few tests.” She had given up hope but the rest of us weren’t ready to. It didn’t seem such a big thing to me, being checked in and tagged and charted. But it was hard for her. She had lost the ability to make a decision and make it stick; she was reduced to meat, shuffled between facilities, more than ready for it to be over.

Hitchens isn’t there yet, but barring some miracle turnaround he’s getting close. In a recent piece for Vanity Fair (“Unspoken Truths”) he writes nothing, or very little, about his old nemesis the Almighty, but elsewhere he has remarked on gloating emails he’s received from certain believers: Aha! You used your voice to blaspheme God, now God is strangling your voice—poetic justice. In spite of such ungracious communication, Hitchens doesn’t regard all Christians as spiteful. He’s become a close friend of Dr. Francis Collins, noted evangelical and director of the Human Genome Project, who contributed to Hitchens’ cancer treatment. In fact, he’s always had Christian friends whom he admired in spite of their peculiar delusion. He’s a big man that way. But when he pictures God, as if there were such a being, it’s the petty and vindictive god of the gloaters.

Would he bring God down to see how the other half lives? Sorry, that’s already happened. Brought about by Himself, in a way that confounds the wise. Humiliating treatment? Been there. Piece of meat? Done that. Mocking, vindictive emails? The first-century equivalent, which was at least as brutal. Throat ripped, breath choked, voice ravaged, abandoned to the uttermost despair? Oh yes. I don’t know what God is doing to Hitchens, but whatever it is, it’s a great deal less than He did to Himself.

And it could just be that, by robbing an eloquent man of speech, God is making it possible for him finally to listen. For the last year or so, Hitchens has thanked sympathetic Christians for their prayers but insists they will make no difference in his belief, or lack thereof. Ignore that. The Hound of Heaven may be on the hunt. Email Janie B. Cheaney

Read a previous article I wrote about Hitchens and his believing brother called “Cain and Abel by clicking here.

 

22 Comments

  1. There seems to be an implicit assumption that Hitchens wasn’t listening previously – that if he had been listening, if he’d just understood, then surely he would have agreed. I find that more than a little bit troubling.

    And again, “For the last year or so, Hitchens has thanked sympathetic Christians for their prayers but insists they will make no difference in his belief, or lack thereof. Ignore that.” Why “ignore that”? Why not listen to what he has to say about it? Why not take him at his word?

    And how long after he dies will it be before someone begins concocting deathbed conversion stories about him? (Urban Legends are one of my interests, and this one seems inevitable.) How many people will pass such stories along without bothering to find out whether or not they’re true? Sure, the idea that Hitchens isn’t burning in Hell, and/or that even the most outspoken doubters will eventually find Jesus, is comforting; but at this rate it looks very likely to be a false, mendacious sort of comfort.

  2. That’s a rather insulting insinuation from the writer, but it seems like the evangelicals have little respect for the dying and dead.

    • Hello Garrett:
      I’m an evangelical Christian and I have compassion for those who are suffering from all kinds of illnesses and difficulties. Speaking the truth about what is revealed in the Bible (like the fact that Mr. Hitchens hardened his mind against God) may look like lack of respect from a non-Christian perspective. For clarification purposes let me share with you that the Bible is full of examples of people who hardened themselves against God AND all kinds of admonishments to warn us against doing the same thing ourselves. That’s why the author made the comment about what Mr. Hitchens did to himself. It’s not evangelicals who are claiming this; we are repeating what God Himself has said.

      I get how it seems like Christians are hard hearted or disrespectful or judgmental. I used to be atheist. Christian ways made no sense to me at all. I thought Christians were judgmental. Truthfully, some are. Some are mean spirited and nasty mouthed, too. I probably have been that way, too, without meaning to be. When the truth of God invades your soul you have an overwhelming desire to guide others to Him, too. Sometimes our zealousness provoked by this overwhelming desire gets in the way and comes out wrong. Sometimes we’re speaking plain truth and the truth is disturbing because it resonates with something in our minds. Happens to me all the time.

      Like every living soul in the world, we Christians are still sinners and we do sinful things. The apostle Paul referred to himself as the worst of sinners, doing what he did not want to do. Some of us strive more to live according to Jesus’ teachings. Some of us are just coasting on God’s grace. It would be nice if we could all live up to the example set for us by Jesus. We’re each marching in that direction at different speeds. Some are father ahead, some are just starting, and some are stagnant.

      I hope that you can believe me when I say that evangelicals as a group do not lack respect for the sick and the dead. On the contrary, every single one of my Christian friends prays consistently for those who are ill and suffering and dying. It would be unconscionable to do otherwise. Just as there are loving and compassion non-Christians, there are loving and compassionate Christians. Just as there are judgmental and divisive non-Christians, there are those of the same character who call themselves Christians.

      Looking forward to your reply,
      Natalie

  3. Mr. Hitchens, today is the first I’ve heard of you…and you may never hear of me. I know what it is to suddenly acquire a disability. We disagree about the Lord God Almighty, yet it is my duty and honor to pray for you as I pray for the whole world. In your illness I pray that you will come to know Him who created you; Him who offers you the free gift of eternal life without illness or pain or sadness.

  4. And how long after he dies will it be before someone begins concocting deathbed conversion stories about him?

    Hopefully it won’t be an urban legend but the truth.

    That’s a rather insulting insinuation from the writer, but it seems like the evangelicals have little respect for the dying and dead.

    Actually, we have great respect for the dying and dead. That’s why we hope that Hitchens listens, to keep from being judged and sent to Hell.

    The truth ain’t always pretty behind atheist-stained sunglasses.

    • I could never leave my Lord for 90 days. He’s as real and the relationship with him deeper than my own relationship with my wife and kids. And why would I want to muddy my mind with unbelieving thought and take counsel from the wicked who are here today and gone tomorrow?

      Really now, Jim. Think logically about this.

      Have a nice day! 🙂

    • Atheists: Challenged to read the Bible. They read the Bible.
      Christians: Challenged to read secular-focused books. They get scared and refuse.

    • Of course I’m closed minded. I don’t want my brain spilling out all over the place.

    • I am a little disappointed Steve, mainly, because you buy into Ray’s way of thinking when it comes to established science like evolution, I’ve heard him flounder and falter when people who know the science try and teach him a thing or to and it is really quite sad. You have the ability to learn about the subject more Steve, there are plenty of Christians who except the science and still have their faith.

  5. Actually, we have great respect for the dying and dead.

    Here’s the thing, though: what you’re saying is, on one level, that you hope he doesn’t stand by his convictions. You say this because you believe his convictions are false, and because you believe that such false convictions carry with them an eternal punishment. Regardless of whether or not you’re right, “I hope you don’t stand by your convictions,” is not a respectful thing to say… to anyone. Given your beliefs it may be hopeful, it may be well-intentioned, it may be kind or charitable or loving – it may be all of those things – but it isn’t respectful.

    I’m not going to argue that, given the situation as you understand it, respect is absolutely the most important thing that you should be offering Hitchens and other unbelievers. I’ve heard plenty of Christians say that telling him the truth is far more important, and up to a point I agree with that. But, at the risk of putting words in Hitchens’ mouth, I think it’s also worth remembering that he thinks the truth is more important, too – and that’s precisely why he insists that prayers, friendly or otherwise, will make no difference to his beliefs.

    So if you’re going to pray for him, it might be better – more charitable, more respectful, more helpful – to pray that God will accept him as someone who sought truth to the limits of his understanding, and that the Almighty will once again extend His ineffable Grace. (Someone is almost certainly going to tell me that such a thing isn’t possible, that it simply doesn’t work that way, that the only way we can be saved is through belief in Christ. I won’t argue the point, but if God is anything like the Bible describes him, I would caution against trying to put limits on His grace.)

    • Hello Michael, I’d like to learn what you’ve read in the Bible descriptions about God about His character, His motivations, His grace, etc. Looking forward to hearing from you, Natalie

      • Hi, Natalie… Sorry for not responding sooner, I only just saw this.

        I don’t think I’ve ever sat down and written out a description of what I was taught about God, His nature, or His grace and mercy. The closest I’ve ever come was more of a compare-and-contrast piece, which you can find here: Not the Christianity I remember.

        You might also be interested in my thoughts on how to effectively share the Gospel with unbelievers and specifically former believers, which are tagged under the heading of Friendly Evangelism. That’s a lot to read, so if you want a short, one-post version, I’d try this one.

        Or, if you want to ask questions, you’re welcome to leave a comment on my blog or drop me an e-mail at michaelmock [at] mockwriting {dot} kom. (I’ve altered the address to avoid spambots; I assume you can translate that into a real e-mail address.)

        I’d be happy enough to answer you here, but this thread is getting old, and I won’t know you’ve responded unless I remember to come back here and look.

  6. I would not wish what Mr. Hitchens has on nobody. It is painful to see anyone suffer. Lord willing, I pray Mr. Hitchens come to Jesus soon. I want to see him in Heaven, God did it for the hardest of hearts like Apostle Paul, and he can do if for Mr. Hitchens.

  7. Remember the words of Scripture: “[t]he Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is long-suffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (II Peter 3:9)

    • Indeed remember the words of scripture. Perhaps like Pharaoh, God Hardened Hitchens heart so that God could glorify himself by Striking Hitchens down with Cancer.

  8. I am so very sorry to hear of Mr. Hitchens illness and subsequent loss of voice. I realize that he would not accept my prayers to God on his behalf, but i can hope that the pain he has gone thru–whether mental, spiritual, or physical–might be relieved. I do pray that he might be surrounded by and cared for by those who love him at this time.

  9. So if you’re going to pray for him, it might be better – more charitable, more respectful, more helpful – to pray that God will accept him as someone who sought truth to the limits of his understanding, and that the Almighty will once again extend His ineffable Grace.

    Not a good overview. You’re arguing with people who believe that 8 billion self-important, judgemental, pious hypocrites can get to heaven, but Gandhi cannot.

  10. I could never leave my Lord for 90 days. He’s as real and the relationship with him deeper than my own relationship with my wife and kids. And why would I want to muddy my mind with unbelieving thought and take counsel from the wicked who are here today and gone tomorrow?

    Really now, Jim. Think logically about this.

    Steve, you should think logically about this. If your religion is true, there is absolutely no reason to not “leave” it for 90 days. Jim is not even asking you to literaly leave it anyway, he is not asking you to stop believing for 90 days, that would be impossible, he is just suggesting a way to get more information. If your beliefs are true, no investigation whatsoever could compromise them.

    True claims cannot be proven false by investigation.

    However, you do concede that you cannot prove your beliefs to be true, and that’s it’s not your job to do so. So your answer is not surprising and it shows that you are too afraid to try such truth seeking challenge (but will claim that you are not).

    You just labeled anything which could potentially change your mind as ‘muddy’, and called Jim ‘wicked’ when he is showing you a way to get even more sure of what beliefs you hold are true. I know you are (half) kidding, but it’s still really weird to me!

    Have a great day as well! 🙂

  11. The irony is that, all the while accusing Hitchens of the same, she writes well without any real compelling evidence.

    She fails because, quite clearly, Hitchens’ arguments are just as sound on paper as the are when spoken – if not more so – because paper lends itself to more considered refinement.

    Not surprisingly, this whole emotional piece is just another thinly veiled emotional appeal using as its centrepiece that tried and true friend of religion: the fear of death.

    For those religious people out there you need to focus less on death and start examining how you are living this life. The only life you have. Will you go on wasting 1/7th of your life on something you know deep down does not exist?

  12. Why would I want to read recommendations by you Jim? From your attitude, which I see as a reflections of your fundamental beliefs (unbelief), I see nothing that can commend your brand of rationalism.

    I mean, c’mon, the name of your blog is Stupid Fundies and it’s littered with invective, obscenity and insult.

    I contend that a man is what he believes.

    Also, I’m encouraged by Scripture to “gird up the loins of my mind.” That is, be firm in where I stand, don’t let those pesky unbelievers entice you with their desire to tempt you by turning stones into bread.

    Vintango, I love science. I will post a great illustration of some wonderful scientific facts when I post an except from a sermon I did a couple of weeks ago. I even quote Carl Sagan! (This is all contingent on my blog posting my pre-dated articles because I will be out of town.)

  13. don’t let those pesky unbelievers entice you with their desire to tempt you by turning stones into bread.

    Failed mind-reading. I have no desire to “tempt” you, Steve. In fact, I find the idea completely silly.

    Also, if you feel that you shouldn’t listen to Jim because of what he believes, then why should anyone listen to you?

    I contend that the content is what matters, not the person presenting the content. If the biggest liar in the world says that 2+2=4, does that equation suddenly become a lie?

    No.

    I am very curious to see how you used such “scientific facts”, since our previous science-based discussions have been… strange, to put it lightly.

    Be safe overseas!

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