Editor’s Journal: A painful end
As renowned atheist Christopher Hitchens dies a very public death from cancer, he has declared any idea that might be reported of a deathbed conversion to Christ should be relegated to a man under duress from drugs and a disease that has attacked his brain. In an interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, he made it clear that belief in God is not something to be invented during a time of intense suffering. Seeking refuge through prayer to a divine being does not, at least as far as he is concerned, change the reality of death or ease its passage into the world of the unknown.
Hitchens is nothing if not blunt. He is unashamed to state that all world religions are the invention of human beings. Scratch beneath the surface and one finds only a battle for ideas which masks the real goal of power and money. Search out all theology, Hitchens would say, and all that is found is a man-made system of ideas that looks remarkably different from even the sacred texts from which the three world religions (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) originate. And speaking of sacred texts—the Old Testament in the Bible is not the place to look for a God of justice and grace.
In his book, God is Not Great, he is quick to point out various Old Testament texts that are severe in their content and shocking in their unvarnished honesty. Hitchens’ understanding of the Bible can be summed up as an arbitrary collection of ancient scrolls assembled by corrupt men intent on the suppression of opposition at any cost—even the duping of millions through religious fiction disguised as truth. The appalling presence of evil in the world is the stumbling block that makes men like him and the entire cadre of the so-called “new” atheists resistant to any possibility that a personal God could exist and still be just.
Indeed, the answer to one of life’s ultimate questions is not provided in Holy Scripture. What was Satan doing in God’s garden? The Bible is silent on the matter. What can be clearly seen, however, is that God is active against evil in ways that are visible and powerful. While human rebellion and their subsequent banishment from the garden usher in times of arrogance and further rebellion, God was quick to judge the world and route evil from it by crushing it in its tracks in the flood and the tower of Babel. In Jesus Christ, God both punished evil and restored the creation by becoming both the just and justifier of those who have faith in the accomplishment of Jesus Christ in their behalf. (Rom. 3:26).
The unspoken question raised by Hitchens and his ilk that terrorizes even the most faithful Christ-follower: What if he is right? The various “proofs” for the existence of God coupled with the arguments of the most ardent Christian apologist can melt away like wax before a flame when death looms as a soon to be experienced reality. Hitchens, however, seems to be bracing for the end in a quite remarkable manner of intellectual engagement the likes of which students of Hitchens have not seen. When questioned as to the possibility of whether or not he will pray when faced with his own demise, he quickly retorts that to pray in the time of need to a being who may or may not be present (according to his logic) is to admit that the entirety of one’s life work could have been spent in error.
The renowned atheist and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi wrote of his brief brush with God during a razor’s edge experience of death in Auschwitz:
“I was waiting to file past the “commission” that with one glance would decide whether I should go immediately to the gas chamber or was instead strong enough to go on working. For one instance, I felt the need to ask for help and asylum . . . one does not change the rules of the game at the end of the match, not when you are losing. A prayer under these conditions would have been not only absurd (what rights could I claim? and from whom?) but blasphemous, obscene, laden with the greatest impiety of which a nonbeliever is capable. I rejected the temptation; I knew that otherwise were I to survive, I would have to be ashamed of it.”
At this point, pride comes into full view as the ground of much of atheism. To actually admit need in a time of suffering is to admit the weakness of the human experience personally. If truth, as determined and grounded solely by human reason, is dependent on the “dispassionate” and “clear-headed thinking” that comes when human minds are not afflicted and clouded by pain, then suffering is indeed weakness and belief in God is little more than a projected pain-killer.
To the contrary, Holy Scripture reveals Jesus in absolute control of His own crucifixion. On the edge of His own death, Jesus tells the government official who holds His life in his hands that he (Pilate) would have no power over Him were it not granted to him from above (John 19:11). Suffering is the path to clarity, not away from it. As fundamentally weak and needy creatures captured by the chains of sin, human beings are at their worst when they deny their need for God. Through pain, clarity comes as a direct result—even because of—human frailty.
Levi and Hitchens would vehemently disagree, because they believe human beings are at their best when they are untouched by any intellectually or emotionally altering experience of personal pain. Yet, as life speeds toward an end for Hitchens, many prayers are being said for him—asking that he would be awakened to the truth of Holy Scripture that Jesus Christ is the Savior of his soul.
“For the wicked boasts of the desires of his soul, and the one greedy for gain curses and renounces the Lord.”