Over at Vanity Fair Christopher Hitchens has written about the people praying for him, now that he has cancer of the esophagus. Hitchens, of course, is the famous atheist who wrote God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.
Some Christians are obviously not praying for him. They write things on their blog like this:
Who else feels Christopher Hitchens getting terminal throat cancer [sic] was God’s revenge for him using his voice to blaspheme him? ….He’s going to writhe in agony and pain and wither away to nothing and then die a horrible agonizing death, and THEN comes the real fun, when he’s sent to HELLFIRE forever to be tortured and set afire.
And, unfortunately, there are people like that. Clearly God can judge people however he chooses, and he can send them to hell too. He can cut Hitchens off however and whenever he chooses. But this is not the “real fun,” especially not from the perspective of One who gave his Son on Hitchens’ behalf.
Frankly, I have good Christian friends who had throat cancer, and they didn’t have to blaspheme to get it. On the other hand, Christians who say they are praying for him are making better use of their time. And their bandwidth.
But not as far as Hitchens himself is concerned. He mocks them too, as is his nature: “What if I pulled through and the pious faction contentedly claimed that their prayers had been answered? That would somehow be irritating.”
He has little room to maneuver, of course, after a lifetime of mocking God and his people. Not that he wants to maneuver, from what I can see. In other interviews he has acknowledged that even if his excessive smoking did contribute to his cancer he would do it all over again. He has made his peace with his destiny, it seems.
He certainly rejects Pascal’s Gambit, as any thinking person should. This reduces faith to a wager— bet on God, and you have nothing to lose, even if he doesn’t exist. Bet against him and you have everything to lose if he does.
Hitchens correctly surmises that faith is no mere gamble. “Suppose I ditch the principles I have held for a lifetime, in the hope of gaining favor at the last minute?” he asks. “I hope and trust that no serious person would be at all impressed by such a hucksterish choice.”
My interest here, however, is not what happens to Hitchens, or what choices he makes. I’m more interested in how thoughtful Christians ought to respond. And prayer of course is always appropriate, both for his healing and his salvation. This is not because we know what God will or should do. It is only the beginning of how we rest in providence.
But is there more? Apparently a few Christian friends have come beside him. I can pray for them to have wisdom and even success. I’m much inclined to think whatever purposes God may yet have for him are best mediated by those who have invested themselves in him.
And by God himself, who draws whom he wills. He has invested the most, even in those who rail against Him. Whether He didn’t call Hitchens, or quit calling him, I have no idea. He may be calling him yet, which is reason enough to pray.
Hitchens’ story is a tragic one. And cancer is only part of it. He has lived hard and mocked everything, especially the imperfect people in the church for whom Christ died because they were imperfect. He wants no pity and I have none to offer. He has made and is making his choices.
And so is God.