when an atheist dies

Christopher Hitchens died Thursday night, at the age of 62.

He is the famous atheist who wrote God in Not Great. He was also a famous journalist, essayist and left-wing commentator who could not be put it a box. He supported the Iraq war, for example.

Famous may not do him justice. He was brilliant, actually. Except for the part about not believing in God. A classmate from his Oxford days said “He could throw words up into the sky; they fell down in a marvelous pattern.” He could do this waking up from a dead drunk. His drinking was legendary. And so was the breadth of his reading and the accuracy of his memory.

He was so good his enemies often enjoyed his essays. He was fierce, honest, and gifted. And he went on the road, debating Christians on college campuses about the existence of God. His evangelical opponents often ended up as his friends, and when he was diagnosed with cancer there was a brief but passionate dialogue on whether we should pray for him. (I said yes, but without pity.)

When he died fellow atheist Richard Dawkins called him a “valiant fighter against all tyrants including God.” Other tributes poured in, including Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter who said, “Christopher Hitchens was a wit, a charmer and a troublemaker, and to those who knew him well, he was a gift from, dare I say, God.”

Well, I dare say it. Any one with the gifts of Hitchens, or Steve Jobs, or any other prominent unbeliever, is still in debt to their creator. And is still accountable for the stewardship of their gifts.

By all accounts, Hitchens died well. A touching tribute by his good friend Ian McEwan tells how he died, finishing a 3000-word article about Chesterton. McEwan writes:

Consider the mix. Chronic pain, weak as a kitten, morphine dragging him down, then the tangle of Reformation theology and politics, Chesterton’s romantic, imagined England suffused with the kind of Catholicism that mediated his brush with fascism, and his taste for paradox, which Christopher wanted to debunk. At intervals, his head would droop, his eyes close, then with superhuman effort he would drag himself awake to type another line. His long memory served him well, for he didn’t have the usual books on hand for this kind of thing.

“His unworldly fluency never deserted him, his commitment was passionate, and he never deserted his trade,” says McEwan. I’d like to die like that, still committed to my craft and exercising my gifts.

But I wouldn’t want to live like Hitchens, despite the nonsense of a column by Paul Brandeis Raushenbush over at Huffington Post. He writes: “When an atheist dies it is wrong to wonder what is happening to them now that they are dead. Instead we might consider whether they lived well while alive.”

We should consider what happens to an atheist after he dies, however. It would be wrong not to. Even Hitchens recognized this as a perfectly reasonable question if you believe that something does happen after you die.

What we believe about this does affect how we live and the choices we make, despite Raushnbush’s pretentions that the two are not related.

I’ve made my choices, and live every day under the shadow of eternity. Hitchens made his choices based on what he believed about this issue and famously said he did not regret it, even as he faced death.

I believe he regrets it now, and that his friend Dawkins will someday regret it too.

It’s incredibly sad.

But it is also true.

See this essay by Hitchens’ brother, Peter, who is a Christian, about their differences, and Peter’s own comments on his brother’s death.

3 thoughts on “when an atheist dies”

  1. My husband and I were having a similar conversation yesterday about Mr. Hitchens. We also believe that he has since changed his mind on the existence of God. Unfortunately, it is too late.

    1. “Unfortunately, it is too late.”


      Always struck me as arbitrary. You exist for eternity, but you only have a tiny percentage of that time to figure our which (if any) god is the right one, and if you get it wrong you are tortured for the rest of your existence.

      Never mind the fact that I can’t imagine loving or wanting to worship a being that did that to people.

      1. thanks for dropping in.

        clearly we don’t agree here, but I didn’t agree with Hitchens either and have a lot of respect for him as a writer.

        personally I can’t help loving a God who gives us a chance to love him. like many apologist for the faith I believe we are in a state of rebellion, and the pardon offered in Christ is a deal I willingly accept.

        i understand how it might not seem “fair,” but even that judgement is based on the conclusion that there is a right and wrong. And I believe we mostly get it wrong.

        that’s why I take the plea bargain, so to speak. and find there more love and forgiveness than i’m capable of myself.

        again, thanks for commenting at the daysman.

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