I didn’t know Christopher Hitchens personally. We never spent time with each other, never had a one-on-one conversation, and never went to a bar together to debate the existence of God and the meaning of life. In fact, I never even saw him speak live. But when I heard of his death this past December, I was surprised with the deep sense of personal loss and sadness I felt.
My sadness deepened as I heard the reactions some of my Christian friends had to Hitchens’ death, especially online. I suppose I should have expected the flippant and hurtful comments I saw springing up on my Facebook and Twitter feeds that day (I won’t repeat them, but most boiled down to some derogatory and gleeful declaration that he’s getting his due in hell), but I was frustrated all the same. I had a sense that many of the people making these comments had actually been waiting for this moment, waiting to say “I told you so.”
And I realized that this attitude is pervasive in many of us as Christians - when our faith is threatened or questioned, especially by someone as intelligent and unflinching as Hitchens and others in his new-atheist movement, we choose to shrink back and avoid the threat, hoping it will go away. And when it does, even if it means the death of someone God loves, some of us rejoice.
Don’t get me wrong, Hitchens infuriated me. He said things that offended me to my core. I believe he did much more harm to the world than good, and I mourn those who have abandoned their faith because of him. I also believe the hard truth of scripture, which states that if Hitchens still clung to his unwavering unbelief in Jesus (which I can only assume he did), he is spending his eternity apart from Him. However, I did not rejoice that day, for two reasons.
First, I was just plain sad. Even though I’d never met Hitchens, I felt a connection with him. His books and lectures, though difficult, helped me think critically about my faith in a way I’d never done before. I hoped and prayed I’d be able to tell him that someday, as I hoped and prayed that a miracle would happen and he would embrace Jesus in all His beautiful irrationality. So when Hitchens died, I was sad.
Second, it reminded me of our unwillingness as Christians to allow Jesus to speak to us through non-Christians. Instead of shrinking from Hitchens, I treated him like I treat the atheist students I come in contact with on campus: I allowed him to engage my mind and heart, leaned on the wisdom of the God of the universe, and came out on the other side a better thinker, apologist, and evangelist. When those atheist students on campus tell me they’ve never had a conversation with a Christian like they just had with me, I owe it in large to that engagement and to the fact that I didn’t shrink back.
So I mourned the death of Christopher Hitchens. I mourned the attitude many of us have concerning those like him. And I prayed that I would continue to allow Jesus to make and shape me through everyone I come in contact with, whether they agree with me or not.
Watch Christopher Hitchens and John Haldane's entire discussion on 'We Don't Do God'? Secularism and Faith in the Public Square at The Veritas Forum.
Steven Grahmann has been on staff with InterVarsity for eleven years, and is currently the Area Director in Arizona. He speaks regularly at Large Groups and conferences around the state and region. He also has a weekly running podcast called Two Gomers Run For Their Lives at www.twogomers.com or follow him on Twitter @gomer2.