Christopher Hitchens and Life’s Biggest Questions

Christopher Hitchens died last year on December 15, 2011. He had a well-established career as a writer, covering a wide array of topics. But he is probably most known for being an outspoken atheist. His book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything was a New York Times bestseller, and identified Hitchens, along with Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Sam Harris, and Victor J. Stenger as one of the “Four Horsemen” of the “New Atheist” movement. According to CNN, “what the New Atheists share is a belief that religion should not simply be tolerated but should be countered, criticized and exposed by rational argument wherever its influence arises.”

Peter Hitchens, Christopher’s brother, is an outspoken Christian and author of The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith. Shortly after Christopher’s death week he offered a very moving tribute to his brother’s life worth reading: “In Memoriam, my courageous brother Christopher, 1949-2011.” I can only imagine what their dinner conversations were like! Christopher was a fierce debater. In fact, a documentary was made about his public debates with the evangelical Christian Doug Wilson. Shortly after Christopher’s death, Christianity Today posted a eulogy, of sorts, entitled “Christopher Hitchens Has Died, Doug Wilson Reflects: How to think about the death of the outspoken atheist.”

I never met Christopher Hitchens. I only knew him through his writing and reputation. From what I gather, I think I would have liked talking to him. Doug Wilson described him as “an affable and pleasant dinner companion, and fully capable of being the perfect gentleman.” That doesn’t surprise me. Religious people, too often perhaps, assume that atheists are malicious and unkind. It is always somewhat shocking to discover that many atheists are not much different than most people of faith. Atheists have well thought out ways of understanding the world, they cling to their ideas, and many genuinely hope that others come to share their beliefs.

I am a Christian of the evangelical variety. I affirm the historic creeds of the church, believe the Bible to be the inspired, infallible word of God and pray that all would come to put their hope and trust (faith) in Jesus as Lord and Savior. Christopher Hitchens’ death, however, reveals a tension that I have always lived with. As I think about my own interactions with atheists, one word comes to mind: thankful. In a strange, almost paradoxical way, I have been blessed by and thankful for my interactions with people who don’t believe. I have often noted that being exposed to an atheist professor very early on in my college career was one of the best things that ever happened to me. Far from becoming a stumbling block to my faith, the professor forced me to wrestle with tough questions about why I believed what I believed. I learned that there are no easy answers to life’s biggest questions.

I’ll never forget the last day of class with my atheist professor. We were invited to ask him anything we wanted. A classmate nervously lifted his hand and asked, “What do you think happens to us when we die?” Without flinching, the professor smiled and said, “Worm food.” I can still see his face like it happened yesterday. No one dared to ask him any more questions.

Here’s my quandary: I’m not sure what kind of believer I would be if it were not for the atheists in my life! Much is made of the mystery of Christmas: the virgin birth, the baby-king in a manger, the bright star appearing, the angels singing. “Veiled in flesh the God-head see! Hail, incarnate deity!” As I get older, I’m realizing more and more that the greatest gift of all is that of faith itself. Indeed, faith is a gift. Now, why was that gift given to me? I’m reminded that there are no easy answers to life’s biggest questions.