Last night, author and essayist Christopher Hitchens died of complications from esophageal cancer. He was 62.
Hitchens is not someone whose work I enjoyed — or even respected. I read a number of his essays and found them to be mean-spirited, insulting, and bereft of logic or evidence to support his assertions. He was militantly anti-faith — one of his books was entitled God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (I wonder how he explained all the hospitals, rescue missions, rehab centers, etc.) — and came across as sort of an atheist “Tailgunner Joe” McCarthy. Some say he challenged people’s faith; I tended to find that he spit on it and considered that a challenge. (This is what I experienced of him; your mileage may vary.)
So upon reading of his death, I did have the obvious mental picture of Hitchens suddenly finding himself in the presence of the God he had so stridently denied. Several ideas for Twitter tweets or Facebook statements came to mind, making light of what would seem to be his awkward position vis-a-vis the Omnipotent. A few times I even typed them out …
… only to delete them, unposted. Because I realized that there was nothing funny about it.
Now, in case you had any doubts about where I stand … I do believe that after each of us dies, we are called to account before the God of this universe. Those who chose to give their lives to Him and live in relationship to Him will live with Him forever; those who chose not to will live separated from Him forever. (Those who didn’t have the opportunity to choose … I have no idea. I’m open to arguments.) I believe, thus, in Heaven and Hell. Whether Heaven is a place of clouds and angels strumming harps, or Hell a literal lake of eternal fire, I don’t know (I suspect it’s much more complicated than that). But I do believe that we live once on Earth, and then forever in the place we chose based on our decisions while on Earth. That’s one of the basic tenets of the Christian faith, and it’s based on the record we have of what Jesus taught. (He talked about Heaven and Hell a lot. Clearly, He considered it important.)
Now you might disagree with all of that, but that’s where I’m coming from, and I want that clear from the outset.
If that is the case, then there is nothing to joke about in regard to the death of an atheist. Because that death means he’s missed the last chance he had to change his mind. He chose to oppose God throughout his life, and stuck with it to the bitter end; by extension, that means he chose to remain separate from God for eternity. I wouldn’t wish that fate on anyone. God, I believe, is infinitely wonderful, infinitely creative, infinitely loving — He’s someone I want people to know (no matter how inept I am at presenting that desire to people, which is very inept indeed). To never have the opportunity to interact with Him, ever, strikes me as the ultimate tragedy.
In the first paragraph of his obituary for Hitchens, Associated Press writer Hillel Italie said:
Cancer weakened but did not soften Christopher Hitchens. He did not repent or forgive or ask for pity. As if granted diplomatic immunity, his mind’s eye looked plainly upon the attack and counterattack of disease and treatments that robbed him of his hair, his stamina, his speaking voice and eventually his life.
Two things struck me about this passage. One is the second sentence: “He did not repent or forgive or ask for pity.” Okay, not asking for pity, I understand. Not repenting … well, that fits in with his worldview; I get that. But not forgiving? Forgiveness, in basic, is refusing to weigh yourself down with the things other people have done to you. It’s, by releasing them from their sin toward you, releasing you from it as well. On that level, unforgiveness is punishing yourself for the evil of others, to the benefit of no one. It’s not a pleasant way to go through life, I can tell you. I hope for his own sake that Hitchens did some forgiving before his passing.
But it’s the start of the third sentence that gives me greater pause — “As if granted diplomatic immunity, …” Because no one, in their mind’s eye or any other part, is granted that. We all have to face the end, one way or another; no one is exempt. The only difference is what will happen after the end — what will happen in Act II of the drama of our lives. And that, I believe, depends on how we played Act I.
From the world’s perspective, Christianity has a … I don’t know how better to put it, a bass-ackwards way of looking at death. From the Earthly perspective, death is It — the termination of everything that person was besides a collection of atoms. “You’re born, you live, you go on a few diets, you die,” as Opus in the Bloom County comic strip once put it. To bring back my previous analogy, it’s a one-act play, and while some people believe there are sequels (reincarnation), the original story is done. But in Christianity, it’s just the start of something bigger; it’s the setup for the real story arc in Act II (and maybe other Acts after, who knows).
Thus, from the Earthly view, death is a tragedy, because the story’s over. From the Heavenly view, death is a time for rejoicing for those who belong to God, because their story continues in a better place, with fewer impediments to the performance and much better sound and special effects. It’s a good thing in the long term. There’s a reason that in the Catholic church, the feast day for a saint usually commemorates the day they died (Saint Patrick, for instance, died on 17 March). Well, of course that’s when you’d have a feast in their honor — it’s their graduation day! They’re movin’ on up … to someplace even better than a de-luxe apartment in the sky-y-y.
But at the same time, for those who do not belong to God, chose not to belong … from the Christian perspective, the tragedy is even greater. Not because the story is done, but the opposite: because the story is now set on a path from which no good can come. Literal brimstone or not, it’s an eternity of knowing that the chance for a better plot is forever lost. Eternally separate from God means eternally separate from the good of which He is the only ultimate source. It’s not something you’d wish on a friend. It’s not even something you’d wish on a man you’d never met, even if he did make a career out of mocking you and your beliefs.
So I can’t bring myself to crack wise at Christopher Hitchens’ expense. And while he may not have asked for pity, he nonetheless has mine.