Christopher Hitchens once said he liked surprises. He got one yesterday. At the relatively young age of 62, on Thursday, December 15th, Hitchens died from complications related to esophageal cancer. This was not a surprise. Hitchens knew he had to die. He spoke candidly about death. He once answered a question about fear of death,
“Do I fear death? No, I am not afraid of being dead because there’s nothing to be afraid of, I won’t know it. I fear dying, of dying I feel a sense of waste about it and I fear a sordid death, where I am incapacitated or imbecilic at the end which isn’t something to be afraid of, it’s something to be terrified of.”
After being diagnosed with cancer, many wondered if Hitchens would back off atheism and begin to seek God. When asked about it, he replied, “”No evidence or argument has yet been presented which would change my mind. But I like surprises.”
And what a surprise it must have been to learn that his existence was not due to the blind chances of impersonal natural laws! Hitchens now knows with certainty that there is a personal, intelligent Creator. Perhaps (now that he’s had a proper introduction to the God he didn’t believe in), he would like to recant the title to his recent book: “God Is Not Great.”
In sharing his thoughts about physical life on this planet, Hitchens once wrote: “There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.” Really? On a philosophical level, perhaps one should ask why he even wanted this life? Where does such “want” come from and what does it imply?
Frankly, I don’t trust the honesty of his testimony, “I want nothing more.” I realize that the absence of such desire could be a form of self-induced suppression since Hitchens spent an unusual amount of time and energy renouncing something he didn’t believe in. Historical anthropology, of course, overwhelmingly testifies that humans on every corner of the globe from every period of history pursue and desire the transcendent — quite vigorously.
It seems a bit more honest to admit that in some compelling way we find ourselves intuitively prodded by a sense of transcendence. We humans deeply and innately sense that there is more to life than this life. I suspect that this also helps to explain the strange energy of protest behind the odd (and relatively recent) brand of militant atheism in men like Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris. These men want so desperately to be known as evangelists of all things rational and logical. Yet they are glaringly blind to the deep inconsistencies and irrational agendas of their own mission.
Another well-known atheist, Bertrand Russell, once cast a more honest and depressing vision of human meaning (which I am equally certain he would now recant): “Man is the product of causes which hand no prevision of the end they were achieving and which predestine him to extinction in the vast death of the solar system.” This is a far more logical conclusion for atheism.
Scottish agnostic, Richard Holloway, offered a perceptive reflection when he groaned,
“This is my dilemma. I am dust and ashes, frail and wayward, a set of predetermined behavioral responses, … riddled with fear, beset with needs…the quintessence of dust and unto dust I shall return…. But there is something else in me…. Dust I may be, but troubled dust, dust that dreams, dust that has strong premonitions of transfiguration, of a glory in store, a destiny prepared, an inheritance that will one day be my own…so my life is spread out in a painful dialectic between ashes and glory, between weakness and transfiguration. I am a riddle to myself, an exasperating enigma…the strange duality of dust and glory.”
Did you ever think that perhaps we were meant for more? Maybe human purpose is meant to have deeper connections than the fleeting experiences of a temporal world? Many people make it their lifelong goal to find a lifelong goal only to find that despising their own meaninglessness is the most tangible meaning they can discover.
Let’s be honest enough to admit that a longing for deeper meaning is universal to humanity. We’re driven toward it as if it is our birthright or a kind of necessary spiritual oxygen. We’ve been told that our pursuit of happiness is an inalienable right. We are seeking creatures by nature and we often conceal the deeper realities of our pursuit with lots of temporal fillers. Just one more vacation, one more purchase, one more party, one more relationship, one more round of drinks — and on it goes. Like Dorothy, we’re off to see the Wizard, the Wonderful Wizard of Oz — only to draw back the curtain in disappointment time and time again.
Perhaps it seems predictable to quote C. S. Lewis, but he was right when he postulated, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”
There is so much truth in Augustine’s famous prayer: “Everlasting God, in whom we live and move and have our being: You have made us for Yourself, and hearts are restless until they rest in You.”
On some level, Jesus would have agreed with the subtitle to Hitchens’ book, “How religion poisons everything.” Jesus invested large amounts of teaching to opposing religion. Religious people hated Jesus and, unlike Hitchens, Jesus was put to death by a plot inspired by religious people. With great passion, they looked for opportunities to kill Jesus.
I realize that Christianity is classified among the religions of the world but I am certain the founder would not want any association with religion. The main reason for this is that religion is about man’s effort to seek God on his own terms. Religion is about appeasing a self-defined deity through human effort. Christianity is the exact opposite. It is about God making himself known and seeking humans by making a way (based on his unmerited grace) for us to be forgiven and restored to fellowship with our Creator.
The Christian is one who confesses: “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:21). The apostle Paul expressed his desire for first century believers with these words: “I want them to have complete confidence that they understand God’s mysterious plan, which is Christ himself. In him lie hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:2-3).
One of the best books responding to militant atheism is David Bentley Harts’ “Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies” Hart offered an important appeal to those who choose atheism.
“One does not have to believe any of it, of course—the Christian story, its moral claims, its metaphysical systems, and so forth. But anyone who chooses to lament that event should also be willing, first, to see this image of the God-man, broken at the foot of the cross, for what it is, in the full mystery of its historical contingency, spiritual pathos, and moral novelty: that tender agony of the soul that finds the glory of God in the most abject and defeated of human forms. Only if one has succeeded in doing this can it be of any significance if one still, then, elects to turn away.”
As I celebrate the God who became man, I am grateful that in him I find the purpose I was created for. When Jesus was in communion with God the Father, he said, “this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3). The truth I must remind myself of is that “… there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people” (I Timothy 2:5-6).