Before his death in December 2011, Christopher Hitchens seemed oddly preoccuppied with deathbed conversion, particularly the possibility that he might make one himself. If he did profess Christ at the end of his life, he assured us, it would be in the throes and delirium of sickness. I won't convert, he seemed to be saying, but if I do it won't be real.
Hitchens has become a household name, mainly in virtue of his acerbic wit and loudly proclaimed atheism and anti-religiosity. Some found a measure of comfort in the fact that he wasn't just against Christianity—he hated Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Jainism with equal fervor. Others loved his strident assertions and often hilarious cultural commentary. He divided and he united, he yelled and he whispered, and he made atheism seem like a fresh move of the spirit of the age.
He also overshadowed his younger brother Peter Hitchens, a British political writer, journalist, and Christian. Christopher wrote God is Not Great; Peter wrote The Rage Against God. Christopher protested moral restraint; Peter argues for biblical virtues and the use of the King James Bible. Both of them are witty, and both were at one time atheists.
But while Christopher hated God publicly all his life, Peter found refuge from his untenable atheism in faith. Jesus's words in Matthew 10:34 come to mind: "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the world. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword." Our Lord then goes on to illustrate how his Gospel will tear even families apart with its truth and power.
That two brilliant men from the same family could come to such radically different systems of belief (or the lack thereof) is powerful evidence against the popular postmodern idea that one's belief systems are merely constructs rooted in one's cultural context, upbringing, and social environment. If this were so, how could one brother believe and the other disbelieve?
Other vocal atheists have not been as winsome or grouchily endearing as Christopher Hitchens. Most of them haven't been as articulate, either. Hitchens was certainly prone to mistakes (a passage in which he lists writers heavily influenced by the Bible and Christianity as examples of artists capable of creativity without religious influence comes to mind), but many of the once so-called "New Atheists" are just plain ignorant of that of which they speak.
For instance, in his book The Greatest Show on Earth, Richard Dawkins (who may believe in UFOs) repeatedly marshals the arguments of atheistic Darwinism as proof that life could only have originated as a byproduct of chance. But this is simply to argue in a circle, using one's previously adopted conclusions to affirm one's theories.
Author Sam Harris simply relies on venom to make his points. When he says, "We know enough at this moment to say that the God of Abraham is not only unworthy of the immensity of creation; he is unworthy even of man," he's blowing smoke. How do we know that? Who says we know that? What do his statements even mean?
But like the proverbial broken clock, even Sam Harris can be right from time to time. His assertion that "Religious moderation is the product of secular knowledge and scriptural ignorance" is true. Christian liberalism exalts human reason while diminishing the importance of God's revealed Word.
What's wrong with Harris's assessment, though, is that human reason should be exalted and scirptural ignorance is desirable. He tries to have his cake and eat it too by claiming that man is not the measure of all things, but his constant claims that we know more than the benighted primitives who authored the Bible belie his true motives.
They are also preempted by the apostle Paul in the Epistle to the Romans. In Romans 1, Paul argues that all men as creatures created by God have a knowledge of God within them, but being rebellious and sinful they go to all means necessary to suppress that knowledge, giving themselves over to every manner of evil in the process.
Authors like those mentioned above, and hundreds of similar stripe, frequently employ mere rhetoric or even illogical arguments to make their points, thus illustrating Paul's statement in Romans 1:22-23: "Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things."
Just because an atheist doesn't own a statue that he bows down to doesn't mean that he doesn't worship man, or man's reason, or humanistic science, etc. Atheism isn't really atheism at all—it's simply rejecting the true God for a false god, and that false god is all too often the self. It's what fools do, because Jesus Christ is coming to judge both the living and the dead by who they worship and what they believe.
This doesn't mean that we're justified in responding to atheists and their often nasty rhetoric in kind or with "righteous anger" (too often just an excuse for very unsanctified behavior). We are called to treat everyone with love, and the best way to respond to atheists is with the message of the Gospel preached in gentleness and firm conviction.
The case of Christopher and Peter Hitchens is instructive here. Both brothers have indicated that they fell into atheism largely as a result of disillusionment resulting from Christian hypocrisy. Many have swelled the atheistic ranks for similar reasons, and while we might be tempted to dismiss this as just an excuse, acting with anything less than love will not bring anyone to Christ.
This also makes some sense of Christopher Hitchens's fear of deathbed conversion. If he turned from faith because believers failed his expectations, he evaded the question of the Bible's veracity for an easy out. People will always fail us, and every human being knows this. Hitchens, therefore, would have known deep down that his reasons for disbelief were excuses thinly veling intellectual dishonestry of the kind he so vocally eschewed.
We preach Christ because he will one day return, condemning those who reject him to eternal punishment and raising those who have faith in him to eternal life and joy. Atheists prefer to trade eternal life for a life on earth lived by their own rules and to satisfy their own desires which can be summarized as attempts to make themselves god.
In our increasingly secular society, it becomes more and more important for Christians to know what they believe, and to know why they believe it. Falling back on fideism ("I believe because I believe") is not an option. Defending the Bible as God's internally consistent and self-verifiable Word is the only way to defeat the spirit of unbelief and opposition.
Again, we must do this in love. We aren't out to win a fight or to assert ourselves or to prove how smart we are. We're out to lay down our lives, to bring life to a dying world by dying to ourselves, and to abolish the emptiness of unbelief with the fullness of the Gospel. Being awash in that Gospel ourselves is the key to sharing it with others in all its truth, grace, and perfection.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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