An Atheist Confronts Death

August 5, 2010 at 9:36 am 2 comments

I recently learned that Christopher Hitchens, noted atheist and author of God Is Not Great:  How Religion Poisons Everything, has been stricken by cancer.  In an article for Vanity Fair, Hitchens makes what I consider to be some astonishing statements.  First, he is so bold as to personify death: “I have been taunting the Reaper into taking a free scythe in my direction and have now succumbed to something so predictable and banal that it bores even me.”  Death has a face in Hitchens’ mind – and a grim face at that.  Death is a Reaper.  Actually, death is the Reaper with a capital “R.”  No longer is death merely a force of nature.  It is a sinister character.  I, hopefully not surprisingly, would agree.  Death is sinister because death is sinful – the result of a fallen and broken creation.  Of course, Hitchens continues by calling this character “predictable and banal,” which I suppose it is, for we all die, but it doesn’t make it any less grim.

Hitchens’ second astonishing statement comes at the end of his article:

I am quietly resolved to resist bodily as best I can, even if only passively, and to seek the most advanced advice. My heart and blood pressure and many other registers are now strong again: indeed, it occurs to me that if I didn’t have such a stout constitution I might have led a much healthier life thus far. Against me is the blind, emotionless alien, cheered on by some who have long wished me ill. But on the side of my continued life is a group of brilliant and selfless physicians plus an astonishing number of prayer groups.

This statement did more than astonished me, it blew me away.  First, as far as I can tell, the “blind, emotionless alien” to which Hitchens refers is the cycle of life and death, standardized and ruled, according to many atheists, by evolutionary theory and natural selection.  It is what another atheist luminary Richard Dawkins called, “the blind watchmaker.”  And yes, if true, this cycle is blind and emotionless.  Indeed, it is more than emotionless, it is merciless.  It cares not about our lives and our fears and our hopes and our dreams.  But curiously, Hitchens continues by noting that this “blind, emotionless alien” is “cheered on by some who have wished me ill.”  How something “emotionless” can be moved by “cheers” of encouragement, I do not know.  But I do know that it is morally base to cheer on the death of another.  Theologically, death is a result of sin.  To cheer on death, then, is to cheer on sin.  Death may be inevitable and sometimes, as in cases of war or capital punishment, sanctioned and permitted according to the governing authorities and the concerns of justice, but it is not cheer-worthy.  Blessedly, however, Hitchens continues by noting that on the side of his life “is a group of brilliant and selfless physicians plus an astonishing number of prayer groups.”  It almost sounds as if Hitchens is admitting that “selfless physicians,” “selfless” being a moral designation foreign to committed evolutionary atheism, and “prayer groups” have some sort of power to cheat death.  Is Hitchens admitting that prayer works?  If so, how does he think it works?  And why does he think it works?

I myself believe that prayer does work, but only because of the One to whom we pray.  For the One to whom we pray has power over death.  As the apostle Paul writes, “‘Where, O death, is your victory?  Where, O death, is your sting?’  The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.  But thanks be to God!  He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:55-57).  Jesus conquers death and brings life.  There’s an empty grave to prove it.  And it is in that spirit that I pray that Christopher Hitchens’ grave stays empty for a good time longer in this present age – and on the Last Day.  Christ has the power to make it so.  I pray that Hitchens learns to trust that.

Entry filed under: Theological Questions. Tags: , , , , .

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. morsec0de  |  August 5, 2010 at 8:03 pm

    “First, as far as I can tell, the “blind, emotionless alien” to which Hitchens refers is the cycle of life and death, standardized and ruled, according to many atheists, by evolutionary theory and natural selection.”

    I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that he means the cancer.

    “How something “emotionless” can be moved by “cheers” of encouragement, I do not know. ”

    Since I’m already nitpicking…I don’t think he’s suggesting the cancer is being moved by the cheering. An earthquake could quite simply be understood as emotionless. But if one horribly affected someone that one viewed to be evil, one might cheer it on. (Not that I’m saying one should do so.) The cheering has nothing to do with the progress of the earthquake, or the cancer. At least in fact. It might in the mind of the person cheering, though.

    • 2. zachkvet  |  August 5, 2010 at 9:18 pm

      Hi Morsec0de,

      Good catch on the “blind, emotionless alien” alien being the cancer. I actually caught it after I posted the blog. I will say, however, that cancer can be an agent of the “cycle of life and death” and so, by extension, the “blind, emotionless alien” of cancer is just one manifestation, albeit a mutative one, of a greater “blind, emotionless alien” of the cycle of life and death. Both seem cruel to me.

      As for your second comment, I find it to be especially interesting because your point is one that came to mind as I was reading Hitchens’ article and writing my blog. The reason that I single out Hitchens’ line about the cheers and characterize it at “moving” the cancer is not because I think Hitchens believes that such cheers can actually, empirically “move” cancer or the cycle of life and death, but because, as you say, there are some who may indeed believe that their ill wishes affect the wellbeing of another. This kind of a juxtaposition is gripping to me: “cheering” an “emotionless” entity. Cheering, which is often an emotionally loaded activity, a dispassionate entity is the height of logical absurdity. The very fact that an entity is emotionless means that the cheers of others for it, or against it for that matter, fall on deaf ears. So the whole idea of a crowd of ill-wishers passionately supporting something as tragic and as undiscriminating as death saddens me – both because of its folly and because of its hatred.

      Thanks for your comments!


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