Denver Journal Book Review by Denver Seminary Professor Douglas Groothuis
Christopher Hitchens, Mortality (New York: Twelve, 2012). 104 pages. $22.99. Hardback. Reviewed by Douglas Groothuis.
Christopher Hitchens is dead, but he lived long enough to tell us of his dying. Reporter extraordinaire, atheist provocateur, prolific author, and acerbic commentator and debater, Christopher Hitchens died in 2011. His dying was (quite fittingly) a literary morbidity: he wrote of it in a small, posthumously published book called Mortality. (The book also includes a foreword by Graydon Carter and an afterward by Carol Blue, Hitchens’s widow.) Unlike most, who die un-narrated deaths, he knew of his impending demise, retained his writing prowess, and lived long enough to tell us of his dying. In so doing, he reveals how one very articulate and intractable atheist came to terms with his imminent demise. Hitchens was an iconoclast (even writing a book against Mother Theresa called, in bad taste, The Missionary Position), a masterful conversationalist, and intrepid enough to write on some topics he was not fit to pronounce upon. Consider his best-selling and embarrassing harangue, god is not Great (2006). This anti-religious sentiment pops up throughout the book, hurled more as hand grenades than laid out as arguments. I will address a few of these below, particularly the question of the logic of prayer. (Hitchens’s lack of philosophical acuity is painfully obvious in his debate with Christian philosopher, William Lane Craig, which is available on line.)
In the middle of a book tour for a memoir, Hitch-22, Hitchens came down with severe symptoms that were later found to be esophageal cancer, a rapid and rarely curable form of this perennial plague on humanity. Hitchens tells his story without self-pity or lugubrious detail. In fact, he writes with a kind of detachment—here are the facts; here are my reflections on them—but not without some pathos. This slim volume is a less a lament than a report, which is apt enough, given Hitchens’ vocation. But it, nevertheless, discloses something of the sting of death, inflicted on one without the hope of the gospel. Hitchens remains a naturalist to the end: everyone dies; there is no afterlife; that is the way it is—and I might as well write about it.
Hitchens does his best to defeat the Grim Reaper, but progressively realizes that his chances of recovery are slim and finds no reason to hope against hope. So, he submits to whatever may slow his death, ameliorate his pain, and give him more time to write and speak. He is never sentimental, and offers some astute insights into dying, albeit dying without hope in the world to come. Nevertheless, Christians have an entirely different perspective on mortality, as Paul says, “Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope” (2 Thessalonians 4:13; see also vs. 14-18).
As he dies writing, Hitchens considers some clichés on the matter, such as Friedrich Nietzsche’s often-invoked-but-seldom-thought-through aphorism, “What does not kill you makes you stronger.” Hitchens once thought this profound, but changed his mind in the grip of mortality. Yes, suffering can strengthen one, but it also tears one down. He says, “In the brute physical world, and the one encompassed by medicine, there are all too many things that could kill you, don’t kill you, and then leave you considerably weaker” (60). Hitchens then goes on to reflect on the truth of this statement as illustrated in the life of Nietzsche himself (60-63), a man much enfeebled—especially in his intellectual judgments—through certain turns of circumstance, particularly the debilitating mental illness that closed out the last decade or so of his tragi-comic life.
Of course, Hitchens had no recourse to the concept of the fall of humanity is space-time history, but Christians realize that “life under the sun” (Ecclesiastes) is replete with suffering, pain, and unfairness—much of it seemingly meaningless, as the Preacher said:
I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all (Ecclesiastes 9:11, KJV).
East of Eden (Genesis 3; Romans 3) and before the New Jerusalem descends on to the New Heavens and New Earth (Revelation 21-22), we live in the time between Christ’s resurrection and the consummation of all things at the Eschaton. What does not kill us, may or may not make us stronger. However, if we are “in Christ” (as the Apostle Paul so often says) we can know that our suffering (even when not understood) is not wasted or finally absurd, since Christ himself ensured the final victory over sin, death, and hell through his Cross and resurrection (1 Corinthians 15). Therefore, we soldier on, bruised, bloodied, betrayed, benumbed by the scorched sorrows of this groaning world (Romans 8:18-26), and yet with a hope that “does not disappoint us” (Romans 5:5). Sadly, in Mortality, Hitchens reflects, instructs, and rebukes, but he could not hope that the final enemy of death would ever be defeated. In fact, in his demise he continued his apologetic against religion and Christianity. Consider his contemptuous argument against prayer, which is a staple of the Christian life (1 Thessalonians 5:17).
After writing of Christians who told him that they were praying for him, Hitchens attacks the very logic of prayer. He gets off to a snickering and clever start by quoting Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary: “Prayer: A petition that the laws of nature be suspended in favor of the petitioner; himself confessedly unworthy” (21). Hitchens dilates on this by explaining the apparent absurdity of a mere mortal informing the Immortal Sovereign on how He (God) should govern the universe. One could set up the argument this way (although Hitchens does not put it in an analytical form).
- God is sovereign and all-good.
- Humans are mortal and sinful.
- Therefore (a), God has no need for prayer by mortal and sinful humans, given his character (1).
- Therefore (b), Humans have no need for prayer, since it would be superfluous at best and presumptuous at worst.
But this line of argument commits the straw man fallacy by misconstruing the nature of prayer, biblically understood. First, there are many dimensions to prayer besides intercession (asking God to do something in the world). The Bible is graced with many prayers and many kinds of prayer, including praise, lament, confession, thanksgiving, and more. Second, intercession is not meaningless or illogical if God is sovereign and all-good. Consider this counter-argument:
- God, who is sovereign and good, has instituted intercession as one means by which he rules the world. That is, God ordains both the means (including intercessory prayer) and the ends (the final result of his sovereign will).
- God instructs us on how to engage in intercessory prayer in the Bible and enjoins us to pray accordingly.
- Therefore, we should intercede with God according to biblical truths, as best we can ascertain them as fallen mortals.
There is nothing illogical about the above argument; it makes perfect sense. To those who say, “If God is sovereign, why pray?” one can retort, “If God is sovereign, why eat?” (This is from a lecture given by the late philosopher and theologian Greg Bahnsen.) God has set up the world in such a way as to make prayer meaningful. Further, prayer can shape the character of the one who prays, whether or not our requests are granted. Spirit-led prayer changes us for the better, whatever other effects it may have. Christians can and should hold firm to these truths, Hitchens’s (well-written) banter to the contrary.
Sadly, some Christians responded in an ungodly way to Hitchens’s disease. Hitchens quotes a statement from a web site that gloats over his malignancy, since Hitchens was such an ardent atheist and cutting critic of Christianity.
He’s going to writhe in agony and pain and wither away to nothing and then die a horrible agonizing death, and THEN comes the real fun, when he’s sent to HELLFIRE forever to be tortured and set afire (12).
Orthodox Christians should, on the basis of the Bible, believe in an eternal hell and its divine justice (Matthew 25:31-46); but this website’s manner of exulting in eternal torment is both unnerving and unbiblical. Jesus himself lamented over the rebellion of his own people.
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing (Matthew 23:35).
Or ponder God’s statement through the prophet Ezekiel: “For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live!” (Ezekiel 18:32).
The death of Christopher Hitchens at age sixty-two robbed the world of a brilliant wit, a flamboyant character, and a larger-than-life life. But living larger than life—apart from Christ, life itself (John 10:30)—does nothing to defeat death. We should lament the loss of Hitchens’s gifts, but lament even more the loss of Christopher Hitchens himself, given his unrepentant rebellion against the very God who gave him those literary gifts.
Douglas R. Groothuis, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy