On reading the works of the Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius (121-180), John Wesley is said to have wondered whether here was one of the “many” whom Jesus said would “come from the east and the west, and take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 8:11).
Over the centuries Christians have often asked whether uncomfortable truth-tellers such as Socrates may have qualified among the “many.” Likewise, stories persist about alleged deathbed conversions by Albert Einstein and Charles Darwin.
As a graduate of Oxford, Wesley would have known Aurelius persecuted the Church. Even so, he was attracted by this emperor’s greatness of thought and nursed the idea that God may possibly have reserved a place at the heavenly feast for him.
What of Christopher Eric Hitchens (1949-2011), self-publicizing contrarian and fierce critic of the Christian faith?
Hitchens undoubtedly gained a greater following in the United States than in his native Britain, which he left at the end of the 1970s. Some of his Oxford peers sniffily refer to him not as a writer or even a journalist but a gossip columnist. But what a columnist. His detractors had no choice but to admire the razor-sharp power wit and prose and hoped against hope he would not train his blowtorch on them.
Hitch prided himself on being a contrarian. He was hardly omniscient and it is alleged his works were riddled with mistakes. His grasp of American history was limited for one who so confidently pontificated about current affairs. He opposed the Vietnam War like many of his generation. Later he opposed the Gulf War as well. After the terrorist strikes of 9/11 he became an advocate of America’s war on terrorism and engagement in Afghanistan.
He would have liked to be compared favorably with the English writer George Orwell (1903-50), whose principles of journalism are still textbook stuff on England’s side of the Atlantic. Posterity will be the judge.
His poison-pen treatment of Henry Kissinger, Princess Diana, Mother Teresa and Bill Clinton is legendary. Chief among his targets, however, was God. The big question is whether it was human belief systems that got in the way of his encounter with the Divine in whose name he was baptized as a child in the Church of England.
“I have met some highly intelligent believers, but history has no record of any human being who was remotely qualified to say that he knew or understood the mind of god,” Hitchens wrote in The Portable Atheist. “Yet this is precisely the qualification which the godly must claim — so modestly and so humbly — to possess. It is time to withdraw our ‘respect’ from such fantastic claims, all of them aimed at the exertion of power over other humans in the real and material world.”
He will not be remembered as an intellectual, having left no written works of substance. Nor did he frame coherent messages. The atheism he embraced, he said, was “not a creed.”
Only death was certain and this knowledge, he insisted in The Portable Atheist, replaced “both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived more intensely: we stumble and get up, we feel sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.”
He wrote similarly in his last major work, God is Not Great: “Our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith. We do not rely solely upon science and reason, because these are necessary rather than sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason. We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, open-mindedness, and pursuit of ideas for their own sake.”
Faced with impending death, he resolutely asserted that he was trading existence for non-existence, nothing more. There would be no deathbed repentance, he insisted. In a BBC interview that went to air after his death Dec. 15, Hitchens said he had no fear of dying. “I won’t know what’s going on.” What if there was a state of consciousness of this life? “I will be surprised, but I like surprises.”
People who had the opportunity to know him, even cross swords with him, said he was genial and funny, unwilling to dole out in private the vitriol that was so characteristic of his public persona. For those reasons it would be sad if there is no place for Hitch or people like him at the heavenly banquet. He would add zest should conversation ever lag.
Whether he has a place is not in the end down to his belief system (or lack of one) but whether the Loving All-Knowing Righteous Judge of the Earth recognizes the kernel of saving faith in Hitch.
Mind you, he still would need an ample serving of humble pie having no choice but to acknowledge the Maker whose existence and greatness he so vigorously denied. Then, most of those who do make the table will need a course or two of that for one reason or another.
John Martin in London