R.I.P. Christopher Hitchens


What happens in the afterlife to an atheist?  Well, the answer to most questions about the afterlife needs to be, “We don’t know.”  While Jesus spoke about the Final Judgment and offered some striking images of heaven and hell, in the final analysis, no human being can say for sure what, precisely, awaits us.  Only God knows—literally.

Someone asked me this morning what I hoped for Christopher Hitchens, the fierce atheist who died after an agonizing bout with esophogeal cancer, and my first response was to say that I hope he’s pleasantly surprised.  And I do.  I certainly didn't agree with him on many things (on almost anything, frankly; and I was particularly annoyed at his treatment of Mother Teresa), but I always hoped that somehow he would experience an invitation from God in his earthly life; and I hope that he may now come to know God.  (I could never quite shake the feeling that Mr. Hitchens' lifelong struggle with God betokened a deep hunger for the divine, or at least for answers.)  Of course the famous atheist would surely dislike hearing that, as he objected to people praying for him in his final illness. 

But Christians believe in a forgiving God, and this is the God that Jesus spoke about many times, most clearly in the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 16:11-32).  The parable could have just as easily been named the parable of the Prodigal Father, because it tells the story of a father who is prodigal—generous, lavish, even wasteful--with his love.  As almost every Christian knows, the story is about a father who forgives his wastrel son, a young man who has not only spent all that he has on fast living, but also has rejected the father.  (In the Ancient Near East, asking for your inheritance, as the son does, is tantamount to saying, “I wish you were dead.”)  The son would seem to be last person one should forgive.

When the Son returns after a long time away, though, the Father welcomes him with joy—even though the son is simply returning home to be housed and fed, and even though the son has not even asked for forgiveness.  Nonetheless, the father rushes to greet him, kisses him tenderly, and then asks his servants to prepare a great feast in honor of his return. 

The older son, however, is furious, and scolds the father for celebrating the son’s return.  How, wonders the older son, could his father rejoice?  What’s more, the older son protests that since he has worked hard he should be the one who is honored.

The father then says these famous words to his older son: “But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and now he is found.”

Henri Nouwen, the Dutch priest and spiritual master, wrote in his book The Prodigal Son that most of us are like the older brother, despising any forgiving actions.  We feel that we are the ones who have worked hard, who have led good lives, who have tried to act morally; so why should others be forgiven for their failings?  We often resent forgiveness and reconciliation, because it doesn’t seem “fair.” 

But as Jesus points out, God’s love is far different than our own; it is prodigal, generous, even wasteful. 

I hope that Christopher Hitchens enjoys some of this prodigal love.  Of course committed atheists may not be ready to receive it.  So for them, and for many others, there will probably be a time of conversion, what Catholics call Purgatory: a time of preparation to meet God, a time of reviewing one’s life, and asking for forgiveness.  And of course it will be up to each individual to decide if he or she wants to accept that Father’s love or turn away.  For me, hell is the ultimate turning away of that forgiving love. 

So I hope that Christopher Hitchens, famous atheist, fearless polemicist and, in his own unique way, brave seeker, will now be pleasantly surprised by God.  And if he finally makes it to heaven, I hope he gets a chance to get to know the prodigal love of God, which eluded him on earth. After that, I hope he gets to know Mother Teresa a little better than he did on earth. 

May he rest in peace.

KEN LOVASIK
5 years 3 months ago
Richard Kearney, a philosopher at Fairfield University, has pointed out that he believes that the atheist writers of our time - and Hitchens is certainl prominent among them - are really criticizing the inadequacy of our human attempts to describe the One whom we believe is the Source of our being.  That criticism can be a gift if it helps us to realize how inadequate our language is and drives us to continue to find more adequate words to describe the God we believe in.

The Church's doctrinal tradition is a developing one, with each age contributing to that development.  The notion that God could save everyone has been with us since the time of the early Church Fathers, and it is an idea that is prominent in the Christian East to this day.  Eastern Christians have not embraced rationalism as much as Western Christians.  Eastern Christians believe that the idea of Hell presumes a God who has the very human need to get even!

I wonder if those who are so certain, based on declarations of the Church in the Middle Ages, that Hitchens and others whom they deem to be "sinners" are condemned to eternal punishment, have ever seriously read the Documents of the Second Vatican Council.  This Council is of no less importance in the development of the Church's tradition that earlier Councils.  In fact, it reflects the ongoing development of the Church's self-understanding and faith.  The Church, in history, which issued the teachings that Hitchens' judges use so deftly, is the same Church that burned Joan of Arc at the stake and conducted the infamous Inquisition.

Let's leave the judging to God...remembering Jesus' parable of the workers in the vineyard:  God can forgive anyone He chooses to.  We humans, with our fallible and inadequate understanding of God, are sometimes more like the legalistic Jewish leaders in the Gospels to whom this parable was originally addressed.

When we live our Christian faith well, God manifests Himself through us.  Could it be that Hitchens - and others like him - have never met such a person?Ken
Norman Costa
5 years 3 months ago
 
@ Amy:

This comment thread has seen an exchange of very different and opposing views. There has been a lot of pushing back and forth, I'm right and your wrong stuff, with no real confusion where the other person stands. There's something comforting in that. 

Yet, with all the reasoning, and passion, and compiling reference bibiliographies, and dialing up, and dialing back, even a couple of ''Yo mama,'' I've not seen anything before this that I could call snide.
 
 
Amy Ho-Ohn
5 years 3 months ago
Hi Norm,

If you haven't seen anything snide, you clearly haven't been reading Hitchens all these years. And you obviously are new to Sullivan too. Their currency is snideness and vulgar, unimaginative contempt for Americans, women, devout believers of every creed, people who didn't go to the glitzy schools, don't live in the fashionable towns and don't work in the high-profile professions.

Isn't that really what most of their readers like about their writing, and the writing their many imitators?

So, fine, again, thank God for freedom of the press. But it is not unreasonable to respond to snideness with snideness. It may even improve their writing, which increasingly betrays the laziness of the constantly-flattered.
Beth Cioffoletti
5 years 3 months ago
Amy - I am a long-time and almost daily reader of Andrew Sullivan.  What I like about him: - his authenticity, his passion, his honesty about who he is, his intellectual grappling with what is happening in real time, his loyalty to (and indeed his profound belief in) Catholic teaching, his willingness to backtrack and admit mistakes, his sense of fun, his willingness to listen.

In many ways, he is a lot like Christopher Hitchens, but with a difference - Sullivan is grounded in a living and dynamic admitted relationship with God.

Your hostility toward Sullivan is surprising to me.  I have a hard time seeing snideness and contempt in his writing.  Yes, he can be a bit full of himself at times, but he is also self-reflective and self-correcting.  Awhile back I had a personal email exchange with him concerning some very righteous writing he did after 9/11 that was personally destructive to someone I know.  He could see his error and was most ashamed and apologetic and continues to do everything that he can to correct the error.   
Beth Cioffoletti
5 years 3 months ago
PS - the other thing that I like about Sullivan is his courage and ability to clearly articulate and expose injustice, group-think, and blindnesses that are ingrained in the culture.  He does this, especially, with the practice of torture - but extends the insight to the unjust and harsh sentences that are an epidemic throughout the United States. 

Like other high profile intellectuals, I suppose that he can seem condescending, and like all of us, I'm sure that he has his own blind spots and faults, but I am grateful for the writings of those who can articulate in a way that we, the masses, can see a little more clearly what is happening around us and what we are part of, without getting stuck in our individual darknesses.  That is a gift, and the way I see it, Andrew Sullivan (and Christopher Hitchens, for that matter) have no choice - if they were to be true to who they are - but to bring that give that gift of themselves.

I did not go to a glitzy school (but a small Jesuit school in the South), do not live in a fashionable town or work in a high profile profession.  But I do appreciate those who are able to write clearly and well, and who shine some light on my own thinking.  To my way of seeing and thinking, intellectuals are carving a path whereby we will be able to pull ourselves out of the superstition and fundamental mindsets that had kept humankind mired in war and misery for so long, and discover for ourselves the mysterious secrets that are inherent in the Christian message.
David Pasinski
5 years 3 months ago
Wow! I stopped scanning these at about 40 posts the other day and who'd have thunk this would've generated over 100! Don't know what to make of us all and I haven't and probably won't do more than scan anything else...
What an interseting lot...even those who I radically disagree with! God bless us everyone... Would be fascinating to share some eggnog together!!!! Spiked optional!!
Peace!
Fernán Jaramillo
5 years 3 months ago
A number of posters have condemned the role that Hitchens played in leading young people astray and indeed that role is lamentable.  But for some older kids like me (I’m just 55) he played the opposite role.  For all his brilliance, erudition,  articulateness and reputation as an intellectual, I found Hitchens’ “theology” to be comically shallow and distorted and not as funny as George Carlin's. If these are our best opponents  then we have reason to be reassured in the faith.  Perhaps that will count a bit in his favor.
 
 
Norman Costa
5 years 3 months ago
 
@ Dave P.:

It's amazing what can happen in 60+ comments. Be careful what you casually suggest. People might take you up on it.

Merry Christmas.
 
 
Norman Costa
5 years 3 months ago
 
@ Beth:

''To my way of seeing and thinking, intellectuals are carving a path whereby we will be able to pull ourselves out of the superstition and fundamental mindsets that had kept humankind mired in war and misery for so long, and discover for ourselves the mysterious secrets that are inherent in the Christian message.''

I'm jealous. I wish I said that.

Merry Christmas.
 
 
monica carley
5 years 3 months ago
Re Steve's link about an evangelical friend of the man:

http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2011/12/16/my-take-an-evangelical-remembers-his-friend-hitchens/

Since many posters here feel entitled to speculate on the state of a man's soul, here is another theory:  he was not willing to let down all his adoring fans by honestly admitting he was seeking God.  Why else would he have private respectful conversations with a beliveing Christian about the gospel of John?  This was not publicized until after his death.
Norman Costa
5 years 3 months ago
 
@ Amy:

To whom, on this thread, were you responding, so that your comment in #101 would complete a snidey cycle?

Why do you choose the very style that you so clearly detest in views expressed outside this thread, to address people, here, who have been direct, up front, and clear about their views?

Why be derisively dismissive, play the insightful diviner of motivation, and presume you know what others are thinking?

Why reply with the non sequiter ''...thank God for Freedon of the Press,'' as if my calling you out for rude indirect put-downs of others were an attempt to cancel the U.S. Constitution, just in your case?

For example, there are plenty of people here who disagree with my views about  Hitchens. Yet, none has been so rude or insulting as to suggest I didn't read him, or, if I did, lacked the comprehension to achieve a level of understanding that matched their own. 

Leaving myself out of the equation, there are a lot of smart, well informed people on this thread on both sides of the debate about Hitchens, and who believe the other side got it wrong. If they thought the opposition were dishonest and stupid, they were polite enough not to be snidely suggestive.
 

 
Norman Costa
5 years 3 months ago
 
@ Fernan:

Thank you for your comment. While I disagree with you about how to characterize Hitch's views, I applaud your reaction to him. If he challenged the thinking of young or old, and made them take a little bit of time to examine what they really believe, and why, then that is a good thing. I agree with you on George Carlin. Bless them both. 
 
 
Tom Rault
5 years 3 months ago
Two remarks: when James Martin S.J. writes:  (I could never quite shake the feeling that Mr. Hitchens' lifelong struggle with God betokened a deep hunger for the divine, or at least for answers., then to me this sounds condescending. Christopher Hitchens was not struggling with God at all. He was struggling with religion and its practices.  And "a deep hunger for the divine"sounds to my ears even more condescending.
And where James Martin writes that Hitchens was:"in his own unique way a brave seeker"there I see a , vain, attempt to reduce Hitchens to a crypto - believer who was lost.
Brave , yes that he was surely!
THis piece on him deserves another description: I call this a vain way to put him down.
Norman Costa
5 years 3 months ago
@ Rault:

It is hard to argue against your point that public, intellectual anti-theists, like Hitchens, would scoff at being considered a crypto-believer. He had said so, himself, many times, since his diagnosis with a terminal disease. 

Fr. Jim will have to speak for himself, but what I sense in the article and comment thread is a generosity of spirit expressed in the language and images of religion and belief. How else might a devout Catholic demonstrate a fondness, an admiration, even love for a man whose words, penned and spoken, captivated believer and non-believer alike? 

Not everyone, here, was so enamoured of Hitchens, and for a variety of reasons. Yet, what is undeniable is that Hitch seemed to be the favorite anti-theist of many religious people, particularly, those with whom he debated and shared a panel table in public forums.

In my personal view, every person of faith should embrace Hitchens for what he has done for them. Beth (#108) said it better than I can. He carved a path for believers so they might look at their own faith, free of superstition and fundamentalist mindset. 

Peace, to you and yours.
 
 
Norman Costa
5 years 3 months ago
 
 @ Ken L:

LIKE.
 
 
Norman Costa
5 years 3 months ago

@ David P.

More Kant than Christ? Hmmmm. I gotta think about that one. If you'd say or reference more, I'd appreciate it very much - either here or by email [click on my name.]
 
 
Beth Cioffoletti
5 years 3 months ago
How about one more comment, this one about CHESED - an act parallel to Creation, from nothing, and that is the beginning of any relationship of God to man...


The chesed of God is a gratuitous mercy that considers no fitness, no worthiness and no return. It is the way the Lord looks upon the guilty and with His look makes them at once innocent. This look seems to some to be anger because they fly from it. But if they face it, they see that it is love and that they are innocent. (Their flight and their confusion of their own fear make them guilty in their own eyes.) The chesed of God is truth. It is infallible strength. It is the love by which He seeks and chooses His chosen, and binds them to Himself. It is the love by which He is married to mankind, so that, if humanity is faithless to Him, it must still always have fidelity to which to return: that is His own fidelity. He has become inseparable from man in the chesed which we call "Incarnation," and "Cross" and "Resurrection." He has also given us is chesed in the Person of His Spirit. The Paraclete is the full, inexpressible mystery of chesed. So that in the depths of our own being there is an inexhaustible spring of mercy and love. Our own being has become love. Our own self has become God's love for us, and it is full of Christ, of chesed. But we must face and accept ourselves and others as chesed.


Thomas Merton. Seasons of Celebration. (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1950): 178-179.
Beth Cioffoletti
5 years 3 months ago
I am no expert on atheism, but it seems to me that there are many different expressions of it.

What if one does not know God as a Person, but as Being Itself?  God, in the usual, religious understanding (Supreme Being), does not exist for this person.  But there is still an underlying conversation with Reality going on in that person, and Christopher Hitchen's constant seeking is evidence of that Relationship.

This may not make Atheism right, but doesn't it make it more not wrong??
Jim McCrea
5 years 3 months ago
Oh for crying out loud!

The man was a militant atheist.  He died as such.  End of discussion.

Some people are not believers in any form of deity and never will be.  All the speculation, caterwauling and hoping in the world won't change that.

If your faith cannot handle that, then your faith is weaker than his lack of faith.
Des Farrell
5 years 3 months ago
Jim this is your fourth or fifth attempt in this thread alone to point out that you are not a fan of Catholicism or faith or religion. You've picked strange reading material so.
Why dont you have a read of the link in post 113 by Mr Hitchens's evangelical friend. It's very touching.
Merry Christmas! 
Jim McCrea
5 years 3 months ago
Des:  my problem is with the many who seem to be insecure insensitive Catholics.
Des Farrell
5 years 3 months ago
Ah!
My mistake and my apologies so.... 
Jim McCrea
5 years 3 months ago
What Ken L said @ 121 - particularly the very last sentence.  Very particularly!!!!
david power
5 years 3 months ago
Well now, Ken I concur with Norman and Jim about the whole language thing and more decidedly the witness thing.
In my life I have met maybe 4 or 5 people who were different.The rest were far from special.Those who were the most blatantly catholic were indistinguishable from those who were politically motivated be they a republican or democrat.
In all of his life Hitchens simply never met or saw a convincing argument in flesh and blood. His evangelical friend  seemed to be a question mark but that was stacked up against the medioce excalmation marks of all the rest of Christians.
He never really challenged theism very well on an existential level in his writings .
My 14 yearold nephew could probably demolish the pseudo- christianity of Pope John Paul which had more of Kant than of Christ in it.
And it seems that was what got Hitchen's goat.This was a man who had many homosexual encounters as a young man and was not prepared to turn into a self-loathing individual if that was what God was demanding for past deeds.Of course God does not ask that but Hitchens may never have received that message.
I think a Giussani or Albacete would have given him a few more headaches than Tony Blair and like could have ever done.    It could be just that like Kierkagaard Hitchens looked for a bit more in his God.   
KEN LOVASIK
5 years 3 months ago
The last comment in your latest post, David, that Hitchens ''looked for more in his God'' reminded me of the words attributed to Nietzsche:  ''If these Christians expect me to believe that this Jesus is their redeemer, they ought to look a little more redeemed!''
Craig McKee
5 years 3 months ago
Phew! I have NEVER seen TRIPLE DIGITS on any other America blog topic...

Memo to Editorial staff:
Keep ' em coming!
Shall we attribute this to the arrival of the new boss from Creighton?

p.s. Apparently, the ultimate topic of Mr. Hitchens vehement protestations is not God or religion per se, but TOTALITARIANISM of any and all stripes as he indicated in his last interview:
http://www.mediaite.com/online/christopher-hitchens-final-interview-catholic-church-christian-charities-and-totalitarianism/
Norman Costa
5 years 3 months ago
 
@ Craig:

The one we had on girls as altar servers, a few months back, went over 200 comments. You should have been there. 
 
 
5 years 2 months ago
I don’t know if it’s theologically sound to dare suggest that, even Jesus may at times have felt in his human nature, the tinge of disbelief in God. If so, it must have been a particularly acute and  deliberating “dark night of the soul” experience for him. For him to have doubted the existence of God would mean  to doubt his own validity, his own mission. As a matter of fact isn’t that what atheism is all about for everyone? Denial cripples one’s ability to freely believe. I forget his name but a French Cardinal back in the 50s I think, said, "With great ease I am pagan, whith great difficulty Christrian" a favorite motivator for me. Often the same honesty may apply to unbelief versus belief.
Personally, I tend to find the suggestion that Jesus, in his human nature may have at times experienced Faith-doubts consistent with scripture’s assertion that he was “like us in all ways except sin.” In the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus begged his Father in the confusion of the moment, to “take it away” heroically adding, “do it your way,” was he praying as did the Centurion, “I do believe, help my unbelief!”  Such reality beings me lovingly closer to Jesus, the Lord, making him for me someone I can depend on in this valley of tears when darkness in belief assails me! We all know that Faith in God is a dark light that can cast shadows of fright on the jagged walls of the tunnel of life. But thankfully, Faith is, nonetheless, a LIGHT!
But light can sometimes be blinding. I think that’s what happened to Christopher Hitchens. The light of Faith blinded him!  Now that he has passed into the  supreme light of eternity (surprise! surprise!) probably through corridors of purgation perfecting love, he must be saying “WOW!” which no matter how you spell it repeats itself! If it’s true that for God all things are possible might it be that atheism actually led Christopher to God in the long, hard run of life’s raw realities, where unbelief takes root and is nurtured? Only God knows. Let’s pray that Christopher has found Christ and that the promise of Jesus to St. Faustina Kowalska in the Divine Mercy revelations happened. There Jesus promises to come to everyone at the hour of death offering one last chance to say, “Yes, Lord. I believe!”    
Tony Podlecki
5 years 2 months ago
Fr. Martin, thanks for your humane and nuanced reaction to Hitchens' death. I hope you're right about Purgatory giving us all a second chance.

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