A Prayer for a Dying Atheist

Posted: November 4, 2010 in atheism, evangelism, god, gospel

Christopher Hitchens is perhaps most famous for his ardent and aggressive stance against religion.  He has written numerous books on the topic, including God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything and The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeleiver.  He is part of what is commonly referred to as the “New Atheism”, a contemporary surge of militant, atheistic thinkers seeking to promote an atheistic worldview.  Some of the most notable names in this group are men like Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris.  Describing this new movement, Al Mohler writes,

“The New Atheism is not just a reassertion of atheism. It is a movement that represents a far greater public challenge to Christianity than that posed by the atheistic movements of previous times. Furthermore, the New Atheism is not just another example of marketing an idea in the postmodern age. The New Atheists are, in their own way, evangelistic in intent and ambitious in hope. They see atheism as the only plausible worldview for our times, and they see belief in God as downright dangerous – an artifact of the past that we can no longer afford to tolerate, much less encourage.”

Hitchens is only part of this modern movement, but recent events have brought extra attention to him.  Just a few months ago, Hitchens was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus.  The prognosis for this type of cancer is extremely poor – less than five percent of patients live past five years after the cancer is diagnosed.  Mr. Hitchens’ condition is serious, to say the least.

In a series of articles for Vanity Fair (“Topic of Cancer”, “Unanswerable Prayers”, and “Tumortown”), Hitchens writes about the experience of learning that he had cancer, enduring the agony of chemotherapy, and responding to the incredible outpouring of love and sympathy toward him from around the world.  In addition, one thing that Hitchens makes crystal clear is that, despite the grim prospects for his future, his convictions regarding the non-existence of God have not lessened in the least.  In fact, Hitchens notes that he is not at all pleased or warmed by the fact that many religious people, including a great number of Christians, are praying for his physical, as well as spiritual, healing.  In an interview with NPR he commented,

“Now I find that [the fact that Christians are not only praying for his physical healing but also for spiritual healing] not as easy to be graceful about, because though it’s put in a nice way, it’s part of a phenomenon that I’ve always thought of as very disgusting, which is the belief of the religious — which they keep expressing — that surely now you’re dying, your fears will overcome your reason. I hope I don’t have to underline what’s horrible about that. There’s an element of blackmail to it. And an element of tremendous insecurity on their part; I mean they don’t seem to feel they’d win the argument so easily with someone who’s mentally and physically strong. By the way, I think they’re right.”

Hitchens is an intelligent man and a good writer – its worth the time to read all three Vanity Fair articles.  I think there is great value in reading this account of an atheist “coming to terms” with his approaching death.  It evoked in me a strange fascination, but also a deep sadness.

However, one thing that Hitchens commented on really stuck out to me above all the rest.  In addition to noting the “nice” response that he has received from many Christians, he writes about a Christian man who angrily commented that his cancer was a punishment from God, specifically targeted at his throat as “revenge for using his voice to blaspheme God.”  The man went on to write that, “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.”  Another obvious example of Christians saying similar stuff are the friendly folks from Westboro Baptist Church (I hesitate to even link to their website simply because of how offensive it is).

What a sad, unbiblical, and un-Christlike response to this lost man’s fast-approaching death.  It runs completely counter to the tenor and tone of the Christian calling as expressed in passages such as 2 Corinthians 5:11-21:

“Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others. But what we are is known to God, and I hope it is known also to your conscience. … For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. … Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2Cr 5:11, 14-15, 17-21 ESV)

When we, as Christians, respond to the suffering of lost people with hate, despising, and gleeful rejoicing in their damnation to Hell, we are not being controlled by the love of Christ, who had compassion on the lost because they were “like sheep without a shepherd,” (Matthew 9:36-38).  We are not engaging in the ministry of reconciliation that we have received from Christ, who cried out on behalf of his enemies, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!” (Luke 23:34).  We are not being ambassadors for Christ, who came “not to call the righteous, but sinners,” (Mark 2:17).  We are not allowing God to make His appeal through us, the God who has said, “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone…so turn, and live,” (Ezekiel 18:32).

What a tragedy, when we who bear His Name, represent Him so poorly.  In many ways, I believe we dishonor God even more than a man like Hitchens.  He doesn’t claim the name of Christ, and his life matches that denial.  We say we are Jesus’s followers, and yet our words and actions are nothing like His words and actions.  Sometimes, we seem to forget that we used to be dead in the trespasses and sins in which we once walked, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience – among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, being by nature children of wrath, just like the rest of mankind…including all of the atheists of the world (Ephesians 2:1-3).  We were just like them.  We too were dead.  What made us alive?  God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace we have been saved (Ephesians 2:4-5).

If I may beg Mr. Hitchens’ pardon and ignore his appeal that we “please do not trouble deaf heaven with your bootless cries,” let us pray not only for this lost man, but also for ourselves, as we too draw closer and closer to the day when we will meet the creator of all.

Father, forgive us for not loving the lost as you have loved us.  Forgive us for not showing compassion to them as you have shown compassion to us.  Forgive us for not bringing the message of reconciliation to them as you have brought the message of reconciliation to us.  We pray for Christopher Hitchens, a human being created in your image, yet sadly a child of wrath.  Have mercy on him, as you have had mercy on us.  Make him alive, as you have made us alive.  Save him, by your grace.  Seat him with Christ in the heavens, that you might powerfully display the glory of your grace to all the world.


  1. Nothing fails like prayer.

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