You always listen a little more intently when it’s a man’s last words. Sadly, Hitch didn’t have much to say.
What can be said when you are walking through death’s door convinced there is nothing on the other side? As it turns out, not much. Preparing to die without the anticipation of future hope is very gloomy business indeed. One of the saddest lines in his book is:
“One finds that every passing day represents more and more relentlessly subtracted from less and less”
If all of us just return to dust when our time on earth is over, then, Hitchens observation here, is about as depressing as it can get. He genuinely feels the weight of hopelessness that his worldview brings him.
Death causes you to rethink your beliefs
As Hitch suffers he is forced to confess a truth about grave illness:
“It forces you to examine familiar principles and seemingly reliable sayings”
One such confidant that withers under the scrutiny of Hitch’s suffering is Nietzsche. His famous maxim “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is a load of bilge! Hitch’s battle with cancer had only made him weaker, not stronger. Maybe the solid bedrock of Nietzschen thought upon which countless atheist’s have build their systems has a few cracks? Hitchens is honest enough to point out a couple of them.
Christian people are jerks
But Hitchens is not ready to throw down the whole system. He still had plenty of spunk. He is at his best when pointing out the flaws of organized religion and he is very good at it. His criticisms in many cases should not be ignored, people have done terrible things in the name of religion. Particularly saddening at a personal level are all the people of faith, (and he quotes several) who gleefully informed the world that Hitchens esophageal cancer which took away his ability to speak, was a wrathful God’s vindictive justice upon this leading spokesman for the Anti-God point of view. Hitchens rightfully points out that these people are heartless jerks who care more about their ideology than people and of course if God is actually like this, than he is not interested.
Prayer: Not a fan
Even in death, the idea of prayer disgusts him. He mentions one statistic from some non-footnoted study about how prayer makes things worse – and then moves on. I guess I have to give him a pass for his poor scholarship since he was dying when he wrote it, but it is frustrating from a truth standpoint. Does prayer help? Countless legions of people from the beginning of time to this very day would enthusiastically say it does. The weight of all this counter evidence is dismissed in one opinionated stroke, and the matter concluded with Hitchens saying:
“Don’t trouble heaven with your bootless cries!”
Believe the better story
Hitchens above statement reminds me of Monsieur Thénardier’s line in the famous musical Les Miserables
“And the God of Heaven, he don’t interfere, cause he’s dead as the stiffs at my feet, I raise my eyes to the heavens and only the moon, the harvest moon shines down…”
That’s certainly one way to look at life, but why would you? “Because, it’s the truth!” is the loud bombastic response that Hitchen’s championed his whole life. It’s the cold hard reality of our existence, it might be unpalatable but it’s true. Is it? We are all of faith. Hitch believed his story of materialistic naturalism and reason alone seemingly to the bitter end – but we must all acknowledge that it was his faith story. In the Les Miserable classic there was another faith story, different from Monsieur Thénardier, different from Hitchens, it was a better story, It was Jean Val Jean’s story.
Come with me
Where chains will never bind you
All your grief
At last, at last behind you
Lord in Heaven
Look down on him in mercy.
Forgive me all my trespasses
And take me to your glory.
Take my hand
I’ll lead you to salvation
Take my love
For love is everlasting
The truth that once was spoken
To love another person
Is to see the face of God.
It’s the beauty of this story that has captured my imagination and my heart.
Eternity: A really bad idea
“With infinite life comes an infinite list of relatives… sons never escape from the shadows of their fathers. Nor do daughters of their mothers. No one ever comes into his own…such is the cost of immortality. No person is whole. No person is free.”
Isn’t there a better way of looking at this? Like an eternal family reunion without the weird uncle? Could we embrace a vision of infinite life by thinking in terms of all the joys that make up family life without any of its difficulties? It takes a special person to rain on heaven’s parade.
God is a jerk if he damns people for doubt
Hitchens curses any god who would punish “irreconcilable doubt”. To which I would say, God is not anti-doubt – he is pro-faith. The faithful enter in not because they are doubt free: they enter in because their hope manages ever so slightly to overshadow’s their doubt.
This is a sad story of pain and death with no hope beyond the grave. Interestingly, in the first part of the book, Hitch chews on the idea of Pascal’s Wager for a little bit, but then spits it out as distasteful. However, towards the end of his book and his life, we see him becoming less and less critical of Pascal’s Wager. In one of his final musings, he says “Atheists ought not to be offering consolation… If I convert it’s because it’s better that a believer dies than that an atheist does.” — Was he betting on God in the end? Was he throwing his chips in with the better story? Good for him if he did.
Several people from hell climb aboard a bus destined for the valley of the shadow of life. It is the land on the fringes of heaven. All who want to stay and go further up into heaven can. The solid people of heaven (mostly relatives and former friends of the travellers) come down from the mountains to invite them in. The shock of the book, is that in the end, very few choose to stay. These travellers view the fringes of heaven, as a damnable place. Their ever shrinking, translucent, slowly disappearing bodies don’t like the light and the grass is much to hard to walk on, heaven can only be worse they think.
Make no mistake, the inhabitants of hell are absolutely miserable and getting more so every day. There is no peace in hell, only fights and separation, darkness and loneliness, but they cling on to their misery. You see, all the inhabitants of hell are self absorbed. They are the centre of their own ever shrinking, ever disappearing, ever solitary universe — but in the end, they want themselves more than joy itself. When confronted, they lash out, blaming others for the fix they are in. Some are interested in God, but only as a means to an end, God is a useful tool to better ones on reputation, or to gain someone or something. For others heaven is seen as a place to become a shining star, in every case, when the people of hell realize that they can’t get what they want out of God and heaven, they become disgusted with it. Disgust for the heavenly spirits grows even more when the ghosts of hell realize the earthly failings of some of the heavenly people they get re-aquainted with. Self righteous hatred tries to spew itself on the people of heaven, but darkness cannot over take the light of heaven, not even on it’s fringes, so instead there is only laughter, light, joy, and the call for the ghosts to repent and start up the mountain where they will experience painful but purifying cleansing. They won’t have it, back to the bus they go.
Many religious people find themselves in the town called hell in this book. Lewis offers a poignant warning:
“There have been men before now who got so interested in proving the existence of God that they came to care nothing for God himself…There have been some who were so occupied in spreading Christianity that they never gave a thought to Christ… it is the subtlest of all the snares'”
When self-exaltation is the driving force of ones life, when “me” is at the centre, it doesn’t matter whether the life pursuit is noble or not, heaven and eternal joy itself will actually become inhospitable and undesirable.
Lewis’ ability to capture the true darkness of a human heart, is quite unsettling. The hell in all of us is revealed with convicting accuracy. The foolish choices we make in order to hang on to ourselves, at the expense of true joy hit really close to home for the honest reader.
He was totally dialled in. Oblivious to the world. His white man afro was dancing wildly in the wind. His size 12 shoe reached out in front of him and gobbled up yards of bike path with each stride. I had never seen a skateboarder go so fast. The sun was setting, and the sea wall was bathed in the warm soft rays of final light. It was a beautiful night for a ride and he was taking full advantage of the relatively unpeopled path. I tucked in behind him on my road bike, within moments I was ready to pass, but I couldn’t get around him. He was now crouched low on his long board, leaning forward, hands outstretched, smiling from ear to ear. It looked as if his eyes were closed! In his enraptured state he was weaving all over the bike path and try as I might I couldn’t seem to get around him. Finally I got as close as I dared and hollered
His head jerked up, and he looked over at me with a sheepish grin, pulling out his earbuds he yelled
“Sorry dude, I was just feeling the groove!”
It’s good to feel the groove. Every now and then for a fleeting moment or two all of us are like that skateboarder, everything feels like it should, everything perfect, it’s “the groove.” Are those moments just dumb luck? Fortunate happenstance? Meaningless endorphins just doing their thing? Something great, then gone for ever?
What if these “groove” moments could be viewed not as experiences lost and memories ever dimming but rather as glimpses of a future that will be gained? What if we believed that the joys of today were mere tastes of an eternal banquet of joy to come? I think that’s the best way of looking it. Jesus has promised us great things and the great moments of our lives that pass so quickly should serve as joy and gratitude infusing reminders for us of what will be.
How does Christianity influence behavior? One way (though not the greatest way) is with the threat of judgment and the hope of reward. In James 5 we have a number of appeals for certain behaviors and In every case the reader is told that if he does not comply there will be “judgment and slaughter”, if he does however, the Lord will return and blessings will abound.
For years the Catholic Church held people in absolute captivity with threats such as these. Then the Protestant Reformation happened and we were told that it is “faith alone” that saves us and not to worry so much about these threats. Now the secular revolution has happened and any sort of view with eternal judgment and reward has been tossed aside. If there is no judgement and no reward then what is to keep the human in line? For what reason should I or should I not behave in a certain way? Simple guidelines come forward: Do whatever you wish just try not to hurt too many people. Why not hurt people? If it’s not “God’s going to kick your ass if you do” then what is it? My humanist friends rush to answer the question, for humanity to flourish we all understand that rarely is it advantageous to hurt people. So we just decide not to and that’s good enough – God need not have anything to do with it.
I find it very curious that as humans we have not discarded the idea of reward and judgment altogether. We instill it into our children, it’s built into our laws, we see it in our music and movies. The inescapable morality that is hard wired into every human creates a very judicious nature that compels us to think in terms of judgment and reward — Is it such a big step to think that there might be an eternal version of what we know to be true in the every day? I don’t think so.
It also seems to me that in good times where we have riches, power, influence and all the comforts of life that it becomes much easier to talk about good behavior without God. However in the midst of economic and social crisis if there’s not a Divine interjection that both warns us and cheers us on it becomes immensely difficult, perhaps even impossible to prevent humankind from devolving into the brutality that characterizes the fight for survival.