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Christopher Hitchens and Death

September 19, 2011     Time: 00:11:51
Christopher Hitchens and Death


Popular writer Christopher Hitchens is struggling with cancer and is writing on his atheism and death. Dr. Craig reflects on his debates with Hitchens as well as Hitchens' recent comments.

Transcript Christopher Hitchens and Death


Kevin Harris: Welcome to Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig. I'm Kevin Harris in podcast with Dr. Craig. There are so many people praying for Christopher Hitchens, Bill, that I don't think he has a chance as an atheist. You've had that debate with him – two encounters with him – he's one of the four horsemen of the so-called New Atheism. He's got esophageal cancer. It's in stage four; he's anticipating dying, and has written some final works on that. But tell us once again, before we discuss some of things he's saying as he's approaching death, about your two encounters with Christopher.

Dr. Craig: Well, I didn't have much personal interaction with him, Kevin. It was mainly on the dias itself. But I must say that I've been struck by how many Christians have a genuine affection for this man. Despite his vitriolic attacks upon Christianity he has a sort of lovable curmudgeonly quality about him that everybody I meet who has seen him loves Christopher Hitchens, and they are genuinely and sincerely praying for either his recovery or for his coming to know Christ as his savior before his death. People have a genuine heart-felt concern for this man.

Kevin Harris: And he said he feels that, too. He says that he sensed it when he was doing this tour that included a debate with you and a dialogue on a panel. He says that he genuinely feels that affection for him and that love for him.

Dr. Craig: Yeah, and that's gratifying—isn't it? He was well-treated at Biola and I think he sensed that Christians really liked him.

Kevin Harris: Now that he's facing the end of his life he's saying that he wants his fellow atheists to continue what he calls the secular revolution, and has written to some of the organizations including American Atheist. There does seem to be somewhat of a secular revolution, if you look at certain statistics.

Dr. Craig: Yes, I think that's fair. I think he can rightly say he has helped with others to spearhead at least an advance in the secularization of Western society, if not a revolution. And I'm doing everything I can with my colleagues who are Christian philosophers and New Testament scholars and scientists to work a revolution of the opposite sort, a renaissance of Christian intellectual engagement and activity which will overwhelm any sort of secular revolution that Hitchens and others have tried to foment on a popular level.

Kevin Harris: He says that he's having a long argument with the specter of death in which no one has ever won, he says. But as the idea of death becomes more familiar, he says that he's not pleading for salvation, redemption and supernatural deliverance, he says, because he regards religion and God and so forth as superstition. Now, he equates Christianity, Christian theism, classical theism with superstition.

Dr. Craig: Right. He at least is sticking to his convictions as he faces death, and says that he's not going to have a kind of fox hole conversion. He says if I should turn to religious belief in the final days of my life than you'll know that the cancer has finally reached my brain.

Kevin Harris: Ah, okay. He's actually warning against that.

Dr. Craig: Yes.

Kevin Harris: Well, one of the reasons that I wanted to bring up the equating of superstition with supernaturalism is that those are two different terms. Theism, Christianity, and so on is not superstitious as we define superstition.

Dr. Craig: Right, I think that some Christians are superstitious. I've known Christians who are paranoid about demons lurking behind every bush, and they'll talk about demons of illness and demons of depression and other sorts of things. And there does seem to be an almost superstitious quality . . .

Kevin Harris: So, any of us can be superstitious, Christian or non-Christian.

Dr. Craig: Oh, yes, certainly. Pagan religions, I think, were very superstitious in that they had all sorts of magic arts and they would have talismans and other signs and potions and incantations and things that they thought would evoke results in the gods. But Christianity is, although it believes in a supernatural, it's not superstitious in that sense.

Kevin Harris: See, I would want Chris to understand that when you define superstition it's basically an unwarranted or irrational belief in ultra-mundane or supernatural activity in various and in trivial ways, [1] but that the bottom line is going to be an irrational fear.

Dr. Craig: Yes. Yes it is largely motivated by fear and the attempt to placate these forces and deities around you. And that's certainly foreign to Christianity and to Judaism.

Kevin Harris: He says, instead of the false consolations of religion, he says, he places his trust in medical science and the support of friends and family. And ironically one of the scientists that helped design the experimental cancer treatment that Hitchens is using is none other than evangelical scientist Francis Collins, according to this Christian Post article.

Dr. Craig: Yes, and I imagine Francis Collins sees no contradiction between offering the best that medical science can give plus the consolations of religion. They're not incompatible with each other.

Kevin Harris: In fact Dr. Collins even wrote in the Washington Post a special prayer for Christopher Hitchens. But he said in the prayer it was not so much for a supernatural intervention but for a medical miracle for his atheist friend.

Dr. Craig: That's an odd comment. I think that's a contradiction in terms. Not a supernatural intervention, but a medical miracle. Now, as I understand miracles, miracles are supernatural interventions. A miracle is an event which the natural causes at the time and place are incapable of producing, and therefore requires an invention by a supernatural agent. So a medical miracle literally construed would involve the intervention of a supernatural agent. I suspect what Collins really means is a medical breakthrough of great and unexpected proportions, but something purely natural.

Kevin Harris: Under the grace of God.

Dr. Craig: Yes, exactly. We can pray for those, Kevin. I think it's a mistake to think that when we pray for someone who's sick, we're praying for supernatural interventions. We can pray that the doctors will give him the appropriate medical diagnosis and care that will help him to get better. So there's no contradiction between praying for the success of a person's medical treatment and asking God to be involved. Now, of course that doesn't exclude that there could be a miraculous intervention and a medical miracle in the literal sense.

Kevin Harris: Should we pray in that way, Bill? Should we pray for both God to do it though supernatural and natural means?

Dr. Craig: Well, you know it's interesting. When you read the New Testament sometimes there would be prayer for healing. But other times, for example, with Paul's thorn in the flesh, God says to him “my power is made perfect in weakness.” And Paul says, “I will therefore all the more happily boast of my weaknesses that the power of Christ might rest upon me.” And in a case like that I think Paul would say, “pray that I would show forth Christ, that I would have faith in the midst of this trial, that I would have strength to endure and I would bring honor and glory to Christ.” And I think sometimes we may too quickly pray for healing when in fact we should be praying for the spiritual quality of the person going through that trial.

Kevin Harris: Despite Hitchens' fondness for Collins – and the two of them have become good friends, according to this article – he does describe the face of religion as nuclear armed mullahsand insidious campaigns and pseudo-science, campaigns to teach pseudo-science in U.S. schools. Now, I as a Christian wouldn't disagree with any of that. I mean, the face of religion does contain all those things. It's certainly a broad brush stroke.

Dr. Craig: Sure.

Kevin Harris: And he would include Christianity in that, and Christ himself.

Dr. Craig: Right, that description certainly wouldn't fit the faith of Francis Collins, who is trying to minister to Christopher Hitchens.

Kevin Harris: He can't speak at this point, I think. I don't know if his voice is going to come back. And, speaking of superstition – and there's precedence for what I'm saying; I'm not just pulling it out of the air – I want to ward off the temptation that any Christian or religious person would be saying, “Well, this is God shutting his mouth.” I think that's very presumptuous.

Dr. Craig: Yes, we're not in a position to say things like that.

Kevin Harris: And if one were to say that one would be wrong anyway because Christopher Hitchens' career has mostly been writing—and he's still doing that.

Dr. Craig: He's still writing—exactly [laughter].

Kevin Harris: Finally, he says, rallying atheists to form a resistance against this “sinister nonsense.” He concludes his letter with the line: “don't keep the faith.” What seems to be one of the concerns of Christopher Hitchens as he faces death is that he does want to show that we should be bold and we don't have to turn to religion when we are facing death, [2] and so many people do.

Dr. Craig: Yes, he wants to hold his integrity as an unbeliever right to the very end. But you know, Kevin, in my debates and dialogues with him I didn't see that he had any good grounds for his unbelief. It wasn't as though this is a rationally based skepticism on his part. It's just an emotional anger and resistance against God. And so although he likes to portray himself as this sort of noble skeptic, I saw no reasons whatsoever to suggest that he had any kind of substantive grounds for his atheism. He's resisting God and God's efforts to save him right up until the end.

Kevin Harris: There's a parable that Jesus told about an employer who hired men and they worked all day and he paid them a certain amount, and then he brought in people who worked at the end of the day and he paid them the same amount. Why? Because he was the boss. And even though there were complaints from those who worked all day that those who had came later got equal pay, he said, “I'm the boss.” And Jesus is giving an illustration here of the Kingdom of God that I think if Christopher Hitchens came to Christ here at the end of his life, we would rejoice.

Dr. Craig: Oh, Kevin, I know that's true. No one would complain that Christopher Hitchens got his day’s wages after working only an hour at the end of the day. People would be ecstatic for him that he had come to know Christ after a life of rebellion and resistance.

Kevin Harris: Let's continue to earnestly pray for Mr. Christopher Hitchens. [3]