A guest post from regular contributor Seth Simmons.
Everybody knows Christopher Hitchens by the prominent and public role he played in the culture as the bold and loquacious, unapologetic and often vicious defender of atheism and assailant of all forms of religion. But as Hitchens admitted a number of times in his own memoirs, he very consciously maintained two separate and distinct “sets of books” in his life. In documenting their unique friendship, Larry Taunton reveals and explores a heretofore unknown side of the famous polemicist.
After writing his famous book “god Is Not Great: Why Religion Poisons Everything,” Hitchens gave an open invitation to debate anyone, anywhere. Many evangelicals took him up on the offer, sparking a few years’ worth of lively events all across the United States. Hitchens later wrote about being pleasantly surprised and impressed by his experience with the evangelical community–both in terms of their genuine likability and respectfulness, but also their intellectual power. Taunton is an evangelical Christian apologist who both debated Hitchens directly and also served as moderator for other debates. Hitchens and Taunton became good friends and, after the former’s diagnosis of cancer, went on two road trips together and studied the Gospel of John.
This book has generated a lot of controversy, especially among the atheist community, but mostly because the thesis has been misunderstood–or intentionally misconstrued. Taunton does NOT claim that Hitchens had a deathbed conversion; what he does claim is that at the end of his life Hitchens was engaging in a serious “counting of the cost” regarding conversion. To the very end, Hitchens maintained his atheism publicly, but in his personal and private life was genuinely considering the truth of Christianity. We won’t know what ultimately happened until Judgement Day.
This is a truly wonderful book, a poignant unveiling of a hidden side to Christopher Hitchens that adds another meaningful dimension to the public’s understanding of his life. Taunton writes beautifully, and the profundity and emotional intensity of some of his encounters and conversations with Hitchens almost brought me to tears more than once. It’s hard to conceive of Hitchens uttering without sarcasm some of the lines Taunton attributes to him (and yet I believe the accounts are true):
“God does not lack for an able advocate in you, Larry.” (A quiet response to an exhortation during their road trip discussion of the Gospel of John)
“Don’t give up so easily.” (A muttered word–during a live debate–intended for Taunton alone, referring to Hitchens’ unspoken willingness to allow Taunton every opportunity to pursue Christopher’s eternal soul.)
“I’ll admit that [belief] is not without appeal to a dying man.” (His reflective response to John 11:25-36, on their road trip.)
At one point Hitchens described the three ways he prepares for a debate: 1) Know the man’s arguments, 2) know why he holds them, and 3) decide whether to destroy the arguments or the man. Asked why he didn’t try and destroy Larry the man, Hitchens responded, “Because you really believe it.” Evangelical pastor Douglas Wilson, who also befriended Hitchens and did a series of debates with him, has described a similar experience from his friendship with Christopher. It became clear that Hitchens loathed hypocrisy above all else, and greatly respected those intellectual adversaries who actually live what they believe.
If Christopher Hitchens did humble himself before God in time, the courage to publicly deny his carefully crafted public persona failed him. And yet, Taunton notes that “fierce protestations of loyalty always precede a defection.” I can only hope that God reached down and saved Hitchens, and that I’ll see him in heaven.