Thursday, June 30, 2016

When an Atheist Longs for a “Higher Love”

Atheists reason, and some profess, that God and other deities do not exist.  Maybe I’m wrong, but I have a hunch that many self-proclaimed atheists remember being offended and perhaps deeply hurt by one or more well meaning persons of faith.  Some Christians may act toward unbelievers out of ignorance, others out of arrogance, and yet others out of a sincere but carnal desire to “win” a God-denier to faith in order to claim the atheist as a trophy of a hard-to-win pagan.  By the way, I have probably already unintentionally offended at least some atheistic readers who argue that their belief is based on sound logic, not emotional scars.  No offense intended as you will hopefully see by reading on.

The Bible teaches that those who deny God are on the road to eternal judgment (John 3: 16; Romans 3: 10,23; 6: 23).   God does not “clear the guilty” (Numbers 14: 18) just because they can point to a Christian who offended them sometime in their life.  Yet, it ought to be true that every sinner saved by God’s grace is constrained by Calvary’s love and desirous of sharing the Gospel of God’s love with unbelievers—and, in a way that is not disrespectful (2 Corinthians 5: 14-15; 1 Peter 3: 15).

I cannot deny that there has been selfishness in my motivation to communicate with atheists in recent years.  Therefore, it has been good medicine for me to read The Faith of Christopher Hitchens (Nelson, 2016).  I discovered this title in a book review by Benjamin Wiker, Senior Fellow at the Veritas Center for Ethics and Public Life, Franciscan University.   The book’s author, Larry Taunton, director of Fixed Point Foundation, refers to Hitchens in his subtitle as “the World’s Most Notorious Atheist.”  I was immediately intrigued upon learning that Taunton is an evangelical Christian who writes from his experience as a close friend of Hitchens between 2007 and 2011 when Hitchens died of cancer.

Readers of The Faith of Christopher Hitchens are humbly and respectfully introduced to the man whom reviewer Benjamin Wiker describes as “a real, lovable, cantankerous, flawed, hilarious, foolish, brilliant, sinful, and multi-faceted human being.”  But more fascinating and valuable is the way in which an evangelical Christian, Larry Taunton, respectfully and lovingly earns the right to become a friend of Hitchens.  Though reluctant to publish many aspects of their unusual friendship, Taunton finally agrees with a publisher that he should write the book.  What resulted is a captivating narrative that recounts the tumultuous boyhood of Christopher Hitchens in England during the 1950’s, his rejection of the notion of God as a teen, and his development of a separate public and private “set of books” that governed his thinking, communication, and behavior in his adult life.  As Taunton explains, the growing chasm between the public and the private Christopher Hitchens is a key to understanding how an atheist could drastically change his allegiance from the Left to the Right following the 9/11 attack on America, and eventually gain new respect and friendships with evangelical Christians.

Christopher Hitchens and brother, Peter Hitchens
As further incentive for you to read The Faith of Christopher Hitchens, I will provide a list of questions the book has caused me to ask, each one dealing with a facet of the larger question, What can I as an evangelical Christian learn from Larry Taunton about building a friendship of mutual trust and respect with those who have a different view than I of the natural world and beyond (if they acknowledge such?  Hopefully, this article will motivate you to read The Faith of Christopher Hitchens.  And better yet, maybe some of my questions will promote  a more in-depth reflection and discussion.  If so, I’d love to read comments posted to me from the link below.

1.   Am I cultivating friendships with people who deny the existence of God, or reject His claim on their lives?  If so, how well am I representing the love of Christ to them?

2.   Hitchens’ favorite song was Steve Winwood’s, “Higher Love.”  He admitted to Larry Taunton’s son, Michael, “I do long for a higher love (p. 4).”  With all humility, do I recognize that within the heart of every man and woman is the need to experience God’s redemptive love, and that God might use me in some way as an important channel of His love?

3.   What can I learn from the accounts of the boarding school experience of two English boys—one, Christopher Hitchens who found in its harsh and often unreasonable discipline what became for him “metaphors for rejection of God and church;” the other, C.S. Lewis, who found an equally harsh experience what became for him “a metaphor for how faith, patience, and anticipation is built into life.” (p. 12-13)

4.   How many pre-adolescent and adolescent children today experience a roadblock to conversion to faith in God, often resulting in a hatred of God and Christianity, because of a failure of parents and teachers to help them acquire a truly Christian view of God’s gift of   sexuality?  
Michelangelo's "The Awakening Slave"

5.  Is each human being “self-made” as illustrated in Michelangelo’s The Awakening Slave, pictured 
as a man writhing to get free of the marble block restraining him?  Hitchens denied that his father’s lack of faith had anything to do with his own becoming an atheist; instead, seeing himself as a “self-made man” who came to atheism purely out of rational means.  But, Hitchens’ father had two sons, both “Bible-burning atheists and communists.”  The fact that God works in the affairs of fathers and sons is evidenced by what eventually happened--one of the sons becomes a Christian (p. 48)!

6.   Is it possible that many atheists do not embrace atheism so much because it is logical and intellectually fulfilling as because it allows them the opportunity to legitimize their rejection of moral claims upon the lifestyle they choose?

7.   Hitchens embraced atheism because it allowed him to square the public and private “sets of books” that he kept.  And, he chose words as his weapons to defend his position, “rather than loving words insofar as they lead to truth (p. 22-23).”  Do I fall into the same trap when I give priority to eloquence and scholarship over pursuit of truth, understanding, and respectful discourse with those who do not share my beliefs?

8.   For Hitchens the atheist, the logical political allegiance was to socialism which is antithetical to Christianity.  As Dostoevsky wrote, “Socialism is not merely the labor question, it is before all things the atheistic question….”  Do we realize why socialism today is increasingly popular in spite of its dismal history of economic failure and the deaths of millions of people?  Socialism is increasingly popular because many are deceived into believing that “our generation” will avoid the “Stalinist perversion of an otherwise perfect system” and will “get it right” in the attempt to “set up heaven on earth?” (p. 24)

9.   Do some atheists see Christian attempts to relate to them as trophy-hunting expeditions?  Taunton suggests that Hitchens often found the efforts of Christians who sought to “convert” him as intellectually stimulating and entertaining.  But, he also loathingly considered other professing Christians like Rev. Al Sharpton as “intellectual frauds” when he learned that they held little or no allegiance to the authority of the Bible.  Read how Hitchens exemplifies a God-denier or God-hater who warms to some conservative evangelicals who displayed intellectual competence integrated with warmth and respect.

10.  What happens when an atheist like Christopher Hitchens is confronted with a horrific event like 9/11?  Hitchens could not help but judge the terrorist act as “simply evil” and not, as liberal progressives often claim, the result of some outside injustice--economic, social, political, or cultural?  If instead, murderous acts originate by “human free will” out of an evil heart, it becomes “freely chosen evil.” It follows that our whole “human family” is morally corrupt and in need of an outside Deliverer—the God an atheist claims does not exist!  Read how Hitchens came to see the contradiction.  Psalm 49: 7-9:  No man can by any means redeem his brother, or give to God a ransom for him-- For the redemption of his soul is costly, and he should cease trying forever--that he should live on eternally, that he should not undergo decay.
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011)

11.  How did the gradual warming of Christopher Hitchens toward Christianity come about by a Gospel witness grounded in the authority of Scripture as the sole arbiter of what defines Christianity, and not (as Hitchens often encountered) personal testimonials and human opinions?   How many times does my witness for Christ become diluted by too much emphasis on “my experience” as opposed to presenting the objective claims of the Gospel message?

12.  How did Larry Taunton, upon first meeting Hitchens, in 2007, avoid getting stuck in a “cart-before-the-horse” misunderstanding over how their lifestyles differed (e.g. smoking, drinking), allowing Taunton to say, from almost the beginning, “I knew I liked him…our rapport was immediate (p. 96).”

13.  How does a Christian friend of an atheist locate the moral limits (if any) beyond which the atheist will not go?  For example, was Hitchens’ atheism consistent enough (as was Peter Singer’s atheism) that he was comfortable with the Godless conclusion that there is no moral basis for treating human babies any differently than piglets or peeps?

14.  How did the adoption of a Russian girl, Sasha, by Larry and Lauri Taunton; and, Sasha’s vibrant Christian testimony to Christopher provide him with a glimpse of the “higher love” which he longed (see #? Above)?  Therefore the LORD longs to be gracious to you, and therefore He waits on high to have compassion on you. For the LORD is a God of justice; How blessed are all those who long for Him (Isaiah 30:18 ).

15.  Finally, does an increasingly warm and tender friendship of mutual trust and respect between an evangelical Christian and a professing atheist lead the latter to bow his knees at the altar of repentance and faith in God, and to take hold of that “higher love” he had longed to find?  You’ll have to read The Faith of Christopher Hitchens, but please don’t start with the last chapter.


Herb Gillis said...

Hi John. Thanks for the article about Christopher Hitchens. I pray that his soul rests in peace. In a future email I will respond in more detail to your article. There are many many things in my opinion why someone is an atheist They all have something to do with being overly self centered, power-hungry, and spiritually immature. I am struggling myself to overcome these things. I Have overcome them enough to be a believer - my faith in Jesus is a healer of those things.

On a different subject and one you might call visionary speaking, as a still learning person I believe the new testament is telling people about a gift from God that is so deep and is such Good News that it is often overlooked, unfortunately wasted. Because of the work of Jesus Christ we have that gift. It is that we can invite the Holy Spirit to live in us and give us His gifts (Ephesians)- this is the DIVINITY offered in the New Testament. Consequently we have resources available that IF we surrendered to God's plan and used them, we would be a super people. I believe this truth is so deep that few people realize it and very few live at that high level. Maybe Billy Graham and people like him GOT IT. Respectfully, Herb gillis

northierthanthou said...

I wouldn't use this as a model of friendship across religious boundaries. Taunton's portrayal of Hitchens is little other than a series of back-handed insults dressed up as an homage. I haven't read a more deceitful work in a very long time.

Anonymous said...

Hello Herb, with thanks for your comments regarding C. Hitchens and regarding "the Gift of God" as revealed in the New Testament. I hope you are drawn to read "The Faith of Christopher Hitchens" and pray that your faith and witness to people outside the Christian faith will be strengthened as a result.

Regarding the "Gift of God" as revealed in the New Testament through the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, your comments remind me of the inspired teaching of the Apostle Peter (St. Peter) in 2 Peter, Chapter 1. I agree that many people overlook or miss the truth that God has given everyone who will simply believe that "Jesus Christ has come in the flesh (1 John 4:2)" However, I'm not sure that "overlooked" is the reason as much as that, as Romans 1:21 states, "For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened." Yet God states as recorded a few verses earlier (v. 19-20), "that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them... so that they are without excuse." Much could be said here, but the God Who is not willing that any should perish, is also the One Who, through the power of the Holy Spirit causes us to be born again so that we can become (as you suggest and) as the Scriptures say, "partakers of the divine nature" (revived by being baptized (immersed) into the body of Christ. What a marvelous promise and transformation awaits those who will simply die to self, repent of their sins, and accept the Gift of God (Romans 6:23). Thanks for your faith and reliance on God's power to renew and strengthen you in mind, body, and spirit. Your friend in Wooster, John

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Mr. Wall (northierthanthou) for your comment. I realize that you did not intend to develop your point with specific references to Taunton's book, perhaps preferring that I read your blog article on the book (at I was attracted to the following statement in your article which I believe contains a misunderstanding of Taunton's portrayal of Hitchens' faith as he knew it from their friendship:

"The notion that atheists really believe in God after all is a pretty common theme among Christian apologists. Taunton clearly means to use Hitchens’s life to provide an example of this, an anecdote to show us what so many apologists take for granted, that deep down the most strident atheist is really a frustrated believer of some sort."

I take issue with your portrayal of both (a) Taunton's intent in writing the book, and (b) your notion that Taunton concluded that "atheist Hitchens" was really a "believer." Nowhere that I recall from reading the book did I read evidence that Taunton was assured that Hitchens demonstrated the depth of belief that brings a person to "salvation from sin and eternal life." This "belief" as explained in Romans 10 involves repentance and surrender through faith in the shed blood of God's perfect Lamb, His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Taunton outlines every evidence that would suggest that Hitchens might have come to this point of repentance and acceptance of God's love Gift of salvation, but leaves the reader and himself in humble awareness that we cannot know all that may have occurred between Hitchens and God. It should be evident here that "saving faith" is more than simply "belief in God." St. James in his epistle, makes the point in Ch. 2, v. 19 that even the demons "believe" in God (that God exists). It is not enough to mentally acknowledge God exists--i.e. to be a theist. One must go a step further to submit to God Who has the power to change our hearts, our disposition, and make us a "new creation (2 Cor. 5: 17). Whether Hitchens took that step of faith is the hope of his loving friend, Larry Taunton, but Taunton regretfully has to stop short of the assurance that he will ever see his friend in eternity.

Anonymous said...

Monday July 18 352pm
Hi John. Thank you for your reply of July 16. Certainly on the subjects there we are in complete agreement - especially God wanting to give us higher faculties through our surrender to His Love and His Will. Being a a merciful person I pray that souls never suffer anything worse than purgatory. I hope this is true for Christopher Hitchens. The Lord's response to the good thief on the Cross is my basis for hope for Christopher Hitchens. I agree that we are born with God's Truth in our souls. It has taken me 40 years of prayer and meditation to get UNbury it. It would be nice if less work was necessary. My theory is that atheists do not want to work that hard. I dare hope that Christopher Hitchens even now acquires the humility to get busy doing repentance and meditation so God can forgive him and he can enter Heaven. Respectfully, Herb Gillis

John said...

Hello Herb. Thank you for your comments on Christopher Hitchens. I especially appreciate the humility evident in your own personal testimony. As for the fate of the human soul following death, I hope we can discuss that sometime at more length in person; much better than online. Meanwhile, may God continue to strengthen and keep you as you humbly seek to walk near to Him, the Author and Perfector of your faith.
Respectfully, John