Should Christians be praying for Hitch's Salvation?

One of this generation’s most celebrated atheists, Christopher Hitchens, is dying. He has been diagnosed with esophageal cancer.

Since his cancer was made public, people of various faith traditions have been encouraging others to pray for the man who penned God is Not Great: Why Religion Poisons Everything, a bestseller rant against all things God. There’s an online push designating September 20th as Everybody Pray for Hitchens day. There’s a Facebook page for those committed to Praying for Christopher Hitchens. The Rev. Robert Barron, a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago, wrote an essay for on “Why Christians should pray for Christopher Hitchens.” And Larry Taunton, executive director of The Fixed Point Foundation in Birmingham, Alabama, has issued a video blog urging Christians to pray for Hitchens.

Taunton recently drove to Washington, D.C. to fetch Hitchens and carry him back to Birmingham for a previously scheduled debate about all things God with David Berlinski, author of “The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions.” A reported 1,200 people turned up for the event sponsored by The Fixed Point Foundation.

Asked what he considered the most damaging tenet of the Christian faith, Hitchens said, “The idea of vicarious redemption is a disgusting moral teaching…it abandons moral responsibility. Faith is a refuge in cowardice.”

Hitchens is no lightweight atheist. He considers faith the least admirable of all virtues. He doesn’t even like the term atheist because it leaves too much wiggle room for the notion of God. In his most current book, Hitch-22, a memoir, he says, “I suppose that one reason I have always detested religion is its sly tendency to insinuate the idea that the universe is designed with ‘you’ in mind or, even worse, that there is a divine plan into which one fits whether one knows it or not. That modesty is too arrogant for me.”

Hitchens has cultivated a keen knack for the ironic as was evidenced during a recent interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, a correspondent for The Atlantic.

“Does it offend you that people are praying for you?” Goldberg asked.

“No. No,” Hitchens replied. “I take it kindly on the assumption that they are praying for my recovery, but not to be saved.”

Under no circumstances does Hitchens want people praying for his salvation. Should a rumor circulate that at some point during this process of dying that he has made some death-bed confession, Hitchens warns people to not believe it. Perhaps, in some state of delirium, some state of physical anguish, such a prayer would be uttered, don’t put any stock into it. It would only be a raving, mad entity whose cancer had spread to the brain, he said.

Goldberg correctly noted: “There’s humility in agnosticism that doesn’t exist in the atheist.”

Could it be that the very arrogance that caused Hitchens to denounce God and declare all religion as poisonous has straight-jacketed the man? Hitchens is beset by the very thing he has tried so long to escape – a religion — the Religion of Certainosity, comprised of those who care more about being right than they do about being redeemed. Even Hitchens ought to find amusement in the irony of that.

Still, he is right to be suspect of the reasons why Christians are compelled to pray for his salvation when we don’t bother to pray for the salvation of the child next door, the grocery store clerk, or that good friend from college. Why are so many people campaigning for Hitch’s salvation? Is it because his salvation would in some disingenuous way affirm their own?

Hitchens isn’t fooled. He knows that for the Christian community he’s the Big Fish. Netting him would be like hauling in Jonah’s whale. The salvation of Christopher Hitchens would get wide-spread play in New York City and far across the Atlantic. There would be a media feeding frenzy of apologists and bobble-head Christians, all yammering about the rejoicing in heaven over this one soul.

Yet, there remains one for whom the praying is most sincere. Peter Hitchens is the brother who has long prayed as only a brother can. Although, he started with the similar atheistic assumptions as his brother, Peter, author of Rage Against God, chose faith. “If you drive God out of the world then you create a harrowing wilderness,” Peter said.

It’s a wilderness in which far too many roam.

Hitchens doesn’t want our prayers.

“I don’t mean to be churlish about any kind intentions, but when September 20 comes, please do not trouble deaf heaven with your bootless cries,” he said in Vanity Fair’s October 2010 issue. “Unless, of course, it makes you feel better.”

Can we justify praying for Hitchens when there’s a vast wilderness of people lost?

And can we say in all truthfulness that we are praying as earnestly for those whose names aren’t among the celebrated notables?

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  • Funny you should post this today. Just a couple of hours ago I wrote a very brief post to publish at the end of the week inquiring how our attitude toward people who don’t share our belief system would change if we viewed them more as lost than as wrong.

    When I look at Hitchens as wrong, I think about how many people he has lead astray. I feel very differently about him when I look at him as lost. It’s in the “lost” context that I have compassion for him, not because he is a “big fish”, but because Jesus died for him, too.

    You’re right to challenge us, however, on praying for the person next door as well as the “celebrated notables,” as you call them.

    Thanks for another insightful post.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Ken: I love what you say about when we look at what Hitchens says as “wrong” vs. if we look at him as “lost.” Christian or not, isn’t part of how we got so polarized is by seeing others as “wrong” and us as “right”? That Religion of Certainosity?

      • In Blue Like Jazz, your buddy Donald Miller writes, “At the end of the day, when I lie in bed and know that the chances of any of our various theologies being exactly right are about a million to one, I take comfort that God has things figured out.”

  • Well, I should pray for Hitchens…as well as my neighbor, grocery store clerk, etc. Intercession is a practice that I have only recently learned more about. It is something I have neglected. This article just reminds me of how easy it is to overlook the neighbor next door, while praying for the big fish. I think I need to go back and read Luke 10’s Good Samaritan.

  • I appreciate this post, Karen. I don’t pray for other people’s salvation, because I believe deeply that God wants that for each of his children more than we do. Will I pray for Hitchens personally, by name? Probably not, since I don’t know him and have no connection with him, but he will fall under that general prayer of mine that God’s grace be realized — however a person can come to realize it — in each of us.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Eleanor; Christianity has been hijacked by political movements and defined by what those parties are for or against. So it’s easy to understand the rants of Hitchens. But I like what you say here — God wants that more for each of his children than we do. Where’s that message in the noise today?

      • We Christians do a fine job of drowning out our own alleged message with our own screams of self-righteousness, seems to me!

  • “Christians are compelled to pray for his salvation when we don’t bother to pray for the salvation of the child next door, the grocery store clerk, or that good friend from college.”
    That’s a heck of an assumption. Or more accurately, presumption. I can’t imagine any Christian that I know who would pray for this man’s salvation and not the salvation of others. Maybe I’m just hanging out with the wrong Christians.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Or the right ones?

      • I was being sarcastic. In reality, I think the words I quoted above are setting up a strawman who doesn’t exist, at least not in large numbers. Most people I know who pray for anyone who’s dying and still an unbeliever do so because he needs Christ, not because his salvation will provide them with something to be held high as a sort of trophy.

        • Karen Spears Zacharias

          I find it disturbing to “go after” someone in prayer this way. I think evangelism shouldn’t be about debate or prayer campaigns but folo the manner in which Andrew handled it — when he went to his brother and said, “Come meet this amazing man, Jesus.”
          Hitchens has made it clear he doesn’t want our prayers. Perhaps we should leave him to his peace and we ought to work on developing community right where we live.

          • I agree with you regarding the public aspect of this prayer effort. I still think that as a man made in God’s image, Hitchens is worth every Christian’s efforts in their private prayer time.

  • We should pray for CH, as for anyone. Not as proof pudding for our own faith but because he is a human being, a creation and child of God–whether he accepts that or not.

    His name is M—–, and he came to worship again last night. He shook my hand with a firm grip in his lean fingers. He looked the best I’ve ever seen him. More than six months ago when I saw him last he was skin and bones, strung out on cocaine and an emotional wreck. Through drugged sobs he said he wanted what I had: a wife, a daughter, a family. I told him he could indeed have those blessings, but only if he got himself back first. To do that, he’d have to grab onto every resource and extended hand, snatch his life back from the drug demons, and never look back. We joined hands and prayed. Then I didn’t see him again until last night.

    He’s been sober for six months, is in a good group of supporters, is staying with it and has put on 20 lbs. I’ve held his name in prayer more than anyone else’s for the past six months. And look what God has done.

    Time to give thanks for M—–. Time to pray for CH and the kids next door. Just because. Amen.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Loving people is a prayer, isn’t it?

      • Yes, it is. After I wrote the above, I watched Rob Bell’s short film “Open” for perhaps the 12th time. Could probably watch it another 100 times and still not hear all he has to say on prayer. But I affirm what he says near the end, “Prayer changes us. Prayer makes us better people.” It’s a gift.

  • JanetLee

    Do you view Jews as lost and in need of your prayer? Do you view Hindus as lost? Buddists? Muslims? Atheists and agnostics just have different belief system.

    It’s really none of anyone’s business but their own. And it is their right to believe how they wish, just as you have the right to believe as you wish.

    Why don’t we all stop classifying people based on their spiritual or moral pathway.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias


      I think Christopher Hitchens invited the conversation when he wrote the book God is Not Great.

      • JanetLee

        But that is finger pointing. There are many more books written in favor of the Christian God than against. Now, I will say I dislike his in your face approach, but still, it is his right to believe and write about his beliefs, just as you write about your beliefs, no?

        • Karen Spears Zacharias

          Not sure I’d say it’s either of our rights but we do both have the freedom to do so.
          But the question is should we pray for a man who doesn’t want those prayers?
          And are we doing so simply because he’s a notable atheist?

          • JanetLee

            As a non-theist, I find it insulting and condescending when people pray for me because they know I’m not a believer. But if some random person says they’ll pray for me, I usually just say thanks.

            If you want to pray for him, keep it between you and God. No need to let others or Mr. Hitchens know, because what is the purpose of letting him know?

  • Can we not do both? Can’t we both pray for Hitchens and our neighbor. I think we have enough time to do both. I think we should be praying for the salvation of all (1 Timothy 2).

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      We could. But should we pray for a man who has asked us not to? Or should we shake the dust from our feet and move on?

  • Another insightful post, as well as your Taylor Swift post. Thank you for your positive, thoughtful words.

  • Amen, Karen. We should pray for him and for those we know who few others do. Out of love, no less, the love of God. So that in a sense praying for him, and seeing him possibly come to salvation would be no more remarkable than the same for anyone else.

  • Steve Taylor

    Of course, we pray for Christopher Hitchens. We pray for the other because it is the movement of love. We pray for the other because it is an act of life and hope. We pray for the other because in our prayer, we finally might stumble toward the unknowable that knits the fabric of the cosmos and connects us all.

    When I pray for the other, it is an act of radical departure from a world that too often strives only for its own way, seeks to frame the other as over and against, repeatedly defines not by commonality but through divergence, and continually holds to my family, my tribe, my nation, my possession, and my beliefs. In such prayer, in that space of sacred utterance, at that point of yearning for the other’s goodness, for their shalom, for all of the richness that God might birth into their life, suddenly, it is no longer I who pray, but the Spirit of God who prays through me. In some small, real, and significant way, I commune with the other, even when the other resists such communion.
    And I discover that in that place of mutuality, you and I disappear. It is only “we,” woven together by the thread of pure love.

    My hope for your salvation, becomes the essence of my salvation. My hope for your goodness, because the reality of my goodness. When I feel you so intensely, I can no longer demand my own way. I can no longer set you aside. I can no longer hate you. I can no longer kill you. All I can do is feel God’s presence through you, weep for you, laugh with you, ask your forgiveness, and offer you mine.

    And so we pray for Christopher Hitchens, because in that prayer, there is life for us all.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Steve: Notes like yours serve to remind me how finite is my thinking and how infinite is God’s grace. “No longer I who prays, but the Spirit of God within me.” Indeed.
      Your writing, your thoughtfulness, overwhelms me.

      • Karen Spears Zacharias
        • Steve Taylor

          Karen, thank you for your kind and generous affirmation. I followed the link and read the post including a few pages of comments. I am always amazed at the sureness of commentary when describing the indescribable, both of our own faith or lack of, and of God. I often find myself praying, “God, protect me from my own certainty.” Otherwise, where is the need for faith????