Hitchens certainly has the intellectual ability to take on some great Christian thinkers and perhaps reassess his prior positions. I knew that he was a brave soul as far back as 1989, when I was an intern at The Nation magazine. Hitchens had been a writer for the magazine (he had just moved on to Harper’s when I arrived), and I remember finding a bunch of hate mail addressed to Hitchens in a file. It was from feminists who were angry that Hitchens had come out as pro-life (video evidence can be found here). I knew at that moment that he was a brave and honest thinker. A couple weeks later, I met the man himself at a party. I engaged him in conversation and tried to sell him on the greatness of the band the Clash. He didn’t buy it, calling the group “nihilistic.” A colleague from The Nation pulled me aside and said that Hitch would probably be better if I asked him about 19th-century British poets.
I remained a fan of Hitchens over the years, but didn’t see him up close again until January 2010, at a party for the launch of The Daily Caller. As soon as I saw him, I knew something was wrong. I had been diagnosed with cancer (non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma) in 2008, and when I saw Hitchens, I felt like I was seeing myself from two years prior. He had the same ashen look. I reintroduced myself and reminded him about our conversation about the Clash. He examined my face and then said, “Yes, I think I do remember that.”
A few months later, Hitchens was diagnosed. Since then he has done something that is not easy — write with great insight and originality about cancer, a disease that lends itself to cheesy empowerment sloganeering and weepy martyr kitsch. His latest piece in Vanity Fair is the best yet. He avoids the cheap sentiment that’s part of so much writing about the illness. He celebrates life while saying that it’s also okay to die if it comes to that. The only one who did it better was Richard John Neuhaus in his book “As I Lay Dying.”
In his piece, Hitchens admits that the brutality of his treatment has made him reassess the bravado he showed about death in “Hitch-22,” where he claimed he wanted to be fully awake and conscious at the moment death came, in order to enjoy the ride fully. Now that death has, if not arrived, at least driven by the house, Hitch is not so sure.
I wouldn’t tell Christopher Hitchens that now is the time to get right with the Lord, or to pray or read the Bible. I wouldn’t try and convince him of the resurrection. I would only ask him to entertain the notion that love — the love he has for his life, his wife and his children, the love his readers have for him and the love that the doctors and nurses are showing him — is a real thing whose origins are worth exploring without glibness (sorry, saying “love for your fellow mammals” doesn’t require religion, as Hitchens did once, doesn’t cut it). It also can be done without Christophobia. I know that my discovery that I had cancer focused my mind on discovering the true nature of things, and I’m not talking about wishful thinking.
Ironically, there is a kind of symmetry between Hitchens and his declared enemy, Mother Teresa, whom Hitchens wrote a nasty book about and called a fanatic and a fraud (yawn). In her 2009 book “Come Be My Light,” published posthumously (Mother Teresa died in 1997), Mother Teresa writes of long periods, indeed years, of “darkness” and suffering, during which she felt that God wasn’t there. After the book was published, Hitchens went on TV to gloat. Even Mother Teresa didn’t believe it! In fact, Mother Teresa was going through what many saints do, a dark night of the soul. Such things can make us doubt God, and that is anything but an unholy thing. As Chesterton noted, Christianity is the only religion that allows God to be an atheist (“Why have you forsaken me?”). Perhaps Hitchens is going through something similar. And as Mother Teresa’s pain made her doubt her God, in second-guessing Nietzsche, Hitchens may be doubting his.
Mark Judge is the author of A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism, and Rock ‘n’ Roll.