Christopher Hitchens is dead. And while this reality comes to us as no surprise (he was battling esophageal cancer), this does not assuage the sadness of the moment. One who raged against God, who denied His very existence, has now stood before Him. After drawing his last breaths and passing into eternity, the sheer radiance of the One whom he had denied for so long burned away all doubt. With his questions answered in a flash, Mr. Hitchens is gone from this world, leaving behind only his words.
In what appears to be his last piece in Vanity Fair, Mr. Hitchens shares one way in which his impending death had narrowed his focus. In a way, Mr. Hitchens was growing in wisdom. And yet, he continued to fall woefully short. He takes on the idea, attributable to Friedrich Nietzsche, that “what does not kill me only makes me stronger.” Weakened and in much pain from radiation treatment, Mr. Hitchens begs to differ. He was a man who was considerably weaker (in every sense) and yet still was not dead (as of the writing of this piece). Nietzsche was wrong. This “facile maxim” that is too often bandied about requires disposal. For it is useless and dangerous. It is the denial of our continually weakening condition. This is how Mr. Hitchens leaves us. With a long-accepted cultural ideal stripped of its facade of meaning and usefulness. But that is all we are left with. Answers that replace the now shredded false ideal do not flow from Mr. Hitchens pen. The piece ends before it should have, just like it’s author.1
Wisdom begins with the fear of God. And the fear of God always brings about a realization that certain ideals we have upheld are foolishly wrong. Death also has that effect. Trivial matters and concerns are burned away. And yet, just because we see more clearly does not make us wise. Clear vision can embolden rebellion just as easily as smother it. It is grace to see clearly and further grace to embrace the One from whom all this grace flowed. And here is where I fear Mr. Hitchens fell short of attaining wisdom.2 Mr. Hitchens saw clearly that Nietzsche was wrong, but he never moves beyond to answer our questions. Mr. Hitchens, who has had his questions answered, leaves us without answering the ones he created. Surely wisdom exists that gives a better answer than no answer at all. Indeed there is. For the truth of the matter is this: only what kills you will make you stronger.
Jesus had an odd way of going about things. He tended to do the opposite of what we think he’d do. We often miss the sting of his words or the peculiarity of his actions due to a fatigue we developed when reading the stories over the years. Familiarity breeds fatigue which manifests itself in a complacent, if not cynical attitude towards the object of our familiarity. The fact that the birth of Jesus was a cause for worry by Herod does not affect us. Jesus’ statement that “whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” is rendered harmless. He didn’t really mean it. And “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” become meaningless. And yet, to miss the presence and words of Jesus is to miss the answer that Mr. Hitchens never gave us. Although Jesus joins Mr. Hitchens in mocking that “facile maxim” of Nietzsche and western society, their agreement ends there. For Jesus does not leave us to twist in the wind of uncertainty.
The path to strength looks an awful lot like the path of weakness. This is the wisdom of God and the way of His Kingdom. To our small minds and finite comprehension, Jesus is a conundrum that we cannot unravel. And so long as we seek to understand Him via the wisdom of the world, we will never solve Him. We receive life through death. We gain strength by weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). Riches are found through poverty (Matthew 19:21). The Kingdom of Jesus is an upside down kingdom. His march towards coronation led through the cross and the grave (Philippians 2:5-11). What were symbols of weakness and final defeat were the very means by which Jesus was given a scepter to rule the nations (Revelation 11:5). The rod of iron with which He rules is a symbol of absolute strength. And he bears it precisely because willing laid down His life. He chose weakness. And if this is true of our Master, would not this be true for us? Why would the path to strength be any different for us? It is not (Matthew 10:25).
And there it is: only what kills you will make you stronger. The sooner we die to self and put off the slavish weakness of our flesh, the sooner we find strength, the sooner we find life in Christ. If we will ever be strong, must become weak. We must die. We must cast aside the dreams and agendas we had laid out for ourselves and abandon all hope and trust in what we could do. Our kingdom must perish if His is ever to come.
The Bible also teaches something else, something that may seem to contradict my claims. We are also called to endure. Endure persecution (2 Timothy 3:12). Endure trials (James 1:12). Paul reminds us that all things work together for the good of those who are called by God (Romans 8:28) so that we might endure what seems so terrible in the moment. James commands us towards joy in the midst of trials for the very reason that endurance grows (James 1:2-4). Endurance is key. For only those who endure to the end find salvation (Hebrews 3:12-14). Or said differently, only those who endure will find strength. Only those who endure will find life. And we endure because we have died. And in our death, we are stronger than ever. So endurance is not at all contradictory to the call to die. For we can only endure once we have died. And although we endure as waste away outwardly; inwardly, renewal is strengthening our souls; preparing us for an eternity void of every form of weakness we now know. Maranatha!
1 – And I only mean that death is terrible and was not humanity’s original end. It is in that sense that Mr. Hitchens passed too soon. BACK TO POST
2 – The thief on the cross gives me pause and hope about Mr. Hitchens final eternal state. As his friend and opponent Doug Wilson said of him, “We therefore commend Christopher to the Judge of the whole earth, who will certainly do right.” BACK TO POST