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Prayers for Hitch"

Tom Flannery

Award of Outstanding Merit - $1,000

Tom Flannery writes for a newspaper in Pennsylvania.  His opinion pieces have appeared online and in publications such as WorldNetDaily, Newsday, The Los Angeles Times, MovieGuide, and Christian Networks Journal.  He is a previous Amy Writing Award recipient, including winning the first-place prize in 2008.  He has also won the Eric Breindel Award for Outstanding Opinion Journalism from News Corp/The New York Post, as well as a Keystone Award from the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publishers Association.  He is author of the book 1939: The Year in Movies, and an essay he wrote on Hollywood was included in the book The Culture-Wise Family by Dr. Ted Baehr and Pat Boone.


“On and on, the rain will fall
Like tears from a star
Lest we forget how fragile we are”

    —Sting, “Fragile”

Christopher Hitchens had logged his millionth mile on his most recent flight, entitling him to free airline upgrades for the rest of his life.  His newest book, the memoir Hitch-22, had just made it onto the best-seller list.  He had appearances lined up in sold-out venues and bookings on popular TV programs like The Daily Show to promote it.


And yet, awaking one morning in June, none of it mattered.  He was rushed to the hospital and eventually diagnosed with throat cancer, the disease which claimed the life of his father. 


In a poignant piece for Vanity Fair about the diagnosis, he wrote:  “In whatever kind of a ‘race’ life may be, I have very abruptly become a finalist.”


Hitchens is best known for being one of the New Atheists who have stormed the publishing world in recent years, in his case with a scathing attack upon theism entitled god Is Not Great.  The book’s subtitle is “How Religion Poisons Everything,” which — when combined with the lower-case “g” in God — helps explain why Hitchens is not known for subtlety.


In his Vanity Fair piece, Hitchens is realistic about the kind of extraordinarily long odds he is facing with esophageal cancer, but he points to two groups in particular that are pulling for him — his dedicated physicians and what he calls the “astounding number of prayer groups” which have arisen across the country to pray for him to be spiritually reconciled (to God) and physically healed (from cancer).  They are praying that God will have mercy upon Hitchens’ body and soul, and that Hitchens will accept that mercy.


So, yes, Christians are praying for Hitch.  But, no, Hitch hasn’t converted.  And although there are a great many others who are seeking God on his behalf, he says he won’t be offering up any prayers for himself.  As he told Anderson Cooper on CNN:  “I shall not be taking part in that.”


“I don’t think souls or bodies can be changed by incantation,” he explained.


Still, many atheists are up in arms that Christians would take it upon themselves to pray for Hitchens’ healing, dismissing it as a meaningless exercise.  Never mind that the latest in a growing body of medical studies, this one published in the Southern Medical Journal, has just concluded once again that what it calls “proximal intercessory prayer” (the common Christian practice of praying directly with someone for healing) actually works.  


Even more troubling to these atheists are the prayers for Hitch’s spiritual condition.  After all, it wasn’t very long ago that Antony Flew — the world’s leading intellectual defender of atheism over the past half century — publicly renounced his unbelief.  And he wasn’t even sick.


Flew had written dozens of books in recent decades, promoting evolution and atheistic philosophy.  However, during this same period of time, scientific discoveries were being made which pointed, definitively and undeniably, to the existence of a Creator.


The evidence was so overwhelming that the leading intellectual defender of atheism could no longer ignore it and remain intellectually honest.  So, while most of the scientific community responded by doing everything it could to suppress this evidence and discredit all the scientists who affirmed it (see Ben Stein’s brilliant documentary Expelled), Flew lived up to his lifelong commitment of following the scientific evidence wherever it would lead.  And, much to his surprise, he found in the end that it led directly to belief in a deity.


Will Hitchens now make that same spiritual journey?  That’s probably the primary fear of all these atheists who are tearing up the Internet with denunciations of anyone who would dare pray for their terminally ill fellow traveler.  They seem far more concerned about what they perceive would be a “public relations disaster” along the lines of Flew’s recantation than they do about whether Hitchens dies in a state of hopelessness and anxiety and fear on the one hand or of hope and peace and even joy on the other. 


For Christians, though, the matter comes down entirely to the redemption of an eternal soul.  If there truly is a heaven to gain and a hell to shun, then the greatest imperative for each individual in this life is settling where he or she will spend the next one.  It’s really no more complex an issue than that.


We know Scripture tells us that God has “set eternity in the hearts of men” (Ecclesiastes 3:11), that we all have an awareness of God and of a life beyond this one.  It also tells us that creation itself testifies to the truth of a Creator, as so much of true science corroborates.  So whether we look inward or outward, the truth is continually staring us right in the face.  And it is up to each one of us to decide for ourselves what we will do with that truth, without knowing exactly how much time we have to choose (since none of us are guaranteed an additional nanosecond of life).


Whether he dies now or years from now, Christopher Hitchens has a decision to make that will have eternal ramifications for him.  Christians are simply praying that he will make the right one.


Printed August 18, 2010; The Carbondale News;  Carbondale, PA

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