Christopher Hitchens, the world’s most famously caustic atheist, is now dead.
Hitchens expected this moment, of course, but he anticipated, wrongly, a blackness, a going out of consciousness forever. Many Christians today are sadly remarking on what it is like for Christopher Hitchens to be now opening his eyes in hell.
We might be wrong.
The Christian impulse here is exactly right. After all, Jesus and his apostles assured us that there is no salvation apart from union with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection, a union entered into by faith. And Hitchens not only rejected that gospel, he ridiculed it, along with the very notion of anything beyond the natural order. The Christian Scriptures are clear: there is a narrow window in which we must be saved, the time of this present life, and after this there is only judgment (2 Cor. 6:1-2; Heb. 9:27).
But I’m not sure Christopher Hitchens is in hell right now. It’s not because I believe there’s a “second chance” after death for salvation (I don’t). It’s not because I don’t believe in hell or in God’s judgment (I do). It’s because of a sermon I heard years ago that haunts me to this day, reminding me of the sometimes surprising persistence of the gospel.
Fifteen or so years ago, I heard an old Welsh pastor preach on Jesus’ encounter with the thieves on the cross. The preacher paused to speculate about whether the penitent thief might have had any God-fearing friends or family members. If so, he said, they probably would never have known about the terrorist’s final act, his appeal to Jesus, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Lk. 23:42). They never would have heard Jesus pronounce, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Lk. 23:43).
These believing family members and friends would have assumed, all their lives, that this robber was in hell, especially dying as he did under the visible judgment of God (Deut. 21:22-23). They would have been shocked to meet this man in the kingdom of God. “We thought you were in hell,” they might have said, as they danced around him in the heavenly places.
That sermon changed everything for me about the way I preach funerals for unbelievers. Now, deathbed conversions are very rare. Typically, a conscience is so seared by then, so given over to the darkening of the mind, that the gospel rarely is heard. We shouldn’t count on last-second repentance.
But, however rarely, it does happen, and who knows? Perhaps you have relatives who, in the last seconds of breath, breathed out a silent prayer of repentance and faith. You might be as surprised as the thief’s believing cohort.
And, who knows? Christopher Hitchens heard the gospel enough, often while debating believers. Maybe the seed of the Word might have embedded in his heart somewhere and maybe, just maybe, it broke through sometime in the night, as he gasped for last breath.
Christopher Hitchens was a blasphemer, true enough, and a nasty character. Aren’t we all, in our different ways. Christ Jesus came for nasty characters like us. And the same blood of Jesus that can deliver us from wrath could do the same for Hitchens had he, if he, at any point, embraced it. It’s not likely, but it’s possible, and, if he did, then Christopher Hitchens’s past atheism would be no barrier to communion with God. It would be, like my sin, crucified with Christ, buried, and remembered no more.
I don’t know about Christopher Hitchens, about what happened in those last moments, but I do know that, if he had embraced it, the gospel would be enough for him. I know that because it’s enough for me, and I’m as deserving of hell as he is.
Hell is real and judgment is certain. The gospel comes with a warning that it will one day be too late. But, as long as there is breath, it is not yet too late. Perhaps Christopher Hitchens, like so many before him, persisted in his rebellion to the horror of the very end. But maybe not. Maybe he stopped his polemics and cried out, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
I don’t know. But I do know that the gospel offers forgiveness and mercy right to the edge of death’s door. And I know that the kingdom of God is made up of ex-thieves, and ex-murderers, and ex-atheists like us.
Dr. Russell D. Moore is the president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.