God, "Hitch," the Baptists and Hell

I have been unbelievable swamped all day, working on final grades for the fall term at the Washington Journalism Center. That's doesn't matter to GetReligion readers, of course, but it does mean that I have not been plugged into the World Wide Web all day. Thus, I am only now starting to look at the Christopher Hitchens obituaries and tributes -- including those featured in the Divine Mrs. MZ's overview earlier today.

Now, at the end of the day, I am struck by a simple fact: If one wants to look at some interesting and, behold, at times even even graceful commentary on the death of one of the world's most articulate atheists, the one online destination is Baptist Press? No, not the progressive Associated Baptist Press. I'm talking about the press team at the Southern Baptist Convention.

The mainbar on his death included the logical quotes to set the scene. GetReligion readers probably know some by heart:

(Hitchens) once said of families who raise their children to believe in God: "How can we ever know how many children had their psychological and physical lives irreparably maimed by the compulsory inculcation of faith?"

He wrote that religion was "violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children."

The key to the responses? I think it was the fact that many Southern Baptists -- such as philosopher William Dembski (see photo) -- had actually met Hitchens and talked/debated with him. I also believe that many have crossed paths with his brother, journalist Peter Hitchens, who as an adult moved from atheism to Christian faith. In other words, "Hitch" had a face and family, as well.

Thus we read:

Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in California, said Hitchens was a friend.

"I loved & prayed for him constantly & grieve his loss. He knows the Truth now," Warren wrote in a Tweet. ...

Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr. also commented, saying in a Tweet: "The death tonight of Christopher Hitchens is an excruciating reminder of the consequences of unbelief. We can only pray others will believe." Mohler added, "The point about Christopher Hitchens is not that he died of unbelief, but that his unbelief is all that matters now. Unspeakably sad."

Ed Stetzer, vice president of research and ministry development at LifeWay Christian Resources, wrote in a blog post that for many people, "Hitchen's passing will lead to stirring up old debates and old bruises." Yet Christians should react with compassion, Stetzer said.

"I would like to see the dialogue of Christian apologetics move from Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris into our houses, diners, and local community centers," Stetzer wrote. "The AP news wire will not be abuzz with the passing of the atheist in your neighborhood, but your heart ought hurt for them. I am grateful for evangelical scholars who have engaged New Atheism with the level of intellectual commitment the movement deserves. But for most of us, we ought to concern ourselves with and grieve over the debates that war in the minds of our families, friends, and coworkers."

I was struck, in particular, by the following theological commentary -- on this kind of story, theology is newsworthy -- by the articulate and often surprising Russell D. Moore (blog here), dean of the school of theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. Check this out:

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.

Right, there's more to this:

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. ...

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" (Luke 23:42). They never would have heard Jesus pronounce, "Today you will be with me in Paradise" (Luke 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 (Deuteronomy 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, all of that would be horribly offensive to Hitchens himself and to his defenders. The point is that these questions are being discussed in a tone that would probably surprise many newsroom leaders. Besides, that subject -- funeral sermons for unbelievers -- would make a fantastic weekend A1 feature. I bet there are more than a few seminary professors and pulpit masters pondering that today after the death of Hitchens.

Would this be true on the doctrinal left as well as right? Wondering about that, I looked on the home pages of several liberal Protestant news services today and saw nothing about "Hitch," let alone words of either concern or tribute.

Back among the Baptists, many are choosing today to focus on simple words of prayer.

Now, there could be acid and venom out there. I have not found it (leave URLs if you hit strong words in news coverage). I do not doubt that some on the Christian right will place the emphasis on curses rather than compassion. If that shows up, I will not be surprised.

However, I think there is something unusual going on here. True tolerance is when people who DISAGREE on matters of substance still treat each other with respect. By its nature, the American model of the press asks journalists to treat voices on both sides of hot debates with respect, accuracy and even balance. It seems that Hitchens found some sense of kindness and respect, or at least true tolerance, with some of those who sincerely believed they were arguing about the eternal destiny of his soul.

With that in mind, let me close with this memorable quote from a Peter Hitchens column last year in The Daily Mail about his love for his brother:

“I am 58. He is 60. We do not necessarily have time for another brothers’ war. ... I have, however, the more modest hope that he might one day arrive at some sort of acceptance that belief in God is not necessarily a character fault, and that religion does not poison everything.

“Beyond that, I can only add that those who choose to argue in prose, even if it is very good prose, are unlikely to be receptive to a case which is most effectively couched in poetry.”

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