This morning at breakfast my husband mentioned that Christopher Hitchens, well-known atheist, had died at age 62 after a prolonged battle with cancer. Our teenage son happened to be there, and the topic turned to the afterlife, at which point my son asked if Catholics didn't believe Hitchens would go to hell for his beliefs, or lack of them. Ah, a complex subject for so early in the morning, and about something we cannot answer definitively this side of heaven. So we talked about our hope in the love of a merciful God and the smile-inducing possibility that maybe Hitchens would be surprised at what came next in the life he believed would end when it ended here.
Jesuit Father James Martin, writing on In All Things, offers some hopeful and helpful thoughts on this uncertain subject. From his post:
Someone asked me this morning what I hoped for Christopher Hitchens, the fierce atheist who died after an agonizing bout with esophogeal cancer, and my first response was to say that I hope he’s pleasantly surprised. And I do. I certainly didn't agree with him on many things (on almost anything, frankly; and I was particularly annoyed at his treatment of Mother Teresa), but I always hoped that somehow he would experience an invitation from God in his earthly life; and I hope that he may now come to know God. (I could never quite shake the feeling that Mr. Hitchens' lifelong struggle with God betokened a deep hunger for the divine, or at least for answers.) Of course the famous atheist would surely dislike hearing that, as he objected to people praying for him in his final illness.
...Henri Nouwen, the Dutch priest and spiritual master, wrote in his book The Prodigal Son that most of us are like the older brother, despising any forgiving actions. We feel that we are the ones who have worked hard, who have led good lives, who have tried to act morally; so why should others be forgiven for their failings? We often resent forgiveness and reconciliation, because it doesn’t seem “fair.”
But as Jesus points out, God’s love is far different than our own; it is prodigal, generous, even wasteful.
I hope that Christopher Hitchens enjoys some of this prodigal love. Of course committed atheists may not be ready to receive it. So for them, and for many others, there will probably be a time of conversion, what Catholics call Purgatory: a time of preparation to meet God, a time of reviewing one’s life, and asking for forgiveness. And of course it will be up to each individual to decide if he or she wants to accept that Father’s love or turn away. For me, hell is the ultimate turning away of that forgiving love.
So I hope that Christopher Hitchens, famous atheist, fearless polemicist and, in his own unique way, brave seeker, will now be pleasantly surprised by God. And if he finally makes it to heaven, I hope he gets a chance to get to know the prodigal love of God, which eluded him on earth. After that, I hope he gets to know Mother Teresa a little better than he did on earth.
Read Father Martin's full post HERE.