I began reading Mortality, Christopher Hitchens’ newest book—his final book—on the day it was released. I couldn’t sleep that day, so woke up in the wee hours, downloaded it to the iPad and began reading. It’s not a long work, so did not take more than a couple of hours. Like everything Hitchens wrote, Mortality is brilliant and insightful and well-written and utterly defiant. One of the best-known and most widely-respected of the New Atheists, he both denied and hated God to the end.
Hitchens was only sixty-two when he died. He had just released a memoir, Hitch-22, and was on a book tour to promote it when he suddenly developed terrible pain in his chest and thorax. He began a long and ultimately unsuccessful treatment for esophageal cancer and died eighteen months later in December of 2011. In the time between he penned a series of columns for Vanity Fair and those columns form the basis of Mortality. Not surprisingly, they deal with illness and death and…mortality.
I read this book as a Christian, exactly the kind of person Hitchens wrote against—a Bible-believing, God-fearing theist. Yet I read it with far more sadness and pity than offense. At times in his voluminous writings Hitchens was monstrously unfair to Evangelical Christians, lumping us in with the Fred Phelps’ and Muslim extremists of the world. At other times he was guardedly respectful. This book spans both extremes. Many professed Christians earned his disrespect. Take the author of this comment that Hitchens came across while traveling the World Wide Web:
Who else feels Christopher Hitchens getting terminal throat cancer [sic] was God’s revenge for him using his voice to blaspheme him? Atheists like to ignore FACTS. They like to act like everything is a “coincidence.” Really? It’s just a “coincidence” [that] out of any part of his body, Christopher Hitchens got cancer in the one part of his body he used for blasphemy? Yeah, keep believing that, Atheists. He’s going to writhe in agony and pain and wither away to nothing and then die a horrible agonizing death, and THEN comes the real fun, when he’s sent to HELLFIRE forever to be tortured and set afire.
Of course not all Christians reacted with such glee and such firm confidence of an intimate understanding of God’s providence. There were others who were kind, who told him that, like it or not, they would pray for him, and who sought to bring him encouragement.
While several of the essays carry on Hitchens’ arguments against the existence of God and for the futility of faith, others simply look at the cold, hard facts of battling cancer (though he was more of the opinion that cancer was battling him). These entries trace the physical decline, the pain, and the utter indignity of suffering and death. But they do it with no real hope. Death was fast approaching and Hitchens acknowledged nothing, no good, beyond that moment.
Just as many Christians have felt the need to finish strong, to serve as an example of faithfulness to the end, Hitchens knew that many eyes were turned to him to see if at the end he would relent, if before he died he would at the very least accept Pascal’s Wager. As far as we know, he did not. He was a resolute atheist to the end.
He left behind not only this collection of essays, but also little fragments from a notebook that are collected at the end. Some of them are nearly meaningless, some are reflective (“Morning of biopsy, wake and say whatever happens this is the last day of my old life. No pretense of youth or youthfulness anymore. From now on an arduous awareness.”) while others are tantalizing. “If I convert it’s because it’s better that a believer dies than that an atheist does.” I would have enjoyed seeing him tease out that one.
Unlike Hitchens’ other books, this one ends without a conclusion, without wrapping things up. Though he knew that his condition was fatal, though he knew he had only a short time to live, still he hoped to write at least one more chapter, one more essay. But perhaps it is fitting that his death was the final chapter, that the book concluded when his life concluded. To the moment of death he was as in life, honest, eloquent and defiant.