October 19, 2010. The theater marquee read “God or No God? A Debate – Christopher Hitchens vs. Larry Taunton.” It was reminiscent of similar advertisements for heavyweight fights. This had been a long time coming. Atheist Christopher Hitchens and I had debated one another many times: Birmingham, Alabama; Edinburgh, Scotland; St. Louis, Missouri; and even on an eleven-hour drive from Washington D.C. to Birmingham. This, however, was our first public encounter.
The hall was full. To draw an audience of over five hundred in Billings, Montana, a city of only 89,000, was impressive and indicative of the national interest in these issues. It was the headliner event for the week in that part of the state. Christopher was, of course, the real attraction, not I. A regular contributor to Slate and Vanity Fair, he is chiefly known for his bestseller God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Now, some six months after being diagnosed with esophageal cancer, he was at the peak of his fame. His fans had traveled near and far to see him demolish another Christian. Such an outcome would serve to make them feel better about themselves and the philosophy of meaninglessness they had made their own.
If the mood of atheists at the debate’s conclusion is any measure of the debate itself, it was not the result they had hoped for.
Oh, Christopher scored his points. He is much too clever to do otherwise. But few of those points may be counted against Christianity, as he was frequently off-topic, railing against Islam while sidestepping the horrific record of atheistic regimes. I was there to defend Christianity, not “religion”, and after that, to link atheism with the genocides that are a defining element of the twentieth century. That was, I think, achieved. Overall, it was a hard fought but friendly affair. I honestly like Christopher Hitchens and count him among my friends. I just think he is wrong.
Why debate him? Because Christopher Hitchens is representative of a growing demographic in our nation thatreally believes Christianity is a societal evil that must be eradicated. Most of his fans are young, naïve, or both. In the normal course of things, we may expect that these people will eventually influence the policies that will govern our country. Furthermore, in debating Hitchens, we are debating the best the atheists have to offer. We can expect to draw a vast crowd of his supporters and put the Gospel before them. Finally, if all goes well, we are able to encourage the faithful. That’s not a bad day’s work.
Perhaps the most critical moment of the contest came not when we were arguing a point of history or philosophy, but over the nature of Christianity itself. One of the topics of discussion was entitled, “Are all religions the same?” I had three minutes before the moderator would cut me off. What do I say? I adopted a simple approach: rather than trying to explain all of the world’s major religions and their distinguishing characteristics, I instead chose to speak of that Christian doctrine which separates Christianity from all other faiths: grace. Where other religions offer salvation via “to do” lists, Christianity alone among the world’s great religions offers salvation through a Person who is accessed by the grace He so freely offers. Without grace, I argued, we are all without hope.
As I finished, the audience was utterly silent. Whether it was out of respect or bewilderment, I do not know. Whatever the reason, I am grateful for it. Too often, outsiders imagine Christianity to be a religion of self-righteous prigs who are slavishly obedient to the law. Here was an opportunity to set the record straight, to proclaim the mercy of God as revealed in the Person of Jesus Christ. Grace, properly articulated, has the effect of putting us all on the same level. Rather than speaking to you in condescending tones, I alert you to our common problem. We – you, me, the entire human race – are plagued by a fallen nature. What shall we do? Grace!
The debate over, I crossed the stage to shake Christopher’s hand.
“You were quite good tonight,” he said with a charming smile as he accepted my proffered hand. “I think they enjoyed us.”
“You were gentle with me,” I said as we turned to walk off the stage. He shook his head.
“Oh, I held nothing back.” He surveyed the auditorium that still pulsed with energy. “We are still having dinner after the book signing?” he asked.
After a quick cigarette on the sidewalk near the backstage door, he went back inside to meet his fans and sign their books. There was something macabre about it all. One had the unsettling feeling that these weren’t people who cared about him in the least. Instead, they seemed like a bunch of groupies who wanted to have a photo taken with a famous, but dying man, so that one day they could show it to their atheist buddies and say, “I knew him before he died.” It was a sad spectacle if only because I do care about Christopher Hitchens.
Turning away, I entered the foyer where thirty or so Christians greeted me excitedly. Mostly students, they were encouraged by what had happened on stage that night. Someone had spoken for them and it had put a bounce in their step. One animated young man told me that he had been close to abandoning his faith, but that the debate had restored his confidence in the truth of the Gospel. Another said that she saw how she could use some of the same arguments. It is a daunting task, really, debating someone of Hitchens’s intellect and experience, but if this cheery gathering of believers thought I had done well, then all of the preparation and expense had been worth it.
Hovering in the background was a group of an entirely different character. Young and dressed mostly in black, these were all atheists. They wanted another shot at me. This frequently happens. I have come to recognize it as a good sign. It means that they didn’t like how their side of the argument fared. Their de facto leader was a young woman, perhaps a graduate student. She was offended that I should assert that atheists were responsible for the deaths of over 100 million people in the twentieth century.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “But that is the reality of the worldview you have adopted. You’ll just have to reconcile yourself with those facts.”
For the next five minutes or so, she tried to revisit various topics addressed during the debate. Her voice crackled with anger. For my part, I tried to help her see the meaninglessness of her own worldview. It was as if she was saying, “No, I don’t want to have hope! I want to be only an animal who has no Divine purpose!” These discussions both fascinate and grieve me. At some point, you just want to throw up your hands and say, fine, have it your way. But compassion born of Christian conviction tells us to do otherwise.
These events offer a sharp contrast between those with an authentic hope and those without one. The fact is, we all suffer from the same condition. Be you Democrat or Republican, black or white, male or female, we all need hope. Sadly, people who do not know Jesus Christ look for it in all of the wrong places: fleeting relationships, political parties, wealth, their work, or, as in this case, in their heroes. Christopher Hitchens is an atheist icon. The atheists surrounding him tried to comfort themselves, avoiding the disquieting truth of their situation: they were a people without hope.
And, apart from the grace of God, aren’t we all? Involuntarily the words of my favorite Christmas carol came to mind:
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Till He appeared, and the soul felt its worth!
A thrill of hope, a weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!
As we prepare to celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior, let us not grow weary in proclaiming the Source of True Hope.
Copyright 2010 Larry A. Taunton