Christopher Hitchens and the Christian death wish

Posted: April 27, 2012 by J in Church history, Theology

Christopher Hitchens was a good guy, as far as I’m concerned. I liked him, and now he’s gone I miss him. He was an ’emperor’s new clothes’ type – willing to speak out and stir people up. He cared about things. We need guys like that, badly.

Here’s one shot Hitchens aimed at us Christians:

another immoral and sinister thing  about religion is that lurking under it at all times in all its forms is a desire for this life to come to an end. For this poor world to be over. The yearning, the secret death wish that’s in all of it: ‘let this be gone!’

Hitchens 2007.

Let’s consider this allegation. Normally, thoughts of suicide are frowned upon. A death wish is considered a sign of mental disorder. Except when it’s connected to religion. In which case it may be a mark of faith. In fact, many religions push in this direction, even reserving a special place of honour for those who desire death. This is especially true of Christianity. Through the ages of the church, the desire to die and go away from earth to live in a heavenly ‘afterlife’, has been considered a sign of advanced spirituality.

Also Christians have tended to look forward to the destruction of the created order – a kind of cosmic death wish. Hitchens captures the thrust of this succintly: ‘Let this be gone!’ The only thing that needs correcting is his description of the death-wish as ‘secret’. For in Christianity, it has at various times been overt, and even boastful.

Yeah – they’re all gonna fade
They’re all gonna rust…
They’re all gonna turn to dust
The stuff of this world is gonna be trash
Only the things of the Lord will last

Colin Buchanan

Buchanan’s main target is commercialism and materialism, but he goes further than that, doesn’t he.

My hand in Thine hold fast till sorrow be o’erpast,
And gentle death at last for Heav’n awake me.

Robert Roberts

When Roberts says ‘sorrow’, he means ‘life in this world’. That’s clear, because the antidote to sorrow is ‘gentle death’.

American Christians in our day, in particular, seem to be preoccupied with visions of millenial destruction. But of course it’s much more wide-spread than that.

Hitchens has diagnosed the disease with painful clarity: while the rest of the world is worrying about its troubles and sufferings, and wondering how it can be healed, we Christians look ahead with a smile – the smile of the madman who knows he won’t have to worry for long because he’s already planned his suicide. Death – cosmic death – will solve all problems, indeed renders them largely irrelevant.

Is this an ‘immoral and sinister thing about religion’? We agree with Hitchens that it is. Let’s come out and say it: there is a prominent strand in Christian teaching through the ages which has pushed the faithful, and indeed the whole Western world, towards mental disorder, by packaging the blessings of Christian faith together with the poison of a death wish.

The main way to minimise this disease has been for people to not take their faith too seriously. This has operated at the individual level, but also on a large scale. The West, in a bid to save its society from insanity and death, pushed Christian faith as far to the periphery as it could. We call this the Enlightenment.

Tomorrow: did Jesus have a death wish?

  1. Alan Wood says:

    Is it Ignatius or 1 Clement that Gibbo reads us all in first year Church History, and points out that he’s a little too keen on the lions in the amphitheatre that await him?

  2. Still, there has to be some sitting lightly to the current order of things.
    Could martyrdom/death wish really be a longing for the material world to be renewed?

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