Christian apologist Larry Taunton tells the story of his friendship with the well known atheist Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011)
How did you meet Christopher Hitchens?
We first met at the Edinburgh Festival in 2008. We immediately hit it off. I liked him. He wasn’t the man I expected from reading his book, God Is Not Great. That book is a rant and I expected him to match the book. But away from audiences and the cameras, Christopher was a very different individual.
Your book is titled The Faith of Christopher Hitchens. What do you mean by ‘The Faith’?
We all have a faith in something. As strange as it may sound, atheists also have faith. They have faith that there is no God and they have faith that their own world view will ultimately be validated.
Christopher recognised that atheism in itself is nothing. He was searching for that thing that might ultimately sustain and give meaning to his life. Patriotism came to be something that was very important to him. He was also a strong believer in science.
Towards the end of his life, Christopher began exploring the Christian faith. After the publication of God Is Not Great, he began engaging evangelicals. He would make a show of asking these questions [supposedly] for investigative reasons, but I think he was personally investigating questions he had about the validity of the Bible and what it is that makes evangelicals tick.
Christopher and I took two lengthy road trips after his cancer diagnosis, and during those trips we studied the Gospel of John for three or four hours. There would be those who say Christopher didn’t want to do that. Well, if he didn’t, he had an odd way of showing it, because he sought me out and sought out these kinds of engagements.
But he did famously say that if he ever made a religious confession it would be because the cancer had gone to his brain.
Yes, the very first time Christopher said that was on a US television show. Shortly afterwards I was talking to him on the phone and I said, ‘What’s up with: “If I convert the cancer has gone to my brain”?’ He seemed a little embarrassed by it.
I said, ‘You’re a man who professes to be open to possibilities and being persuaded by evidence and now you’re saying no amount of evidence will ever make you change your mind!’
He didn’t want to surround himself with those who agreed with him on everything?
No, he did not. Once we were at a book signing. He’s signing books and a young man said, ‘Why would you go on a road trip with him?’ meaning with me – a Christian. Christopher pushed the book back to him and said, ‘Because he is my friend. And you sir, are an idiot!’ It was classic Christopher.
Christopher would give the impression on stage that he hated religious people. But even after our debate in Montana he crossed the stage, shook my hand and said, ‘You were quite good tonight. Are we having dinner?’
He was determined to at least let me try and convert him. I think Christopher was very appreciative of the fact I cared about him enough to pursue him. Not because I needed his conversion to feel good about my own faith or to have him as a trophy, but because I’d come to know him.
Larry Taunton was speaking to Justin Brierley
The Faith of Christopher Hitchens (Thomas Nelson) is out now