This reflection is now available in Daniel P. Horan, OFM’s book Franciscan Spirituality for the 21st Century: Selected Reflections from the Dating God Blog and Other Essays, Volume One (Koinonia Press, 2013).



  1. Awesome post! I don’t know anything about Hitchens, but hearing about the death of an atheist I am always struck in the same way you described above–feeling sorry for them. I also have wondered if my faith has anything at all to do with my own will, reason, or intelligence. Perhaps it has absolutely nothing to do with me, but is simply a gift from God. Perhaps an atheist is greeted in heaven with outlandish celebration, while I may have to explain to God why I did so little with the beautiful faith he has given me.

    1. I’m an atheist, and I must say that your comment is a kind, compassionate, enlightened, and elegant one.

      I think your faith must be a gift from God. As you know there is the idea of “the elect of God.” It has to do with Saint Augustine’s idea of predestination. I see no signs of predestination in myself–at least not in the upperward direction.

      Anyway, nice to meet you, even if it is but passingly and online.

  2. As Hitchens is unfortunately not around to give a reply to your post, I can only imagine what his response would be. First, I think he would take exception to what you call the “mystery” of death. There’s nothing mysterious about it. A ball ceases to roll, a fly ceases to fly and a man ceases to live. On the contrary, death is perhaps the only certain and clear thing in this world.

    He then of course would take offense to your “pity”. He spent his life not worrying about getting into an afterlife but living in this one. Whereas people of ‘faith’ spend all their time with preparations, incantations and rituals so that they might please God enough to “continue on”. What you call faith in a life after this one he would see as nothing more than a selfish attempt to ease your own fears about the coming void. And for that reason he would indeed take pity upon you.

    Hitchens was certainly not “surprised” as you put it at the moment of his death. He had been dying for over a year. I did, however, read of a woman in New York who died the same day or day before Hitchens. Her foot was accidentally caught in an elevator door when it suddenly and unexpectedly jumped a floor and killed her instantly. No doubt she was surprised at the moment of her death. And I’m sure Hitchens would wonder if this is in fact what you mean by being “swept away by the love of God?”

    And I don’t bring this up for shock value or to make light of it but to point out the final and main argument that Hitchens most certainly would take with your post… And that is the very nature of this person you call God. Did God show his love for this woman by crushing her between two floors of her office building while she was making her way to work? Was he simply showing his affection for the two other people on the elevator by forcing them to watch this horrific death?

    If it was found that a person flipped a switch and made the elevator suddenly rise a floor for the sole purpose of crushing this woman you most certainly would think them evil beyond all recognition. But when there is no explanation (as in this case) you shrug it off as “God’s will” and instead of questioning his sadistic action you lay praise upon him.

    Hitchens did not make a differentiation between a person flipping the switch and God. He saw them both as equally insane. The only difference he would point out is that one of them does not exist.

    1. I’ve watched many of Hitchens’ interviews and read many of his articles, and one thing I know about him is that he wouldn’t have talked to someone like that on their blog. He had a lot of Christian friends. He didn’t stay friends with them by talking to them like that. Only in debates or when asked his opinion did he get combative or caustic. Often he did so in a humorous way.

      That’s what I’m going to miss about him most–his sense of humour. He was sooo funny. Even when he wrote about having cancer, somehow he was able to make me laugh out loud with one or two of his comments.

    2. Thank you for keeping it real. I don’t know what to make of Hitchens’ death. I am a spiritually inclined non-believer [I don’t believe it’s possible to decide to believe as an act of will] who found his atheism strident and puerile, and his bearing smug and proud. So part of me feels a certain satisfaction that he has been paid “the wages of sin.” As awful as that sounds. I don’t believe he did much to advance the debate on religion, no more than Harris. Both were/are woefully ignorant of the philosophical tradition real debate, debate not completely external to the self-understanding of Abrahamic religions, would require. Both were/are too invested in their own polemical acts of rebellion to be able to allow for much nuance. Hitchins was an “intellectual brawler,” as Leo Strauss once referred to Karl Popper in a letter to Eric Voegelin. Nuff said.

  3. John–The argument against God that you describe above presents the largest obstacle I have in my own faith. If God is all knowing, all loving, and all powerful, why does He allow evil to exist? I knew a girl who was severely burned at the age of two. You have never seen such a deformed person. She suffered for ten years before her early death, due to the injuries she sustained in the fire. She lived a brief, painful, tragic life because of an accident she had no control over. There is no intellectual or religious argument that can satisfactory explain how these things could happen if an all powerful, all knowing, all loving God exists. I don’t believe that God wills for horrible things to happen to people, but He certainly allows it. I can understand how an atheist can be angry and frustrated that people persist in religious beliefs with all the tragedy in our world. I get that. I think that is also why I think it is a mistake for me to take credit for my faith. Despite it all, I believe that an all loving, all knowing, all powerful God exists.

    1. Jared, I just now made it over to the front page of this site. I actually didn’t know it was a site, let alone one that a Brotherhood of Franciscan monks shared. This is a really interesting coincidence. I happen to be studying the Bible right now. (Not that I didn’t study it earlier in life; I just didn’t do it academically). Among other areas I’m using in my studies is Yale’s OCW on The Hebrew Bible. After that I’ll be starting on The New Testament.

      I wonder if it would be all right if I kept in touch with you all from time to time. You seem like a really nice group of people.

      1. Hi Learner,

        I am not a Franciscan friar. I am Roman Catholic and have a very Franciscan spirituality. This blog is a great place for spirited discussion about many topics! Welcome and enjoy!

    2. Jared,

      Just happened to see this article of a separate incident in an elevator in New York from today. This seems to be the second scenario I mentioned (a person responsible for a horrific act). This person must be evil, yes? But if the elevator burst into flames on its own… God’s will. Believers would rather die than lay praise upon the man in this story but yet they refuse to even question God’s will.

  4. Jon,

    It seems we may have some common ground in that you recognize that evil exists in the world. As I stated in my first response, evil is never “God’s will”. Your statements remind me of C.S. Lewis, a former atheist, who writes, “My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?”

    1. Mr. Lewis’s argument seems unsound, for we live in this world and (both according to our common ability to reason and in accord with the biblical story in Genesis) we have knowledge of good and evil. So, we know that this world is evil, because we can conceive of what is moral and just, even if our own human, carnal predisposition is inclined to the immoral and wicked.
      Mr. Hitchens was most famous for his book, “god is not great: How religion poisons everything.” (And here he is talking about organized religion. So it doesn’t really, in my opinion, pertain to what you have going with your blog and your lifestyle.) That said, Hitchens book is a well-considered and damning indictment—and sadly one that even though I have sought exceptions to his arguments, haven’t found any.

      For instance, earlier today I listened to a documentary about a deeply religious man and the greatest scientist of all time, Isaac Newton. In the last century, the unpublished papers of Newton were found and decoded. Some of it was in code and some was not. Newton was an alchemist—but he wasn’t seeking gold, he was seeking an understanding of how God created the universe and God’s plans for mankind. (By the way, the world is coming to an end in 2060, according to Newton. At that time the Second Coming of Christ will occur and the true faith will be permanently established.) That’s all very well and good. No harm done.
      But just as I’m beginning to see a glimmer of hope, I find out that Newton hated Catholics and rejoiced in reading about the torturing of some “nonvirginal” nuns—they were “inspected” by their tormenters, before the torturing. They were being tortured into confess that they had sexual relations with priests, and all that sort of stuff. (Who knows what the real story was—and who cares.) Well, Newton, a lifelong virgin himself, did, and it seems that he like Cromwell didn’t consider Catholics to be “real human beings.”

      You see where I’m headed with all this—another disappointment.

      But it seems to me that is beside the point. You seem to have a happy and rewarding spiritual life. And you believe that when you die, you will be with Christ. That seems like a healthy and happy mentality. An atheist (realist?) like Hitchens believed he was going into oblivion.

      Just speaking from the heart about what I believe and why I believe it. So, the long and the short of it (probably too late for the short of it. Heh-heh) is that my view is if someone can (somehow) manage to have a religiously rewarding life without it bringing out the worst aspects of their human nature, that’s a good thing. So far, I haven’t really seen anyone pull it off any better than a morally sound atheist. Richard Dawkins is someone I consider to be a truly admirable man, in every way. So, at least there is someone ought there who foots the bill. *Sigh of relief.*

      1. It is incorrect to state that for atheists death is a going into the void, while Christians get to be “with” and “in” Christ. Granted, the latter is a tenet of faith and is not open to dispute. I leave to the theologians to ponder the mystery of such modes of being “in” and “with” absent a corpus.

        The Christians are correct in this: that there won’t be nothing after death. Only not for the reasons they imagine. There cannot be something (viz. no-thing) absent some presence to perceive the absence no-thingness presupposes. It ‘is’ only a void in contrast to the fullness of being-with and -in that Christians imagine will be their lot after their soma have ceased exchanging substances with their terrestrial host, viz. the atmosphere of planet earth. When, that is, they are hooked-up to and dialed-in to the Annointed Redeemer. When, finally, death has been triumphantly transfigured into–life.

        But for those who take death seriously, for whom such a fanciful, and wonderfully expedient salvation as Christians fantasize is implausible, a wish-fulfillment to end all fulfilled wishings, for such men death, either as impending or as fait accompli, cannot be a void. It cannot be any thing. Not only because it is ineffable, but because it is unperceivable. Even nothing requires a perceiver/thinker.

        Having-ceased-to-be is only a void for those who continue to be witnesses to life, and therewith to the place abandoned by the deceased. It is a third-party’s attestation, not a primary state of being. It is as if the void only existed as a vanishing moment of consciousness; parastic upon the presence of being[s]. In the one instance where the void would be the de re state-of-being obtaining, when, that is, no being obtains, it no longer applies.

        Thus the void posited by Christians is chimerical, derivative, a check that can never be cashed.

      2. About nothingness: isn’t there a flaw in your assumption? What I mean is that right now, we do exist as thinking entities. Since we are discussing that concept in the here and now and only projecting our imaginations into the future, I think we are able to discuss “nothingness.” We are perceivers at this moment of discourse.

        You mentioned, “I leave to the theologians to ponder the mystery of such modes of being “in” and “with” absent a corpus.”
        That’s not necessarily the domain of theologians only is it? Last evening I was watching a conversation on YouTube about Martin Heidegger’s book “Being and Time”. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s on my to-read list.

        You also, mentioned, “But for those who take death seriously, for whom such a fanciful, and wonderfully expedient salvation as Christians fantasize is implausible, a wish-fulfillment to end all fulfilled wishings . . .”

        Isn’t that the nature of man?

        When he knew he was going to die (I mean sooner, rather than later) Christopher Hitchens made a comment that sounded more like it would come from an Evangelist than from an atheist. He said something about being on the threshold of a “bountiful harvest.” That’s a very human thing to say. People say things like “The Atheist’s Nightmare” and all of that sort of nonsense with regard to having a rewarding afterlife; as if that’s something no one would want. I don’t think anyone enjoys the idea of thinking that all of their studies, labors, and life’s work will be for naught.

        What Hitchens talked about in the video—and in my opinion he added more to theology than he ever took away from it—is that he didn’t recognize God’s right to own him, and it was that lack of free will and intellectual independence that made him wish there was no God. Admittedly, he was making the possibly inaccurate assumption that God wouldn’t respect someone who asserted that as a right.

        I recently signed up for the discussion area on Richard Dawkins’ site for the advancement of reason, and I was surprised—shocked really—by the highly civil and intelligent level of the discussions and that there were Christians there making their case. That was a very welcome circumstance, because I was concerned that it might be something like a Fox News echo chamber where everybody only heard what they wanted to hear, without being confronted with opposing opinions.

  5. Hi Learner,

    My comments about C.S. Lewis were simply my way of finding common ground sharing that everyone has a sense of right and wrong; good and evil. It was not an attempt to convert anyone, ha ha. Although I find the problem of evil in our world a serious obstacle to faith, I really do not think I could ever change an atheist’s mind with a quick quote. As we converse, I see a lot of potential for common ground and mutual respect.

    1. What follows might seem combative, or even hostile. It’s not intended that way. I’m just being direct, for the sake of both brevity and honesty.

      An incredibly easy way to heaven.

      I had an online Christian friend. Sadly, she never did any of her own thinking for herself. She got her news from the propaganda network Fox ‘News’. She knew I admired Hitchens. One day I wrote to her and placed a quotation that I am rather fond of: “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places,” and then I mentioned “I guess you know where I got that from.”

      Her reply was, “Hitchens.” I didn’t realize how naive I was. Turns out she never bothered to actually read the book herself. Years ago, when she did go to church, the preacher read parts of it to her.

      Myself, I have read the bible and know it well. I know history, and I know the scientific method of inquiry. I recently read the life story of “Saint Anthony of the Desert.” Of course I already know about more famous people like Saint Francis and Savonarola. I recently reread about Savonarola, to refresh my memory. Except for his encouragement of the Crusades, I admire Savonarola. I know about the savage torture he underwent and his burning.

      I also know that you’re lucky that you aren’t a follower of Francis of Assisi In the generation after his death, because you’d likely get burned alive by the church.

      The study of the bible that Yale University does is one using the scientific method to explore the historical, literary, and archeological evidence and to make rational conclusions about the history of the Hebrews. There’s no hidden agenda–one designed to reinfoce the faith of believers, it’s a real inquiry.

      You referred to Hitchens as “infamous.” I’m curious about how much you know about him. Have you read his book? Have you read or seen any of Richard Dawkins’ lectures, debates, or books?

      Just curious. That stuff that Kreeft spewed about hell has nothing to do with the “21st Century.” It’s from a time . . . well, read the newspapers about what the Muslims ar doing, and you’ll know it’s from an era that The West has mostly moved away from after The Enlightnement, thank God.

    1. Oh, I see it also. (There already appears to be common ground and mutual respect between you and me.) But I’d watch out for atheists in general, if I were you. I’m convinced that it’s very unlikely you’ll find any. Most atheists are Evangelical Atheists—I just thought that term up, but it fits the bill perfectly. Most atheists won’t be satisfied until you give up your faith. Just as (I’m assuming) you are intent on sharing “the good news,” they are just as intent on sharing the “bad news.”

      I’m reconsidering calling myself an atheist because people make all types of assumptions, none particularly good. Hitchens called himself an antitheist. The definition he gave it was that he doesn’t (didn’t) [man do I miss him. His death has hit me harder than any in my life.] He didn’t see any reason for believing in God and was glad that there wasn’t. As he put it: If there is an omniscient God, you’re under constant surveillance. It’s worse than living in North Korea. At least you can [bleeping] die and get out of Korea. I see Fearless Leader has kicked the ol’ bucket, so at least there’s one less prying eye in North Korea.

      Myself, I suppose I’m a nontheist. I wish there was a God but I don’t see much reason to believe. But we’re all of us human. Hitchens did a little flinching near the end. Not much but a little. He said, “I’m willing to be surprised.” I’m assuming he meant [pleasantly] surprised.

      Francis is my favorite saint. (Not all that familiar with the saints, so I better rephrase that.) Saint Francis is one of my favorite historical figure—and it just so happens that I have a statue of him in my garden. I identify with his affinity for animals. (Although I am drawing the line there—no affinity for rocks and boulders.) Heh-heh. Like I said, we’re all human.

      I like the way you have all these holy days. As someone with a Protestant background, many Roman Catholic ideas are alien to me. But whatever. It makes no difference. I like the idea of marking the seasons and having remembrances like you’re doing. Mozart and Bach would be on my list. Probably could squeeze Voltaire in there somewhere. I love Mozart. He was a good man, but when I read the mean-spirited remarks he made about Voltaire when writing to his father to tell him the news, it was another palm-to-face moment for me.

    2. Began and ended with Peter Kreeft’s ideas about hell. Made it halfway through his nonsence. I hope he enjoys being in heaven with the “born again” Christians Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dammer, and Tex Waitkins. Waitkins has “Abounding Love Ministries.” He’s also written four books about ebing a Christian. However, his biggest claim to fame is being one of Manson’s Morons. It was he who butchered those people, including 8 1/2 month pregnant Sharon Tate.

      People who think like Kreeft are terribly warped, in my opinion. Sorry, Jared. But that stuff really gets me angry. You can keep in touch with me if you’d like, but we ought to leave Kreeft out of the conversation.

  6. Okay, if you’re still talking to me–which I suppose you aren’t–we can leave Kreeft in the conversation. He clearly shows a contempt for Paul’s teachings. Yet, it was Paul who did the leg work to get the gospel spread.

    I recently heard someone mention a survey of university professors of who were the most influential men in history. The first person I thought of was Alexander the Great. Turns out that he was at the top of the list. Christ and the Apostle Paul were tied for fifth place. Its’ salient that they were placed together like that. To dismiss one of the two, as Kreeft does, seems utterly contradictory to the entirety of the Christian Tradition.

  7. Hello Brother Daniel, (if I may address you as brother).

    I reread your article about Christopher Hitchens. Upon my first reading it, I was still grieving the loss of Mr. Hitchens—I still am. I don’t think it’s a death that I’ll ever really get over.

    Anyway, now that I’ve reread your article, with the exception of calling him “infamous,” I find it to be a kind one, and one worthy of being written by the hnd of a true Christian.

    I was reading today about yet another stain upon the church. In one article I read, I think the author got it right: Anyone who wants to be a priest these days needs to have thick skin and great faith.
    There are reasons why introspective people like Hitchens are atheists. It’s not because they want to not exist. I think Hitchens actually had much more in common with True Believers than he did with anyone else. Someone said about him after his passing that he showed the signs of being a seeker. Could be that he was. I know he was a moralist. In his personal life, he did things that I don’t approve of—but they were with consenting adults. I also think that if he had believed, he would have done whatever was required of him—in terms of what he believed to be moral. (He wouldn’t agree to slaughter one of his children, as Abraham was willing to, for instance.)

    In one of his debates about religion, one of the less savory characters he debated with accused him of “playing Savonarola.” From what I know of Savonarola, I’d take that as a compliment and not a putdown. I don’t think he was playing Savonarola so much as he was like Savonarola. For instance, he underwent all the tortures that his doctors inflicted upon him, heroically. (He also donated his body to science.)

    That brings me to those who are decidedly not heroic—those priests who betrayed Christ and His church in the most obscenely possible way. You said in the above article: “However, God so loves us that we are given the constitutive character of freedom to reject that love and transcendental experience, taking responsibility (or shirking it) as we so choose.”

    Yet, that is THE problem with which those who might wish to believe, but cannot. Christ said “He who eats my body and drinks my blood unworthily, eats and drinks damnation.” But how can anyone reconcile that with the actions of the church? That’s the problem. Is there anyone more deserving of damnation than someone who rapes the innocent in the name of Christ, to abuse that sacred authority and to crucify Christ again, and with impunity. What evil!!! And those who should be the most appalled by this incredibly blasphemous and despicable sacrilege, rather than condemn the vile perpetrators, castrate the innocent victims—to purge them of their (the victim’s) “homosexuality”.

    This seems nothing like the conduct that one would expect from Christ’s Anointed. It doesn’t even seem like it is normal human decency—because it isn’t. And, I’m sorry to say it—for more reasons than one—but it’s enough to make someone believe he is justified in being an atheist; that the answer to “What does the atheist have?” is that he has the resolve to see things as they are rather than the way he wishes they were.

    No insult meant to you. It’s just me stating my own thoughts in a forthright way. I’d like to believe, but I just can’t connect the dots. I have far more respect for Hitchens, someone who was willing to be gutted like the director Van Gogh—and who knew it was a very real possibility, than for someone (not you, obviously), but those in places of authority who commit the vilest sins against Christ—and thereby show that they being the Elect of God, have less faith, and fear of God, than the most wretched outside the church.

    The moral and spiritual outrage one feels over that is in fact enough to cause one to be an atheist.

  8. For the problem of evil, I had dialogue with a Christian who had been asked this question:
    So why then is it ok for your loving god to watch coldly and do nothing as children are abused and murdered? Doing nothing is either wrong or its not. Or is it ok to watch sometimes?
    Your argument appears to be that humans work to a far higher moral standard than god as its wrong for us to do it but its ok for god. He can kill whome he wants and refuse to help stop the murder of innocents.
    My response (I do make references to atheists in here. They are generalizations that may not neccesarily apply to you, but seemed fit for the atheist we were talking about. I mean no offense in any way):
    First point out that more often than not, God stops many bad things from happening to us. He probably doesn’t take into account that things would be worse if God allowed them to be. Second, if life was perfect, there would be no need for Heaven. There would be no need for a Redeemer. We’d have everything we need right here. That is obviously not the case. Again, it really comes down to free will, as has been stated. Ask the atheist you are talking to if he would like to be a puppet without the ability to do anything wrong or to, in fact, love someone. The answer is obviously no, because he does indeed sin and therefore probably wouldn’t want to give up that power he has over himself. He would still probably wish to love his wife and/or family. Also, from an atheist’s perspective, being beaten to death is one of the worst things possible because they don’t believe in an afterlife. We do however. If the atheist you are talking to had his way, they child would have to receive perhaps painful, difficult, and expensive medical treatment. After being released from the hospital, he would still go through more pain in his life. If he died from a beating, that would be the end of his suffering forever. He would now live in paradise with God. You can ask the atheist why he would condemn the child to a life of more pain than allow to experience paradise. He fears death because that is the end. If God exists, however, there is no need to fear death as long as you have faith in Him. If this child didn’t, based on what this person is saying, they are rather young. God would perhaps blame the parents, but I doubt He would blame the child for not knowing Him. The Child would not be willfully ignorant of Him.
    As far as natural disaster, that is how the universe works. If there weren’t hurricanes, there would also be no rain, snow, sleet, hail, etc. If you took out that component of weather, you’d mess everything else up. Also, earthquakes happen through plate movement. How different and perhaps uninhabitable would our world be without plate tectonics. Anyways, fewer people would die in these disasters if:
    A: more people were willing to reach out.
    B: money would be invested in prediction and protection instead of wasted on other, less important things.
    Also, they allow us to help others. It is hard to do good if there is nothing bad to begin with. Death will inevitably happen. It is just that we don’t think of it as the end of the road. His view of death and your are probably pretty different. If you are going along the lines of “If God exists,” your viewpoint should be taken into account.

    This specifically addresses children being beaten to death. It is not a universal answer. For the girl with burns, here is an answer. I’m not saying this is THE answer but rather a possible one.

    In out world today, people are constantly falling away from God. Though some have converted to atheism, I think the main reason is that many people don’t feel the need for God anymore. They live comfortable easy lives and feel they only have to depend upon themselves. Modern technology makes it much easier not to care or worry. Money makes the world go round. That is what many people have now become dependent on. We need our dependence on God back. There are many tragedies that force us to become dependent. In my opinion, dependence on God is what is needed. A person who didn’t care about God, and then becomes dependent on Him receieves the gift of a second chance of a relationship with Him.

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