As I'm writing, it's the 4th Sunday of Advent, and already Christmas is working its magic on people who are otherwise quite loathsome. A facebook "friend" wrote a brief defense of CHRISTmas this week. You should know he's one of the worst human beings I know, but hey, baby Jesus came to save him too, but I think you're supposed to stop being a wretch (or arrogant, racist douche) once you've been found. People who you wouldn't imagine are Christian suddenly become Christian this time of year, at least in their understanding. The hhdxw saw a sign on a porch in one of our suburbs that said, "Save Christmas. Vote Republican." Indeed. Perhaps it should have said CHRISTmas.
There is no question that people can be more charitable toward their fellow humans this time of year. The cultural influence of Christmas is profound, especially after discounting the behavior of Black Friday guerilla shoppers. Salvation Army bell ringers give us a chance to feel like we're making a difference. Donating toys to Angel Tree or Toys for Tots helps fill my Treasury of Merit, thus helping me escape Purgatory. Of course, there are those practitioners of civil religion for whom saying "Merry Christmas" feels like a shot fired in the culture war, but even they are more kind this time of year.
Into this Advent season, introduce the death of one of the world's greatest known atheists, Christopher Hitchens, and suddenly the season of hope and expectation is full of eschatological reflections on truth and goodness and hell and grace. What happens when a tireless advocate for the "true" and "good" dies without saying the sinner's prayer? According to Douglas Wilson over at Christianity Today:
We have no indication that Christopher ever called on the Lord before he died, and if he did not, then Scriptures plainly teach that he is lost forever.
To be fair, as Eric Reitan points out at Religion Dispatches Wilson's piece is largely kind and gracious. He believes in eternal damnation, though. Of course he does. He's a consistent, conservative evangelical. His position, he rightly admits, would not have surprised Hitchens. He would have opened himself up to more of Hitchens's legendary scorn had he denied his belief for the sake of seeing a "friendly" saved. Wilson holds out hope that there was a last minute conversion. Of course he does. He's no smarmy inclusivist like C.S. Lewis or a Christian universalist like Philip Gulley. For Lewis, one could serve "Tash" (his faux Allah) but really be serving Aslan, because as Aslan says in The Last Battle, no good deed is in the service of Tash; all good deeds are in the service of Aslan.
The death of an atheist this time of year (especially) reveals more about what Christians think of their own eschatology than it does what the atheist believed. Hitchens was afraid he would make a deathbed confession in his last moments. It's a legitimate fear. I have nothing to lose at that last moment. Why not hedge my bets? It's the Socratic dilemma of saving my own life while betraying all that I've stood for. Would a fair judge say that Hitchens could be truly good if he called out for salvation "just in case"? Many Christians would say God would accept that. (It's true many of them sort of have to because of their view that words are really the building blocks of ontological magic.) But for some—Reitan, Wilson, and others all over facebook this week—they believe in a Just and Merciful God who always does what's right. Great.
Perhaps it's time for those same Christians to take seriously the possibility of a non-material form of Christianity, which is to say that it's possible to do what's right even while believing the wrong things. I'd prefer to believe that God cares more about behavior than belief. It seems more consistent with words like just, merciful, and good. Can a tireless advocate for the good and true ever be far from the kingdom? From within the purview of Christian theology, it makes far more sense that God is the center and we are all at some distance from God, moving in one direction or another. Can we introduce the Greek virtues of truth, goodness, and beauty, and say with a straight face that those who pursue these things are pursuing God, that they are moving toward the center? This, of course, means there is no Rubicon (or Jordan) to cross, only a directional assessment of a soteriological state, but it's far more sensible than the current rubric within evangelicaldom of having to believe the right set of propositions.
I'm not advocating for Hitchens's salvation here. I really think he was more right than wrong about god, salvation, hell, and eternity. I wouldn't wish eternity on anyone, friend or foe. I am advocating for Christian eschatology to consider the possibility that Lewis was right, that the Greeks were right, hell, that anyone who works tirelessly for truth and goodness, irrespective of whether they've "called on Jesus," is closer to the kingdom than those who fight for Christmas for all the wrong reasons or who have said the right words in the right order at the right time. Give me a good pagan over a bad Christian any day. If the Judge is just, I assume he'll agree.