On Thursday last week, Christopher Hitchens, a British-American died of esophageal cancer at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas. He was the most aggressive champion of the “New Atheism” movement. As an avowed atheist he fought against the truth-claims of the Bible throughout his life. However, Hitchens was a brilliant man, a masterful rhetorician and a celebrated journalist/writer. It is sobering to think that a man with such genius and prowess lived his entire life rejecting God and that he is now in torment as he waits for God’s final judgment and eternal punishment in hell. The thought that anyone would deliberately chose to live “without hope and without God in this world” (Ephesians 2:12), terribly frightens me. I would not want to imagine what it would be like going from day to day with total disregard of the God of the universe, the Holy One of Israel, the One who sustains all things by the “Word of His power” (Hebrews 1:3). Frankly, I would not want to be a part of that experiment.
But as we think of the life (and now the death) of Christopher Hitchens and all the other atheists who are still alive today, it is very easy for us as Christians to do so in a self-righteous and condescending manner. We can easily forget that the only thing that makes us different from Christopher Hitchens and his company is the sovereign grace of God. We need to be sobered and humbled by the fact that the Lord in His rich grace and mercy chose to save us through the blood of His One and Only Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Each one of us needs to join the Pauline chorus and sing with him, “I am what I am by the grace of God” (1 Corinthians 15:10). While many of us profess faith in God through Jesus Christ, we live our lives as “practical atheists.” You know you are a “practical atheist” when: 1. You believe that your righteousness is rooted in your perceived “moral uprightness” and not on Christ’s righteousness and atoning death on the Cross; 2. You believe that your private life does not affect the effectiveness of your public witness/ministry as a Christian; 3. You are more concerned about pleasing people than you are about pleasing God.
As Christians who live our lives under God, we must remember three things: Firstly, we must remember that our salvation is all of grace. Therefore, we must take off any masks which lead others to think that we are perfect, well-polished and faultless individuals – and that God couldn’t help but save us because we are such nice individuals. God does not owe us or anyone His salvation. All of us are sinners deserving of His eternal wrath as the Bible clearly says in Romans 3:23 (“All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”) and in Romans 6:23 (“The wages of sin is death but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord”). We need to embrace the good news of Christ’s gospel that He came into the world to save sinners (see Luke 19:10 and 1 Timothy 1:15). We must not nullify the grace of God by thinking that righteousness comes from our good deeds or behavior. Paul says in Galatians 2:21, “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.”
Secondly, we must also remember that our private lives matter before God. What we do in private affects what we do in public. Our public Christian witness is effectively hindered or enhanced by what happens in our private lives, when no one is looking. Our public witness must be a reflection of our private devotion to God who sees all things and hates hypocrisy. In Matthew 23:27-28, Christ vehemently condemned the scribes and Pharisees because of their hypocrisy. He said to them, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matthew 23:27-28). In Luke 12, He gives this strong warning against hypocrisy, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops” (verse 1-3). Ecclesiastes 12:14 tells us that “God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.”
Finally, we must be more concerned about pleasing God, not other people. This doesn’t mean that we should deliberately be offensive to other people. But rather, we must always be committed to doing what pleases God even if it puts us at odds with the world. The apostles understood this. They said to the high priest in Acts 5:29, “we must obey God rather than man.” They could not stop preaching Christ even when their own lives were in danger (Acts 5:33). Proverbs 29:25 tells us that “the fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trust in the LORD is safe.” As Christians, we must be comforted and encouraged by the fact that God our Father cares about us and that He will defend and protect us from all harm. He alone is the One we are to fear as Jesus says in Matthew 10:28-31. Furthermore, the fear of God should give us boldness to openly acknowledge Christ and identify with Him even when it ends up making us unpopular before the people of this world (Matthew 10:32-33) because we care more about His approval than man’s approval. The Word of God admonishes us to “fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (Ecclesiastes 12:13).
I hope that by now, you are absolutely convinced of the fact that the only thing that truly makes us (Christians) different from Christopher Hitchens and his company is the sovereign grace of God. Nothing about our lives is sufficient to commend us before God. I am so ashamed to admit that even though I believe in God and in the Lord Jesus Christ, I see the traits of a “practical atheist” to varying degrees in my own life now and again. I absolutely need the grace of God each day of my life. I am forever thankful that God in His manifold wisdom and grace has made provision for sinners such as I whereby He imputes the righteousness of Jesus Christ to all who trust in Him for their salvation. I need an external righteousness (a righteousness outside of myself), to be given me if I am to stand before God without any condemnation on the judgment day. You need that too and I call you to come to trust in the Lord Jesus Christ and rest in His sovereign grace as the only sure basis for your salvation.
When I think about Hitchens (his life and death), I cannot help but to think of all the other self-professing atheists out there notably Richard Dawkins (in the UK) and George Thindwa (Malawi), just to name a few. I am sobered to think that these men and all their atheist friends refuse to humble themselves and acknowledge God. Terrifying is the thought that if they continue in this way, the only thing that they can look forward to is eternal damnation in the lake of fire. I fear for them. But I am also greatly terrified (even more so) to think that many who profess to be Christians and yet are in reality “practical atheists” will be surprised one day to “wake up in hell” when this life is over. To Dawkins, Thindwa and to all of us, my plea is that we would all look to Christ, embrace Him and trust in Him alone for our salvation. I pray that those who openly defy God and those who defy Him in secret (i.e. in the “practical atheist” way), would seek forgiveness from God on the basis of Christ’s righteousness and His atoning death on the Cross on our behalf.
“In Him, we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace…Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered” (Ephesians 1:7; Psalm 32:1).