Jeffrey Salkin: Martini Judaism Opinion

Did Hitchens almost convert to Christianity?

Christopher Hitchens, journalist and author of his memoir "Hitch 22," poses for a portrait outside his hotel in New York, June 7, 2010. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-HITCHENS-BOOK, originally transmitted on April 20, 2016.

Did Christopher Hitchens, the late pundit and world-class atheist, actually consider a “deathbed conversion” to Christianity?

That is what author Larry Alex Taunton is suggesting, in his recent book, The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the World’s Most Notorious Atheist.

Taunton recounts a road trip that he and Hitchens took together.

As Mr. Taunton drove, Mr. Hitchens read aloud from the Gospel of John and mulled over the precise reason Jesus wept at the death of Lazarus. “Where is grace in the Old Testament?” Hitchens asked at one point, in Mr. Taunton’s telling. “I see it in the New Testament, but God is different in the Old Testament,” Mr. Hitchens observed, leading to a discussion of God’s covenant with Abraham.

And who wouldn’t have wanted to convert Christopher Hitchens?

Talk about a prize catch.

In fact, as Kimberly Winston writes, it is highly improbable that Jesus was on Hitch’s later-in-life mind.

I admired Christopher Hitchens, despite his tone-deafness on Israel; he once expressed the snarky desire to go to Jerusalem and to move into the house that his friend, the late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said, had once supposedly lived in.

Nevertheless, as Daniel Oppenheimer writes in Exit Right, in other areas Hitchens had migrated from his leftist positions, and came to embrace what some people would call a neo-conservative position. He had become convinced that the West was facing an implacable enemy, i.e. Islamic terrorism.

And because of that, he no longer felt, as a former leftist, that the use of power was always bad. Sometimes, he admitted, it was necessary.

And, yes, let it be said of the late pundit: To paraphrase the Yiddish poet, Jacob Glatstein: The god of Hitchen’s unbelief was magnificent.

His book, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, culminates in a call for humanity to

escape the gnarled hands which reach out to drag us back to the catacombs and the reeking altars and the guilty pleasures of subjection and abjection … to know the enemy, and to prepare to fight it.

Hitchens was part of that literary club — the “new atheists,” like Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett.

But, for a public intellectual, Hitchens was decidedly anti-intellectual in his treatment of God. He didn’t do his God homework. He betrayed no evidence of having read any works of theology — in fact, little besides the Bible.

Hitch was also quite happy with choosing fanatics as his sparring partner. The version of faith that he was battling was the narrowest version.

But now, let’s deal with Hitchen’s (almost) conversionary statement — that Christianity would have offered him a God of love, which he had not seen in Judaism.

Oh, Hitch (I say this to you in heaven, whether or not you believe that it really exists): Christianity did not invent the idea of a loving God.

It was Judaism.

Jewish liturgy proclaims it very clearly: “With a great love You have loved us.” “God gave the Jews (and the world) the Sabbath — in love.” Jewish liturgy is filled with words like ahavah (love), rachamim (compassion) — and chesed, the closest thing that Jews come to what Christians call “grace.”

A forthcoming book, Encountering God — God Merciful and Gracious—El Rachum V’chanun, edited by Lawrence Hoffman (Jewish Lights) (full disclosure: I have an essay in it), explores the meaning of God’s compassion in Judaism.

Henry Slonimsky, one of the most sensitive and yet unheralded Jewish teachers of the last century, put it this way: “God is primarily a great heart, caring most for what seems to be important and sacred to us, namely, our loves and aspirations and sufferings.”

To insist that the “Old Testament God” is mean, and that the “New Testament God” is compassionate, is actually, well, anti-Semitic. It goes back to Marcionism, an ancient Christian heresy that tried to sever early Christianity from its Jewish roots by denying the goodness of the “Jewish” god.

I don’t buy it. When you put together the Crusades, blood libels, inquisitions, forced conversions, etc. — not a whole lot of “God of grace” going on there. Just sayin’…

Later in life, Hitchens discovered that his mother was Jewish — which means that, according to Jewish law, he was also Jewish (or, maybe, “Jew-ish”). Apparently, his daughters were being raised and educated as Jews.

If Hitch had wanted to return to God, he need not have done so as a Christian. As a Jew, he had free access to the loving God 24/7, and yet he chose to ignore it.

About faith: this is what I think.

Faith is a talent, or a skill. Some people are “naturals” at it. Some people just cannot pull it together, no matter how hard they try.

And others who want to get good it can probably do so. But you have to want to do it.

I wish that Christopher Hitchens had wanted to do it. And I wish that he had wanted to do so — as a Jew.

We have so much that we would have wanted to show him.



About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.


Click here to post a comment

  • Christians always lie about death bed conversions. Hitchens DID NOT come close to conversion. He was ill not insane.

  • If Hitch had indeed converted at the end – something only God knows – he surely would have caught hell from his compatriots. That’s one reason to keep up the façade – fear of being ostracized and ruining his legacy.

  • So, a sleezy, salacious headline and an obnoxious first sentence topped by a total absense of evidence.
    Sounds like a great mix of religious fantasy and yellow journalism.

  • This propaganda question is posed but not answered – hinted at and implied with the whole intention of creating doubt. No doubt in my mind that Christopher would have been much too intelligent to believe in such rubbish, superstition and lies. Similar to the Christian lies about Charles Darwin’s ‘death bed conversion.’ Since Christians like the next life so much why don’t they all clear off there and leave the rest of us in peace to live the only life we can ever have because they are a complete pain in the ass? see more

  • The closest he came was to say, “the only time I would convert at my death bed is so there would be one more dead Christian and one less dead atheist”.

  • It’s very easy to make such claims about people after they die. Estates can’t sue for libel/slander.

  • So, rather than address the actual question that is the lead-in for this, namely “Did Hitchens Almost Convert to Christianity?”, Mr. Salkin seems to have used the highly questionable claim that Hitchens converted on his deathbed to promote his own religious viewpoint on the nature of his god and its associated heaven.

    Misleading title and preaching to a misled audience: not terribly honest, Mr. Salkin. If this was not your doing, I hope that you are taking it up with your editor and that you address the dishonesty of this piece, as this type of journalism will definitely keep me from reading your articles in the future. As it stands, your behavior appears no better than Mr. Taunton’s.

  • “ for those who want to be shaken and stirred “
    How convenient Mr Salkin !

    The subtitle of your blog provides you cover, and allows you to make as many absurd statements as you wish.
    “ So I misrepresented. “ you might say upon being challenged in one of your transparent absurdities about Hitchens.
    “ I’m only doing what I said I would – I’m shaking you ! “

    Hitchens didn’t know his mother was Jewish until he was 28 – and his Jew-ness was only by lineage –
    neither by religion nor culture. His upbringing was entirely secular.

    Hitchens was a world-class internationally famed intellectual, scholar, author and writer. The religious tell outright lies about him, seeking to bask in his fame.

    Atheist Sam Harris’ mother is also Jewish. Harris is still alive. If, before he dies, you don’t offer Harris the same religious-Jewish opportunity to find your God, as you did Hitchens after his death – you are a fraud.

  • Very well said Barry, I started reading this story with interest, but gave up half way when I realised it was nothing more than proselytizing

  • I, a Christian, prayed many times for CH to convert, on or out of a deathbed. If he did, we’ll know in time. If he didn’t, we’ll know in time. I hope that, right now, he is in the presence–joyfully so–of the God who is Love. It is not insanity to become what you were meant to be. It is insanity to deny it.

  • The author states “Hitchens was decidedly anti-intellectual in his treatment of God. He didn’t do his God homework.”

    It is impossible to read all that has been written to justify the myth of God.

    God exists because we have a brain that evolved from plankton eating fish. God does not exist because we have a brain that progressed beyond monkeys. If you habitualy think like a fish living in a sea of existential threats you will find God. If you habitually practice not being blinded by our sub human thinking process you will reject resolute myths like God.

  • What you say is like asking, “Is there life after death or is there life after death?”. There is life after death or not. If not, no one will ever know for sure that there was no life after death.

  • Why are deathbed conversions so important to Christians? Why do they believe that anyone can do whatever they want during their lifetime but if they have a deathbed conversion or repentance then all is OK? What kind of morality is that? If Hitler had repented at the last moment would he be in heaven? And if a good man never heard of Christ or even rejected him would he be in hell? And even if Hitchens did have a deathbed conversion it does not prove or disprove anything that he has said or written in his life so WHAT DOES IT MATTER?

    Here is a list of FALSELY claimed deathbed conversions.

    Charles Darwin
    Antonio Gramsci
    John Lennon
    Christopher Hitchens
    Robert Ingersoll
    Ethan Allen
    Thomas Paine
    Oscar Wilde
    Wallace Stevens

  • Christopher was merely humoring Mr T. He was politely asking questions because he was curious how Mr T worked. That was all, nothing more. Do people not understand Nuance?

  • Hitchens’ wife made it perfectly clear that Hitch did NOT convert. He was clear minded and lucid right up to the end and she was with him at the end.

  • Love of god? Indeed, tell me if this shows love:
    * Kill People Who Don’t Listen to Priests – Anyone arrogant
    enough to reject the verdict of the judge or of the priest who represents the
    LORD your God must be put to death. Such evil must be purged from Israel.
    (Deuteronomy 17:12 NLT)-
    * Kill Witches- You should not let a sorceress live. (Exodus 22:17 NAB)-
    * Kill Homosexuals- “If a man lies with a male as with a
    women, both of them shall be put to death for their abominable deed; they have forfeited
    their lives.” (Leviticus 20:13 NAB)-
    * Fortunetellers- A man or a woman who acts as a medium or fortuneteller
    shall be put to death by stoning; they have no one but themselves to
    blame for their death. (Leviticus 20:27 NAB)-
    * 2) All who curse their father or mother must be put to death. They are guilty of a capital offense. – (Leviticus 20:9 NLT)-
    * 3) Death for Adultery- If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife, both the man and the woman must be put to death. (Leviticus 20:10 NLT)-
    * Death for Fornication – A priest’s daughter who loses her honor by committing fornication and thereby dishonors her father also, shall be burned to death. (Leviticus 21:9 NAB)
    * – Death to Followers of Other Religions

    * – Kill Nonbelievers – They entered into a covenant to seek the Lord, the God of their fathers, with all their heart and soul; and everyone who would not seek the Lord, the God of
    Israel, was to be put to death, whether small or great, whether man or woman.
    (2 Chronicles 15:12-13 NAB)-
    * Kill False Prophets- If a man still prophesies, his parents,
    father and mother, shall say to him, “You shall not live, because you have
    spoken a lie in the name of the Lord.” When he prophesies, his parents,
    father and mother, shall thrust him through. (Zechariah 13:3)
    * Kill the Entire Town if One Person Worships Another God- (Deuteronomy 13:13-19)
    * Kill Women Who Are Not Virgins On Their Wedding Night- (Deuteronomy 22:20-21)
    Sure – your God is a real loving P.O.S

  • We do know, his wife was with him until the end and said he was clear minded and lucid until the end. He did not convert.