December 16th, 2011
04:45 PM ET

My Take: An evangelical remembers his friend Hitchens

Editor's note: Larry Alex Taunton is the founder and executive director of the Fixed Point Foundation. This article is adapted from his book “The Grace Effect: How the Power of One Life Can Reverse the Corruption of Unbelief.”

By Larry Alex Taunton, Special to CNN

(CNN)– I first met Christopher Hitchens at the Edinburgh International Festival. We were both there for the same event, and foremost in my mind was the sort of man I would meet.

A journalist and polemicist, his reputation as a critic of religion, politics, Britain's royal family, and, well, just about everything else was unparalleled. As an evangelical, I was certain that he would hate me.

When the expected knock came at my hotel room door, I braced for the fire-breather who surely stood on the other side of it. With trepidation, I opened it and he burst forth into my room. Wheeling on me, he began the conversation as if it was the continuance of some earlier encounter:

“The Archbishop of Canterbury has effectively endorsed the adoption of Sharia law. Can you believe that? Whatever happened to a Church of England that believed in something?” He alternated between sips of his Johnnie Walker and steady tugs on a cigarette.

My eyebrows shot up. “‘Believed in something?’ Why, Christopher, you sound nostalgic for a church that actually took the Bible seriously.”

He considered me for a moment and smiled. “Indeed. Perhaps I do.”

There was never a formal introduction. There was no need for one. From that moment, I knew that I liked him. We immediately discovered that we had much in common. We were descendants of martial traditions; we loved literature and history; we enjoyed lively discussion with people who didn’t take opposition to a given opinion personally; and we both found small talk boring.

Over the next few years, we would meet irregularly. The location was invariably expensive, a Ritz Carlton or a Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse. He disliked cheap restaurants and cheap liquor. In his view, plastic menus were indicative of bad food. I never ate so well as when I was with Hitch.

Christopher Hitchens, standing, debates his friend Larry Taunton.

More than bad food, however, he disliked unintelligent conversation. “What do you think about gay marriage?” He didn’t wait for a response. “I don’t get it. I really don’t. It’s like wanting the worst of both worlds.” He drank deeply of his whiskey. “I mean, if I was gay, I would console myself by saying, ‘Well, I’m gay, but at least I don’t have to get married.’” That was classic Hitch. Witty. Provocative. Unpredictable.

Calling him on his cell one day, he sounded like he was flat on his back. Breathing heavily, there was desperation in his voice.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, anticipating some tragedy.

“Only minutes ago, I was diagnosed with esophageal cancer.” He was almost gasping.

I didn’t know what to say. No one ever does in such moments, so we resort to meaningless stock phrases like, “I’m sorry.” Instead, I just groaned. I will never forget his response:

“I had plans for the next decade of my life. I think I should cancel them.”

He asked me to keep the matter private until he could tell his family and make the news public. Hesitatingly, I told him that while I knew that he did not believe in such things, I would pray for him. He seemed genuinely moved by the thought.

“We are still on for our event in Birmingham, right?” He asked. I was stunned. Sensing my surprise, he continued. “I have made a commitment,” he insisted. “Besides, what else am I going to do? I can’t just sit around waiting to die.”

Hitchens brothers debate if civilization can survive without God

As time approached, he suggested a road trip from his D.C. apartment to my home in Birmingham, Alabama.

“Flying has become a humiliating experience, don’t you think?” He said. “Besides, I haven’t taken a road trip in 20 years and it will give us a chance to talk and for me to finally take you up on your challenge.”

Arriving in Washington some five months after his diagnosis, I was shocked by his appearance. Heavy doses of chemotherapy had left him emaciated, and hairless but for his eyelashes. His clothes hung off of him as though he were a boy wearing a man’s garments. He was, nonetheless, looking forward to our journey, having packed a picnic lunch and, predictably, enough Johnnie Walker for a battalion. After breakfast with his lovely wife, Carol, and his sweet daughter, Antonia, Hitch and I headed south on an eleven-hour road trip.

“Have you a copy of Saint John with you?” He asked with a smile. “If not, you know I do actually have one.” This was a reference to my challenge of two years before: a joint study of the Gospel of John. It was my assertion that he had never really read the Bible, but only cherry-picked it.

“Not necessary.” I was smiling, too. “I brought mine.”

A few hours later we were wending our way through the Shenandoah Valley on a beautiful fall morning. As I drove, Hitch read aloud from the first chapter of John’s Gospel. We then discussed its meaning. No cameras, no microphones, no audience. And that always made for better conversation with Hitch. When he referenced our journey in a televised debate with David Berlinski the next day, various media representatives descended on me to ask about our “argument.” When I said that we didn’t really argue, they lost interest.

But that was the truth. It was a civilized, rational discussion. I did my best to move through the prologue verse by verse, and Christopher asked thoughtful questions. That was it.

A bit put off by how the Berlinski event had played out, Hitch suggested we debate one another. Friend though he was, I knew that Hitch could be a savage debater. More than once I had chaired such engagements where Hitch went after his opponents remorselessly.

Hence, I was more than a bit anxious. Here he was, a celebrated public intellectual, an Oxonian, and bestselling author, and that is to say nothing of that Richard Burton-like, aristocratic, English-accented baritone. That always added a few I.Q. points in the minds of people. With hesitation, I agreed.

We met in Billings, Montana. Hitch had once told me that Montana was the only state he had never been in. I decided to complete his tour of the contiguous United States and arranged for the two of us to meet there. Before the debate, a local television station sent a camera crew over to interview us.

When he was asked what he thought of me, a Christian, and an evangelical at that, Hitch replied: “If everyone in the United States had the same qualities of loyalty and care and concern for others that Larry Taunton had, we'd be living in a much better society than we do.”

I was moved. Stunned, really. As we left, I told him that I really appreciated the gracious remark.

“I meant it and have been waiting for an opportunity to say it.”

Later that night we met one another in rhetorical combat. The hall was full. Christopher, not I, was of course the real attraction. He was at the peak of his fame. His fans had traveled near and far to see him demolish another Christian. Overall, it was a hard-fought but friendly affair. Unknown to the audience were the inside jokes. When I told a little story from our road trip, he loved it.

The debate over, I crossed the stage to shake Christopher’s hand. “You were quite good tonight,” he said with a charming smile as he accepted my proffered hand. “I think they enjoyed us.”

“You were gentle with me,” I said as we turned to walk off the stage.

He shook his head. “Oh, I held nothing back.” He then surveyed the auditorium that still pulsed with energy. “We are still having dinner?” he asked.


After a quick cigarette on the sidewalk near the backstage door, he went back inside to meet his fans and sign their books.

There was something macabre about it all. I had the unsettling feeling that these weren’t people who cared about him in the least. Instead, they seemed like a bunch of groupies who wanted to have a photo taken with a famous but dying man, so that one day they could show it to their buddies and say, “I knew him before he died.” It was a sad spectacle.

Turning away, I entered the foyer, where 30 or so Christians greeted me excitedly. Mostly students, they were encouraged by what had happened onstage that night. Someone had spoken for them, and it had put a bounce in their step. One young man told me that he had been close to abandoning his faith, but that the debate had restored his confidence in the truth of the gospel. Another student said that she saw how she could use some of the same arguments. It is a daunting task, really, debating someone of Hitchens' intellect and experience, but if this cheery gathering of believers thought I had done well, then all of the preparation and expense had been worth it.

The next day, the Fixed Point Foundation staff piled into a Suburban and headed for Yellowstone National Park. Christopher and I followed behind in a rented pick-up truck. Accompanied by Simon & Garfunkel (his choice), we drove through the park at a leisurely pace and enjoyed the grandeur of it all.

The second chapter of John’s Gospel was on the agenda: The wedding at Cana where Jesus turned water into wine. “That is my favorite miracle,” Hitch quipped.

Lunching at a roadside grill, he regaled our staff with stories. Afterwards, he was in high spirits.

“That’s quite a - how shall I put it? A clan? - team that you’ve got there,” he said, watching the teenage members of our group clamber into the big Chevrolet.

“Yes, it is,” I said, starting the truck. “They enjoyed your stories.”

“I enjoy them.” He reclined his seat and we were off again. “Shall we do all of the national parks?”

“Yes, and maybe the whole Bible, too,” I suggested playfully. He gave a laugh.

“Oh, and Larry, I’ve looked at your book.” He added.


“Well, all that you say about our conversation is true, but you have one detail wrong.”

“And what is that?” I feared a total rewrite was coming.

“You have me drinking Johnnie Walker Red Label. That’s the cheap stuff. I only drink Black Label.”

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Larry Alex Taunton.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Uncategorized

soundoff (1,648 Responses)
  1. Caroline

    Christopher Hitchens is one of my heroes. What a truly awesome guy.

    December 17, 2011 at 1:38 am |
  2. Clark Kent


    December 17, 2011 at 1:36 am |
  3. italiangirl17

    You guys need to chill out. This is a story about friendship despite differences. Obviously Hitch cared a great deal about the author and vice versa. I think it is great that the author honored his FRIEND with this piece.

    December 17, 2011 at 1:29 am |
  4. kengy

    As a student who attends Mr. Taunton's studies, I can assure everyone that the writer is not putting on a facade' about how he feels about Mr. Hitchens. Mr. Taunton shares on a regular basis some of the great times the two had together. This goes to show that two people of such different backgrounds can still find common ground as friends...

    December 17, 2011 at 1:22 am |
    • Mirosal

      Sure, differing people can get along. I can cite two prime examples of pairs that might not have started out as friends, but in the end, were good friends. 1st example - Larry Flynt and Jerry Falwell (by Falwell's own words) .. and #2 - Ron Jeremy and Tammy Faye Baker - how's THAT for a pairing? lol

      December 17, 2011 at 1:35 am |
    • Observer

      Ron Jeremy and a woman who was heavily painted and frequently cheap-looking?

      December 17, 2011 at 1:48 am |
    • Mirosal

      @ Observer .... Ron's used to that kind of a look from women, given his "rise" to claim, so to speak lol

      December 17, 2011 at 2:02 am |
  5. liz48

    I am glad he read the book of John...great Word to reveal Father and fight hypocrisy that sadly often claims it is of God...

    December 17, 2011 at 1:20 am |
    • Kyle

      I'm sure it was a good pick for the author. John is the real backbone of the new christian church, with all the saved through faith message. I'm sure it would have been a different conversation if they had been doing Matthew. Jesus says to get into heaven you must keep the commandments, but those old testament commandments are pretty unpalatable if not illegal in todays world.

      December 17, 2011 at 2:03 am |
  6. Wes

    How insulting of Rick Warren.

    Although the evangelical said nice things... I resent when people state they will pray for someone else.. This is condescending and arrogant.

    Christopher Hitchens deserves better than what CNN offered. They should interview free thinkers as this would be only fair and just.

    December 17, 2011 at 1:20 am |
    • Joe Mark Moore


      December 17, 2011 at 1:24 am |
    • Mark from Middle River

      So only Atheist friends are and should be allowed to speak of Hitchens? What's more important to some of you, the cause or the man?

      December 17, 2011 at 1:30 am |
    • .

      "Fairness," "justice"? From whence might such notions issue?

      December 17, 2011 at 1:43 am |
  7. jfg

    Weird...I'm in Birmingham and have grown up here. Had no idea Hitchens was a. so close to this evangelical from my hometown and b. who this evangelical is, to be frank...but pretty small world!

    December 17, 2011 at 1:15 am |
  8. liz48

    Thank you Larry Taunton for this wonderful article....One of the best I have read in a long time...The Lord loves a sincere heart and hates hypocrisy...Baruch Ata Adonai Eloyhenu (Blessed are You Lord God) Whose Hands are on Christopher Hitchens...to bless him...May Your Shalom be with him...

    December 17, 2011 at 1:15 am |
  9. DOSman

    ALLl mankind will be saved ~~~~1 Timothy 2:6 – Salvation of all is testified in due time ~~~ Creation set at liberty ~~~ All reconciled unto God ~~~...

    This may come as a shock to most Christians today, but what is today the remnant view was the majority view for the first five hundred years of Christianity. As a matter of fact, of the six theological schools we know existed in the second to fourth century, four of them believed in the salvation of all mankind, only one taught annihilation, and only taught eternal torment, the school at Rome. The doctrine of eternal torment did not become popular until the fifth century when Augustine began to push it. Once the doctrine was firmly injected into the church, the church brought about the Dark Ages, which lasted about a thousand years.

    December 17, 2011 at 1:09 am |
    • liz48

      I agree...Judaism has this Truth entrenched when they speak of layers of darkness that have to be removed off the human soul to reveal the Godliness of every human being....

      Jesus said the Truth will set us free...all churches are inevitably born of the roman catholic tradition, and do not teach the Truth of the Word to set people free. The greatest darkness came when people who followed Jesus were forced under peril of death or imprisonment to cut off from the Judaic understanding and teaching of the Messiah's Victory over satanic dominion...

      December 17, 2011 at 1:25 am |
  10. goddog

    This has been fun but I have evil Atheist things to work on. Like caring for my disabled elderly father, helping my kids with a science project, helping a friend fix his car and training my puppy to sit. Yep... all in a sinner's day of work. Namaste. We will miss you Hitch. You have provided the directions, now the journey is ours.

    December 17, 2011 at 12:57 am |
    • ashrakay


      December 17, 2011 at 1:01 am |
  11. LG Aul

    Thank you, Mr. Taunton. You are modeling good Christian behavior toward your fellow man. This is a lovely and fitting tribute to a friend and a mature example to others on how to live peacefully with those who don't agree with you. Thank you. You are a credit to your cause.

    December 17, 2011 at 12:54 am |
  12. Ryan

    great article, thanks

    December 17, 2011 at 12:53 am |
  13. Joe from Indy

    Even when the atheist dies, they give the platform to the religious guy to speak on his life. Ridiculous.

    December 17, 2011 at 12:44 am |
    • dwerbil

      Yep, this is goof-ball CNN for you.

      December 17, 2011 at 12:46 am |
    • ashrakay

      Exactly. As if this man could possibly understand the courage of mind and will required to be an atheist.

      December 17, 2011 at 12:49 am |
    • goddog

      I was quite disgusted with how the author described Hitchens' fans as compared to his own. He should be ashamed of himself for inventing that when Hitchens clearly can say nothing to defend himself.

      December 17, 2011 at 12:51 am |
    • liz48

      goddog, the truth hurts but it is common to see people who have no meaning in life engage in meaningless endeavors like taking pictures with some famous person, when they don't give a damn about the person...

      December 17, 2011 at 1:17 am |
  14. denogh

    I mourn the loss of this brilliant author.

    I also wish I could be more surprised by some of the hateful diatribes by the religious types in this comment section. Gloating about what you believe his eternal fate might be? If that's Christianity, then sucks to that.

    December 17, 2011 at 12:41 am |
  15. Nathan Maxfield

    Hitch lives!

    December 17, 2011 at 12:35 am |
    • goddog


      December 17, 2011 at 12:37 am |
    • goddog

      WWHD? lol

      December 17, 2011 at 12:38 am |
  16. goddog

    Hello... Just wanted to wash the bad taste of Majuju out of my brain. Why do people who can't function without an invisible monster make fun of those who are strong enough to do so? I guess misery loves company.

    December 17, 2011 at 12:32 am |
    • Jon O

      At least that mental midget HelsGod finally went away.

      December 17, 2011 at 12:37 am |
    • goddog

      He's preparing an animal sacrifice somewhere I suppose...

      December 17, 2011 at 12:39 am |
    • ashrakay

      I suspect HelsGod was a troll who died and rose again on the 3rd day as Majuuj. I just can't wrap my brain around the idea that people can actually believe this stuff.

      December 17, 2011 at 12:42 am |
    • Jon O

      Because they lack the ability to take responsibility for themselves and their actions and instead choose to blame everything on an invisible sky wizard?

      December 17, 2011 at 12:45 am |
  17. Majuuj

    When you all test the death, you will see who is right. We can debate forever on this topic, but there is no point of engage futile debate with ignorant masses like all of you. When death over takes you one day, and you are brought forth, you will all cry in disgrace, but that cry won't help, so save yourselves before the hellfire consumer every inch of your body.

    December 17, 2011 at 12:32 am |
    • goddog

      Somehow you make this sound comforting to you. Is the needless persecution of others something that gives you pleasure? You're as sick as your invented god. Have you noticed how god is as vile as the people who created him?

      December 17, 2011 at 12:34 am |
    • Jon O

      Ah, the glory of ignorant faith.

      Prove it.

      That's all.

      Prove it.

      December 17, 2011 at 12:35 am |
    • Jon O

      Wow, nice Christianity at play.

      Death? Yup.

      Pain and suffering? Yup.

      Must be the Christian God!

      December 17, 2011 at 12:36 am |
    • Lisa

      Wow, God must be a ten-year-old who wants to get back at us all if we won't pledge allegiance to his clubhouse.


      December 17, 2011 at 12:38 am |
    • AGuest9

      That's OK. This "hellfire consumer" sounds like it could save us from that fate.

      December 17, 2011 at 12:45 am |
    • HellBent

      "but there is no point of engage futile debate with ignorant masses like all of you."

      So why are the rest of us "ignorant" because we don't believe some several thousand year old book whose claims have zero evidence? Yeah, real ignorant.

      December 17, 2011 at 12:50 am |
    • dwerbil

      Aw jeez, did I miss that Star Trek episode AGAIN?!
      Damn nation!

      December 17, 2011 at 12:50 am |
    • Joe

      You have foolishly guess most readers will get past the first line. I got all the way through the second before I was laughing so hard I couldn't go further.

      December 17, 2011 at 12:54 am |
  18. Majuuj

    Simply speaking Hitchen was death deserving. He will know answer to his creator for all that he said about god, and he will pay the ultimate justice for the injustice his done to himself.

    December 17, 2011 at 12:19 am |
    • HellBent

      Wow, what a loving god you have. Why would you want to worship such a sadistic, narcissistic being? I guess the answer is obvious – fear.

      December 17, 2011 at 12:22 am |
    • goddog

      And if this were even remotely true, it matters to your salvation how? where is Hitch now? In h@ll? With Satan? And Satan will punish him for eternity because he spoke against god? And that makes sense how? Go make a burnt offering.

      December 17, 2011 at 12:23 am |
    • Tim E

      He must be shaking in his boots. And you have me so afraid now.

      December 17, 2011 at 12:23 am |
    • secession

      And this is the sort of kneejerk "vengeful God" responses I expected loads of upon hearing of his death – if your God is so petty and shallow as to hold grudges towards those who actually apply some thought towards the notion of religious belief, then you can keep Him.

      December 17, 2011 at 12:24 am |
    • goddog

      I agree Bent. A simple lowly human spends a short amount of his life, compared to the timelessness of god, and he gets to be punished forever? What a lousy example of humanity this god is.

      December 17, 2011 at 12:26 am |
    • goddog

      Maj, if you were god what would you change in the world? Starvation? Disease? Homelessness? I can make a list of thousands of reasons why any single human would be a better god than your god.

      December 17, 2011 at 12:28 am |
    • cg

      How very christian of you. No one deserves death. Judgemental, much?

      December 17, 2011 at 12:29 am |
    • goddog

      If there was no death there would be no gods. we would have no use for them.

      December 17, 2011 at 12:30 am |
    • Peikovianii

      And you are gay-deserving. So in the end you will both meet your maker.

      December 17, 2011 at 12:30 am |
    • Lisa

      Exactly what Jesus would have said?

      December 17, 2011 at 12:36 am |
    • dwerbil

      Hey Majujubobo, or whatever your name is,
      Have you ever read of an Atheist wishing such meanness on someone that has recently died?
      No, you haven't. It's only you xtian zombie-heads that go for that obscene perversion.

      December 17, 2011 at 1:05 am |
  19. Markus

    Christopher Hitchens underlined the deepest flaws in Christianity to me:

    1) I am held responsible, and rightly punishable, for events that happened before my birth. Even if I had died as a baby, I would be denied heaven for this original guilt.

    A person (a human with a mind) knows that you can only be responsible for events that occur after your actions. Accept no racial guilt or pride, ever. Those who accept it upon themselves have declared themselves unpersons, and when they say you have it too they are working to make you another unperson.

    2) A human sacrifice is assumed to have worked. For a guilt so real that I may yet be punished, another can receive punishment and I can be guiltless.

    When I am responsible for something, it will always be immoral to accept a scapegoat being punished in my place. Even if I should be compelled to accept I should never be satisfied with it, should never have a conscience that falls silent on the matter. There is no excuse for defending this proposition. There is no human worthy of personhood who will defend racial guilt or scapegoating.

    Hitchens died a person, a thinking human, one of my very few goals. Study and expand on his work.

    December 17, 2011 at 12:16 am |
    • goddog

      I have long held that Atheist are better Christians than Christians...

      December 17, 2011 at 12:19 am |
    • Spuriousd

      I just copied and emailed that to myself for future reference.

      December 17, 2011 at 1:22 am |
    • Russ

      @ Markus: your two "flaws" misunderstand basic tenets of the Christian faith... especially the second one.

      1) our actions affirm that we would have done the same thing had we been there in the past. we are justly held responsible.

      2) Xnty does not merely claim "a human sacrifice," but the God-man himself. This is not a mere "scapegoat" but God himself choosing to uphold his justice (this is what we deserve) in a manner which simultaneously displays his mercy (he takes this for me). This is not some random person being sacrificed against his will, but the King of the Existence purposefully reversing – at his own expense – the just consequences of my actions. And it is endemic to the Christian understanding of love.

      If it is immoral (as you claim) for anyone else to sacrifice themselves on your behalf, I wonder what your understanding of love looks like. More directly, what does it cost you to love someone? And why would you give yourself in that way?

      It begs this question: Is there any non-self-serving reason for an atheist to sacrificially give of him/herself (or in Christian terms: love)? Yes, Christians frequently fail at doing this, but recognize the logical flow: you become like what you build your life around (worship). Christians claim to build their life around a God who gave himself for total moral failures like me. Love is not an obligation, but a joyful reciprocation & participation in what's been done for & given to me.

      On the contrary, an atheist is forced (existentially speaking) to be self-centered. Is 'love' merely a self-serving manifestation that serves for better propagation of your DNA in the gene pool? Is love merely a tool for self-aggrandizement & self-advancement?

      I find your so-called flaw to be Xnty's strength.

      December 17, 2011 at 1:34 am |
    • Observer

      "On the contrary, an atheist is forced (existentially speaking) to be self-centered."

      Nonsense. Atheists and agnostics are every bit as capable of caring about others as Chistians are. An argument can be made that they actually care about others more than Christians since they are good to other people without doing it because of bribes (heaven) or threats (hell).

      December 17, 2011 at 1:41 am |
    • Aristocles

      The basic tenet of Christianity is that Christ took away the sins of the world and redeemed humanity. It is about how you are pre-redeemed, not pre-punished. All you need to do is to accept the redemption and do one's best to live the life the redeemer showed, knowing you will fall short of it, but also knowing that this falling short does not automatically falling into the abyss, thanks to Christ. Jesus died to save us from our sins by taking the punishment for them on himself, not pinning it on us.

      December 17, 2011 at 1:48 am |
    • Russ

      @ Observer: I wasn't talking about capacity to care. I was speaking philosophically.

      An atheist is – by his own admission / definition – refusing to believe there is some being out there greater than him/herself. In so doing, the atheist builds his life around himself. So, existentially speaking, atheism is inherently self-centered.

      So, though the atheist may have a capacity to care for others, his perspective on existence definitively demands that he does so self-referentially – or, as more directly stated: in a self-centered fashion. Because the atheist's existence is primarily built around himself, it is – by definition – self-centered.

      A Christian may fail to live into his Christ-centered worldview (and thereby act on self-centered motives, even while doing sacrificial acts), but an atheist (regardless of self-giving deeds or not) by definition does so with a self-centered motive. Otherwise, such a self-giving act is a denial of the central truth of his existence: that there is nothing greater than me around which to build my existence.

      December 17, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
  20. goddog

    All humans are born Atheists. If you believe we are born perfect why change?

    December 17, 2011 at 12:14 am |
    • goddog

      All humans are born agnostic. No baby has made the conscious decision that they don't believe in God.

      December 17, 2011 at 1:10 am |
    • Jeff Williams

      """All humans are born Atheists. If you believe we are born perfect why change?"""

      OUCH! That's a good compound argument there, dog. Me like...

      December 17, 2011 at 12:35 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.