An atheist puts his faith in Christ
Like his late brother Christopher (died 2011) Peter Hitchens was a convinced atheist for years. As a teenager he even burnt his Bible in front of an invited audience. Today the journalist and author is a devout Christian. In his book “The rage against God” he describes his journey back to the Christian faith.
(Page 101-105) What I can recall, very sharply indeed, is a visit to the Hotel-Dieu in Beaune, a town my girlfriend and I had gone to mainly in search of the fine food and wines of Burgundy. But we were educated travelers and strayed, guidebook in hand, into the ancient hospital. And there, worth the journey according to the Green Michelin guide, was Rogier van der Weyden’s fifteenth-century polyptych The Last Judgment.
I scoffed. Another religious painting! Couldn’t these people think of anything else to depict? Still scoffing, I peered at the naked figures fleeing toward the pit of hell, out of my usual faintly morbid interest in the alleged terrors of damnation.
But this time I gaped, my mouth actually hanging open. These people did not appear remote or from the ancient past; they were my own generation. Because they were naked, they were not imprisoned in their age by time-bound fashions. On the contrary, their hair and, in an odd way, the set of their faces were entirely in the style of my own time. They were me and the people I knew. One of them – and I have always wondered how the painter thought of it – is actually vomiting with shock and fear at the sound of the Last Trumpet.
I did not have a “religious experience.” Nothing mystical or inexplicable took place – no trance, no swoon, no vision, no voices, no blaze of light. But I had a sudden, strong sense of religion being a thing of the present day, not imprisioned under thick layers of time. A large catalogue of misdeeds, ranging from the embarrassing to the appalling, replayed themselves rapidly in my head. I had absolutely no doubt that I was among the damned, if there were any damned.
And what if there were? How did I know there were not? I did not know. I could not know. Van der Weyden was still earning his fee, nearly 500 years after his death. I had simply no idea that an adult could be frightened, in broad daylight and after a good lunch, by such things. I have always enjoyed scaring myself mildly with the ghost stories of M. R. James, mainly because of the cozy, safe feeling that follows a good fictional fright. You turn the page and close the book, and the horror is safely contained. Thie epiphany was not like that at all.
No doubt I should be ashamed to confess that feat played a part in my return to religion. I could easily make up some other, more creditable story. But I should be even more ashamed to pretend that fear did not. I have felt proper fear, not very often but enough to know that it is an important gift that helps us to think clearly at moments of danger. I have felt it in peril on the road, when it slowed down my perception, of the bucking, tearing, screaming collison into which I had hurled myself, thus enabling me to retain enough presence of mind to shut down the engine of my wrecked motorcycle and turn off the fuel tap in case it caught fire, and then to stumble, badly injured, to the relative safety of the roadside. I have felt it outside a copper mine in Africa, when the car I was in was surrounded by a crowd of enraged, impoverished people who had decided, with some justification, that I was their enemy. There, fear enabled me to stay silent and still until the danger was over, when I very much wanted to cry out in panic or do something desperate (both of which, I am sure, would have led to my death). I have felt it when Soviet soldiers fired on a crowd rather near me, and so I lay flat on my back in the filthy snow, quite untroubled by my ridiculous position because I had concluded, wisely, that being ounded would be much worse than being embarrassed.
But the most important time was when I stood in front of Rogier van der Weyden’s great altarpiece and trembled for the things of which my conscience was afraid (and is afraid). Fear is good for us and helps us to escape from great dangers. Those who do not feel it are in permanent peril because they cannot see the risks that lie at their feet. I went away chastened, and the effect has not worn off in nearly three decades…
I do not think I acted immediately on this discovery. But a year or so later I faced a private moral dilemma in shich fear of doing an evil thing held me back from doing it, for which I remail immeasurably glad. Without Rogier van der Weyden, I might have done that thing.
Click here to watch the debate between Christopher and Peter Hitchens. On the right you can find all 14 parts of the panel debate: