At the moment I’m reading through Christopher Hitchens’ posthumously published Mortality (Signal, 2012). Hitchens lived his life as, among other things, a brash iconoclast of “religion” and slayer of many sacred cows. He especially seemed to despise the idea of God and regularly expressed his belief that a universe with God would be tantamount to life in a totalitarian police state with a moralistic big brother watching your every move.
So it should not be too surprising that news of Hitchens’ terminal diagnosis of cancer elicited cheers from some quarters as with the one fellow that Hitchens quotes in the book:
“Who else feels Christopher Hitchens getting terminal throat cancer [sic] was God’s revenge for him using his voice to blaspheme him?”
Skipping a few lines, this fellow then goes on with some relish to anticipate Hitchens’ imminent demise:
“He’s going to writhe in agony and pain and wither away to nothing and then die a horrible agonizing death, and THEN comes the real fun, when he’s sent to HELLFIRE forever to be tortured and set afire.” (12)
Hitchens readily notes tha there were other Christians who only wished him the best and expressed to him their hope at his full recovery. But somehow it is easier to remember expressions of hatred than love. And imprecations are recalled long after the good will has faded from memory.
I hope the fellow who wrote those hate-filled words doesn’t happen to come across Hitchens’ description of his own illness. I can’t imagine an uglier scene than anybody finding joy in this:
“Nobody wants to be told about the countless minor horrors and humiliations that become facts of ‘life’ when your body turns from being a friend to being a foe: the boring switch from chronic constipation to its sudden dramatic opposite; the equally nasty double cross of feeling acute hunger while fearing even the scent of food; the absolute misery of gut-wringing nausea on an utterly empty stomach; or the pathetic discovery that hair loss extends to the disappearance of the follicles in your nostrils, and thus to the childish and irritating phenomenon of a permanently runny nose.” (40-1)
As I read those words I recall the case of Galerius, the emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, who fell ill in 311. This illness came after Galerius had spent eight years heading an aggressive persecution of Christians across the Roman Empire, including countless imprisonments and executions. And now he was sick. The venerable church historian Eusebius provides the following account of Galerius’ final days in his monumental fourth century work Church History:
“Divine punishment overtook him, which started with his flesh and went on to his soul. An abscess suddenly appeared in the middle of his genitals, then a deep ulcerous fistula that ate into his inner intestines incurably. From them came a great mass of worms and a deadly stench…. Some of the doctors could not endure the excessive, unearthly stench and were executed.”
Eusebius assumes, like the anonymous writer cited above, that the illness of the one stricken is a sign of divine judgment. And like that writer, he takes a deeply disturbing joy, of Schadenfreude, at the misery of his nemesis.
I am saddened and repulsed in equal measure by those who equate Christianity with an anticipation in the misery of others, whether it be through the misfortunes of this life or the horrors of damnation wrought against the backdrop of eternity. When people invoke the retributive divine will to suit their interpretation of history I want to point them to the words of Jesus: “those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no!” (Luke 13:4-5a)
God will one day set the world to rights. And every Christian should long for that day. But when I think of the sorry demise of individuals like Hitchens and Galerius I am filled only with a sadness and regret for what could have been.