Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Is Hitchens' cancer divine punishment?

In one of his recent articles, Christopher Hitchens broaches the question of whether his cancer is divine punishment for his militant atheism.

He has his own answer, of course, but how should a Christian answer that question?

1. In principle, there’s nothing outlandish or outrageous in suggesting the possibility that a given natural evil may reflect divine judgment. Certainly there is ample Biblical precedent for that. So we should remain open to that possibility.

2. But by the same token, Scriptural precedent is disanalogous, for Scripture identifies certain natural evils as divine judgments. It also rejects that facile identification in other cases.

Only God knows what he intends to accomplish for any event. And he may intend to accomplish more than one thing. A single event has different short-term consequences as well as different long-term consequences. These may be beneficial to some, but harmful to others.

So it’s well-nigh impossible for human beings to discern God’s ulterior purpose. Indeed, that’s one of the challenges confronting the evidential argument from evil. Even single events have multifaceted consequences. And we only know the effects of a past event in relation to the present, not the future.

3. In addition, you have other prominent atheists like Bertrand Russell and W. V. O. Quine who lived long, comfortable lives. So we certainly don’t see a divine policy of immediate retribution in this life.

4. I’m no oncologist, but from what I’ve read, Hitchens falls into a high-risk group for esophageal cancer (e.g. out of shape hard smoker and hard drinker). As such, his cancer doesn’t call for any special explanation–as if he was singled out for divine retribution. Rather, there’s a general connection between this type of cancer and his lifestyle.


  1. "So it’s well-nigh impossible for human beings to discern God’s ulterior purpose."

    Yeah, pretty much.

    I mean, even the AIDS crisis, it's hard to be certain with a 95% degree of confidence what God's ulterior purpose is.

    Although I wouldn't discourage reasonable speculation.

  2. Just to support what Steve said about Hitchens being in a high-risk group for developing esophageal cancer, The New England Journal of Medicine notes:

    "Smoking is associated with an increased risk of both squamous-cell carcinoma and adenocarcinoma of the esophagus (Table 1). The ingestion of tobacco condensates is thought to bring tobacco carcinogens, particularly nitrosamines, in contact with the esophageal mucosa. The risk of esophageal cancer correlates directly with the quantity of cigarettes smoked per day and the duration of smoking."


    "Any factor that causes chronic irritation and inflammation of the esophageal mucosa appears to increase the incidence of squamous-cell carcinoma of the esophagus. Substantial alcohol intake, especially in combination with smoking, greatly increases the risk of squamous-cell carcinoma (but not adenocarcinoma), and may account for more than 90 percent of all cases of squamous-cell carcinoma of the esophagus in the developed world."

    Hitchens has publicly said he has squamous-cell carcinoma of the esophagus: "Working back from the cancer-ridden squamous cells that these first results disclosed . . . ."