12/16/2011 06:22 pm ET Updated Feb 15, 2012

Christopher Hitchens as a Martin Luther

Christopher Hitchens, a lion of atheism, passed away at 62 on Thursday after a struggle with esophageal cancer. It is hard to miss the story. Depending on who you are, you might see Hitchens as brilliant, bully, or both. For many Christians, Hitchens was a messenger of the devil and guardian of disbelief; for atheists, Hitchens was a powerhouse defender of freethought.

For me, I saw Hitchens as an atheist Martin Luther. I'm certain both my Lutheran and atheist friends will have words with me over this, but let me say that Luther helps me to understand Hitchens.

The two have a lot in common, though for different reasons. I could drum up superficial similarities. Both men were raised in homes where providing a good education required serious belt tightening. Both were hard drinkers (Luther purportedly had a giant mug with markers on it indicating how much he could drink in one breath). Both men were outraged at injustice; for Hitchens this was typified in his opposition to the Vietnam War while for Luther it was the manipulation of peasants through the practice of indulgences. Both were accused of being in league with Satan.

There are also the antitypical similarities. Hitchens rejected faith as irrational, and Luther argued strongly for faith alone (sola fides), as the embracing of life in the mystery of Christ.

And one might note that both wrote against religion.

For Luther, human nature poisons everything. Freedom from the superstitions and abuses of the church could be found in Scripture. Church councils and extravagant interpretations of the Bible were tools for oppression that prevented freedom in Christ. Christ's grace met our human frailties where they were, as Luther understood it, but the church turned that into an industry for the promotion of power. For Luther, the Pope was not above the law of God.

For Hitchens, religion---and by association, the church---poisons everything. Religion, as he saw it, is destructive and contrary to reason, being "wish thinking." It is used by "those in temporal charge to invest themselves with authority." In speaking of Pope Benedict, he had strong words on his culpability in the sex abuse scandal, saying, "The Pope is not above the law."

But what strikes me most about the two is the passion. Both men are supernovas of their movements and impossible to ignore. For both, passion could be expressed in the beauty and mastery of language, crafted to stop anyone in his or her steps and capable of enraging even the most apathetic. Both were insightful with dangerous intellects.

Both were also painful to experience. Their intellectual incisors were sharp and ready to tear at the flesh of superficiality. Neither man could be tamed.

Among the many blames to be laid at Luther's feet is his brashness. Luther was not above cold "tell it like it is-ness." The Pope was nothing short of an antichrist. The church was in league with the devil. His language was strong and sometimes harsh, but always to the point. Then there are the woodcuts Luther commissioned, depicting the devil birthing the Pope and monkeys defecating on his head. No one was above criticism and ridicule.

Again, Luther was not tame, but he might have been necessary.

Enter Hitchens. Like Luther, his passion was sometimes construed as being a bully or as a fundamentalist for the other side. His words were often strong and no punches were pulled. Many Protestant Christians overlook Luther's harsh words because he speaks for them, but then use harsh words as a license to ignore Hitchens. This strikes me as short sighted.

Hitchens (like Luther before him) forced everyone, including Christians, to be better people. Mess up and he called you on it. One couldn't afford to be an apologist hack around him. You either stepped up or got out of the way.

I never met Hitchens, though I wish I had. I've always had an appreciation for his passion. Maybe that is a dangerous thing to say in my religious community. But in my opinion, though Hitchens was not always an easy medicine to take, he was necessary to our health.