From this morning’s “Early Show.” Skip to the end, at around 4:10, for the bit on Hitch. I’ve seen a lot of this sentiment from believers online today, including in our own comments, and find it to be sweet, humane, and … confusing. I ask this earnestly, not to troll: If Hitchens is getting a surprise, isn’t it necessarily a nasty surprise according to Christian doctrine? Or is there a wrinkle in the theology that would spare the most celebrated atheist of the age from damnation? When I raised this on Twitter a few hours ago, I got three responses.

1. He’s damned.

2. He might have converted secretly at some point, perhaps even on his deathbed. That answer irritates me, partly because it’s a cop out aimed at dodging the question and partly because it denies Hitchens to some degree the respect due a man of conviction. It’s possible that Rick Warren, say, will lose his faith on his deathbed, but his commitment to it in life grants him the benefit of the doubt in thinking he won’t. Let’s pay the same courtesy to a nonbeliever who devoted himself wholly to his cause and gave no sign in his writing or his public appearances to the bitter end of betraying his beliefs.

3. We can’t know the mind of God so there’s no way to tell Hitchens’s fate. Is that true, though? If you believe the gospels are God’s word, His mind on this subject seems pretty straightforward: Only by accepting Christ as your savior can you find eternal salvation. Barring a deathbed conversion, Hitch never did that. In fact, he denied Christ and then, with great eloquence, tried to convince everyone who’d listen to deny him too. You could, if you wanted to be cute, describe him as an anti-Christ. Either way, he was certainly one of the English-speaking world’s all-time great heretics. If God’s willing to make an exception for him, of all people, what’s left of the gospels?

I find the third group fascinating because it turns on its head the old charge that the atheist conscience can’t be trusted. Supposedly, a guy like me is dubious because there’s no religious foundation keeping me on the moral path. In this case, though, when presented with the apparent fait accompli of a decent, gifted, beloved guy like Hitchens being thrown to the fire, group three gets nervous and tries to carve out a “well, maybe God will cut him a break” exemption. Their religion says he deserves eternal damnation but their conscience tells them that’s unfair, so … they hedge. If conscience is divinely inspired, why hedge? Or, as I asked up top, is there some doctrinal escape clause for Hitchens that I’m missing? The greatest testament to his ability as a writer, and to the fundamental decency of this third group, is that he’ll go down in history as a blasphemer of world-beating vehemence — and yet there are still millions of believers who so love and admire him for his art that, in spite of it all, they’re straining to somehow get him off the hook with God anyway. Now that’s a legacy.