by Jeff McInnis
It has been said that there are only 2 imperatives in life – every one of us must pay taxes and die. In this political season, I will leave the discussion of paying taxes to the politicians. However, what of death? Is it true that each of us must die?
Death is a major stumbling block to the atheist. What does evolution matter, as a theory by which to live a life, when death looms over each one of us? In his short story “The Law of Life,” Jack London writes “Nature was not kindly to the flesh. She had no concern for that concrete thing called the individual. Her interest lay in the species, the race.” London’s theory of life, stated in this short story and lived out in his life, offers us no solace. We know, in our heart of hearts, that we have meaning as an individual. Indeed, I feel no need to push the race forward. My feelings revolve entirely around my being. My soul within me bristles at the thought of my sole purpose being meant only for the advancement of a species, and I am not unique in this thought. Each of us feels this. When I was an atheist, it was the tension between needing to believe that the species was all that mattered in order for my materialistic theory and my inner understanding that I was more than an evolutionary building block that caused me to question my atheism and ultimately seek God.
So why is it that death is a stumbling block? Because it cannot be overcome by even the most earnest of atheistic believers. No matter how hard you believe in atheism, you die and head to the judgment seat. Death, you see, is the final test of a belief system. Is my death attended by calm and peace, as the death of believers I have seen is, or is it attended by panic? While my beliefs can wander all over the map for the duration of my life, at death I must face my beliefs head on. Samuel Johnson wrote “the prospect of being hanged focuses the mind wonderfully.” Indeed that is true. Upon the prospect that one faces imminent death, all things become clear.
There is much contention over deathbed conversions. Did Voltaire have one? Did Oscar Wilde? Did Charles Darwin? There are many cyber-discussions about these issues. I was not at their deathbeds, so I cannot comment. However, I have been at the deathbed of those close to me. I have seen more death than I care to recount in the last few years. When death is imminent, the matters of God become very important to the dying. The deathbed concern is always “What is going to happen to me?” “Did I live a good life? Did I tell my loved ones goodbye? Will God be pleased with me? Did I seek forgiveness from those I wronged and did I forgive those that wronged me?” Interestingly, no one I’ve seen has ever said “did I advance the species adequately?” Or “Did I recycle enough to save the earth?” These concerns don’t make the cut when it comes to the deathbed.
Atheism can be a powerful anesthetic from the knowledge that judgment will come. However, it is usually practiced only during the prime of life. The anesthetic called atheism seems to wear off when death is imminent. Something that is noteworthy is the characteristics of the typical atheist today. I do a significant amount of on-line arguing with atheists. Often, they are very young. It is the young, you see, who have not yet tasted death. It is the young for whom death is not imminent – it is far off. Like the college student who parties hard at the beginning of the semester but gets very serious toward finals week, the young can afford (they believe) to play with any deviant belief while they are young and death has not really affected them. But when death begins to play a part in their life, atheism loses its luster. The game, they begin to realize, is for keeps and the time to fool around with silly belief systems is drawing to a close.
The Christians I have seen on their deathbeds, on the other hand, die just as they lived – peacefully. They do not panic for the imminent testing of their deviant life belief system. They die eager to see God. They die with the validation that, although they were far from perfect, the heart of their life was the love of the Lord and the love of their neighbor. In the best of cases, the death of the Christian is a celebration of the plan that God has put forth and the living out of that plan by the dying. It is the most beautiful of moments. It is sad, because a loved one will be missed for a time. But it is known, felt even, that we will meet them again when we worship God in heaven. That is a peace that, sadly, the atheist can never experience on his deathbed.