I suppose the deathbed question was inevitable and it finally came my way. I will be as painfully honest and thorough as I can in answering it, but I also have plenty to say about the nature of the question itself because I see it often. I don’t want to project or transfer any of my specific thoughts onto the person who asked because I don’t know what truly motivated the question (he asked privately by email). I’m inclined to grant that it came from the most reputable and sincere of intentions.
If you were on your death bed and were 100% certain death was iniment, would you pray, asking to be forgiven of all sin and re-commit your life to Christ just in case? Or are you 100% certain you could maintain your current held views and exit your existence on earth with absolutely no fear of what may or not happen next?
The Nature of the Question
It seems to me that there are believers who simply cannot grasp that there are others who really, truly do not believe what they themselves consider obvious and inviolable truths and are not afraid to say so. I think the question often partly comes down to that. “Yes, but in the end, when the game is over, when it really matters, you’ll change your tune, right?” – as if life is somehow trivial in the meantime.
The question also seems related to the old “there are no atheists in foxholes” myth (there are. Their ranks have included baseball great Ted WIlliams and more recently, Pat Tillman). So perhaps in a foxhole under enemy fire, and then presumably also on one’s deathbed, “when it comes right down to it, you’ll wipe that unbelieving sneer right off your face.” The believer and her god will win in the end and unbelievers, then face-to-face with eternity will without question run cryin’ for their mamas, it is supposed. Of course it doesn’t necessarily happen that way, deathbed conversion stories notwithstanding (both true and false).
We witnessed this kind of thing more than we should have just recently in the case of Christopher Hitchens, who succumbed to cancer just months ago, and his case is still fresh on my mind. Many wondered aloud with great interest whether Hitchens would make a deathbed conversion or not and he went to some trouble to answer that in advance, and he did so repeatedly. Pastor Rick Warren, of questionable fortitude (he has earned this honor over and over again) could not resist asserting victory over and against a deceased Hitchens in a disrespectful tweet wrapped in Christian love on the occasion.
Like Warren, many others weighed in on his eternal disposition posthumously, consigning Hitchens to hell, somehow with the certainty that they had inside information on his fate. This is all done of course without the slightest concern for facts or evidence on which to base their claims. Putting respect for another human being’s life and death aside to make cheap religious points when he can no longer answer for himself or defend his own dignity is nothing but arrogant and narcissistic cowardice of extremely high order.
Just in Case
There is the “just in case” bit in there that I find puzzling as well. This is another version of Pascal’s Wager, where one calculates the odds and consequences of making right and wrong choices regarding belief in God. This has a number of problems as well. As much as Christians like to use it from the pulpit and in their proselytizing, they cannot have thought it through.
I could, for example, answer thus with a question of my own. “If you were on your deathbed and were 100% certain death was iniment, would you pray, asking to be forgiven of all sin and commit your life to Allah and the Koran just in case?” Why not Allah or any of the many other mutually exclusive deities? It could apply to belief in any God, not just the Christian God. It is belief as an insurance policy. Is God so easily fooled or placated? Can a meaningful belief system be this shallow? Is eternity simply a ticket punch? A hedging of bets? So no, even before answering the rest of the question, the “just in case” scenario has exactly zero meaning to me.
I am Certain That I Am Uncertain
The second half of the question is troublesome too. No, I am not 100% certain of very many things at all. I don’t know a single honest person who would make such a claim, but if I met such a person I think I could immediately dismiss those claims as credulity. I don’t see myself going backwards, unlearning or renouncing my life’s lessons and truths, and that’s as certain as I can be about almost anything besides the love I have for my children.
My currently-held views do not have to be “maintained” because they are not contrived, artificial or manufactured. They are the product of my life itself. They are in place for a reason. I have actually thought about them, studied them, questioned them, earned them, lived them. Sometimes I’ve fought them kicking and screaming. They have stood tests of fire and I hold to them in proportion to which they have met the standards of reason and evidence. I have a basis for believing what I believe. I could no sooner make myself re-believe authoritative religious doctrinal assertions than I could make myself believe the moon is made of cheese, even though I probably believed that too once upon a time. Could I by sheer force of will overrule cognition? I don’t see how, if I am in my right mind, but even if I could the same questions come up. Is God so easily fooled? Can a meaningful belief system be this shallow? Is eternity simply the function of a “correct belief” switch that I turn on when the going gets tough? The implication is that my life had not been genuine.
Before I could actually imagine the circumstances of my own deathbed and what that might look and feel like, I had to wade through this muck of feelings the question stirs up – the underlying suspicion that my beliefs and doubts are not legitimate, genuine or “correct;” the presupposition that this particular god and Jesus (as opposed to some other god or even some other Jesus, say the Jesus of the Mormons for example) is the one that will have to be confronted; that it is a deeply personal question involving the most intimate life event we will all know; that it is framed for utilitarian religious purposes; and that a question like this has the potential to implicitly assert supremacy over any other worldview at any ethical cost.
Again, I do not mean to impute motivation on anyone or on the asking of this question specifically. I do believe though that otherwise well-meaning people can harbor such motivations, rationalize and justify them. As Hitchens said, “If it’s in the name of God it has a certain social license.” I can also imagine a possible world where people are simply and genuinely curious about how someone with a dramatically different view of life and eternity thinks about such things. I’m guessing some are reading this based on that curiosity. It can be an honest question.
I was born and raised Catholic – devoutly Catholic. I went to Catholic school, was an altar boy and learned the Mass in Latin. I had two first holy communions! Among many other religious experiences, I had a transformative dream when I was quite young, probably no older than five. In the dream I had died and was waiting in line to go to heaven, accessed by ascending a stair inside the Vatican. The song Super Terram on the last Undercover album I Rose Falling is all about that dream. The stories and imagery run deep, the frankincense still burns in my nostrils, the music, architecture, art, all woven into my mind and heart at the most profound levels and I’m sure this is the case for many of us. No significant event in my formation as a human being was independent of a Catholic context. It’s like Patriotism. The imagery is more than simply “true” even if, like the story of Washington and the cherry tree, it’s not factual at all. It can define us.
Depending on my condition, I cannot deny the possibility that on my deathbed I might cry out to the heavens, to the universe, to the god of my cultural heritage, to anyone or anything that would listen, for want of a truly transcendent and receptive but yet unknown love, in some state of delirium, emotional or physical despair, perhaps medicated beyond coherence, or out of a desire for release, for the pastoral beauty we all come to associate with the stories and mythology of our upbringing. Would that qualify as repenting of one’s sins or committing one’s life to Christ? I don’t see how it could, and lest anyone suggest otherwise, let me say unequivocally that none of these horrific conditions would in the least change my cognitive beliefs in the doctrines and the claims about the world and life that religions make that I reject today as either provably or most probably false.
I’m quite convinced that we will all draw on the images, mythologies and stories of our lives in our last minutes – Christian (of any sect), Jew, Muslim, Hundu, Sikh, Druid, Wiccan, Sufi. This would include atheists and unbelievers of different variety. Yes, there are those, many, millions even, in the U.S. alone who have either completely detached from religious context and archetype or never had one to begin with. I have met friends who are second and third generation unbelievers, and even beyond that who will have no such religious deathbed experience.
The question seems born of so much fear. While the imagery and mythology still courses through my veins and neurons, at a conscious level I do not believe in Original Sin or sin as a religious construct at all. I do not believe that there is a hell, or a god who would create such a place for any purpose that would involve sending humans there in torment eternally, no matter the offense. I do not believe in a god who would require human blood as a sacrifice to placate any aspect of his being, whether holiness, anger or anything else. Such a being might be God, but it is certainly not a loving God in any sense of the word “love” that I know. I understand that many fear such a being or at least fear the consequences of not worshipping such a being to the point of paralysis. Is this what God wants? Might I fear death? I might, but I’m working on it. I can more readily entertain the idea of a god who prefers courage in the face of doubt born of a sincere and genuine inquiry than acquiescence driven by fear. I also understand that not being able to scare or coerce someone into compliance even at the hour of death can threaten one’s own beliefs.
Cognitively I believe what I believe. Emotionally, I have work to do. Since it’s true that “no significant event in my formation as a human being was independent of a Catholic context,” I realize that there is some undoing still to be done. So much of life, of the human experience has been unjustly co-opted, plagiarized and in some cases twisted, corrupted and made perverse by religion. Love is not religious, it is human. I am still in the process of taking all of that back, of reclaiming virtue and fault, beauty and ugliness, joy and sorrow, pain and pleasure, – all of it – from religion and putting all of the responsibilities and privileges squarely where they belong – within the purview of the universal human experience.
I might be on my deathbed not having completed that work, and I might still be captive to the emotional attachments of the stories surrounding the context of my life, but no, cognitively there is no sin to repent of, there is only imperfect humanity, looking just as it would look if there were no gods at all. What I am committed to is love and to the well-being of conscious creatures inasmuch as it is within my power to make a difference. It is a fallacy to suggest that I am against any virtue, beauty, love, of any good thing encompassed in the fullness of that human experience when I do what I must to rip those things from the grip of religion that embezzled them.
On the other hand, I can imagine a different scenario. It entertains no false hope or promise, and fears no evil. It is more serene, the kind of death we all hope for. It is one where I am so enveloped in love from life, from my family, from having lived fully, from having done my very best in everything I felt was within the scope of my life’s work, from having been true to myself and my conscience, to having loved as deeply and fully as I was able, to have given back, to have made a difference in lives, to have built character and to have done everything I could to become my full self, in love and in pursuit of love, reconciled to and at peace with the world. In that scenario I can imagine simply and peacefully drifting into the same oblivion from whence I came, from whence you came. We have at least that one data point. It’s not much but it’s one irrefutable and non-anecdotal data point more than anyone has for a “what happens next.”
The Dance of Death Requiem Vestments in the photograph, from Eglise Saint-Nicolas in Mons, Belgium, date between 1551-1600. More information and photographs from the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage are available here.