Today’s guest post is by Rev. Paul Bruno, Pastor, Evangel Christian Church, Little Ferry, NJ and Executive Director, Meals with a Mission, Garfield, NJ.
Do you believe in God? Billions of people do. And, millions of people kill in the name of God. In fact, more and more people believe organized religion, and not money, is the root cause of all evil. Perhaps that’s one reason why atheism is growing so quickly. And yet, articles such as this one from The New York Times suggest renowned atheists like Christopher Hitchens are embracing religion in their final days!
So, what’s going on? I asked Rev. Paul Bruno, pastor of the Evangel Christian Church in Little Ferry, NJ, for his take.
Steve Cody recently came across The New York Times article Christopher Hitchens Was Shaky in His Atheism, New Book Suggests and posed this question to me about lifelong atheists who become believers as they face death. Is it true that there are no atheists in the fox hole?
With history having documented well-known conversions, the question then becomes twofold: why the late life or death bed changeover to faith and does a last-second conversion impact the image and reputation of a lifelong, high-profile atheist?
Both religious folk and atheists arrive at their belief or non-belief in God by collecting information and drawing on personal experiences. The chasm that divides the two may seem wide at times, but in reality, both groups grapple with the same issues: free will vs. predestination, the violent nature of the Old Testament culture vs. Christ’s teachings of grace in the New Testament and Heaven vs. Hell.
It is at this point where the sum of personal experiences and information gathered either draws people toward faith or turns them away. The Barna Group’s 2015 State of Atheism in America states that there were three primary components that lead to disbelief in God’s existence: the rejection of the Bible, a lack of trust in the local church and cultural reinforcements of a secular worldview. One wonders if those complicated issues lose significance in the face of one’s imminent mortality.
David Kinnaman, the president of The Barna Group, directed a study of the lifestyles and habits of atheist adults in America, and pointed out some of the implications of the research. “Neither the 20 million no-faith adults nor the 58 million active-faith Christians are as internally consistent as those who write and speak on behalf of their groups make them out to be. Proponents of secularism suggest that rejecting faith is a simple and intelligent response to what we know today. Yet, most of the Americans who overtly reject faith harbor doubts about whether they are correct in doing so.”
Christianity is often found to be a foundational and educational principle in the United States, many children growing up are directly exposed to its teachings and disciplines. Since research shows that the disengagement with those teachings often happens in the teen-college years, it stands to reason that the wrestling of faith vs. no-faith continues for the rest of most adult’s lives, leading to the death bed/conversion dilemma. Do those early teachings and experiences influence one’s end of life beliefs and decisions?
The end of life issue is both intense and complex in every instance with a lasting profound effect on each individual’s family and friends. Its complexity stems from the “unknown” factor of what happens next: afterlife or no afterlife? If its afterlife, then Heaven or Hell come into play and the life of the individual’s relationship and commitment to God. If no afterlife, then the finality is burial.
The atheist who embraces faith in his last moment is making his strongest statement of belief. Perhaps the significance and obsession with public image and reputation cease at death’s door and are finally of no consideration in the face of one’s final moment of transition. We finally believe what we believe, unfettered.