Deathbed conversions

January 23, 2013

Well, I shouldn’t say “this doesn’t happen every day”…people die every day by the thousands. I don’t often see it happening in my community with any advance notice, but on Daily Kos a prominent couple is being threatened by a serious illness. To the point that the fellow not in the hospital says he’s been told, that his fiance will probably die.

Although it’s good to see the community come to his support, and I’ve done the same…a particular question comes to mind, and I can’t shake it. To ask, during, and after, does this change anyone’s views on god and their favored paradise afterlife story? But it seems rude, and so I don’t plan on bringing it up there.

Besides, if I did, there’s probably enough believers there to accuse me of trolling and get me banned from the site. Not much point in that kind of online suicide by moderation.

But for skeptics, this experience is fairly common. Unless I just…drop dead unexpectedly one day, I expect to go through the skeptic’s plight of supposedly well-meaning believers trying one last time for the conversion — for the deathbed conversion — the one they can crow about later, when the atheist’s courage wavers in the face of oblivion. Or hell, as they might see it. There’s no notion of propriety that seems to stop the believer from picking this fight at the absolute worst time in someone’s life. Indeed, they see it as an opportunity.

Happened to Christopher Hitchens, from what I’ve read. This is an evangelical explaining it from the believer’s POV.

This came to mind recently as I was considering the case of Christopher Hitchens. The irascible commentator and rakish champion of militant godlessness suffers from esophageal cancer. He has complained that many Christians, knowing his plight, have communicated to him that “Surely now would be the perfect time for you to abandon the principles of a lifetime.”

The complaint is understandable. Christians have a standard stock of counterfeit sympathies they send into circulation around the suffering and bereaved. It can seem coldly opportunistic when Christians respond to the suffering of a non-believer with: “Perhaps it will turn him to God.”

But Hitchens shows that he has not understood Christianity well. Christians, in this case, are standing squarely in the richness of their tradition. That tradition does not teach that sufferers are so wearied and weakened that they will abandon their moral and intellectual scruples. Rather, it teaches that suffering makes certain things plain to us. Suffering has the power to penetrate our illusions, shatter our masks, and unveil the fundamental realities of who we are and who God is. Like pain in the body, the lamp of suffering illuminates the architecture of the spirit.

It does seem coldly opportunistic, and rude. But in reading his explanation, what is it but a more pleasant rewrite? What qualitative difference is there between ‘wearied and weakened’ and ‘makes certain things plain’ except that it’s the self-serving, baseless reply of the faithful?

And if suffering reveals the fundamental truth of their god-concepts, then why don’t they just inflict suffering on people as a means to a just end? Surely their god would forgive them. Some of them even have built-in confession protocols for the purpose.

And then I think…oh wait. In many ways, that’s exactly what they do.

Now, the evangelical of course denies this idea as sinful. He claims to refuse to ‘valorize’ suffering, although that is of course what he’s doing. And then there is this curious contradiction.

I know for certain that some suffering can be valuable instrumentally—in its consequences within and around us. And I know in faith that nothing can separate us from the love of God, which always seeks us and seeks through our joys and sorrows to draw us unto him. Certain truths, certain essential truths, are only learned by a willing student in the school of suffering.

Now, what, about suffering and dying from cancer as Hitchens did, is a willing process? What about Hitchens’ writing up to the time of his death suggested he was a willing student of all this? He went kicking and screaming to his grave, and why not; for a skeptic, this is the one life we’ve got, and not given up without a fight.

But I wish believers didn’t have this pretense of caring to hide behind when they do this. I don’t for a minute believe in their sincerity. No one who cares about a skeptic ought to turn on them at a time like this. A bunch of random, faithful strangers, they just want to see the atheist fail. It means something to them, that last moment of despair. I’d like to give it back to them, but it seems rude to do so.

That impulse, at least, I don’t have to credit to some leftover shred of xian morality. I’m pretty sure this is one I developed on my own, because many believers clearly lack it.



  1. If you can’t do it already, end of life directives should allow you to be able to specify that pastors and others should not be allowed in your hospital room. The bigger problem is your immediate family and perhaps you should make your wishes known to them while you’re in good health.

    One of my mother’s friends has already discussed with her daughter that their son, due to the way he behaved when his father was dying, will not be allowed to visit her in the hospital if she has a terminal illness. Her son “converted” his father when he was unable to talk.

    By the way, the last thing my grandfather said before dying was, “I wish I could believe, but I just can’t.”

  2. wow, after reading this i think you hold them in less regard than i do.

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