Death & the Atheist

“A Thought-Provoking Book” series (post #4)

In the opening sentence to the preface for the book Why I Left, Why I Stayed, the father and son team of Tony and Bart Campolo jointly say:

We are not unusual. Many Christian parents are struggling, both emotionally and spiritually, because their children have left the Christian faith. For some, the result is tension, acrimony, and alienation. Reasonable and caring conversations in such families often become impossible.

Our family has struggled as well, but we haven’t stopped talking — or caring. Hopefully, this book models a graceful way to process what has become an increasingly common crisis, while also serving as a safe forum for those struggling with doubts and questions about the Christian faith. Such issues can sometimes feel too overwhelming and threatening to discuss openly with friends and relatives, but we think a dialogue like ours can make room for our readers to think through and meditate on some of life’s ultimate issues.

Just as the Campolos want their readers to think through and meditate on some of life’s ultimate issues, I want the readers of this blog to do the same. That’s why I sometimes write about uncomfortable topics. A case in point is this series in which we now find ourselves, a series based upon Why I Left, Why I Stayed.

In my last post, I presented Bart Campolo’s argument that the human race can be moral without God. Actually, that chapter is his followup to his dad’s previous chapter, one in which Tony discusses the depravity of man, Christ’s substitutionary death for mankind’s sins, and the fact that Christ’s shed blood forever cleanses sinners from all unrighteousness. Basically, Bart’s chapter is his way of saying to his dad, “Mankind doesn’t have to be forgiven and cleansed in order to be good. We’ve just got to keep the Golden Rule.”

Now it is time for us to see how Tony Campolo responds to Bart’s assertion. As is his pattern, he chooses to let Bart’s chapter stand unchallenged as he shifts gears and takes the conversation into another area. That area involves death and the afterlife. The chapter is entitled “And Then What? Why Secularists Can’t Face Death.” I guess that is the father’s subtle way of saying, “Even if you atheists succeed and turn planet earth into a bastion of morality, goodness, decency, and kindness, what happens when you die? Your atheism is only good for this life, not the afterlife.”

Tony begins his chapter with these words:

For the secularist, everything is temporal. All things pass away. Every creature dies. There is no everlasting life, and nothing is eternal. Life is a purely natural phenomenon, and when the biological process has run its course, death is the natural conclusion. There is no heaven; there is no hell; there is no afterlife. In the end, there is nothing at all.

A bit later on, though, he adds in something that I believe is correct. He says of the secularist/humanist/atheist:

He or she may try to be brave in making these assertions, but beneath the surface, I believe we all suffer from profound fears and anxieties.

In Ecclesiastes 3:11, the Bible says of God:

He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also He has put eternity in their hearts, except that no one can find out the work that God does from beginning to end. (N.K.J.V.)

That part about God putting eternity in peoples’ hearts refers to each individual’s inborn awareness that life on earth isn’t all there is. Somehow we all sense that there is an eternity out there, an afterlife. Different religions and cultures have different ways of envisioning this afterlife, but the fact that people in every corner of the world believe that death is a comma rather than a period is one of mankind’s classic traits. And the Bible’s explanation for it is Ecclesiastes 3:11.

Justice is one of the primary reasons why we all feel the need for an afterlife. Not only do our human sensibilities automatically differentiate between right and wrong, they also want to assign reward for the right and punishment for the wrong. This basic instinct can be found on display even in small children, and it isn’t something that can ever be programmed out of us, no matter how hard the atheists try.

Our problem is that there is so precious little justice meted out in this world. Rather than justice being the rule on planet earth, it is the exception. That’s why our hearts and minds are so comfortable with the idea of an afterlife, regardless of which form that afterlife takes in any given belief system. We want right to be rewarded and wrong to be punished. As D. James Kennedy says of hell in his book, Why I Believe:

The human conscience also demands it. All men feel that there is a difference between virtue and vice, and that in character these are moral opposites. And always we treat them as such: We approve virtue and condemn vice.

For the atheist, however, life is more or less one long series of global, daily injustices perpetrated in a zillion settings. And then what happens? You die and dissolve into nothingness. You talk about a depressing way of looking at human existence! It’s no wonder that our core instincts rebel against such an idea and say, “No, there must be an afterlife, an otherworldly place where all accounts are settled and everything is set straight.”

As I head toward the finish line of this post, let me offer an extended quote from Tony Campolo concerning the emotional and psychological pain that accompanies death, a pain he describes as “the existential threat of nonbeing.” In the quote, he calls to Bart’s memory the deaths of two of their family members and uses those deaths to drive home his point that the atheist simply has no answer for the problem of eternity. He writes:

Bart probably remembers that his grandfather Robert Davidson brilliantly conquered that pain in his dying moments. Suffering from dementia, this old preacher had long ago lost the ability to carry on a conversation, but nevertheless he kept his faith. As Bart’s grandmother told it, she woke up at five o’clock one morning to find her husband sitting up in bed, firmly rebuking an unseen presence. “O death, where is thy sting?” he said. “O grave, where is thy victory?” Three times he cried out this way, each time stronger and louder. Finally, with triumphant flourish, he declared, “Thanks be to God, who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!,” fell back into the bed, and died. What a good way to go.

My mother died more quietly, but only after writing a letter to her family and friends, affirming her assurance of eternal life, along with instructions for the invitation and altar call for her funeral. This good woman, who had to drop out of school in the eighth grade to support her immigrant family, closed her final message with joyful confidence. “I’m finally graduating!” she wrote. “Be happy for me.”

I probably won’t be around when Bart’s time comes, but when it does, I worry that his secular clarity will not serve him as well as his grandparents’ faith.

All I can say to that is, “Point for Tony.” Surely the greatest test for any atheist comes when he or she stands at the doorway of death. At that moment all the arguments, debates, points and counterpoints finally come to a head and theory becomes reality one way or the other. Like Bart Campolo’s grandparents and dad, when I come to that moment I’ll be claiming the hope found in Jesus Christ. Unless something changes with Bart, however, he won’t be afforded that luxury. But how about you? Will you be able to legitimately claim that hope? If not, you must be betting that Bart is right.



This entry was posted in Aging, Atheism, Belief, Comfort, Conscience, Death, Doubt, Faith, Fear, Heaven, Hell, Human Life, Justice, Personal, Reward, Salvation, Series: "A Thought-Provoking Book", The Bible, Trusting In God and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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