This is for my fellow atheists and others who may be thinking about what happens when death feels eminent. On December 12th, I went to the hospital with a bad case of the flu. Just as I began to recover from the flu, I came down with pneumonia. I did not ‘die’ in the clinical sense and get resuscitated. However, at several times during the ordeal, I was not sure I would be able to draw another breath. I am here to report that not being able to breathe is the scariest thing I have even experienced. In my mind, I was about to die. Thanks to the excellent care by the hospital staff, I am here to tell this story. After two weeks of treatment and rehabilitation, I am back home.
What did I learn from this ordeal? Since I got home, my reading taught me that the combination of flu and pneumonia is in the CDC’s top-ten list for causes of death, so my fears were well founded. There is an old expression that says, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” The implication being that if you feel that your death is eminent, your previous denial of the existence of God goes away, and you ‘see the light’. That was not my experience. I have been an atheist for a long time, and in this extreme moment, I did not feel any need to reach out to God, or to wish I could be forgiven for my lack of belief and allowed to enter Heaven and reunite with those who have passed away before me. Instead, I found myself pleased with the impact I may have had and disappointed with the fact that I would not have more time to do more good. I didn’t have an epiphany telling me there is no God. But I didn’t have a sudden need to believe in God or some form of afterlife either.
This experience does not prove or disprove the existence of God. It only proves that I do not consider God as a part of my behavioral motivation or rewards. I try to live a life that makes the world a better place because I was taught that by my parents. Their teachings included the God part, but I could never get past the faith component of the religious stuff. Faith, to me, meant believing in something because I wanted to, not because it was true. I was satisfied with behaving well because it was the right thing to do, not because of some future reward or punishment. I have always hedged my bets with the thought that if there is a God, She will welcome me into her kingdom because of the life I led, and not be petty, vengeful, or insecure enough to punish me for my lack of faith and adoration.
Many people take great solace and strength from a belief in God, Heaven, and the other aspects of religion that sustain and strengthen them in their daily lives. I have many friends and family who believe in God, Heaven, and Christ. My experience should not change that for anyone else. This is purely my own personal narrative of what I experienced as I felt like I was about to die. This is what I learned, and by sharing it, I hope to make the world a better place by providing comfort to others who are seeking answers to these questions.