Last week marked the first death I’ve had to deal with since becoming an atheist — the death of my grandfather on my dad’s side of the family. He finally succumbed to pneumonia as a complication caused by a rare degenerative neurological disease. He was 78, lived a good life, and I’m glad he’s no longer suffering. So, is dealing with death harder now that I’m an atheist you ask? Actually, dealing with death as an atheist is easier than it ever was as a believer.
We just passed the 3 year anniversary of the death of a friend and co-worker who was shot and killed by a jealous ex-boyfriend of the girl he was seeing at the time. To conceal the evidence, his body was doused in gas, covered with a mattress, and then lit on fire. Steve was a great guy, who loved life, and loved to have a good time, but he wasn’t exactly a Christian. Because of that, not only did Steve meet a fiery end, but according to popular Christian doctrine, immediately following that he met a fiery start in eternity. As a believer at the time, I felt a tremendous amount of responsibility for not doing all I could to get Steve “saved” before he died. It bothered me so much that I didn’t make the trip up north to his funeral. How does one celebrate the life of a friend, when eternity, which is what really matters in Christianity, has swallowed that person up in torment forever?
My wife posted something really nice about my grandfather’s death on her Facebook wall: “Eric’s Grandpa passed away last night. He was a wonderful man, whom I know left an amazing legacy to all he encountered. He left us having lived a full, happy, and adventurous life….and he will be greatly missed & greatly remembered.” Among the various comments that followed were these two here:
“Did he love Jesus?!”
“Sorry to hear of your loss. Was he a Christian? I hope so…”
For those who may be rusty on their Christianese, allow me to translate: “Is Eric’s grandpa burning in hell right now? Is he roasting for all eternity, or did he escape the clutches of perpetual damnation?” Would it even matter at that point? Even if Christianity were true, what good would it do to ask the question? It’s too late at that point, so why even bring it up?
So, what were my grandfather’s religious beliefs? I don’t know. Being I never heard him speak of a god, or any type of religious belief, and the poem on his memorial card was completely secular and gave no hint or mention of an afterlife, I would tend to think he was an unbeliever. Of course, I could be wrong, and it doesn’t matter anyway. The views he held were his own, and whether he believed in a god, or he didn’t, the impact he made in the lives of his family and his friends is all that really matters, and he lives on in the hearts and memories of those who loved him.
As for me, what do I think happens after we die? I think it is just like before we were born — non-existence. I don’t fear the year 1732, so there’s really no reason to fear the year 2232. Some may think it’s a tragedy that we don’t go on forever, but that’s what makes life that much sweeter, and truly worth living. And just like the 100+ billion people who died before me, one day I too will cease to exist, and I find it far more comforting that my memory will live on in my children and I not continue, than for a fraction of those billions to enjoy eternal bliss, while the overwhelming majority suffer forever.