A Tale of Two Deathbeds

Pushing the ‘eternal life’ gimmick

Actor Matthew McConaughey provided one of the most cringe-worth moments in recent Academy Awards memory, as he accepted an Oscar in 2014. We atheists are often advised by believers to “keep quiet” about our denial of God, but the pious don’t set such a fine example. McConaughey told his worldwide audience:

“First off [pointing up], I want to thank God, ‘cause that’s who I look up to. He has graced my life with opportunities that I know are not of my hand or any other human hand…when you’ve got God you’ve got friend...”

Well, isn’t that special. The case can be made that millions of humans haven’t been noticed—let alone graced—by God; every day they face crippling poverty and starvation, deadly disease and the brutalities of war. But Lucky Matthew: God has thrown opportunities his way. Somehow Matthew got to be one of the centers of God’s universe.

So many Oscar winners have thanked God—who really cares? But Mr. McConaughey went on to share his insights about heaven. “To my father, I know he’s up there right now [also pointing up], with a big pot of gumbo, he’s got a lemon meringue pie over there, he’s probably in his underwear and he’s got a cold can of Miller Lite, and he’s dancn’ right now…to you dad, you taught me what it means to be a man…”

Why don’t we ask a committee of high muckety-muck Christian theologians to create The Most Embarrassing Christians Award? It could be given out every year—no wait, it should probably be done monthly to keep up with demand.

The god that Mr. McConaughey’s looks up to is a creation of his church-fueled imagination; his shallow, corny piety can be seen here.

Now, maybe he was just putting on a show, pulling our leg. But I’m not so sure. I once crossed paths with a devout Catholic woman who pushed back with alarm against atheism. She worked so hard at her faith, she candidly admitted, because she was desperate to see her mother again in heaven. That was all that mattered, and she had been assured that Christianity could do that trick. A public school teacher, she was proud that she had also gone through training as a Lay Catechist. I decided to just walk away when she mentioned that she didn’t like to read books. She’d made it through college by “taking very careful notes in class.”

Deathbed Number One

But then there was the devout woman who had an even more clearly etched concept of heaven—and was sure that a near-death moment could be an opportunity to exploit. She sat by her elderly mother, who was perhaps wandering in and out of consciousness—it was hard to tell—as the end approached. So the daughter decided that now was the perfect time to ask mother to relay messages to their dead relatives: “Please tell Uncle Mark that…and tell Aunt Phyllis that…” At this point, the daughter reported, the dying women’s feet began to thrash about on the bed—a sure sign, she felt, that her mother was eager to begin her walk to heaven.

Steve Jobs once remarked that even the people who think they’re going to heaven don’t want to have to die to get there. I think it’s just as likely that the poor woman was simply alarmed: “What, I’m about to die?”—and was trying to get out of bed and leave the room, to escape her babbling, idiot daughter. Hasn’t God set up some pretty inviolable boundaries between the living and the dead? Unless you believe in ouija boards and séances. Would God be pleased that the daughter was trying to sneak messages into heaven?

I suspect that many theologians, who would cringe as much as I did at Matthew McConaughey’s beer and pie version of heaven, would also caution against the idea that heaven will be another chance for Christian mingle. “We’ll meet again in heaven.” Really, where did that idea come from? When people begin fanaticizing about such things, they get carried away (and even brag about them at the Academy Awards). The confidence about dead relatives waiting in heaven is a gigantic bluff, an effort at fooling ourselves.

It was none other than Jesus who put the brakes on such nonsense: “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” (Matthew 22:30) Thanks for clearing that up, Jesus. Well, we don’t really know if Jesus said any such thing, but Matthew created the script. John created more script, e.g., 14:2: “In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.” Such fantasy feeds more fantasy; when humans start thinking too much about eternal life, how can they not wonder—and speculate—about what they’ll do with all that time? The heaven myth has certainly been oversold.

Deathbed Number Two

I also sat beside my mother when she died, 21 December 1998. She had been a very devout woman, except, alas, for the last three or four years of her life, when both her short-term and long-term memory had been erased. She had always been circumspect about heaven (“It’s not a place you go, but you’ll be with God”), so I never heard talk about seeing dead relatives.

On the day she died, my mother was sleeping peacefully when I left the house on early morning errands. Upon my return, I found, to my horror, that the home healthcare aide had placed a boom-box radio on mother’s bed, blaring gospel music, which my Mozart-loving mom loathed. She was also hyperventilating. It was as if her breathing mode had been switched to high. I quickly got rid of the god-awful radio, so the only sound in the room was mother’s raspy, rapid breathing. And I sat there for the next couple of hours, holding her hand and repeating, from time to time, “This is David, I’m right here.” I have no idea if she understood that her last-born son was at her side. Her breathing gradually calmed, and stopped at noon.

My mother’s personality had disappeared years earlier. What, if anything, would have “gone to heaven” that late December day? Christians who feel obliged to spin the myths will resort to “Well, it’s a mystery.” I don’t think there’s any mystery at all. The body stops functioning. The person vanishes. The end. Period. That’s the price we pay for participating briefly in the Cosmos. No hard evidence supports any other reality whatever.

There was no funeral, not just because she had outlived all her friends, but because she had left written instructions that there was to be no funeral. As my father had done years earlier, my mother had donated her body to medical science; a year later her ashes were buried beside those of my father.

It has been many years since I’ve been to a funeral—I avoid religious funerals because of the foolishness about the deceased now “being in a better place.” What was behind my mother’s wish for no funeral? Maybe she’d been to enough of them to sense that they are posturing: religion trying too hard to deny reality. I like to think that her deep piety had risen above the grotesque death-cult aspect of Christianity. It’s one thing to hope to “be with God” in some sense, it’s quite another to pretend that we get out of dying, that our dead relatives are hanging around “up there” waiting for us.

The eternal life gimmick fueled Christianity from the very beginning. This promise is the constant theme of John’s gospel and the apostle Paul: Escape from death is the prize. Christianity really doesn’t have any such product, but sells it shamelessly. Convincing the gullible is all that matters.

Humans need to snap out of it: we know that everything in the Cosmos dies—everything, from microbes to stars. Nothing and nobody is exempt. But our species decided to specialize in denial, and we thought that gods could help with that; as Guy Harrison has said, “We are a god-inventing species.” Christianity conjured a deity (aka ‘the man upstairs’) who owns real estate in the sky—with strict admission standards—and has turned out to be one of the champion death cults.

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published in 2016 by Tellectual Press