Concentrating the Mind

“Depend upon it, sir,” said Samuel Johnson, “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

Recently, the most famous atheist of the last generation died believing in God. Philosopher Antony Flew wrote about his almost-last-minute conversion to theism in There Is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind (HarperOne, 2008).

It now emerges that the most famous atheist, at least in Britain, of the previous generation died perhaps, also, believing in God. A. J. Ayer, Oxford philosopher, father of logical positivism, and fervent antagonist of all things theistical, apparently had a near-death experience during which, as he confided to one of his physicians, he encountered a “Divine Being.”

“I’m afraid,” he said, “I’m going to have to revise all my books and opinions.”

He didn’t do that, however, and publically made no mention of this experience. But he did, interestingly, spend more and more time in his last months with one of the great Christian philosophers of his time, Frederick Copleston, a Jesuit: a man he loved to claim he had bested in a BBC radio debate years before, but the man he most wanted to converse with as death neared.

One or even two swallows do not make a spring, and some famous atheists have made it quite clear that they’ll have none of that deathbed conversion nonsense. David Hume, according to the same Boswell who recorded Dr. Johnson’s grim humour about impending death, faced his own imminent demise with equanimity and even cheerfulness.

But even Voltaire’s swashbuckling atheism cracked as death approached. Stephen Jay Gould is said to have made kind remarks about God late in life.

And one wonders–courteously and charitably, I trust–as Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and other bold proclaimers that “There is no God” near their life’s end, whether they, too, will give God at least one more chance.

Indeed, one prays that God will do the same by them.

0 Responses to “Concentrating the Mind”

  1. Joel

    Would A.N. Wilson also make the list of (surprising?) converts? Stories like that give me a lot of hope.

  2. Ben from TIC

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, John. I think of my family and older friends who lived lives as atheists. My only hope for some of them is sort of a death bed/end of life repentance. I love them dearly and hope to see them in heaven. There is hope. I need to share the gospel with all family and friends now, whilst they are still living.

  3. Grant

    Does God’s ability to reach people end with consciousness here?

    I’m convinced God’s arm is much longer than that. That somehow the death experience itself and that moment of encountering God in person will ultimately affect more people than (much of) our current theology provides for. Call me an optimist.

  4. Thoughts

    Hmm. I’m not sure it says as much about their atheism as it says about why people choose to believe in God.

  5. Robert Plante

    Dear mr. Stackhouse,

    First of all I want to apologize for my English.
    It’s not my first language (Dutch is).
    Anyways (as they say in Canada), I would like to respond on this article.

    Because of the increasing number of religious people in the Netherlands life is way more challenging and less friendly and tolerant than ,for instance, 10/20 years ago.
    That’s not just an opinion from a not so very religious person as I am but a fact!
    The ‘wave’ of Islamic people to NW-Europe made also way for more orthodox religious ‘streams’ like the Dutch Protestant churches.
    It’s very , very sad, to my opnion, and quite scary for a person who doesn’t follow the rules of the Bible or Koran and likes to raise it’s children in a tolerant and respectfull way.
    Lucky for me, my wife and my three young sons were able to emigrate to BC Canada where religion is still there were it should be…more in people’s hearts instead of the public domain.
    I know you’re coming to Nanaimo in October, and I’m intending to be there and listen to what you have to say about Atheism and overkill of religion.
    For me, it’s already a bit disturbing feeling that , in your tagline, you ask the question if people are crazy when they believe.
    On the other hand and again to my point of view it’s also very intriging.
    It’s a one liner I would love to hear explained by you because I’m sure that in that phrase lies the essential problem wich should be solved as it comes to the misunderstanding between Theists, Atheist, Gnostics or A-Gnostics.

  6. Robert Plante

    I realised that my reaction was a bit off topic.
    Excuse me for that but I hope you’ll notice the connection.
    But again I find your conclusion in your article disturbing.
    There a millions of artists and scientist who weren’t afraid to die and excepted the consequences.
    I was fortunate to know a few of them.
    And have you ever thought about the idea that there are also a lot of religions in the world with no judgement at all or Heaven or Hell?
    And let’s say not the God of Abraham is the truth but, for instance, the Gods of the Babylonians are.
    Are Atheists than, in a scientific way, not closer to the truth than the Pope is? Say 50% vs 0%?
    Death is not a religious lottery but a personal journey.
    And although a God, when it’s alive, maybe can put his influence on life and death and gives it’s judgement afterwards he still will not able to change a individuals soul.
    I personally think that the choice of Pascal is the worst you can make because it’s the most far away from the personal truth. And therefore, for …rejectable.

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