Recently, a reader sent me the following question:
My question is this: after you became an atheist, did you feel “sad” (using sad for a lack of a better word) with your new belief that there is no hope of the afterlife, specifically the hope to see deceased loved ones again?
This is an excellent question, one that I hope I can answer adequately and honestly.
Deconversion — the losing of one’s religious faith — brings with it all sorts of emotions. It’s not uncommon for Christians-turned-atheists/agnostics to feel a deep sense of loss. This is especially true for people who spent years in the Christian church. I spent almost fifty years in the Christian church. Twenty-five of those years were spent pastoring Evangelical churches. Christianity and the ministry were the sum of my existence. Yes, I had a beautiful wife and six wonderful children, but they were not as important to me as God and the work I believed he called me to do. My life was consumed day after day, week after week, year after year, with evangelizing the lost, preaching the Word of God, and ministering to the needs of congregants. I had a large network of ministry colleagues, and I was very close to my wife’s family, of whom three were Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) pastors, along with an evangelist and a missionary. From early morning to late at night, my life revolved around Jesus, the church, and the Bible. And then one day in November 2008, all of this was gone. Everything that gave my life purpose, meaning, and direction was gone. The men I counted as dear friends no longer spoke to me, and my wife’s family treated me as if I had some sort of dreaded disease. All I was left with, ironically, was all that really mattered: Polly, Jason, Nathan, Jaime, Bethany, Laura, Josiah and their spouses and children. It’s too bad that it took me much of my adult life to figure this out.
Ten years ago, I told family, friends, and former parishioners that I was no longer a Christian. For a time, I believed in the existence of some sort of deistic God, but over time I slid farther down the slippery slope of skepticism and reason until I realized that I was, in fact, an atheist (though technically I am an agnostic and an atheist). And once I realized I was an atheist, my next thought was, now what? (See Dear Family, Friends, and Former Parishioners, Dear Friend, and the series From Evangelicalism to Atheism.)
I remember many a sleepless night after I deconverted, my mind filled with fear, doubt, and sadness. I wondered, Bruce, what if you are wrong? What if the Christian God really does exist? Man, you are so going to burn in Hell. I worried about my wife’s increasing agnosticism, concerned that God would hold me accountable for her loss of faith if I was wrong. I often had thoughts about death and the meaning of life. Having lost all my social connections, I often wondered if I would ever have friends again. And so, for months, my thoughts focused on what I had lost, and not what I had gained. I conversed with several Evangelical-turned-atheist acquaintances, telling them about my restless thoughts. I was told, give it time. Things will, I promise, get better. And sure enough, they were right. As months turned into years, thoughts about God vanished, and in their place came thoughts of making the most of what years I had left. I lamented the fact that I had wasted most of my life chasing a phantasm, pursuing promises that would never be fulfilled. But lamenting that which I lost did nothing for the present. I had before me a wide-open path upon which to walk. No God stood in my way. Where I took my life post-Jesus was all up to me.
These days, the only time I have thoughts about God is when I am writing a post for this blog. God is now, for me, an academic exercise, as is the Bible. I know I have been given a great responsibility to be a help to people who are trying to extricate themselves from the pernicious vice-like grip of Evangelical Christianity. I have received countless emails over the years from people who need help freeing themselves from Evangelicalism. Sometimes, people are so ensnared that it is hard to see for them a clear path to faithlessness that doesn’t first cause great heartache. I have wept over emails detailing marriages that ended in divorce over a husband or wife sharing with their spouse their loss of faith, only to be told, if you ask me to choose between you and Jesus, I am going to choose Jesus. I have also wept over stories from people who were ostracized by their families over their atheism/agnosticism; sons and daughters who were told they were no longer welcome in their parents’ home or no longer invited to family holiday gatherings.
Walking away from Evangelicalism and embracing atheism/agnosticism can be costly. (See Count the Cost Before You Say I Am an Atheist.) Not only a must new atheist face social and familial fall-out from the deconversion, he or she must also wrestle with the implications of new-found beliefs. One such wrestling match is the loss of belief in the afterlife. The power of Christianity rests in its ability to convince people that everyone is a sinner, there is life after death, and the church is the sole salesman of the ticket required to gain entrance into Heaven. Remove the afterlife from the equation — threats of Hell and promises of Heaven — and Christian churches would empty out overnight.
My Dad died at the age of forty-nine. Mom killed herself at age fifty-four. My Dad’s parents died in the early 1960s. My Mom’s dad died in the early 2000s — good riddance, and my favorite grandmother died in 1995. I dearly miss my parents and my one grandmother. I so wish I could, at this juncture in my life, sit down with them and talk about life, past and present. But wishing doesn’t change the fact that they are dead and I will never see them again. Polly’s parents are in their eighties. Every time the phone rings, we wonder, is this someone calling to tell us Mom or Dad is dead? I have a younger brother and sister, neither of whom is in good health.
I have my own battles with chronic pain and illness. I know that most of my life is in the rear-view mirror. Over the weekend, I was setting up a new LED studio light in my upstairs photography studio. Polly was helping me. As I was working on the light, I decided to sit in my wheelchair. I started to sit down, only to have the wheelchair kick out from under me. I hit the floor, much to Polly’s horror, with a big thud. Fortunately, I didn’t break anything, but days later I am still dealing with the physical consequences of my fall. Polly and I both know that death could come at any moment. Until October of last year, Polly was a picture of good health. That picture quickly changed one morning when Polly woke me up, telling me that her heart was beating really fast. I checked her blood pressure, and sure enough her resting pulse rate was 180. Off to the emergency room we went. Polly was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation. If that wasn’t enough to deal with, three months later she developed a bleeding problem that required surgery.
In recent months, both of us have talked about losing the other, trying to imagine how life would be without the other one. We make jokes, of course, because that’s what Gerencsers do. It is though humor we embrace the reality that someday, be it tonight or twenty years from now, the ugly specter of death is going to come knocking at our door. As realists, we know that only in this life will we have each other. One day, our hearts will break as one of us says goodbye to the other. We know that we shall never see each other again; that the only things that will remain are the memories we have of one another.
So, to answer the question posed at the start of this post, yes, there are times I feel sad about the permanence of death. Who among us hasn’t had thoughts of what it will be like when the light of your life turns dark. Just the other day, I was thinking about death and how it brings an immediate cessation of life. I know, not a deep thought. But, it got me thinking about how much time I waste doing things that really don’t matter or have little value. If the battery in the clock of my life is slowly running out, what is it that I want to do with what life I have left? My death will certainly cause sadness for my family and friends, but if, while I am alive, I do all I can to love them and enter into their lives in meaningful ways, then perhaps their sadness will be lessened.
It’s impossible to escape sadness and heartache in this life. If atheism has taught me anything, it has taught me life can be harsh, cruel, and unfair. This site’s ABOUT page leaves readers with the following advice:
You have one life. There is no heaven or hell. There is no afterlife. You have one life, it’s yours, and what you do with it is what matters most. Love and forgive those who matter to you and ignore those who add nothing to your life. Life is too short to spend time trying to make nice with those who will never make nice with you. Determine who are the people in your life that matter and give your time and devotion to them. Live each and every day to its fullest. You never know when death might come calling. Don’t waste time trying to be a jack of all trades, master of none. Find one or two things you like to do and do them well. Too many people spend way too much time doing things they will never be good at.
Here’s the conclusion of the matter. It’s your life and you best get to living it. Someday, sooner than you think, it will be over. Don’t let your dying days be ones of regret over what might have been.
I hope I have, to some degree, answered the aforementioned question. If you are an atheist or an agnostic, how do you deal with thoughts about the finality of death, and the sadness that comes when thinking about never seeing your loved ones again? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.
About Bruce Gerencser
Bruce Gerencser, 61, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 40 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.
Bruce is a local photography business owner, operating Defiance County Photo out of his home. If you live in Northwest Ohio and would like to hire Bruce, please email him.
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I have given much of this a lot of thought in recent months.
I don’t feel sad when I think of my own death, although I have no wish for it to be any time soon. My sadness is for the few people who will miss me, the same as my sadness when I contemplate losing those I love.
I never felt sadness over the loss of religion, as no matter how much I prayed and no matter how much I lived ‘right’, I never, not once, felt any sort of presence of a deity.
I gradually just stopped believing there was anything to pray to… other than empty space.
I’m glad I am not constrained by trying to please the sky guy anymore. I can be decent because it’s what *I* expect from me, not because some authority says so.
A friend and mentor who had been my English teacher died very suddenly and unexpectedly aged 51, the age that I am now. At the time she died, I saw myself as a Christian and pictured her in some kind of benign afterlife where, possibly, I would one day see her again. This was consoling. . .But now, nearly three decades on, I am very much an agnostic and don’t really believe there is anything afterwards. Except how we live on in the lives and minds of those who appreciated us. Do I feel bereft of this friend, believing that I’ll never see her again? No. In one powerful sense, she is with me every day.
It’s very personal to each individual I think; personally, I don’t feel sad about God not-answering-because-he-doesn’t-exist. But when I was a child and teenager in a very unhappy and abusive home, and I prayed to God for help (under the impression that he did exist) and he didn’t answer, THAT was a death by a thousand cuts.
Oh to be blissfully ignorant again! After several decades living in evangelical ignorance, believing every word promised in church of justice and loved ones in the afterlife, the harsh reality of finding out it was all hype, lies, fairy tales, myths, smoke and mirrors is a kick in the head! Who DOESn’T want to walk streets of gold with a restored to health and youth lead loved one— basking in the awesome presence of a loving and accepting Almighty!!? It is hard to give up those promises you have heard week after week, year after year! Reality sucks in comparison. But I still choose harsh reality over drinking the communion Koolaid.
The Christian afterlife scared me – the judgment part, that is. I dressed it immensely, and a weight was lifted when I realized it wasn’t real.
**dreaded it, not dressed **
Something that played a part in my deconversion was having 2 work colleagues both lose an elderly parent around the same time. As a fundy, I thought they might ask me how to have the joy-of-jesus to get them through this difficult time. They didn’t of course, they both said it was part of ‘the circle of life’. Both deceased had had long and happy family lives. Funerals included toasts with their favourite drinks. One family planted a flowering tree and another donated a bench to their dad’s favourite beauty spot. I thought they were dealing with grief and loss in a way I wanted to in future. I’ve told my family to plant trees and shrubs in my memory too. Only thing is, as a keen gardener, the list of what I’d like them to plant just gets longer, they’ll need an acre plot soon to fulfill my wishes!
I stopped believing in the afterlife as a child, long before I gave up on Christianity in particular or religion in general. Thanks to the AWANA program, I knew what the Bible actually said about such things, and didn’t find the scriptures to be convincing, or even trustworthy. By the age of 12 I realized that the New Testament was spurious, but I retained faith in the Old Testament well into my 30s. (Gotta love that violent, maniacal, almost pagan deity.)
By the age of 12 I had come to the conclusion that there was no such thing as heaven, but that there was a hell, and that I was living in it. A heterodox view at best, but one that nobody in the Baptist church I went to even TRIED to refute. I think church leadership knew that I wasn’t buying what they were selling, but were content to play along with the charade I was forced into playing.
I suspect many of them (especially the preacher) secretly didn’t believe all that stuff either.
Interesting question. As a lifelong agnostic/atheist, I come at it from a different angle. I’ve never expected to see people who die again. I’ve always known that death was final. It has meant two things really.
First that you’re slammed face first up against the finality of death when a loved one dies, and up against grief. You immediately grieve deeply because you don’t have any sense you will “see” this person again. I suspect that in the long run that’s psychologically healthier. It’s more painful to face your grief head on; but better for your emotional health to do so.
But as regards your own death, dying certainly scares me; the idea that you yourself will no longer be anywhere at all is mind-bendingly weird, and existentially difficult to accept. And the fear of suffering pain or indignity at the end of life is real for many of us. (I’m actually a strong believer in legalising euthanasia.)
When my beloved grandad died, I was about 10, and very upset. I recall my grandma saying “he’s in heaven now” but I can distinctly remember thinking, mmm, it’s a nice lie to tell ourselves, but it’s not true. He’s nowhere. His spirit or soul or essence isn’t there anymore. But, he is there in our minds and our hearts.
My mother in law, herself in her 70s, said recently “I think of my parents every day” even though she lost them many years ago. That’s where people stay when they die. Inside those who loved them.