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Yes, it’s true that I almost died. It’s no joke that I was within hours of death, but for the grace of modern medicine and some good godlessly common sense. I was an ever so controversial atheist in the foxhole. SPOILER: I lived to talk (and write) about it. Which is what I did with this August 17, 2015 post on the experience. This post also transformed its way into the epilogue of my 2017 book, chronicling my journey from confidently believing evangelical pastor to humanist leader and coach. Enjoy!
Facing Death: Still an Atheist in the Foxhole
So this is the post where I talk about my recent hospital stay, about brushing up against death, and about whether or not I cried out to God at the last moment…
I’m guessing we’ve all heard the repeatedly overstated “There’s No Atheists in Foxholes” argument. The claim of course being that in war, every soldier turns to God for safe rescue. That when they’re stuck in a trench in the dirt with enemy fire exploding overhead, they all inevitably cry out to the Divine Savior in prayer. That’s the imagery, but the extended point is that when on one’s deathbed and facing the Imminent and Pitch Black Darkness, any one of us would uncover a compulsion to finally repent of rebellion and cry out to God in prayer.
This is because even atheists secretly know the truth of God’s reality. And deep down below the surface, they’re terrified of the hell they can’t completely deny…
I mentioned a couple weeks ago that I’d been in the hospital lately. I had contracted a severe bacterial infection that was rapidly subjugating each corner of my body. It all went down in less than 48 hours. That Wednesday evening, I had felt like I might be coming down with a cold. Thursday afternoon, it appeared I had an inflamed gland. Quite painful, I decided to keep an eye on it. Thursday evening, I began to notice some mild swelling and came down with a fever. Then I woke up Friday morning to discover body swelling double the size, crazy intense pain, profuse sweating, difficulty walking, and a fair case of disorientation. I decided to cab it to the local immediate care. From there they sent me to the ER.
There they discovered a bacterial skin infection that in less than 48 hours had made its way into my blood stream. That afternoon, the double pneumonia had begun to set in. They told me it was moving so quickly that if I had waited until the evening to check myself in, I would have been critical. And that if I had waited just one more day, it was almost guaranteed that they wouldn’t have been able to save me.
Talk about coming out of nowhere.
This Was Just Crazy.
I could have easily died—easily and quickly. And I was reminded of this throughout that week and beyond…
Needless to say, it took more than a few days to recover. In fact, I’m still suffering from some of the muscle deterioration as a result. But my hospital stay was actually one of those experiences where every day the doctors (I had four different teams of specialists) discovered another new ramification of my illness. And in the ongoing discovery of more ramifications, that Monday a test revealed that something more was going on in my lung. The Pulmonary Team needed a closer look but thought it could be blood clotting, maybe an embolism, maybe something more. And they scheduled an angiogram CT scan for later that day.
After scheduling the scan, there was about an hour or so where my family left to take care of some things and I sat alone in my hospital room.
And it was here where it hit me.
There was no panic, no fear, no anxiety. I was completely calm and collect. But I had a realization. On top of the fact that I had no idea how bad this thing was gonna keep getting and how many more ramifications the doctors were going to continue to discover, on top of this, I began thinking of the many people I had visited in the hospital as a pastor. I began thinking of the many routine hospital stays that quickly spiral into something much bigger. And my mind started visiting the rooms of unexpected tragedy, realizing how quickly the routine can escalate to crisis. I was reminded of how fragile human life really is and how quickly an apparently simple illness can take it all away.
I wondered how many people were preparing for an angiogram and staying positive, thinking life was going to be just fine in a few days, only to discover that tragedy would arise and they would be gone of this world by the end of the week.
Sounds morbid. Maybe terrifying. But as a pastor, you see this kind of thing on the regular. Your mind and heart instinctively prepare for it. I guess even when it’s for yourself.
And so I was sitting there in the hospital room. Totally calm and collect. Not fearful or terrified. But wondering what if, just what if, something was to go terribly wrong and I were to be dead by the end of the day. And I contemplated that idea for a few minutes. What if today were the day I was to die? What if all my years and experiences had led me to this? To this fateful hospital bed?
And I asked myself if I could be happy having lived and died like this. I asked myself about regrets and do-overs. I asked myself if I could be okay with it all.
And then I was filled with peace. I decided I was very happy with where my life had brought me. I had no regrets, or at least very few of them, all things considered. Even in the midst of all that I’m working for and all my goals still left unattained, I nonetheless had accomplished and enjoyed much. And this life is short and not a guarantee, so who was I to demand more than what I had already been abundantly granted. Somehow this produced something of a surge of tranquility. And I smiled.
There was no panic or hyperventilating. No running around the room in circles.
I smiled and relaxed and closed my eyes knowing that should this just so happen to be my last day on this earth, I had found immense satisfaction in a life well lived. I had done my best and enjoyed the ride. And then I got up and found some scratch paper.
I decided that if by chance this might just so happen to be my last of days, I should leave a note behind. After I was done, I hid it way down deep in my take-home bag where I knew no one would look unless things had gone wrong.
Most of the letter was written to my children. I said the kinds of sentimental things you’d say if you thought you might never see your children again. My words to them were followed by those to several other loved ones. And then I had something more to say. I said I had no fear of death. I said that I remained confident that there were no gods and no afterlife awaiting me on the Other Side because there was no Other Side to be awaited by. I apologized for my early exit and encouraged any readers to do what I had tried to do and make the most of this life, the one that is actually the only one we really have to live. I asked them not to worry for me. I told them that though I wasn’t spending these moments crying out to God in prayer, I was using them to reminisce and remember all the good times I’ve had with each of them. That I was thankful and experiencing a wonderful state of peace and inner comfort. That though I would have loved the opportunity to keep living, I was simply thankful to have lived as long and as full as I had. I shared that as I wrote the letter and even as tears meandered down my cheek, I was smiling and I was overflowing with a groundswell of joy and gratitude and satisfaction.
In other words, I was in the foxhole. And though I didn’t expect to die, I was well aware of the possibility. I took planned precautions just in case. And never for one moment did I consider prayer. I never prayed. Not even one word. I never looked to God. I never reconsidered his existence. I wasn’t filled with terror or horror or fear. No anxiety or panic. No dark thoughts or depression. No crazed running around. Nope. Just calm. Peace and calm and savoring every moment of this amazing thing called life. Even alone in a hospital room.
Thankfully, I didn’t die. Not yet anyway. But I guess I’m thankful to have almost died. I’m thankful for how it showed me that this is real. It reassured me that I really don’t have anything to lose. That in my atheism I’m where I need to be. That, no, I really don’t need God for any false form of metaphysical strength. And that, yes, I really am more joyful without Jesus. These things the foxhole taught me.