Boris Pasternak, Russian author and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature for his novel, Dr. Zhivago, was for years an outspoken atheist. Yet, significantly, there came a time in Pasternak’s life when he was compelled to confess a profound spiritual confusion. “I am an atheist,” he admitted, “who has lost his faith.”
What I have found to be quite common is that many atheists like Boris Pasternak have, seemingly, a difficult time living out their faith over a lifetime. This seems to be especially true when they get to the end of their lives and face death.
Donald Coggan, former archbishop of Canterbury, in his book The Heart of the Christian Faith, reveals that he was close friends with Bertrand Russell. Coggan tells the story of how Russell, as he lay on his death bed, asked Coggan to pray with him. Of course, all of his life, Russell was an outspoken skeptic of the Christian faith. He is the same man who once was quoted as having said, “When I die, I rot.” Yet, in the end, it appears that he, too, might have lost his faith.
Even the godless tyrant, Joseph Stalin, could not seem to shake the presence of God. Newsweek Magazine quoted Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana:
My father died a difficult and terrible death . . . God grants an easy death only to the just . . . At what seemed the very last moment, he suddenly opened his eyes and cast a glance over everyone in the room. It was a terrible glance, insane or perhaps angry and full of fear of death . . . then he lifted his left hand as though he were pointing to something above and bringing down a curse on us all. The gesture was full of menace. . . The next moment . . . the spirit wrenched itself free of the flesh.
She later said it was as if he were shaking his fist at God in one final act of defiance.
Dr. Samuel Johnson once said, “Depend on it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged, it
concentrates his mind wonderfully.” This is what you see here – men who knew they were dying, and when forced to look into the abyss, were terrorized by fear. For I am convinced that the one question that everyone is asking is: What is going to happen to me after I die?
Paul Zahl said it well when he said, “The essence of a religion is to ask what resource it has or doesn’t have for a person at the end of his life?”
Rollo May, a well-known and highly-regarded therapist, several years ago wrote a book entitled My Quest for Beauty. The book, perhaps now largely forgotten, described his lifelong search for beauty.
May recounts his visit to Mt. Athos, a peninsula in Greece inhabited only by monks from the Greek Orthodox Church. While recovering from a psychological breakdown, he arrived at Mt. Athos just as the monks were celebrating Easter. He vividly describes the deeply symbolic service with all of its religious icons and ritual and with incense filling the air.
During the service the priest gave three wonderfully decorated Easter eggs to each person who was present. He then pronounced “Christ is Risen.” Everyone in the service, including Rollo May, was instructed to respond, “He is risen indeed.”
Rollo May was not a Christian. Nevertheless, he relates that he was profoundly moved by this experience. Seized by moment of spiritual inspiration, he posed a significant question, “What would it mean for our world if he had truly risen?”
It is critical to think clearly through this question asked by Rollo May. What would it mean to my life if Jesus truly rose from the dead? It would mean quite literally everything. It would mean that Jesus is who He said He was, and it is the living proof that legitimizes His claims of deity. Furthermore, it would mean that Jesus’ words and the example of His life have the authority and power to teach us what is true about death and eternity.
If we sincerely believe that Jesus’ life and experience and voice are trustworthy, we should then have every right to expect that, when God’s everlasting kingdom becomes accessible to us all, it will indeed be more wonderful than anything we could ever imagine.
3) Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,
4) To obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you. (1 Peter 1: 3, 4)