At the Hour of Our Death
By Gracjan Kraszewski - Starkville, Mississippi, USA - 25 November 2015
The crowd stood and applauded. Michael Hollins was used to this. He nodded his head, a slight smile coming to his face. The applause grew thicker. Someone in the crowd shouted something causing everyone to get even louder. Hollins had just finished giving the keynote address at the Transnational Atheist and Freethinkers Association’s annual meeting. The organization went by the acronym “TAFA,” but if you were really an insider you knew it was affectionately called “Taffy.” The organization’s premium award was called the “Saltwater Prize” which honored an individual whose work embodied TAFA’s unofficial mission statement to “boldly and unapologetically proclaim the truth of science and reason to a world gripped by myth, superstition, and woo-woo.”
Hollins, sixty-five years old, holder of PhDs in history and anthropology, recipient of eleven honorary doctorates, and fluent in four languages, had won the Saltwater Prize five times. Baptized a Roman Catholic, he had lost his faith, per his account, by the time he had turned fourteen. Hollins had publicly debated Catholic priests, Mormon bishops, Buddhist gurus, New Age seekers, and, as was his greatest pleasure, Bible-thumping so called “non-denominational” Protestant pastors. Of the last sort Hollins was especially fond of the Young Earth Creationist crowd and prosperity gospelers. Hollins once pulled out a twenty dollar bill and scribbled “Matthew 6:24” on it, placing it in front of a pastor who lived in a multi-million dollar home and owned a private jet.
Hollins had intellectually destroyed all his opponents, proving, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the universe was a cold and random place, that man was nothing more than a speck, as important as a stagnant puddle of rainwater, and that man’s one emancipation from this absurd life that would ultimately end in nothingness was to throw off the shackles of all belief systems and embrace the liberation of science. That was the way Hollins’ fans, numbering in the millions, saw it anyway.
“I have cancer. Terminal cancer,” Hollins said, as the crowd slowly returned to their seats. “I wanted to tell you this now, here, because I don’t have much time left and I want you to understand something.” A few voices piqued up but Hollins quieted them with a gesture of his hand. “I want you to know that there will be no deathbed conversion story with me. If you hear this, if someone tells you that I had some type of last minute religious conversion, they are lying. It is not a rumor. It is a lie.”
“We,” Hollins said, pausing to take a sip of water, “we all die. Like everything around us we also die. Why be afraid? Why take comfort in fairy tales about a life to come? The message I want all of you to take from this is live your life to the fullest. Here and now, live. For billions of years you didn’t exist, soon you will not exist forever. In this brief moment on earth, live. Thank you.”
Hollins quickly left the podium and exited the stage. The crowd was too stunned to clap, still processing what the man who had become their personal inspiration, their model, the bright light of all the brights of the atheist movement, had just told them. They just sat there, silent.
It didn’t take long for Hollins’ health to deteriorate. He was on his last legs just three months after revealing his disease. In those three months he had refused multiple interview requests and invitations to appear on television. The only statement he made was to reinforce that he would remain an atheist to the end. Letters to Hollins arrived daily; many from secular people telling him he was their hero, many from religious people begging him to convert, not a few of this group telling him plainly, “repent or prepare to suffer the eternal torment of hellfire.”
Once a pastor made his way to Hollins’ bedside, Bible in hand, gaining access by posing as a member of the medical staff. Following a dramatic, five minute long discourse on salvation, which Hollins listened to without comment, the pastor asked him, “Brother, are you ready to call on the Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ and accept Him as your personal Lord and Savior?”
“Are you married?” Hollins asked the pastor.
“Yes,” the pastor replied.
“Is this your first marriage?” Hollins asked.
“I, what does this have to do with --
“Is this your first marriage?”
“No, I have been married twice before.”
“And why did you get divorced?”
“Well,” the pastor said, walking around the bed, “that’s, that’s of a personal nature.”
“Personal nature?” Hollins asked, “you’re asking me personal questions. You want me to answer your questions, answer mine.”
“Okay,” the pastor said, “well, you know, sometimes the Lord calls two people together and then it just --
“What does Jesus teach about divorce?” Hollins asked, interrupting. “What does it say in Matthew 19:6? In Luke 16:18?”
The pastor was blindsided. He said nothing. He lowered his head, searching for an answer. Hollins didn’t let him respond.
“Get out. Hypocrite.”
Another time Hollins was visited by his sister, Monica. Monica was a practicing and devout Catholic; the one sibling of Hollins’ five brothers and sisters who had kept their childhood faith. Hollins had no problem ridiculing her beliefs to her face. To him, she was a naive and mindless drone, clinging to religion only out of fear. She was, as Stephen Hawking once put it, “afraid of the dark”; belief in God was for those types of people.
But unlike the faux-doctor pastor, and myriad religious people Hollins had met over the years, Monica was not a hypocrite. She was stupid. She was childish. She was stuck in medieval Europe. But she was not a hypocrite, she lived what she believed, and there was a small part of Hollins that deeply respected this, her authenticity.
Monica pleaded with him to go to confession. Absolutely not, Hollins said. Please, Monica implored, she could have a priest here in less than an hour. Please, she begged him, on the verge of tears. The possibility of her brother in Hell, for all eternity, and by his own choice, overwhelmed her.
“If you don’t stop,” Hollins said, “I swear to you. I’ll take God’s name in vain. I’ll rattle off a list of blasphemies you’ve never heard before. I’ll do it if you don’t shut up.”
Monica slapped him, hard across the cheek. He knew how to push his sister’s buttons. Even though “blasphemy,” for him, meant nothing, he knew that his sister kept their mother’s habit of saying “Blessed be God forever” to herself whenever hearing blasphemy. For Hollins, this was the perfect example of the superstition he detested. If his sister didn’t quit her desperate blubbering he’d have no problem cursing her out of his hospital room.
“That hurt,” Hollins said, calmly.
“You deserved it.”
Monica reached into her purse. She pulled out a golden rosary that Hollins immediately recognized. It was purchased on a family trip to Lourdes when he was eleven years old. He had prayed many times with it. The last time he saw it was when he threw it angrily to the floor at his family’s house on his eighteenth birthday. Hollins had “come out” to his family that day about his atheism. It didn’t go over well.
“Get that away from, me,” Hollins said. “I’m serious. I’ll throw it out the window.”
Monica pressed the rosary deep into his palm. “Michael, you jackass. I don’t care what you do. I’m leaving. You can say and think whatever you want. You know the truth. Take this and give yourself to Christ. Pray that the Blessed Mother leads you to Christ. Or, don’t. That’s your choice. But if you have any respect for me at least keep this rosary with you; it’s yours and I’m not holding onto it any longer.”
“Bye, Monica,” Hollins said, exasperated.
Monica stood up, cried some more, and kissed her brother on the head. “I love you.”
Hollins said nothing. Monica left. “Nurse,” Hollins said, a few minutes later. “Can you please take this?,” he asked her, handing over the rosary.
“What do you want me to do with it?”
“I don’t care. Take it.”
Hollins rolled over and fell asleep.
When he woke up the rosary was still in his room, arm’s length away on his nightstand.
“Idiot,” he said, referring to the nurse.
Hollins tried to sit up in bed but his strength was receding by the second. He had just enough left to grab the rosary and start fiddling with the beads. Why? Had he experienced some Road of Damascus conversion? No. There was simply nothing else to do. No one in the room, the TV was off, the reading material suitable for apes and imbeciles.
“Hail, Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee. Blessed are though amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”
Hollins broke from his daydreaming. He threw down the rosary down onto the bed. In what had seemed to be a trance, he had somehow prayed one and half mysteries; the initial fiddling unconsciously evolving into the recitation of prayers he had known long ago as a child. It was perfectly natural. When he closed his eyes to reorient himself, he found his hand moving towards the rosary, picking it up again and resuming the prayer.
He was again jolted from this strange contemplative state (was this the hazy onset of death?) when the rosary fell from his hand and onto the floor. He tried to pick it up but as he reached he rolled out of his bed. His fall was broken by a tangle of IV tubes that somehow had dislodged from his arms and wrapped around his neck, his head inches from the floor.
It was a ridiculous scene. A tragic scene. And there was no one in the room to see it. A nurse wasn’t scheduled to check in on him for another twenty minutes. He couldn’t reach the button to call for help. He was suspended halfway out of his bed with the accidental noose choking him to death. In a last minute of consciousness, and in a moment of perfect contrition, Hollins muttered, “Father, forgive me for I have sinned.” Seconds later Michael Hollins was dead.
“Michael Hollins, atheist luminary, shines brighter in death,” read the headline of an online article. Hollins was a hero, the writer claimed, because he had the courage to remain godless to the end of his life and the even greater courage to kill himself and choose his own way of death. The nurses who found his body, and the doctors who later examined it, all concluded that Hollins had committed suicide. He had waited until no one was around and then intentionally removed the tubes, wrapped them around his neck, and fell out of bed to end his life.
“Brilliant,” another writer said of the incident, “Hollins gives the ultimate middle finger to religious nuts the world over.” The religious community chimed in as well. A pastor from Texas said, “To be honest I’m glad that Michael Hollins is in Hell. He got what he deserved. You spend your life hating the Gospel, you’re gonna get yours.” A Presbyterian minister claimed that Hollins’ death was evidence that he had been “predestined to perdition from all eternity…inscrutable yet all-knowing are the ways of Almighty God.”
Another pastor, appearing on CNN to comment about the death of the world’s premier atheist voice, held up a Bible and pointed to a verse from Paul’s Letter to the Romans. “Romans 10:13,” the pastor said, shaking his head, “Romans 10:13. Lemme read it nice and loud, okay? Everyone, Ev-er-ee one, who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” The pastor slammed his Bible shut. “Simple as that. Did Michael heed this advice? No, sir. Sad but true.”
Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. Michael Hollins did and he was. The instant he had died he stood in front of Jesus Christ. Jesus put his hand on Hollins’ shoulder and squeezed it, saying nothing. The next moment Hollins was in a dark, damp room. Another man approached him. Hollins didn’t recognize him. He was extremely tall and muscular.
Hollins, realizing that he could speak, asked, “Who are you?”
“I’m your Guardian Angel,” the man responded.
“No shit!,” Hollins said. “I’m screwed, right?”
“No,” the angel said, “you’re saved. That brief moment you experienced with Our Lord will be magnified for all eternity when you get to Heaven. You’ll behold the Beatific Vision forever and that’s a joy you can’t even begin to understand.”
Hollins looked around at his surroundings. It really was very dark, extremely dark. He heard intermittent frightening screams and he saw flames flashing their light in reflections on the wall. “But I’m in Hell,” Hollins said.
“You’re not in Hell,” the Angel said. “This is purgatory. Everyone who is in purgatory is saved. You will be in Heaven eventually but you have to make reparation for your sins.”
“I don’t understand. I -- ,” Hollins mumbled, struggling to speak.
“You chose, on your own, to ask God to forgive you before you died,” the Angel said. “ It was you who accepted Christ in the end, as all people ultimately have to do, out of their own free will. But it was your sister’s prayers that gave you that last opportunity. She prayed for your conversion for years, for years she made personal sacrifices for you and your family that only God saw.”
“So how long do I have to be in purgatory?,” Hollins asked after a long moment of silence.
The Angel didn’t answer that question. He just said, “Purgatory is an inestimable gift from God. You’re saved. You will go to Heaven. Imagine if it was just Heaven or Hell? Who could be saved?”
Hollins didn’t say anything. His Angel put his arm around his shoulder and led him around the corner.