In the online New Yorker, physicist Lawrence Krauss debunks Larry Alex Taunton’s well-battered book on Christopher Hitchens’s supposed deathbed leanings toward Christianity. Krauss’s piece, “The fantasy of the deathbed conversion,” distinguishes itself from other debunkings in two ways: it doesn’t link to (or even mention the name of) Taunton’s egregious book, and it also discusses the general issue of purported but false deathbed conversions. (Darwin, of course, was subject to these rumors, as was Oscar Wilde).
Why, asks Krauss, are these conversions so important to Christians? The answer he suggests, which I think is correct, is that Christians are secretly fearful that God might not really exist, or that even if He does, their faith is simply the wrong one. If you’ve chosen Jesus over Mohammad, Allah will make you fry for eternity. The more people you gather into your flock, the more confidence you have that you’re right.
And why convert to Christianity rather than one of the thousands of other faiths on this planet? Good question.
At the end, though, I think Krauss goes a wee bit amiss:
In this regard, the saddest thing about these imagined deathbed conversions is that, even if they were real, they could hardly be seen as victories for Christ. They are stories in which the final pain of a fatal disease, or the fear of imminent death and eternal punishment, is identified as the factor necessary for otherwise rational people to believe in the supernatural.
If mental torture is required to effect a conversion, what does that say about the reliability of the fundamental premises of Christianity to begin with? Evangelicals would be better advised to concentrate on converting the living. Converting the deceased suggests only that they can’t convince those who can argue back. They should let the dead rest in peace.
I don’t think that evangelical Christians would have a serious problem with conversion being done under threat of torture. That, after all, is the very basis for accepting Jesus, and it’s a staple of Catholic dogma, as refined over the centuries by theologians like Augustine and Aquinas. The notion of Hell as a retributive punishment, a payback for a bad life and the mistake of having made the wrong “choice,” is alive and well to this day. And that idea says very little about the “reliability” of the premises of Christianity, at least compared to the lack of real evidence for either God or a divine Christ.
Finally, neither Taunton nor the Darwin-converters really tried to convert the dead; they simply lied about their conversion. It is, as Krauss notes, the Mormons who really try to convert people post mortem. There are some, like atheist Anthony Flew, who are rumored to have really converted to Christianity at the end (this is arguable, however). What we see is not so much a refutation of Christianity but the equally depressing fact that believers, perhaps worried about their own beliefs, are willing to lie to buttress their faith.
By the way, if you want to hear a nice 28-minute BBC interview of Krauss by physicist Jim Al-Khalili, go here. It’s mostly about physics but also covers atheism.