What happens in the afterlife to an atheist? Well, the answer to most questions about the afterlife needs to be, "We don't know." While Jesus spoke about the Final Judgment and offered some striking images of heaven and hell, in the final analysis, no human being can say for sure what, precisely, awaits us. Only God knows -- literally.
Someone asked me this morning what I hoped for Christopher Hitchens, the fierce atheist who died after an agonizing bout with esophogeal cancer, and my first response was to say that I hope he's pleasantly surprised. And I do. I certainly didn't agree with him on many things (on almost anything, frankly; and I was particularly annoyed at his treatment of Mother Teresa), but I always hoped that somehow he would experience an invitation from God in his earthly life; and I hope that he may now come to know God. (I could never quite shake the feeling that Mr. Hitchens' lifelong struggle with God betokened a deep hunger for the divine, or at least for answers.) Of course the famous atheist would surely dislike hearing that, as he objected to people praying for him in his final illness.
But Christians believe in a forgiving God, and this is the God that Jesus spoke about many times, most clearly in the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 16:11-32). The parable could have just as easily been named the parable of the Prodigal Father, because it tells the story of a father who is prodigal -- generous, lavish, even wasteful -- with his love. As almost every Christian knows, the story is about a father who forgives his wastrel son, a young man who has not only spent all that he has on fast living, but also has rejected the father. (In the Ancient Near East, asking for your inheritance, as the son does, is tantamount to saying, "I wish you were dead.") The son would seem to be last person one should forgive.
When the Son returns after a long time away, though, the Father welcomes him with joy -- even though the son is simply returning home to be housed and fed, and even though the son has not even asked for forgiveness. Nonetheless, the father rushes to greet him, kisses him tenderly, and then asks his servants to prepare a great feast in honor of his return.
The older son, however, is furious, and scolds the father for celebrating the son's return. How, wonders the older son, could his father rejoice? What's more, the older son protests that since he has worked hard he should be the one who is honored.
The father then says these famous words to his older son: "But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and now he is found."
Henri Nouwen, the Dutch priest and spiritual master, wrote in his book "The Prodigal Son" that most of us are like the older brother, despising any forgiving actions. We feel that we are the ones who have worked hard, who have led good lives, who have tried to act morally; so why should others be forgiven for their failings? We often resent forgiveness and reconciliation, because it doesn't seem "fair."
But as Jesus points out, God's love is far different than our own; it is prodigal, generous, even wasteful.
I hope that Christopher Hitchens enjoys some of this prodigal love. Of course committed atheists may not be ready to receive it. So for them, and for many others, there will probably be a time of conversion, what Catholics call Purgatory: a time of preparation to meet God, a time of reviewing one's life, and asking for forgiveness. And of course it will be up to each individual to decide if he or she wants to accept that Father's love or turn away. For me, hell is the ultimate turning away of that forgiving love.
So I hope that Christopher Hitchens, famous atheist, fearless polemicist and, in his own unique way, brave seeker, will now be pleasantly surprised by God. And if he finally makes it to heaven, I hope he gets a chance to get to know the prodigal love of God, which eluded him on earth. After that, I hope he gets to know Mother Teresa a little better than he did on earth.
May he rest in peace.