Heaven Can Wait

Was I wrong about the afterlife? No.

At the end, the manner of my “passing,” as the pious so delicately refer to death, was as much a disappointment to the dewy-eyed acolytes of god-worship as it was to me, although for rather different reasons. For more than a year after I publicly announced in June 2010 that I would begin chemotherapy for esophageal cancer, the stupidest of the faithful either gloated on their subliterate Web sites that my illness was a sign of “God’s revenge” for having blasphemed their Lord and Master, or prayed that I would abandon my contempt for their nonsensical beliefs by undergoing a deathbed conversion. The vulgarity of the idea that a vengeful deity would somehow stoop to inflicting a cancer on me still boggles the mind, especially in the face of the ready explanation supplied for my illness by my long, happy, and prodigious career as a smoker of cigarettes and drinker of spirits.

As for that longed-for conversion, it never came, despite the fervent wishes of such clerical mountebanks as the Reverend Rick Warren. Said reverend, who portrayed himself as my “friend” while consigning homosexuals and nonbelievers to one of Dante’s outer circles of Hell, proclaimed with the arrogant surety of the devout: “I loved & prayed for him constantly & grieve his loss. He knows the Truth now.” Indeed I do, and much better than he. Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, for his part, did not fail to use my death as an opportunity to stoke the fear of damnation among the credulous. Having somehow managed to evolve the thumbs needed to “tweet” his followers on his BlackBerry, he declared that my end—as if death were not a natural process common to all mammals—was “an excruciating reminder of the consequences of unbelief,” while observing with the religionist’s usual condescension that my “brilliance & eloquence” will not matter “in the world to come.”

How would he know?

What was clear enough before my death was that visions of an afterlife were no more verifiable than any other bedtime tales designed to offer false hope to toddlers frightened of the dark. They are the ultimate embodiment of the solipsism at the heart of all religions. This infantilizing fiction comes in various guises, from orthodox religions with their fabricated consolations of fairytale heavens—whether it is the Islamic fanatic’s seventy-two celestial virgins or the Christian fantasia of winged angels—to the modern pseudoscientific “research” into so-called near-death experiences (known with ridiculous technicality as NDEs). These hallucinatory claims, originally popularized by a Dr. Raymond Moody for Me Generation readers of the 1970s, rest on numerous banal and repetitive testimonials about floating above one’s body, hurtling through a tunnel toward a bright light, vividly reviewing episodes from one’s past as if watching a holiday slide show, and encountering various beings lit up with an unearthly glow. These latter apparitions can range from one’s surprisingly youthful-looking relatives to an omniscient spiritual guide, including the ubiquitous Jesus if you’re a Christian, not-so-coincidentally matching your own faith or lack thereof.

There’s nothing in these visionary tall tales that can’t be either simply explained through an understanding of basic science or discounted as the unprovable “revelations” of individuals with no legitimate claim on our belief. That was my position before I experienced my own peculiar hallucinations after death, and I have seen no evidence since then requiring me to recant my position. Was I wrong on the afterlife, as so many among the bien-pensant brayed for me to admit that I was wrong on Iraq? Plainly, no.

As the psychologist Susan Blackmore has persuasively shown, the near-death experience is a product of the dying brain and shaped by the individual’s cultural expectations. The temporal lobe is especially prone to inducing hallucinations, memory flashbacks, and other visions after death when undergoing anoxia, or oxygen deprivation. In concordance with this understanding, virtually every one of the phenomena I experienced after my own death has a clear-cut neurological or biological cause or an obvious cultural antecedent. As Blackmore wrote recently in the Guardian, “If human consciousness can really leave the body and operate without a brain, then everything we know in neuroscience has to be questioned.”

Yes, in the final moments of my mortal denouement I did feel “myself” floating above my body. But that was just the first of a commonplace series of interrelated hallucinations that bore a notable resemblance to the visual effects of the LSD I tried one summer evening in 1968 at Oxford—except that these recent hallucinations were, if anything, rather less life-altering. Of course, by this time in my hospital room, there was no “life” to alter, but I have never wavered in holding on to core truths in the absence of contravening evidence.

There was no “tunnel,” and no vividly bright light that I moved toward, and whatever euphoria I experienced was as transient as the buzz from polishing off a few bottles of wine with dear Martin in the cafés of Monmartre. Yes, there appeared to be a passageway leading to something a bit brighter than the total darkness that I expected, but I experienced this for what it was: a well-known epiphenomenon of oxygen depletion in the dying retina.

If the scenes from my past that subsequently paraded before my view were especially vivid and, indeed, somewhat affecting, it cannot have been coincidental that I had only recently spent time finalizing the paperback edition of my memoir, Hitch-22, with a new foreword reflecting on my then-imminent death. And as one would expect, given my intellectual predilections, there was no angelic being or robed dime-store Jesus to greet me as my near-death experience quickly progressed into what might be termed my death experience (DE). Instead, as my hallucinatory journey continued, I was greeted warmly by the predictable neural holograms of Tom Paine, Voltaire, and George Orwell, who all bore a striking resemblance to their paintings, or, in Orwell’s case, to the penetrating photo of him on the cover of my book Why Orwell Matters. Not for a moment did I believe they were “real.” Even so, Orwell, never one to tolerate cant of any kind, furthered my resolve: “This is all a delusion, my dear boy, but enjoy it while you can.”

And so I have. I have discovered little that I had not expected from even a casual reading of the scientific literature, although as the months have passed, I have sometimes wondered at the apparent duration and persistence of these hallucinations. I take some comfort in the knowledge that the execrable evangelists and their ilk will have to wait for all eternity before I will betray my principles by proclaiming a newfound, servile belief in God or the afterlife. I suspect, however, that it is only a matter of time before some New Age or Christian publishing huckster sees the lucre to be made by publishing the spurious recantations of dead atheists and freethinkers. Expect him to conscript bogus mediums to fabricate tract after tract of Hume, Voltaire, Paine, Orwell, Mencken, and me, among others, confessing the errors of our godless ways. Expect learned introductions by Harold Bloom—or his spirit, after he dies—to give the entire Dead Repentant Writers Library of America series a patina of respectability.

Don’t believe a word of it.

Christopher Hitchens, as told to Art Levine

Christopher Hitchens, as told to Art Levine . Levine is a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly and a longtime admirer of the work of Christopher Hitchens.