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The world’s most astonished atheist

Memorial events have been held in Hiroshima to mark the 75th anniversary of the dropping of the world’s first atomic bomb. On 6 August 1945 a US bomber dropped a uranium bomb above the city killing 140,000 people. At least 70,000 people were killed immediately and in the following weeks and months tens of thousands died from radiation poisoning. On 9 August 1945 a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, killing at least 74,000 people. Two weeks later Japan surrendered, bringing an end to World War Two. These bombs are the only nuclear weapons ever to be deployed in war and showed their terrifying destructive power. Today Hiroshima is a City of Peace promoting nuclear disarmament in a world where an increasing number of nations have a nuclear capability.

When the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki Joy Davidman, who later married C.S. Lewis, was living in New York with her first husband Bill Gresham and was expecting her second son. Joy was from a Jewish family and grew up in the Bronx. From her childhood she had been an atheist and, in her early 20s, became a member of the Communist Party.

When Joy saw the devastation and deaths cause by the atomic bombs, she suddenly realised that civilisation could be obliterated. Her whole worldview was shaken. She was bringing her second child into a world where, she wrote in a poem, “ashes that were babies blew among the bamboo trees.” She had always believed that science would be society’s salvation but now she realised that it might be the world’s damnation.

Joy’s philosophy had always been “rigid and admitted no thought of God, of religion, of anything outside of dialectic materialism.” A self-assured woman who believed she had all the answers, she was now forced to admit helplessness. One night, alone in her room, everything changed. “All my defences – the walls of arrogance and cocksureness and self-love behind which I had hid from God – went down momentarily. And God came in.” Joy later described that experience: “There was a Person with me in the room, a Person so real that all my previous life was by comparison mere shadow play. My perception of God lasted perhaps half a minute, but when it was over, I found myself on my knees, praying. I think I must have been the world’s most astonished atheist.” It was a moment of grace when God revealed himself to Joy leading her to a sure future hope for herself, her children and God’s world.

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Living even though we are dying

Some friends of mine have been diagnosed with cancer. It’s a serious diagnosis that takes time to come to terms with. Often there is difficult treatment to face; surgery, chemotherapy or radiotherapy. The treatment may continue over many months and there are side effects to cope with. The support of specialist nurses through organisations like McMillan and Marie Curie enables patients to be cared for at home. In a recent advert a person who was being cared for by Marie Curie nurses said, “They helped me to live even though I was dying.”

Death is the one event we must all, one day, face. Coming to terms with our mortality is important if we are to know how we should live now. Facing death makes us seek answers to vitally important questions. Is there a God? What is the meaning of life? What happens when I die? Is there life after death? If one day I must face my Maker, how should I be living? Finding the answers to these questions enables us to live even though we are dying.

The Bible tell us about the God who created all things. Our life is a gift from God and not the result of chance events. God knows each of us personally. In Psalm 139 David says, “You have searched me, O Lord, and you know me. For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” Everyone who comes to know God in the last days of their life wishes they had come to know him sooner.

The God who created us also sent his Son, Jesus, into the world to give us the gift of eternal life. Jesus said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Trusting in Jesus we live our lives in daily fellowship him and know that, when we die, we shall go to be with him in heaven. When I was in school, we sang a hymn which is a prayer about knowing God both in living and in dying; “God be in my head, and in my understanding; God be in my eyes, and in my looking; God be in my mouth, and in my speaking; God be in my heart, and in my thinking; God be at mine end, and at my departing.”

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To whom shall we go?

The visit of Pope Francis to Ireland has revealed the depth of disillusionment many Catholic people in the country feel with their church. The Catholic Church has been rocked by revelations of paedophile priests, sexual abuse in Catholic-run orphanages, and the exploitation of women in mother-and-baby homes. When Pope John Paul II visited Ireland in 1979 more than a million people attended the mass at Phoenix Park in Dublin. Attendance at the mass celebrated by Pope Francis was estimated at 200,000.

According to the Irish Statistics Office, Ireland remains a predominantly Catholic country but the percentage of the population who identify as Catholics has fallen. In 1981, just 2 years after the papal visit, Catholics made up 93% of the population. By 2016 that number had fallen to 78%, of whom only 44% attended church weekly. The fall in church attendance is most marked amongst younger people. There has also been a sharp decline in the number of candidates for the priesthood. The average age of Catholic priests in Ireland is now 70.

What has happened to those who have turned away from the Catholic Church? Many of those under the age of 50 now describe themselves as having no religious faith. The increasing secularisation of Irish society has also been seen in recent referendums on same-sex marriage and abortion in which two-thirds of people rejected the teaching of the Catholic Church and voted for change.

The heart of Christianity is focussed not on any particular church but on the person of Jesus. All of us fall short of God’s standards and need to experience his forgiveness. Jesus didn’t come into the world for self-righteous people who feel no sense of need but for those who know their guilt and who want to change. Many people all over the world have listened to the words of Jesus and have found new life and hope in experiencing his love.

At one point in the ministry of Jesus people who had been following him turned away from him. Jesus asked his closest disciples, “Are you also going to leave?” Simon Peter answered, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.” At times of crisis, when people have seriously let us down and it’s hard to find answers to our questions, the best thing to do is not to turn away from God but to draw near to his Son and to listen to what he says.