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THE OTHER 19 PERCENT

Even if they’re unsure of it, most people want to believe in Heaven, and most people have some concept of it. TIME took a poll 10 years ago, and 81% of the people they surveyed said they believed in the existence of Heaven, where people lived forever with God after they die.

Still, there’s that other 19%...

Robert Ingersoll was an atheist. He was a famous anti-Christian propagandist and orator in the days after the Civil War. Once, in front of a large crowd, Ingersoll pulled out his pocket-watch and gave God five minutes. "Strike me dead, or be disproved," he said. After all, didn’t the Bible record where God struck men dead for blasphemy? "Then let me do that now!" Holding his watch, he blasphemed God, then counted off the minutes. The crowd counted too as one minute went by, then 2,3,4,5... When nothing happened, Ingersoll snapped his watch shut. "There! You see! There is no God or I would be dead!" When a Joseph Parker, a British preacher heard about it, he said, "And did the American gentleman think he could exhaust the patience of God in five minutes?"

Ingersoll was a friend of Phillips Brooks, the man who wrote "O Little Town of Bethlehem." When Brooks became seriously ill, he requested that none of his friends come to visit him. But, when his friend Robert Ingersoll, the atheist, came to see him, he let him come in right away. Ingersoll told him, "I appreciate this very much. Especially when you aren’t letting any of your close friends see you." Brooks said, "Oh, I’m confident of seeing them in the next world, but this may be my last chance to see you."

Robert Ingersoll died at the age of 65 in 1899. Notices of his death were printed in all the major newspapers of New England, and in every one, as part of the funeral notice, there was a single, very ironic line: "There will be no music."

I’m confident, Robert Ingersoll is now a believer.

(From a sermon by Sherm Nichols, "Yes, It Really Is Really Real" 1/30/2009)

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