“Ask a Priest: How Can I Help My Agnostic Sister?”

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Q: I seem to be having a dark night of the soul. I asked my sister if she has prayed about her rather difficult situation, and she said she doesn’t believe in prayer. This hit me pretty hard because I thought, even though she has been away from the Church for years, she still prayed to God. Since I learned this, I would call her an agnostic. She is a nurse practitioner and highly intelligent and can be condescending. During our conversation, I mentioned the topic of near-death experiences that to me had seemed compelling and might be indicative of the afterlife and God’s existence. But now I’m quite skeptical after talking to my sister. She believes near-death experiences are nothing more than the result of brain activity (hallucinations) and have nothing to do with life after death. Also, my sister believes God is just energy and not a person. Please pray for us. I am horrified at the possibility that the God of the Bible doesn’t exist and there is no heaven. I hope this spell passes as it is an awful feeling. Please give me your best feedback. – K.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: You mention that your sister is highly intelligent. Perhaps she is very good at being a nurse. One of the qualities of professionals in any field is that a person doesn’t stray outside his bounds of competence. In that case, your sister might know a lot about nursing, but her judgments about the existence of God and the power of prayer are a bit outside the bounds of medical science.

So I don’t think you need to worry about God not existing. He exists, all right, and he created everything we see around us.

Heaven exists too. It is simply the state of being with God. It is perfect happiness, perfect bliss — what all of us dream for.

It sounds as though your sister has lost, at least for now, whatever faith she had. I won’t try to guess why. You mention that she is going through a difficult situation. Perhaps this situation has wreaked havoc on her spiritual life.

What I would recommend is that you put her high on your prayer list. Faith is a gift, and as a gift it can be lost through neglect. But it can also be regained with the grace of God and lots of prayer. The key thing is that you might need to do the praying for her for the foreseeable future.

I can’t speak much about these near-death or life-after-death experiences. Perhaps God gives certain people a grace to experience something supernatural. That is his prerogative. But it is not a matter of formal doctrine, per se. It might be what we call a private revelation — if it helps people, it helps them. But it isn’t the core of Catholic teaching.

In the meantime you want to be sure to guard your own faith. If we spend too much time with people who are irreligious or anti-Christian, their influence can wear off on us. You don’t want that to happen.

Your relationship with God is the most important one of your life. This doesn’t mean that you cut off your relationship with your sister. On the contrary, you want to help her as best you can.

But if a simple conversation with her is enough to shake your own faith, you need to keep a healthy distance from her.

Guarding your own faith will a way to help her. For that reason you might to make time for prayer each day. Frequent the sacraments if you are Catholic. And take time to study the faith. Helpful here would be the Catechism or its Compendium.

Perhaps your sister might be open to reconsidering her own ideas. Perhaps she would be willing to listen to Peter Kreeft’s Faith and Reason.

Or she might be interested in Eben Alexander’s Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife, which explains how these “life after death” experiences can’t be just brain activity. The author used to be an atheist.

These works might be available through a local library system.

Above all, keep praying for your sister.


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