The National Catholic Review


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.

Comments

Rick Malloy | 12/16/2011 - 8:24pm
Yes Lara this magazine is Catholic. 

Maybe not as you mean Catholic, but as the tradition of the church means Catholic, i.e., universal, open, searching for the truth of a mysterious and ever greater God made real and present to us in the salvific, constant presence of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ who comes to save, not condemn the world (cf. John 3:17).  Our faith is much more interested in leading people to live in justice and love which prefigures our eternal life with God, rather than judgmentally condemning to hell those some consider deficient. 

According to the Catholic faith, only God can render definitive judgment.  Neither you, nor I, nor anyone, truly know the state of Mr. Hitchens' or anyone else's soul.  And given that God is beyond time, the meaning of "time of death" may radically differ for Our Father in comparison to our time bound experience.

You write "Oops-I posted before I added: Your statement: 'The Catechism teaches that mortal sin is a "possibility," not a cast in concrete fact.'  This is absolutely incorrect."  Really?  Absolutely incorrect?  The Catechism states "Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself" (CCC #1861).  "Possibility..." the Cathechism's word, not mine.

Your inisistence that God cannot save anyone after death flies in the face of the constant practice of the church of praying for the dead.  If it's all over at the moment of death, prayers for the dead are useless.  And please review my comment above on the church's teaching on suicide.

We might do well to meditate on Matt 7:1 "Stop judging that you may not be judged."

 
Kang Dole | 12/16/2011 - 8:17pm
I don't think I've ever been more sympathetic to Mr. Hitchens' anti-religious attitude than after reading some of these comments. Seriously, if I ever get an itching to become a Christian, I'll just read this comment section to knock some sense back into myself. I mean, surely, the blessed would envy the damned if being in heaven meant spending an eternity with some of you sanctimonious pearl-clutchers.
JIM MCCREA | 12/16/2011 - 6:45pm
Ah, yes, the CCC.  Handed down on Mt Moriah to St. Mechtilde of Ubaldigor and, hence, Sacred Writ never to be questioned, contradicted or otherwise treated other than by bowing down thrice while uttering Mea Culpa in Vulgate Latin.
Lara Martinez | 12/16/2011 - 6:25pm
I am really confused about this article.  Is this magazine Catholic?  It seems that we have lots of personal opinion about what happens in the afterlife-things such as Purgatory being some sort of hippy commune where you go after death to see if
God can "change your mind" and an invitation to go to Heaven.  Mortal sin is not real or concrete.  You can still convert after death.

This is not Catholic, folks.  I understand the commenters not having true Catholic doctrine correct, but for those members of the S.J. I'm really, really confused with your utter refutation of Catholic teaching.

Do you also have other, personal interpretations of scripture?
JIM MCCREA | 12/16/2011 - 6:24pm
Lara:  thank you for posting here.  It is just one more reminder of why I have nothing to doany more  with the Catholicism that you espouse.
JIM MCCREA | 12/16/2011 - 6:23pm
Lara @ #5 said: 

“Doesn't it matter that this man singlehandedly lived his life in opposition to God and used his considerable talents maligning, mocking and denying God? How many people has he led into this empty and meaningless philosophy? I fear the most for our young people who are bombarded and indoctrinated in this hollow secularism at universities.”
The value of someone like Hitchens to my way of thinking is that he causes some lazy believers to take notice of what he says, what they think they believe, and wrestle with the difference.  He knew what and why he believed what he believed.  How many “believers” today can even begin to articulate what and why they believe?
May this was true in Hitchens’ case:
“However vigorously the non-believer may assert that he is a pure positivist who has long left behind him supernatural temptations and weaknesses, he will never be free of the secret uncertainty whether positivism really has the last word. He is troubled by doubts about his unbelief, he remains threatened by the question whether belief is not after all the reality which it claims to be.
Just as the believer is choked by the salt water of doubt constantly washed into his mouth by the ocean of uncertainty, so the non-believer is troubled by doubts about his unbelief. Anyone who makes up his mind to evade the uncertainty of belief will have to experience the uncertainty of unbelief.
- both the believer and the unbeliever share, each in his own way, doubt and belief. Neither can quite escape either doubt or belief; for the one, faith is present against doubt, for the other through doubt and in the form of doubt.
Perhaps in precisely this way doubt, which saves both sides from being shut up in their own worlds, could become the avenue of communication. It prevents both from enjoying complete self-satisfaction; it opens up the believer to the doubter and the doubter to the believer.”
Introduction to Christianity, Joseph Ratzinger (1968)
Lara Martinez | 12/16/2011 - 6:12pm
Vince,

You don't understand the quote you used. 

""Those, who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and moved by grace, try in their actions to do His will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience — those too may attain eternal salvation" (Catechism, no. 847). Sincere non-Christians can be moved by grace to seek God and know and do His will. When they do so according to the dictates of their conscience they can be saved, for by God's will they are associated with the paschal mystery of Christ."

Let's not pretend that Hitchens did not freely choose to reject Christ.  If nothing else, he was intelligent.

How utterly sad you believe his tripe about Mother Theresa.

Vince Killoran | 12/16/2011 - 5:55pm
Sorry to be such a contrarian but I haven't seen a compelling rebuttal to CH's assessment of Mother Theresa. Hitchens was wrong about a lot of things-but pretty dead on (on pun intended) about many things.

I don't know the condition of CH's soul at the time of his death and I wouldn't waste time trying to engage in conjecture. It seems smug and vindictive to attempt a verdict.  As Dorothy Day once said (to paraphrase) "God help us all if we each got what we truly deserved."

 But consider this from the entry for "salvation outside the Church" in the ENCYCLOPEDIA OF CATHOLICISM (1995), p. 1160: according to Fr. Rahner "those who do not know Christ explicitly can nevertheless encounter him anonymously and live mysteriously in his grace and thus be in communion with the Church."

RIP Christopher Hitchens
Lara Martinez | 12/16/2011 - 5:53pm
Rick Malloy:

Oops-I posted before I added:

Your statement: "The Catechism teaches that mortal sin is a "possibility," not a cast in concrete fact."

This is absolutely incorrect.

"To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God's merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice.  This state of difinitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called 'hell'"
(CCC1033)

God does want us to choose Him.  That's why He gave us a choice.  It is still a choice we must make before we die.

I am not arguing for or against Mr. Hitchins salvation.  I am merely arguing the teachings of the Catholic Church and the fact that there is no repentence after death.
Lara Martinez | 12/16/2011 - 5:46pm
Rick Malloy:

I wanted to answer your question "How do we know one cannot be redeemed after death?"

Death puts and end to human life as the time open to either accepting  or rejecting the divine grace manifested in Christ. (CCC 1021)

Lara Martinez | 12/16/2011 - 5:42pm
Thank you Father Ryan.  You said it beautifully.

I wanted to add that I did not mean to state that I know Mr. Hitchens is Heaven, Hell or Purgatory.  Only God knows.

I was frustrated by the misrepresentation of man's obligation to repent during his lifetime.  We all get second chances (and third, and fourth, etc.) while we live.  Once we die, our choice has been made.

The Prodigal Son repented.  He repented and asked his father for forgiveness.  The father then forgave him with overflowing mercy and love. 
Ryan Hall | 12/16/2011 - 5:25pm
Father,

I have to disagree with you an a few items that I think you have in error here. 

First of all, I do agree that we should never wish hell for anyone, and should not say with any certainly this person or that person is definitively in hell. I agree with you on that sentiment because to make such a statement is arrogance to the point of mortal error because we are basically saying we are God and can make such determinations. Only God ultimately knows and judges such.  

However, I believe you make an erroneous assertion about purgatory. Purgatory, according to the catechism is for, "Section 1030: All who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven." Purgatory is NOT a crucible where we work out our salvation one way or the other. We are already assured salvation when we get to purgatory, but purgatory is a purification whereby we are perfected of venial sins and desires. If one dies in a state of mortal sin, one does not go to purgatory, as one dies not in a state of grace.  

 What you seem to be advocating here is Universal Salvation, i.e. even the unrepentant who die in a state of mortal sin get a chance to redeem themselves in the hereafter. Universalism is not what the Church teaches.  When someone dies in a state of mortal sin, the catechism says: "Section 1035: The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, "eternal fire." The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs."

One must be very careful not to likewise play God and render judgment that so-and-so person will ultimately go to heaven. That likewise is just as arrogant in that the person making such a judgment is pretending to play God and rendering judgment as such. Only God knows one way or the other. It is pretention on our part to render judgment one way or the other. We pray for all who have died, but it is not our place to judge either way. 
RUTH ANN PILNEY | 12/16/2011 - 5:17pm
Do we know the exact moment of death for anyone?  Do we know if, or how, God might approach a dying person while still on this side of eternity?  Various possibilities exist even prior to death.  Only the dying person and God know what is happening.  I have strong hope in God's mercy.  I hope that God gives the worst of us a final chance for repentance and conversion.  I believe some would accept it while others would not.  No one can be forced, but maybe they could be overwhelmed by truth and love.
Bill Collier | 12/16/2011 - 5:08pm
As Christians, we must hope that Mr. Hitchens is with God. His brother, Peter, has written that his efforts to break through, or at least soften, Christopher's atheism were futile-he described his brother's atheism as having caused him to wall himself into an intellectual turret where he viewed religion through narrow slits. However, I recall seeing Christopher Hitchens being interviewed on TV about a decade ago, and he gave an answer to a question that made me think he was hedging his bets about an afterlife with God. The interviewer asked Hitchens if Hitchens's children had been baptized. At the time, Hitchens was married to a woman who was Greek Orthodox. His wife wanted the children baptized in her faith tradition, and Hitchens told the interviewer that he had given his "permission" for the baptisms. When the interviewer expressed surprise at that answer, Hitchens responded somewhat curtly that his children should have the benefit of a "life insurance policy." 

Though I do hope that Hitchens has, or eventually will, meet his Creator, I agree with Ms. Martinez' comment that his aggressive atheism, in combination with that of other so-called New Atheists (e.g., Harris, Dawkins, Dennett), has led a significant number of people, especially young people, away from religion. None of the New Atheists is well-schooled in theology, however, and their misperceptions about the subject matter have been imprinted on eager acolytes who know even less about theology and religion than their teachers know. Western culture is becoming increasingly secular, and, to my mind, one of the primary challenges for Christianity in the 21st century will be finding effective ways to transmit the Good News to a populace that sees no need for belief in a divinity. In addition, I don't think it is a stretch to say that religious belief will continue to be challenged, and perhaps attacked, by non-believers who strongly advocate a diminishing, or even non-existent, role for religion in society. Unfortunately, Mr. Hitchens will be partly to blame for any such intolerance of religion and religious belief.       
Crystal Watson | 12/16/2011 - 3:07pm
Thanks for this post, Fr. Martin.  Just last night I was reading an essay by Hitchins at Vanity Fair ... http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2012/01/hitchens-201201 ..... and I felt so sad for him because he was suffering so much.  I didn't realize he had died until I saw this post.  The God I want to believe in saves everyone - I'm with Hans Urs von Balthasar in hoping no one's in hell.
Rick Malloy | 12/16/2011 - 2:45pm
Hi Lara Marttinez,

It doesn't seem to me that your understanding of what the church teaches on these matters takes into account the overwhelming reality of God's love and mercy.  God "wills everone to be saved and come to a knowledge of truth" (I Tim 2:4).  Will God's desires for the universal salvation of all be thwarted?  Will God continue to labor to save us even after death?  Only God knows for sure.

How do we know one cannot be redeemed after death?  How do we even know one is condemmned before death?  The Catechism teaches that mortal sin is a "possibility," not a cast in concrete fact.  "However, although we can judge that an act is in and of itself a grave offense, we must entrust judgment of persons to the justice and mercy of God" (CCC#1861).

You state "I was responding to the false notion that one can redeem oneself after death."  First, one cannot redeem oneself anyway.  God redeems; we recieve salvation as gift.  Even those who commit suicide (who in your schema would be incapable of redemption) are not beyond God's saving grace.  The catechism states: "We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives.  By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentence.  The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives" (CCC #2283).

If our prayers for those who have committed suicide are worthwhile, so too our prayers for those like Mr. Hitchens, who, as Fr. Martin ponders, may have been more God hungry than even he realized.  I trust and hope God will deal with Mr. Hitchens with as much forgiveness that he will have to have for me.
Rick Malloy | 12/16/2011 - 2:36pm
Hi Lara Marttinez,

It doesn't seem to me that your understanding of what the church teaches on these matters takes into account the overwhelming reality of God's love and mercy.  God "wills everone to be saved and come to a knowledge of truth" (I Tim 2:4).  Will God's desires for the universal salvation of all be thwarted?  Will God continue to labor to save us even after death?  Only God knows for sure.

How do we know one cannot be redeemed after death?  How do we even know one is condemmned before death?  The Catechism teaches that mortal sin is a "possibility," not a cast in concrete fact.  "However, although we can judge that an act is in and of itself a grave offense, we must entrust judgment of persons to the justice and mercy of God (CCC#1861).

You state "I was responding to the false notion that one can redeem oneself after death."  First, one cannot redeem oneself anyway.  God redeems; we recieve salvation as gift.  Even those who commit suicide (who in your schema would be incapable of redemption) are not beyond God's saving grace.  The catechism states: "We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives.  By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentence.  The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives" (CCC #2283).

If our prayers for those who have committed suicide are worthwhile, so too our prayers for those like Mr. Hitchens, who, as Fr. Martin ponders, may have been more God hungry than even he realized.  I trust and hope God will deal with Mr. Hitchens with as much forgiveness that he will have to have for me.
Mark Mattheiss | 12/16/2011 - 2:25pm
Christopher Hitchens said that he was unwilling to pay the intellectual price to have faith in God. But how would he know the value of the trade?
If you don't pay the price, you can't have the goods.
Jesus said ''he who would save his life will lose it, but he who loses his life for my sake and the gospel, will save it.''
Christopher lost his life.
Jesus kept His.
Faith does not call us to abandon intellect-but acknowledges there is more beyond it. There is a vast difference. One degrades us, one enlivens and crowns us with dignity, wisdom, and power.
The Truth is not less than I can know, or even all I can know, but more than I can know. The greatest of all human minds, taken together, across all ages, fall far, far short of ultimate Truth. Some call the recognition of this ''humility,'' and it is a simple statement of fact.
Some grasp at Truth like date-rapists. Others becon Her to come-like a beloved spouse.
Some parade truth like a trophy wife. Others share Her like a most precious treasure.
Fear grasps. Love liberates.
Because Christopher was conceived in Love, and lived in Love, he was free to reject Love.
The theological term for this is ''hell.''
And the roads there are strewn with pride, fear, grasping, cowardly living, and self aggrandizement.
Heaven, by contrast, has a Road resplendent with humility, love, generosity, courage, and the high praises of God.
Lara Martinez | 12/16/2011 - 2:10pm
P.S.  I would give Mr. Hutchins a huge hug and kiss if I saw him with Jesus!  What a wonderful, joyous and spectacular thing that would be!!

I am only pointing out what our Catholic Faith states.  It's not a personal attack or a feeling-it is just what Catholics believe.
Lara Martinez | 12/16/2011 - 2:06pm
Mr. Power:

I am a Catholic who as such adheres to the teaching of the Magesterium.  I was responding to the false notion that one can redeem oneself after death.  If you believe that making a life of mocking and disparaging God and His Church and never repenting during life (and I really do pray Mr. Hutchins *did* repent on his deathbed) is somehow going to be made right *after death,* you need to learn your faith a little better.

Believing what our Faith and Church teaches and stating it doesn't make me a person juding with "hands on her hips."  It is so important in our culture of death to refute lies and distortions.  Purgatory is NOT a place where we get a "second chance."  Pointing that out says nothing about me personally.  Why would you want to be a poor example to other Catholics? 

I love our Church!  It has given me so many things to be joyful about-especially the miricles of my children. 

I didn't damn Mr. Hitchins to Hell, if he did not repent during life, he did that himself.  I'm sorry that you don't agree with the CCC, which is the teachings of the Church that you must believe to be a Catholic.  Your view is very well regarded in the secular, "Oprah" culture here in the U.S., and you are very welcome to it-but it's not Catholic.
Lara Martinez | 12/16/2011 - 1:56pm
My full name is Lara Martinez.
david power | 12/16/2011 - 1:55pm
Lara,

What is impossible for Man (and woman) is possible for God.
I have this mental picture of you with your hands on your hips
and staring Jesus down as he attempts to let Christopher Hitchens in.
You too will pass before a king and a surprise might be awaitin you dear sister  
Lara Martinez | 12/16/2011 - 1:15pm
I had to add that I'm really alarmed at your thoughts on what Purgatory are:

"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."

Conversion MUST be during life!!  Purgatory is for souls who died in a state of grace (in God's friendship) and who were only imperfectly purified. 

Mr. Hutchins cannot repent after he is dead.  Conversion is for the living.
JANICE JOHNSON | 12/16/2011 - 1:12pm
Thank you, Fr. Jim, for your compassionate remarks.  I recently had an argument with two othe Catholics who adamantly stated that the Catholic Church no longer believes in Purgatory.  I countered with the statements in the Catechism.  But, even if it weren't a belief, I would  still hold it as a truth.  It seems to me to be the embodiment of what a loving, merciful, just God would provide for his people.

To carry the parable of the Prodigal son, father and the older brother further, there is a beautiful eulogy for Christopher written by his brother, Peter Hitchins, in the "Mail Online" today.  These brothers were estranged for many years.  Peter, a former atheist, is a practicing Anglican and is known for his traditional views.    The brothers' reconciliation , as "true" Englishmen, is touching.  How blessed they were to have the time at the end of Christopher's life to make amends.  The workings of God's grace is always a marvel to behold!
Lara Martinez | 12/16/2011 - 1:07pm
I have to disagree with you Father.  While it's absolutely true that we cannot know who goes to Heaven, Hell or Purgatory, it seems certain that Hitchens died without conversion if you believe his (almost) deathbed statement:

 "[Don't wait for a deathbed conversion]... redemption and supernatural deliverance appears even more hollow and artificial to me than it did before." (from a letter to the American Athiests in which he gives his regrets for not attending an event due to the ravages of cancer).

While I certainly hope that Mr. Hitchins is in Purgatory, I have to wonder at your glossing over of the evil that he propogated during his lifetime.  Doesn't it matter that this man singlehandedly lived his life in opposition to God and used his considerable talents maligning, mocking and denying God?  How many people has he led into this empty and meaningless philosophy?  I fear the most for our young people who are bombarded and indoctrinated in this hollow secularism at universities.

I will pray that Mr. Hitchins is indeed a prodigal son, but for that, he needed to repent.  It is not "Christian" to believe that unrepentant sinners have a chance to spend eternity with Christ-our Faith does not teach that.  It is a secular view, which is presumptious.  Jesus Christ said that we must be baptized, follow Him (as the Way the Truth and the Life), and those who do not believe in Him will not know God but will be eternally damned (Mark 16:16, John 3:18).

It's not the "Oprah" way of thinking that there are many paths to salvation, and there is no Absolute Truth, only "your truth" and "my truth."  I think we need to think clearly about what our lives are about, and how life is not ours to waste.
Tim Reid | 12/16/2011 - 12:41pm
I'm grateful once again, Father, for your submission to this blog.  I am in the middle of teaching my sophomores about heaven, hell and purgatory and I'm thinking of using your post for an assignment.  I especially enjoyed the "pleasantly surpised" remark.  Well done, good and faithful servant!
Walter Sandell | 12/16/2011 - 11:55am
Fr. Jim,
Your article is the essence of Chistianity, and very well put.
Surprise!  Surprise!  Surprise!
Julian of Norwich says, "All will be well."  I suspect that purgatory is something like a flash freeze.
GOD LOVES YOU, EVERYONE!
Robert Feduccia | 12/16/2011 - 11:20am
Thank you! These are exactly my feelings. I have often perceived the dim glimmer of faith in Hitchens. It is a glimmer that I do not see in Richard Dawkins. Hitchens angered me; challenged me, and he ultimately strengthened my faith. In the short term, I do believe he hurt the state of Christian faith. In the longview, I think he will make Christianity more modern and more relevant because of the way we need to grapple with his arguments. The Church's response to the modern atheists will mark her future.
David Pasinski | 12/16/2011 - 10:31am
Amen, amen, amen!!!! May such a brilliant intellect be likewise humble enough able to aceept the love and forgiveness of the Mystery of All. And may we all... And may he and Mother Teresa dance together in delight on the fringes of that Eternal Perichoresis...

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