Are deathbed conversions really fair?

Q. I’ve been told that if even the worst criminal repents on his deathbed and prays for Jesus to be his Lord and Savior, he can be forgiven and spend eternity as a “good and faithful servant.”  But many, if not all, of his innocent victims might never have understood the need for redemption, such as young children who never got the chance to learn right from wrong.  The criminal goes to heaven while the victims suffer in hell.  How is this a moral system?

I sympathize with your sense that this would be a great injustice.  So we need to ask some important questions about the idea of a deathbed conversion.

It’s often used as a hypothetical example to illustrate how salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone.  We can do nothing to earn or deserve salvation, so even the worst offender who truly repents can be saved.

But it’s an extreme example.  Could this really happen?  Would someone who had pursued a course of evil over a lifetime really abandon it right at the end, out of truly genuine motives?  Wouldn’t their conscience be so hardened that any show of religion would actually be just a desire to escape the consequences?

The actor and comedian W.C. Fields was a lifelong atheist.  Shortly before he died he was seen reading the Bible.  When asked what he was doing, he replied, “Looking for a loophole.”  Whether he was serious or making a joke, his example illustrates what the motive might be for a deathbed conversion.  Divine justice has no obligation to open the gates of heaven to people who think they’ve found a loophole just by praying to receive Christ.

We can reasonably expect that a sincere commitment to Christ will be accompanied by the “fruits of repentance,” as John the Baptist insisted to the crowds who were trying to escape the “coming wrath.”  These fruits, which can only be confirmed over time, must include a newly sensitive conscience, a full admission of guilt and acceptance of responsibility, and a sincere effort to make restitution to victims and their families.  If any any of these things were missing, we couldn’t say confidently that the criminal had genuinely been saved.  “By their fruits you shall know them,” Jesus insisted.

Another important point to make about deathbed conversions is that we shouldn’t equate being saved by grace alone, through faith alone, with simply “praying the prayer.”  I believe that to be saved a person does need to make a definite commitment to Christ in response to God’s gracious overtures, and we often encourage people to do this by praying and asking Jesus into their hearts as Lord and Savior.  But such prayers are only words if they don’t express a genuine, heartfelt intention to follow Christ at any cost.  I’ve heard great emphasis placed on being able to say exactly when and where you “prayed the prayer.”  I’m actually more interested in what this really meant, and what happened next.

With all of this said, we must still acknowledge that a genuine deathbed conversion is a possibility.  When the thief on the cross, a convicted criminal, acknowledged Jesus as the innocent Savior, Jesus promised he would be with him in Paradise.  The approach of death and judgment can lead a person to examine their life in light of eternity and make a commitment to Christ, recognizing a need they hadn’t taken seriously before.  But we should expect this to be the culmination of a process that was already leading the person visibly to a more sincere faith in God and a more generous love for others.  The thief who was promised paradise wasn’t demanding “Save yourself and us!” like the other thief.  He was concerned for Jesus’ reputation, not his own escape from the judgment he admitted he deserved.

I would add, in conclusion, that I believe God looks upon the victims of crimes with mercy and compassion, and that God doesn’t punish people endlessly just because they never got the chance to understand or believe.

I hope these thoughts are helpful.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

4 thoughts on “Are deathbed conversions really fair?”

  1. Chris,

    I like how you emphasize that not all deathbed conversions are “created equal,” so to speak, because it addresses–in part–the sense of injustice we might feel about this kind of hypothetical example. However, I think it is instructive to go even further (or even more strongly) than you did to point out that if even the worst criminal were to have a genuine deathbed conversion then, yes, he would be forgiven.

    This kind of system strikes us (humans) as unjust exactly because we (again, humans) cannot fully comprehend what _grace_ is; we are so ingrained in a merit system of justice that we cannot naturally accept the gift of grace. The problem is that a “just” system would involve none of us(*) being forgiven since we all fall short without God’s freely given gift of grace. In _What’s So Amazing About Grace_, Philip Yancey wrote (I am paraphrasing from memory), “Grace is free only because God himself has borne the cost.”

    So, while I think it is definitely helpful to point out that grace is not “cheap” (i.e., “praying the prayer” won’t cut it), it is also helpful to point out that grace is “free.” That’s why the mathematics (or economics) of grace is so atrocious and scandalous.


    (*) except maybe victims of crimes, young children, etc., as you point out.

    1. I agree with you, anyone who had a genuine deathbed conversion would be forgiven and welcomed into heaven. The true sense of injustice arises when we think of cases where the supposed deathbed conversion seems suspiciously like “looking for a loophole.” We create the danger of this when we insist that “all you have to do is pray the prayer.” A true conversion is like the one Zaccheus had, when he immediately promised to repay fourfold anyone he’d defrauded, and to give half of his goods to the poor. Jesus could say confidently, “Today salvation has come to this house.” I don’t think people struggle with the idea of free grace, but of cheap grace, as you helpfully distinguished.

      1. By pointing out that a genuine deathbed conversion would be forgiven, I didn’t mean to imply that you might think otherwise (because I know you obviously wouldn’t); rather, I wanted to emphasize an additional point to your already excellent commentary.

        However, I respectfully disagree with the last sentence in your reply. I think a lot of people (Christians included) struggle with the idea of free grace; I know I do (and I know many others like myself). In contrast, I don’t struggle with the notion of cheap grace since I don’t think God works like that. But free–and undeserved–grace? More often than not, I am the prodigal father’s older son.

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