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.