On Death Bed Conversions
With the recent passing of a very famous man, lots of talk about death bed conversions has again been heard – at least in the Christian community. Hugh Hefner just passed away at 91, leaving a very dark legacy indeed. I penned a piece on his life of porn and perversion here:
Many people commenting on his death spoke about whether he might have repented and become a Christian just before he died. My short answer would be this: a last-minute conversion experience is always possible; we have absolutely no evidence that this happened with Hefner; and it is always very dangerous indeed to live your whole life like the devil, and expect at the last moment to make your peace with God.
Let me unpack these three statements in more detail. Can and do death bed conversions occur? Yes. We have of course one very famous biblical example of this: the thief on the cross. All four gospel accounts mention this story. Mark 15:27 and John 19:18, 31-33 provide just the briefest of accounts.
But much more detail is found in Matthew 27:38-44 and Luke 23:32-43. And in Luke 23:39-43 we find the complete story of the conversion:
One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
So this is a clear case of someone who experienced divine forgiveness just before his death. It can happen therefore. And stories of such conversions can be found throughout church history. Of course not all of them are fully verifiable or affirmed with any degree of certainty.
Sometimes we have much more speculation and wishful thinking than actual proof. With another recent death, that of atheist Christopher Hitchens, we also heard some believers claiming he came to Christ while dying of cancer. I do not believe this has been fully confirmed either.
The point is this sort of thing can happen, but we cannot always be certain about it. As to Hefner, we have no evidence as yet that he became a Christian in his last days. So unless we get a clear word to the contrary, we can only assume he died an unrepentant sinner.
Certainly there is no evidence that he did change. If someone who was close to him, especially in his dying days knows otherwise, then perhaps we will hear about it at some stage. But for the moment we will have to assume he died just like he lived: a defiant rebel who hated God and holiness, but loved sin, self and sleaze.
God alone knows the human heart and those who are his. But the Bible makes it clear that we can assess a person’s life by the fruit he bears. So we must be fruit inspectors here. Consider just three important texts on this:
-“Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance.” (John the Baptist, Luke 3:8)
-“You will know them by their fruits.” (Jesus, Matthew 7:16)
-“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Paul, Galatians 5:22-23)
Thus I for one fully reject some wild claims being made by clueless and unbiblical believers who are talking about Hefner being in heaven now because God is so loving and gracious. Yes, I have actually heard people say such foolish things.
Hogwash. The entire biblical record informs us that without repentance and a changed life, there is no right standing with God. God never drops his holy and just standards. He is too pure to look upon evil (Habakkuk 1:13), and without holiness no one will see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14).
With this in mind, let me make my third and final point. Anyone who thinks they can spend their whole life living for self, living in sin, and living for the devil, but can do a quick prayer at the end of their life and just sneak into heaven is fooling himself.
Such a life of wanton and defiant rebellion and disobedience is a very dangerous place to be in. As we read in 2 Corinthians 6:2, “Now is the day of salvation.” Or as Hebrews 3:7-8 urges, “Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.”
Jesus often spoke about the folly of living as if God does not exist, only to find your life has been cut short. As but one example, consider the parable of the Rich Fool found in Luke 12:16-20:
And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’
“Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’
“But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’
That parable alone should put the fear of God into all of us. We are here today and gone tomorrow. No one knows when our Creator and our Judge will bring our lives on earth to an end. Then it will be too late. Then we will face God’s judgment.
So don’t you dare think you can live for yourself all your life, and then get a quick hit insurance policy arranged during your dying moments. It does not work that way. I like what John Piper said in his 2005 book God is the Gospel about such matters:
Christ did not die to forgive sinners who go on treasuring anything above seeing and savoring God. And people who would be happy in heaven if Christ were not there, will not be there. The gospel is not a way to get people to heaven; it is a way to get people to God. It’s a way of overcoming every obstacle to everlasting joy in God. If we don’t want God above all things, we have not been converted by the gospel.
So hoping for some death bed conversion to offset and remedy a life of sin and selfishness is the height of stupidity. No one should operate that way. Hefner lived like the devil, and unless a real conversion did indeed take place, he is now in a very bad position indeed.
And those six decades or so of hedonism, sin, perversion, the lusts of the eye and the lusts of the flesh, will fade into nothing compared to the everlasting punishment he will have to endure. And it is too late now to pray for the guy, as Hebrews 9:27 makes perfectly clear.
In sum, can a death bed conversion happen? Yes. But it is likely a rare event, and it is certainly not something anyone should put their hopes in. As Jesus said of such people, they are fools.
Let me close with a few quotes from the great English preacher Charles Spurgeon, who spoke often on these matters:
“But it is a sorrowful fact that those which seemed to be death-bed repentances have seldom turned out to be worth anything when the men have recovered. In fact, I do not remember a case in which the person who recovered has been at all what he said he would be when he thought that he was on the borders of the grave.”
“Put no trust in death-bed repentances; they are of all things the most deceitful. Every thief repents when he comes to the prison, and every murderer will leave a word of repentance on his pathway to the gallows. It is no sign of the heart being set right to cry and groan when you are coming near your punishment.”
After writing this piece I stumbled upon an article in which famous Christian author Lee Strobel said he once shared the gospel with Hefner. Of course it is one thing to HEAR the gospel, but it is quite another thing to BELIEVE AND ACT UPON the gospel. It seems the former happened, but whether the latter actually took place is still a moot point.
18 Replies to “On Death Bed Conversions”
Bill a man frequents the Christian outreach table chatting with all and sundry and who knows much about the Scriptures but refuses to commit his life to the Lord Jesus and follow His example through the waters of baptism. He keeps saying “I will, just not now”. I am convinced he is holding onto something in his life he does not want to have to let go of and despite several warning about his foolishness I fear he will die a lost soul.
I would like to share my two cents worthy. There are some who refuse to repent even though they have been given opportunities after opportunities. They stubbornly sinned deliberately all their lives. Hence death bed conversion might be no conversion at all because it is just a kind of last resort kind of thing. Their conscience and their hardened heart might be too darkened to even repent. Of course, only God knows if they truly repented. The warning from Proverbs 1:26 – 28 (Wisdom of God speaking) is that when such a person who repeatedly refuse to listen to words of warning and rebuke from God, when calamity fall upon him/her, he/her will not receive any mercy or sympathy from God. This sort of warning is not confined only in this verse but also scattered in several other passages in the Bible. (Heb 6: 4- 6 It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, … who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again …)
Prov 1:23- 31
Repent at my rebuke! Then I will pour out my thoughts to you, I will make known to you my teachings. But since you refuse to listen when I call and no one pays attention when I stretch out my hand, since you disregard all my advice and do not accept my rebuke, I in turn will laugh when disaster strikes you; I will mock when calamity overtakes you – when calamity overtakes you like a storm, when disaster sweeps over you like a whirlwind, when distress and trouble overwhelm you. “Then they will call to me but I will not answer; they will look for me but will not find me, since they hated knowledge and did not choose to fear the Lord. Since they would not accept my advice and spurned my rebuke, they will eat the fruit of their ways and be filled with the fruit of their schemes.
The reference to Lee Strobel’s having told Hefner the Gospel leaves the man with no excuse – just like everyone else in the Western world, really.
Years ago I did hear somewhere that 9 out of 10 atheist before they die do confess to God or Jesus on their death bed. I personally had a neighbor who was an agnostic and didn’t know what to believe in. His wife was a Christian and she told my family that on his last days he did cry out to God. I may not know where he ended up but I hope Jesus did give him divine forgiveness.
Just FYI: John Bunyan in The Life and Death of Mr Badman (a “stinking atheist”) held a very low opinion of death-bed conversions.
From the testimony of my brother my grandfather was converted about 3 months before he died. There was a marked difference in his life as the bitterness he had harboured against the Japanese from his experience in WW2 had melted away. With this evidence I believe that God had heard the prayers of his godly father.
So true Bill. It’s a false spiritual mindset to hope to give God as little of our lives as we can, our last dying moments, so that we can ‘have fun and enjoy’ our sin and still escape punishment and gain Heaven. God gave His all for us, and there are so many who just want to give Him our death rattle.
Thank you Bill for putting a Biblical perspective.
@ James Tirrito “Years ago I did hear somewhere that 9 out of 10 atheist before they die do confess to God or Jesus on their death bed.”
“There are no atheists in the fox hole.” – a quote from a US military chaplain in the Battle of Bataan.
This seems…way too optimistic, shaky and ill-defined:
Thank you Bill. You have clearly and scriptually laid out the issues. And when death strikes, it is still by God’s permission and timing.
I once nursed a foolish man in an aged care facility, who clearly mocked the gospel message when I first brought it to him. He was rational and well able to accept or pass by the opportunity for salvation given to him. Though I still cared for and prayed for him, sadly, by the day of his death he had full dementia, with no ability to make a last minute decision for Christ.
On the mornibg, I “just happened” to be his nurse and was witness to what happened. He was lying in bed, palid and listless with his eyes closed and a loud death rattle. Suddenly he lifted his head and shoulders off the pillows, and with eyes wide open, dark with fear and a look of true horror and shock on his face, he stabbed the air with his hands in protest and with all his strength shouted out “Ouy!! ouy!!” then dropped back dead.
“Saints” go peacefully to God, but sadly, it was too late for this old “sinner” as he was being dragged to hell. A wretched end indeed and a death-bed scene I will never forget.
Thank you very much for this thought provoking and interesting article.
As a Catholic I believe in the Catholic doctrine of purgatory. I have to admit that I do not know where in scripture this doctrine comes from or when or why it was formally adopted by the Catholic faith. Perhaps someone could enlighten me please! I believe it is an article of faith. In any event it makes sense to me since I think humans cannot fully understand how much even small or venial sins offend God who is pure Goodness. It is said that there is a veil separating the living from the dead. Only when this is removed at the moment of death can we fully understand everything. Then the need for faith and hope is removed. As it says in the Catholic dictionary purgatory is ‘the place or condition in which the souls of the just are purified after death before they can enter heaven.’
I once read a book about an Austrian woman who had a special gift, visitations from the holy souls in purgatory. They told her that they gladly succumbed to the suffering of purgatory which involves the loss of God the gravity of which they can then fully understand as they have entered into the next life. This they voluntarily do rather than look upon Him with the stain of sin they know they still have on their souls.
The sad part is that it is said they can no longer help themselves. They rely on the living to help them through prayers. Therefore I always include psalm 130 in my prayers ‘for the ones I have known and loved and those who have no one to pray for them’.
All I can say is that the moment of death is a great mystery.That is why every day I ask for the intercession of St Joseph for a ”happy” death as he is said to be the patron of ”happy” deaths having Jesus and Mary by his side as he died. By ”happy” it is meant peaceful.
As for Mr. Hefner let’s hope he is in purgatory not hell if there is indeed such a place.
Finally,like you I am very sceptical of the claims by some that the souls of their dear departed loved ones have flown straight to heaven when they died.I think If heaven is that good it has to take some effort to get there.
Thanks Patricia. Yes this is one clear area where Protestants and Catholics differ theologically. I will have to give just a very short answer here – a longer reply will have to wait until I write a full article on this. I already mentioned Hebrews 9:27 in my article. This is a crucial text: you die and then the judgment. No second chances, etc.
There is no clear biblical support for the doctrine of purgatory. Catholics appeal to the Apocryphal book of 2 Maccabees (2 Maccabees 12:43-46) to make their case. But Protestants do not recognise the Apocrypha as divinely inspired Scripture, so that too will have to be the stuff of another article. So stay tuned!
As for Christopher Hitchens, he has a brother who is very much a believer! Peter Hitchens is not given his due credit. BTW Christopher understood the Islamist threat. I’d like to believe he recognised salvation!
Thanks Paul. Yes Peter did indeed renounce his atheism and become a Christian: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2010/06/14/a-review-of-the-rage-against-god-by-peter-hitchens/
Whether Christopher ever did remains to be seen. Yes he was good on Islam and a few other things, but that does not make one a Christian! Repentance and faith in Christ does. I discussed his death here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2011/12/16/christopher-hitchens-rip/
A life time of ingrained debauchery whisked away with the last breath of repentance?
And then cometh the judgment of the Holy One upon them; and then cometh the time that he that is filthy shall be filthy still; and he that is righteous shall be righteous still; he that is happy shall be happy still; and he that is unhappy shall be unhappy still. And he who is a horse thief shall still be looking for a free ride. Say neigh?