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.