Deathbed Confessions–are they unjust?

It has been objected that God would be evil to let deathbed confessors enter his grace. Imagine these late-term confessors are the vilest evildoers. Now contrast them with non-Christian but otherwise decent people who are condemned to hell for the sole crime of not believing in Jesus. Where’s the justice in that?

This thought experiment has some plausibility in a Christian worldview, but it doesn’t quite sit right with the rest of Scripture. There may be some, rare, cases of death-bed confessions but I do not think this amounts to any serious problem for the goodness of God. As a general principle, this thought experiment may be only that, a non-real experiment in thinking. Here’s why I think this prospect is more intimidating in theory than in practice.

First, no one deserves heaven–the fact that anyone gets there is not justice or injustice but grace. Second, justice is served in Christ’s death on the cross. Of course it’s not just and right for sinners to go to heaven, that’s why sin has to be solved in full and final punishment on the cross. That answer is not LESS than justice (i.e.: injustice), but rather MORE than justice. Third, there’s no guarantee that death will be so visible in approach that sinners will know to confess–aneurysms, car-accidents, shootings, all sorts of death come fast without warning. There’s no guarantee that one will have the time to confess (much less repent) since we never know where the countdown is at. Fourth, its doubtful that anyone who “sins it up” with the expectation of repenting later has any sincere repentance lurking in his heart. Its like saying, “I’ll beat and abuse my wife now, but I’ll make up with her before she’s dead so her memory doesn’t haunt me.” How ridiculous to think we can always CTRL+ALT+Delete such life-shaping things as our very character all within a single stray moment. One can hardly MEAN “I’m sorry” when one had every chance before hand to say it, and now its said only under coercion, out of fear, with no character or sincerity to fill out those hollow words.

But those general points aren’t anything unusual. There is another point more subtle to Christian thought that’s often forgotten in this discussion. There is in Christian thought the doctrine of the “hardened heart” variously called “stiff-necked people” or simply “unrepentenance.” In this thought, there comes a time where a person has so rejected the different moral fail-safes (conscience, holy spirit, revelation, etc.) till God finally says, “Fine, have it your way.” At that time, the person’s character is decided, their free-will is restricted and contracted into the lordship of their hardened heart. Their habituated sin has become them. They ARE sinners, with no chance to be otherwise. They’ve had their choices, now they have their consequences. There is no guarantee that a death-bed confession will even be an option for just anyone. Scripture does not promise that people will everywhere and always be able to “get right with God” as long as their is breath in their lungs. Quite the opposite, the resounding chorus is, “Today is the day of salvation, repent while you still can.” There are liable to be fake confessions on death row, people voicing the words of repentance with unbowed hearts and insincere lives. And others meanwhile die for their crimes going to the grave still cursing the God who made them.

And on the other end of things, no one will go to hell having been morally perfect and exercising full faith in whatever amount of revelation God gave them. False. I deny that premise. No one who would trust in Jesus as their savior is denied the opportunity. And no one else (of morally accountable age) is morally perfect to deserve heaven.

God’s justice is swift and sure, and finer than our imagined sense of “right.” The thought experiment of death-bed confessors dissolves into fog, obscure, and unreal. There’s no righteous indignation that can take root there, only wicked discontent at God’s justice.

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