Can a Deathbed Confession Really Get You to Heaven?

Let’s say someone who hasn’t accepted God waits until the last few moments of his life, choosing to opt for a deathbed confession and repentance of his sins. Should he expect to get to Heaven?

Last week, in response to my post about the “unspoken prayer request,” a favorite among some Christians, Aislínge asked an interesting question about the deathbed confession of sins and repentance:

“I often hear about a criminal in prison, on his deathbed, who suddenly wishes to recant his life of abject sins and receive absolution for whatever heinous crimes he has committed. And after speaking to a priest and giving up all of his crimes, he is given this absolution! This seems too often too easy and very much as when Indulgences were sold by the Church (the Catholic Church, I mean). Indulgences were one of the bigger items that the Church used to earn money that wasn’t warranted.”

Years ago, my childhood pastor, the man who baptized me thirty years ago, and who just recently passed away, gave a thought-provoking sermon in which he proposed the following scenario:

Suppose a man who hasn’t accepted Christ as his personal savior and has lived a life without God for all of his time now finds himself on his deathbed. He has time, as he waits for the end to come, to re-evaluate his life, and realizes, much to his surprise, that he was wrong. He is able to see God’s movement throughout his life and the lives of those close to him despite the fact that he’d have never been willing to admit it before. Now, he prays to God, begs for forgiveness of his sins and asks Jesus Christ to come into his heart and accepts Him as personal savior. Can such a person really be saved?

It’s liable to raise eyebrows among some Christians because it sounds like a very loaded question: Can we just do whatever we want, live however we want, and at the last minute, toss out a “Oh, yeah, sorry, God” and we still get to heaven?

Technically, that’s not exactly the question as it is asked. What’s missing in that simplification is the most critical part: the man on his deathbed is absolutely sincere in his desire to make amends and to trust Jesus.

It’s that critical part that changes everything.

As my pastor said, it’s entirely possible for that to happen. And if that man genuinely repents and seeks God, God will grant him eternal life through His Son, Jesus Christ. The keyword, it goes without saying, is genuinely, because God certainly knows whether we’re just faking it.

Here’s the catch: We never know when our deathbed is coming. Nor do we have even the remotest guarantee that when it does, we’ll have the time and coherent thought to make such an eleventh-hour conversion.

It’s an extraordinary gamble to wait until the last possible minute to seek God.

But that wasn’t the real lesson of the message.

The real lesson — and what’s even more important to remember as we seek to learn exactly who it is we worship — is that God would pour that grace over us. He loves us so much, beyond our understanding, that He’d still allow us to take advantage of the promise He made us.

As much as it would break God’s heart for us to decide to live our entire life without Him, it would break it even more for us to spend the rest of eternity apart from Him.

There’s something amazing in that truth: we face a level of love and understanding from our Creator that should give us hope.

If we’re willing to accept it.


  1. Yes, we have Biblical evidence for this. 1) The thief on the cross asked Jesus for pardon at the end with full sincerity of repentance. Jesus said “Surely, you will be in Paradise with me, today”
    2) The parable of the workers all being paid the same but all starting work at different times. The Master says, are you going to criticize me because I am generous? 3) Catholics know there is a purgatory where satisfaction for sins must be made up for. None of this says we can kept repeating the same old sins over and over without trying to repent. That would be the sin of presumption. Who knows when are life will end? Will we have sufficient sorrow for our sins then? Always be ready.

  2. Andi Roo  Andi, I appreciate the comment and I wanted to reflect on it a bit before I responded.
    You make a very critical observation right off the bat: we judge fairness much differently than God does, and I think it’s in that fact that the crux of the matter lies.
    God IS fair because He loves everyone of us the same amount. Because any of us make mistakes — and we ALL make them — that’s not enough to make Him stop loving us. Despite the fact that some of us make horrific mistakes, He doesn’t stop loving us. It’s even true that He doesn’t stop loving us if we refuse to acknowledge mistakes we’ve made in the past.
    God gave His son to die on a cross for ALL of us. There is nothing we can possibly do to DESERVE the gift of salvation; the gift was given before we were born and we are free to accept or reject it.
    I also think that God knows our hearts. I think that if the rapist in your scenario was genuine, he’d probably reach out to you and seek your forgiveness at some point, too. But in reading your response, a gnawing thought occurs to me and I have to question how quickly you’d actually accept such an apology, or whether you’d accept it at all. God WILL accept that apology when we make a sincere one. No matter who we are, no matter what we’ve done.
    We ALL have that opportunity.
    I would suggest you reconsider the God you “choose to follow” based on who we’re told He is in the Bible and through Jesus Christ. That God is a God of love and hope and the promise of salvation. We don’t get to judge who is and isn’t worthy of that: He does. And because, as you are so correct to point out, our view of fairness is different from His, it’s a good thing we DON’T get to make those judgments.

  3. Andi Roo  But by that logic, for what reason should anyone repent of their sins and turn to got? There’s no point, right? So rapists just keep on raping in despair and lack of motivation to change.
    I guess I’d rather spend eternity with a repentant rapist than a bunch of people who bent the little rules. The latter pretty much sounds like my current life, and it’s not heavenly. 😉

    It’s a knotty problem, that’s for sure. I chalk it up to God to work out, in godly omniscience, what the right thing to do is for everyone.

  4. I think the problem lies in what we humans deem is fair. And of course, humans judge fairness much differently than God does. 

    But here is my personal example: I have done some things which I do not regret, and which I never will regret, but which Christianity indicates will keep me from Heaven unless I repent, beg forgiveness, and ask Jesus into my heart. I’m okay with foregoing all that, because I’ve made peace with my choices and what that might get me in the afterlife. 

    However, the things I have done don’t come close to murder, pedophilia, rape, theft, or any illegal activity. So I don’t think it’s “fair” that I am a good person, but do not regret my actions, while another person who is in actuality NOT a good person can get shuffled into Heaven because at the last minute he realized the error of his ways. 

    A fair God, in my opinion, would say something like this: “Well, my child, I’m glad you realize you done wrong, but you have a lot of making up to do for all the harm you caused. It’s really too bad you waited so long. Your soul is too tainted with evil to be allowed to frolic in Heaven with people who aren’t rapists. I wish you’d come to me sooner, so we could have worked something out.” 

    And you know what? A person who truly repents of his horrific crimes should see this is a fair assessment. However, God ISN’T fair, and humans are likewise unfair, and the fact is, repentant rapists can get into Heaven while I’m left out because of some stupid clause. Not that I’m bitter or anything {ha!}. And that’s one of many reasons I am against this system. I like things to be fair. I like justice. I like the idea of karma and that what goes around comes around. The God I choose to follow would not accept a last-minute apology, no matter how sincere, because the God I choose to follow is fair.

  5. patricksplace SuziShumaker Jesus told the thief on the cross what? Today you’ll be in paradise w/me The Bible says what? Anyone who calls

  6. I read a religious column (as in, a regular columnist writing on religion) in the Denver newspaper not long after Jeffrey Dahmer was killed in prison in which the author took issue with Dahmer’s prison conversion to Christianity and said that regardless of that–*even if it was real*–the man was definitely going to hell. I was appalled. How do we KNOW where any of us end up?? I mean, really…the gall and small-mindedness of this writer just disgusted me. I mean, for an easy example: look at St. Augustine’s life.  smh
    I agree with you, Patrick: whenever it is that we give ourselves over to God, God’s grace will save us. All we have to do is accept it. And that’s the stumbling block  that brings people up short: acceptance.
    Disclaimer: I lived in the Milwaukee area when Dahmer was arrested. It was horrific. What he did was evil incarnate. I’m not by any means suggesting otherwise, nor am I suggesting that we as a society or the victims’ families should “forgive and forget”–he was found guilty of criminal behavior and sent to prison as he should have been. I will also add that the behavior of the non-criminals was pretty nasty: his library card computer record was trashed, for instance, by staff leaving hateful messages on it. We ALL need to behave better toward each other.

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 27 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.