This week's question comes from Steve in Georgia who asks, "Are death-bed conversions legitimate? Can someone really live a life apart from God and then in the last few moments say Gee, I'm sorry' and have it all forgiven?"
This is one of those questions when righteous folk want to hear words of justice, not mercy. But alas, like Jonah who was angry over Ninevah's repentance and salvation (Jonah 3.10--4.2), we too must realize God is both just and merciful.
To answer the question we first need to recall the parable Jesus told of the landowner who hired workers first thin in the morning for the usual daily wage. Several hours later, the landowner hired more workers and sent them to the fields, promising them they would be paid appropriately. Finally, late in the afternoon he hired even more to go and work for only one hour.
When the evening came and the workers collected their pay, the landowner paid the workers from the afternoon first; they were paid a full day's wage. Next, the workers hired in the late morning were paid; they, too, received a full day's wage. Finally the workers who had worked in the fields from the earliest morning were paid; they were paid exactly as they had contracted for, nothing less and nothing more.
Now those hired in the morning were angry because they expected more, since the landowner paid the late-comers a full days pay. But the landowner replied, "Why are you angry? I have paid you what we agreed. Surely I can do what I like with my own money. Why be jealous because I generous?" (Matthew 20.1-16 paraphrased).
The point is, God is both just and merciful.
However, the question implies that the end-goal of being Christian, or in being in a relationship with God, is life after death. But this is a faulty assumption. Words about the hereafter are contained in less than 10 percent in the Bible; virtually promises everything else is concerned with the here and now. Being in a relationship with God is supposed to have intrinsic value here on earth, but the Church over the past 1,000 years or so has shifted the emphasis to the value of heaven. Even popular hymns reflect the yearning for the hereafter: "One fine morning, when this life is over, I'll fly away."
Those who make deathbed confessions and conversion have missed out in life. They've missed the opportunity to live life in a long-term special, warm, and satisfying relationship with the one who creates and empowers life. They've missed being with a constant companion who always knows what one needs and wants to help, a companion who is always there to listen, and a comforter in the hard times, a joyous friend in the good. That's what is missed when we wait "until the last minute;" we miss a life filled with meaning and contentment.
When I think about what is missed by not being in relationship with God--the peace, joy, contentment, meaning, and fulfillment, I can think of nothing more heart breaking. Yes, a deathbed conversion is legitimate, but how sad for those who wait until the end.