A self-proclaimed atheist lies on his deathbed. Friends and family gather around, pleading with him to accept Christ as His personal Savior “before it’s too late.” But alas, the disease wins, and the man’s eyes close as his shallow breathing ceases. He’s gone.
But is he gone forever? Is his deathbed choice to reject God the last straw that assures his eternal destruction?
Christ came into contact with many seemingly “unsavable” folk during His short ministry on earth. The rich young ruler, the woman taken in adultery, corrupt tax man Zacchaeus, the thief on the cross, those standing around at the Crucifixion with bloody hammers in their hands—they’d all rejected, in one way or another, the pure principles of love outlined in Scripture. They’d put self-rule over God rule just as the children of Israel had done when they campaigned for an earthly king to lead them. Samuel didn’t mince words when he told them: “You have now rejected your God, who saves you out of all your disasters and calamities” (1 Sam. 10:19, NIV).
It’s a firmly held Christian perspective that the only way to salvation is to accept Christ as your personal Savior. Didn’t Jesus say, “I am the way and the truth and the life. . . . No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6, NIV)?
This is absolutely true. Rejecting Christ does take you out of the running for a spot on the sea of glass. Why? Because God makes heaven available only to those who are willing to believe there is one. It’s a destination for people who trust divine truth and reject Satan’s lies. But in His statement Christ cracked open a door that many overlook. He said, “I am the way. Except through Me.”
They’re faithfully following the blueprint for love that God planted in their hearts.
Which begs the question: What if a person never knew the real Jesus? What if he or she had only come into contact with one of the many false christs mentioned in Matthew 24:24 and, based on what they’d seen or heard, rejected the whole idea of God out of hand?
We see and hear these false christs heralded from pulpits, TV screens, and books all the time, and I can’t say I blame some atheists for their unbelief. When it comes to such gods, I’m an atheist, too.
Many firmly believe that heaven is the big payoff for all the sacrifices you’ve made over the years; for all those times you wanted to do something evil but didn’t. If the prize for decades of self-denying and putting others first is eternal life, then it’s totally worth it, right? “Why should someone who didn’t fight that good fight of faith—or even acknowledge the existence of God—be admitted?” they say in their hearts; “they didn’t earn it!”
Thankfully, for us all, this isn’t the way God thinks—as demonstrated by His Son, Jesus. What we do, what we say, how we act, and what we believe aren’t a measure for anything other than representing our hard-earned victories over sin, or revealing our glaring need for forgiveness and divine intervention. So before I pass judgment on someone’s eligibility for the earth made new, I must take a long, hard look at myself. The “filthy rags” of my righteousness (Isa. 64:6) are useless. While my striving for perfection and following God’s principles do provide a safer, happier, healthier, and more fulfilling life here on earth—benefits totally worth the struggle—my salvation hinges on Christ’s sacrifice alone.
I know for a fact that many atheists are sincere, kind, loving, generous, and forgiving souls. They’re faithfully following the blueprint for love that God planted in their hearts. What they’re not doing is acknowledging the source of their devotion.
Paul understood this when he wrote: “(Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.) This will take place on the day when God judges people’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares” (Rom. 2:14-16, NIV).
What a wonderful opportunity this affords us to not judge atheists or call them unworthy of heaven, but to demonstrate with our lives and testimony our personal belief in Jesus and how He’s a God of forgiveness and second chances.
Which brings us back to our dead atheist. Perhaps he never had anyone demonstrate God’s true character in a way that was life- or belief-changing. Maybe no one ever introduced Him to the type of Savior who could eclipse the pain in his life or the doubt that shadowed his heart. He may have closed his eyes in death never knowing the gentle touch of Jesus because, here on earth, that gentle touch was supposed to be delivered through human hands—the same hands that belonged to people who considered him unfit for heaven—and told him so.
That’s why I like to imagine another scene: Jesus appears the second time. The graves of those whose hearts God knows are pure—those who followed the light they had, even though they’d rejected the human-inspired versions of God presented to them—burst open. What they and our atheist friend experience at that moment is what they’d missed throughout their earthly existence—the direct, unfiltered call of the Savior and the gentle touch of the same Jesus who died so they could live again.
They see His true character unshadowed by human frailties and Satan’s lies, and fall in love with their Savior. With shouts of praise, those who finally know the whole truth—including our atheist friend—embrace the God they never knew, and leave behind their unbelief forever.
Charles Mills, author, radio show host, and media producer, has published several books, including Religion in the Real World, Refreshed Parables, and Surprising Nature.