The last moments of someone’s life are often the most complex. When faced with a certain end, how do you accept death? How does the realization that you’re mortal and that your time has run out affect your beliefs, your thoughts, and your relationships?
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Throughout history, deathbed conversions have taken place in high and low places. Conversions at the point of death have existed since the earliest days, but most of these moments are lost to time itself. It wasn’t until the Gospel of Luke that the first deathbed conversion was written down.
What is a deathbed conversion? How does it relate to deathbed etiquette, and what are some of the famous stories relating to these end-of-life moments of religious clarity?
Deathbed Conversion Explained
A deathbed conversion is what it sounds like: a religious conversion that takes place in one’s final moments of life. The idea of mortality isn’t easy to grapple with. When people feel the end is near, they are likely to look for answers. Most of these answers are provided by religious sources.
The discussion around deathbed conversions is usually in relation to Christianity. It refers to either the immediate change of belief, formalizing long-term beliefs, or finishing an ongoing process of conversion.
Within the Christian church, there’s a lot of rhetoric and storytelling around instances of last-minute conversions upon one’s deathbed. It’s easy to see why many would be compelled to convert to Christianity in their final moments as a way to ensure safe passage to Heaven. However, this isn’t a black and white declaration both within Christianity and history.
Is it possible to convert at the end of one’s life?
For devout Christians, many believe it’s not possible to simply convert o Christianity at the end of one’s life. To live in Christ’s image is to live a life free of sin. This isn’t something that can be done in just a few words on the deathbed.
Is it possible for someone to live a life of sin and then declare love for God and Christianity in his or her final moments? Is this enough to warrant sympathy in Christ’s judgment? There is no clear answer.
This is an ongoing discussion in the Christian church. Many believe that these last-minute changes of heart are enough for salvation, while others maintain that this is not enough compared to a lifetime of devotion to God.
Deathbed conversions and religious rhetorical devices
There’s a darker side to deathbed conversions that’s not always apparent at first glance. While this might be seen as a way of saying goodbye to a loved one that had a sudden change of belief, things aren’t always as they appear.
These stories are often used as a way for the church to encourage non-believers to begin practicing Christianity. The implication here is that atheists, non-believers, and those of other religions will experience a change of faith once confronted with the end.
While this could be powerful rhetoric on one level, it can delve into religious propaganda in the wrong hands. There have been many instances of Christian leaders speaking up about famous non-believers who had an unexpected deathbed conversion, suddenly announcing their belief in God in their final moments. Unfortunately, many of these stories have been debunked by those who were present at the time of death.
On its surface, a deathbed conversion could be a moving religious moment. It’s a striking insight into how many people feel when death is looming over them. In the wrong hands, these stories are manipulated to paint Christianity as the only “right” choice at the end of life.
For these imagined or exaggerated deathbed conversion stories, even victorious conversions are painted in a controversial light. In order for non-believers to convert, they needed to be faced with imminent death and fear of everlasting punishment. As you can see, deathbed conversions are a complicated part of Christianity.
5 Famous Deathbed Conversion Stories
What are some of the most famous deathbed conversion stories? While some of these have been refuted in recent years, they’re still undeniably great stories on powerful end-of-life feelings.
1. The Good Thief
The first recorded deathbed conversion is of the good thief in the Gospel of Luke. The good thief is the criminal crucified beside Jesus on the cross. Jesus was crucified with two thieves. One of them taunted Jesus with the crowd, but the other rebuked him. The good thief famously said, “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation.”
In the final moments of the good thief’s life, Jesus told him that he would rest with him in paradise. This was the first deathbed conversion, and with that, the good thief was saved. The Christian church recognizes the good thief as St. Dismas today.
2. King Charles II of England
King Charles II of England reigned as leader of an Anglican nation during a period of religious tension. He signed a treaty with French King Louis XIV in 1670. In the treaty, he agreed to convert to Catholicism and support the French in their war against the Dutch.
It wasn’t until he was on his deathbed that King Charles II finally went through with his promise. He converted to Catholicism, despite the anger of many of his Anglican subjects.
3. Constantine I
The Roman emperor Constantine has likely the most well-known deathbed conversion. Once his father died, he fought to take over control of the Western Roman Empire. He became emperor of the Western Empire in 312, and the empire of the Roman Empire in 324.
Constantine was the first emperor to allow Christianity in his empire. He protected Christians following a vision, though it’s suspected his mother also influenced his decisions. When he suddenly fell ill, he rushed into baptism and converted to Catholicism upon his deathbed.
Though his Christian beliefs dated before his death, he purposely delayed his baptism. At this time, it was common to delay baptism until the deathbed because it was believed that to sin after baptism was to reap eternal damnation. His conversion brought the Roman Empire from paganism to Christianity, changing the world forever.
4. Charles Darwin
One of the most common examples of a deathbed conversion is Charles Darwin, the famous naturalist and biologist behind the concept of survival of the fittest. Darwin was a vocal atheist throughout his life, denouncing the controlling nature of religious beliefs.
He criticized those who believed in the Church, saying, “Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work, worthy the interposition of a great deity. More humble and I believe true to consider him created from animals.”
Yet, a woman came out after his death claiming that he denounced evolution in his final moments. He expressed his regret and said he would have preferred to have spent his life sharing the word of Christ. He welcomed death knowing he had found salvation.
However, Darwin’s children quickly posed their disbelief at this story. Those who were actually at his deathbed, including his daughter, debunked this account. They made it clear that Charles Darwin never guessed his beliefs throughout his life nor at his deathbed.
To this day, many evangelical leaders still use this deathbed conversion story to show how one of the most vocal people against religion can find “salvation” in their final moments. The fact that this story has no factual foundation is a good reminder that these deathbed conversions aren’t always reliable, especially when so few people are there in these last moments.
5. Oscar Wilde
There’s a lot of mystery around the writer Oscar Wilde’s final moments. Famously, he was reported to say, “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or other of us has got to go.” Like his writing, he held his humor close until the end.
Throughout his life, Wilde had a fascination with the Catholic church. His father openly spoke about disinheriting him if he became Catholic, but this didn’t stop his curiosity. During his time in jail, he read extensive Catholic literature, including the Bible.
In his final moments, Fr. Cuthbert Dunne, a young priest, wrote that he gave himself to God at the end. He is said to have converted to Catholicism at last on his deathbed.
Though his poetry undoubtedly has references to Catholicism and religion, this story is still disputed. Though Dunne wrote extensively about his experience with the writer at the end of his life, only Wilde knows exactly what he felt as he faced death.
A Moment of Religious Insight: Deathbed Conversions
Deathbed conversions are a heated topic of debate within Christianity and religious discourse. The reality is that it’s hard to know for certain just what individuals are feeling at the end of their lives. When the darkness of eternal damnation looms closer, it’s easy to see why many are compelled to feel a moment of religious insight.
While deathbed conversions undoubtedly happen, it’s also important to keep a critical eye on stories like these. The final moments of someone’s life are a deeply personal thing. When our mortality is limited, the deathbed is an intimate, challenging place. Some find peace, some find conflict, and others are lost to time.
- Burger, John. “Oscar Wilde’s Deathbed Conversion Focus of a New Movie About the Playwright.” Aleteia. 11 May 2018. Aleteia.org.
- “Charles II of England.” Biography. 28 June 2019. Biography.com.
- “Constantine I.” Biography. 5 June 2020. Biography.com.
- Krauss, Lawrence M. “The Fantasy of the Deathbed Conversion.” The New Yorker. 6 June 2016. NewYorker.com.
- Padin, Kevin. “Ten Myths About Charles Darwin.” Oxford Academic: BioScience. 1 October 2009. Academic.OUP.com.
- “St. Dismas, the Good Thief.” University of Notre Dame: Faith ND. Faith.ND.edu.