How to Witness to a Dying Unbeliever
You are seated at the bedside of a loved one who will soon be slipping into eternity. From what you know about this person, there is no reason to think that he is prepared to meet the Lord. Part of you would like to simply comfort him and say, “Goodbye.” But, as a Christian who knows about the realities of heaven and hell, the Holy Spirit is prompting you to do what you know you need to do—take this one last opportunity to share the gospel with your loved one and compassionately encourage him to prepare for eternity. What do you say and how do you say it?
I know this feeling, I’ve been there several times. And frankly, a couple of times I’ve walked away without doing what I should have done. Those failures on my part still haunt me. Oh how I wish I could go back and re-live those opportunities! So, it is a situation that I’ve thought about a lot. And my failures compel me to never want to “wimp out” again at the bedside of an unbeliever who is passing through “the valley of the shadow of death.” (Psalm 23:4)
Here are some of my thoughts on what should be done and how to do it:
- Be assured that “deathbed conversions” can be genuine. Keep in
mind the classic example of the thief on the cross who died along side of Jesus and what Jesus said to him: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
- What you say and how you say it largely depends on a few variables related to the situation.
- Is his (or her) death imminent? If so, you need to be very direct, but always in a tender and caring way. There is no time for him to “think about it,” so you need to lovingly encourage him to trust Jesus “now,” while you are there to assist him.
- How much does he know about the gospel? If he grew up going to church where he was taught the Bible, you would still want to explain the total plan of salvation, but focus more time explaining that salvation is “by grace through faith and not of works.” Perhaps reminding him of the thief on the cross, a story he would probably remember from Sunday school, would help assure him that God can still save him, even at this very late stage of life. If he has not grown up in a family or cultural context where he would have been taught the Bible, it is important to explain the basic concepts in God’s redemptive plan as thoroughly as the situation allows.
- How much freedom do you have to share the gospel with him—freedom from distractions and freedom from family members who might oppose your efforts? In a hospital setting, I would suggest you talk to the nurse on duty and ask for some private time with the patient. If there are family members present who might not be sympathetic to the gospel, it is best to have a candid conversation with them and seek their permission. Assure them that you do not intend to do anything to upset their loved one.
- How clear-minded and conversant is he? Even if a dying person is so near death that he cannot open his eyes or speak, sometimes he may be conscious enough to understand what you are saying. In those cases (even if you not sure if he is conscious or not), it is good to explain the gospel to him (softly, slowly, and clearly) and encourage him to place his faith in Jesus to be his Savior. You can always hope and pray he understands.
- If he is clear-minded and capable of speaking with you, present the gospel in a way that encourages him to engage with you conversationally. Ask engaging questions (generally avoid “yes” or “no” questions) to get him to open up to discuss his fears, past spiritual experiences, and questions about salvation and the gospel.
- Minimize discussions about his medical condition or other topics that will sidetrack the discussion from the gospel. This is a time to stay focused on what is eternally important.
- Focus on the truths of the gospel, more than just heaven and hell. Salvation does not come to a person just because he or she wants to go to heaven or does not want to go to hell. People are saved when they understand the gospel and place their total trust in Jesus and what He has done to make our salvation possible. It’s certainly OK to mention heaven or hell, but the likelihood is greater than a deathbed experience will be genuine if the response is to the essential truths of the gospel, not just a fear of hell or desire for heaven.
- The gospel must be presented clearly enough that there’s very little possibility of misunderstanding. The Chronological Bridge to Life (ChronoBridge) is a simple and effective method for presenting God’s redemptive plan to unbelievers in a way that they can understand the essential facts of the gospel as well as the overall historical context for the sacrificial death of Jesus. The ChronoBible cards from GoodSoil.com have been used effectively with dying friends and loved ones.
- If the person is capable of listening to an audio recording and his death is probably not imminent, Reflections – The Audio Experience is a excellent resource to set up for him to listen to. It’s a 6 ½ hour audio journey through the Bible’s Big Story of redemption—an encouraging story for believers and a hope-filled message for unbelievers.
Hope Stories from the “Valley of the Shadow of Death”
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