I’ve included heaven in quotation marks because sometimes what we think of as ‘heaven’ is different to what the Bible teaches, but that’s a question for another time.
In answer to the question I was asked, yes, it is possible for someone to live a godless life, turn to Jesus at the last moment and then be welcomed into God’s Kingdom – this exact scenario is record for us in Luke 23. When Jesus was crucified, there were two others crucified with Him, we’re told they were criminals. Later traditions grew up around these two individuals but all we know is that they were criminals deemed worthy of the severest form of execution in the Roman world. In fact, one criminal states that he is simply getting what his deeds deserve, but then in the last moments of his life he turns to Jesus and says:
‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’
Jesus answered him, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.’
By ‘remember’ this man is not asking Jesus to think about him, but for Jesus to rescue him and Jesus assures this man that he will indeed enter into God’s Kingdom that day. Perhaps this sounds strange, perhaps a little unfair but the Bible teaches that we don’t and we can’t earn eternal life. What we need is not a long history of good deeds, what we need is a Saviour. The person who is plucked out of the water at the last moment is no less saved than the person who was dried and reclothed long before. Our greatest need is a Saviour. Expecting to get into God’s Kingdom based on our catalogue of good deeds is as futile as relying on 50m swimming badge when you’re drowning in an ocean storm. Jesus said He came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10).
So, does that mean that someone could live their whole life having nothing to do with Jesus and then in their last moments, if they ask Jesus to save them, He will? Yes, but a word of caution, actively taking such an approach is not a good way to live.
The New Testament letter to the Hebrews puts it like this:
‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.’ (Hebrews 4:7)
If we harden our hearts by saying ‘I’ll get round to Jesus tomorrow’ we may find that when tomorrow comes we no longer care, never mind the fact that none of us know how many more tomorrows we have. Rather, we are to respond to the good news of Jesus the Saviour today, whether that day occurs early on in our life or right at its very end.