In all the class pictures that my mother kept and stored, from kindergarten on, I can find the same towheaded boy. His name was David. He was my sometimes friend and sometimes adversary. David was in nearly every class I took all the way through high school.
David and I formed a club when we were in grade school. He was the president. I was the vice president. The club dissolved a day after it was founded.
David was good with words. He used them like weapons. He would tease and poke fun until I would throw him to the ground or wrench his arm behind his back. He would say “Uncle” and stop teasing – until the next day, when it started all over again.
His ability with words came in handy. He used it to persuade his classmates to vote him “most likely to succeed.” He went off to college at Ohio State and then to graduate school. The last time I heard anything about David, he owned a chain of businesses in Florida. He succeeded.
Once when we were much younger, David produced what was then called a “nickel bag” of marijuana. That began a conversation that somehow came round to talking about God. David told me then that he intended to “get religion” someday, when he was old, “like seventy.” Until then, he intended to have fun.
I have occasionally thought about David over the years. Did he ever get married? Does he have kids? Does he still run his business operations? But mostly I wonder if he ever “got religion.” He was so sure, when he was a young man, that he would find the door open for him to turn to God when he was older. I wonder.
It’s not that I think he will find the door locked. I’m just not sure that, after all the other doors David has walked through, he will be able to find the door at all. I am even less sure that he will still want to find it.
This is the dilemma for people who put off turning to God. God is ready, eager even, to welcome them back, but the longer they ignore him, the harder it is for them to want to come back. Some, like King Saul in the Bible, find at the end of their life they cannot muster the desire to turn to God. Worse yet, some find they cannot want God to be God.
After spending a lifetime ignoring God and denying his claim on one’s life – or even denying his existence – can a person still turn to God? Without a doubt, a person can still turn to God. Does it happen often? About that, I am doubtful, but it does happen.
Anthony Flew, the Oxford analytical philosopher and son of a Methodist preacher, spent most of his career as an apologist for atheism. Though he attended C. S. Lewis’s Socratic Club at Oxford, he rejected Lewis’s arguments and went on to author books advocating an atheist position. Then at the age of 81, Professor Flew shocked the philosophical world by announcing that he had become convinced of the existence of God.
The Bible has its own story of a late-in-life conversion. One of the men executed alongside Jesus, whom the biblical writers describe as a robber and a criminal, turned to Jesus shortly before his death and said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” This is extraordinary on many levels, not the least being that he was capable of expressing faith in the last minutes of his life. The Bible, it’s been said, provides one story of a death-bed conversion to keep us from despair, and only one story to keep us from presumption.
So is it ever too late to turn to God, to open oneself to spiritual truth, and start a new kind of life? As far as God, “who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth,” is concerned, it’s never too late. There is no objective obstacle that can prevent a person from coming to him, whatever his or her age. But the subjective obstacle of a deep and engrained resistance to God may prove insuperable. It is for this reason that St. Paul urges, “Now is the time … now is the day of salvation.” Tomorrow may just be too late.