Sometimes, it seems as if God has a dark sense of humor. There is a Nashville, Tennessee man named James Washington who apparently was always connected to a 1995 murder of a woman, but officials never had enough evidence to convict him. He was in jail recently for something entirely different when he had a heart attack. While he was in the hospital, he believed that he was going to die. He wanted to make a “deathbed confession” to prison guard Tomlinson, whom he motioned to come to him. Here is the guard’s account:
“‘He kind of got as best as he could, motioned, and said, “I have something to tell you. I have to get something off my conscience and you need to hear this.” He said, “I killed somebody. I beat her to death,”‘ Tomlinson told the jury.”
Washington confessed to murdering Joyce Goodener, the woman whose murderer was never found out. But then, Washington didn’t die as he thought he would. He survived, and is apparently doing fine, healthwise that is. He’ll be doing time for the rest of his life because of his confession. In court, he tried to take back his confession, but it was too late. He was found guilty and faces an additional 51 years in prison.
Last week, a Texas man confessed in his hospital bed to mutilating a 37-year-old woman when he was a teenager. While police were investigating, the man who confessed died in the hospital. It was found that the details in his last minute confession matched the crime scene. For years, everyone had suspected that the victim’s son was the murderer. Because of the confession, the son was exonerated.
There’s a Latin saying that goes, “en vino veritas.” That is, “in wine is truth.” But deathbeds are far more effective. There’s something about impending death that makes us (but particularly unbelievers) honest. When we have only hours or minutes to live, we know we have nothing to lose, that we’re going to die anyway, and it won’t hurt to let people know our darkest secrets. But it’s more than that. I think some people are so terrified not just of death itself, but what comes after death. They’re terrified of Hell.
We’re all born with a conscience that knows the difference between right and wrong. People can tell themselves their entire lives that there is no God and can commit heinous sins, but their consciences can only be calloused for so long. For most of their lives, these people could protect their cherished, secret sins from everyone else, but when the reality of death descends upon them, and they feel its cold and dark presence, they feel an insurmountable burden of guilt. They may not have believed in God or even in sin, but when it actually comes to dying, they all of a sudden feel guilt for all the sin they committed. They feel like they have to confess it so that God isn’t as harsh on them after they die. Isn’t it a little funny in a dark way that an atheist spends his entire life trying to disprove the existence of God and moral absolutes only to be terrified on his deathbed of those very things he dogmatically claimed not to believe in?
I’m not saying James Washington is an atheist. I think he is a Muslim. And that doesn’t make his afterlife prospects any better.