The Dismas Option: Why We Shouldn’t Wait to Come Back to God

The devil tempts us to think that sin will make us happy, but he’s lying. The devil is no authority on happiness.

Titian, “Christ and the Good Thief” (c. 1566)
Titian, “Christ and the Good Thief” (c. 1566) (photo: Public Domain)

Sometimes I wonder how many people fall away from the Catholic Church and live apart from God for many years, with the plan to return at the end of their lives.  Their plan is to live the way they want, to “have their cake and eat it, too,” to “beat the system.”

Jesus warned against this thinking in His Parable of the Thief in the Night in Matthew 24:42-44. Commenting on this passage, Saint Augustine observes: “Foolish are all they, who either profess to know the day of the end of the world, when it is to come, or even the end of their own life.”  Yet, like those who insist that warning labels do not apply to them, they persist.

They choose what might be referred to as The Dismas Option. The Dismas Option, named for the “good thief” who was crucified next to Jesus and was saved by Him, is predicated on the idea that holiness makes us miserable, while sin is what really makes us happy.  (Otherwise, why would one opt for it?)  However, and it is vitally important that we make this fact abundantly clear: sin does not make us happy.  Few facts in history have proven more obvious, yet few ideas in history have faced more resistance. 

Consider how people often relate the story of Saint Dismas.  Some people envy him, not only because he was assured eternal life by Jesus, but because he was able to spend his life in thievery and get away with it.  In this telling, Dismas had the best of both worlds: he was able to have the unadulterated happiness of sin and he was welcomed into the happiness of Heaven.  Perhaps we’ve listened to too much of Billy Joel’s pop atheology (“I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints/The sinners are much more fun…”), but we can’t leave any souls under the impression that sinning-for-now is a good salvation strategy. We need to explain the inevitable connection between virtue and happiness and between vice and sadness.  If we don’t, our catechesis and apologetics is failing.

Are the sinners, as Mr. Joel suggests, much more fun?  Is it the case that the greatest sinners in history have been the happiest people?  Have the greatest saints been the most sad and unfulfilled?  History says otherwise.  Living a life in serious sin is not only the path to Hell; it is a hellish existence here on earth.  

The paths to both heaven and hell are often linear, but we create our own trajectory.  And it is not only the ultimate destination, but the trajectory itself that is either hellish or heavenly.  Rod Serling, in a closing commentary from The Twilight Zone episode “Night Call,” said it well: “According to the Bible, God created the heavens and the earth. It is man’s prerogative, and woman’s, to create their own particular and private hell.”  This is one of the reasons that admonishing the sinner is a work of mercy; it not only helps someone avoid eternal Hell, it also helps them climb out of their own self-made hell on earth.

The devil tempts us to think that sin will make us happy.  It’s a lie, and the devil is the worst authority on the subject of happiness.  Who is the best authority on happiness?  The answer is God, the Author of happiness, and there is no lasting happiness without Him.  That is true both in this world and the next.  There may be many reasons that good and virtuous men and women are unhappy, at least at times.  After all, the world is fallen, and so are we.  But there is nevertheless an inseparable connection between fulfillment and happiness.  And while virtue fulfills, vice lacks. It is virtue that makes man happy.  In his magnum opus, Paradise Lost, Milton tells the story of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden, but envisions Saint Michael offering the advice to Adam for happiness:

                                                            “…only add 
Deeds to thy knowledge answerable, add Faith, 
Add Virtue, Patience, Temperance, add Love, 
By name to come called Charity, the soul 
Of all the rest: then wilt though not be loth 
To leave this Paradise, but shalt possess 
A paradise within thee, happier far.” 

In the aggregate, man is happy and fulfilled insofar as he virtuously lives in accordance with his nature—in accordance with his end.  Man’s end—man’s purpose—is to be with God in Heaven.  And to live apart from that truth is to live a lie.  Worse, it is to live a life that calls God a liar. 

One final thought about Saint Dismas.  It is said that he was able to have his way his whole life and then cheat Hell at the last moment.  In fairness, we don’t know a lot about him.  But we can guess that the greatest robbery Dismas ever pulled was the one he performed against himself.  Insofar as he entrenched himself in the violations of the seventh and tenth commandments, he robbed himself of a happy life.  It was only in repentance that he was able to be meaningfully happy again, even as he died on a cross. 

Perhaps there is something of the Dismas Option in many of us.  Sure, we aren’t going to completely turn our backs on God, yet there may be one sin that we give in to, thinking that it will make us happier. But our faith—and logic—tells us that it won’t. Saint Augustine, who famously prayed, “Lord, make me pure, but not yet,” finally realized that the real contradiction was not between God and happiness; it was between sin and happiness.