Religion was very important to devout Catholic author Flannery O'Connor, and the story "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" has been expertly set up by O'Connor for a shocking conclusion with a definite religious message of redemption through grace. We are led by O'Connor to feel a certain way about the annoying, bigoted, bossy, critical grandmother and her rude, ungrateful family. But all through the story, O'Connor drops tiny hints that the grandmother is not the hopeless case she seems to be. There are no such hints for the rest of her family.
For example, in the car trip, the grandmother points out interesting and attractive sights—and O'Connor agrees, saying the "trees were full of silver-white sunlight and the meanest of them sparkled." Even so, the "children were reading comic books and the mother had gone to sleep." Here O'Connor suggests that the children and mother are not capable of appreciating the beauty that surrounds them, but the grandmother is and does.
There are other hints that the grandmother is not a lost cause: she plays appropriately and fondly with the baby in the car; she won't let the children throw their trash out of the car; she asks her son Bailey if her would dance with her, and when he rudely will not, she "pretend[s] she [i]s dancing in her chair." These hints tell us that the grandmother has an underlying humanity that the rest of the family lacks.
Once the car wreck happens, O'Connor shifts the mood so that the flaws in each character are magnified. The children are even more bratty, Bailey's rage-filled ineptness comes out, and the children's mother continues to be a cipher until it is too late, dooming her baby who is joined to her at the hip. The grandmother characteristically tries to charm the Misfit by flattering him that she knows he is a "good man at heart" and "not a bit common."
As things deteriorate, the grandmother repeatedly mentions Jesus to the Misfit and tells him that he should pray, but he tells her he does not want any help because he is "doing all right by [him]self." While the grandmother's understanding of Jesus and prayer remains tenuous, O'Connor has the Misfit puzzle through a deceptively simple theological monologue, where he concludes that if Jesus is who He says He is, there is nothing to do but "thow everything away and follow Him," and if He isn't, there is nothing left but hedonism coupled with "meanness." This is a contrast between the Law of Nature and the Law of Grace.
When the grandmother sinks dizzily in the ditch, she ends up in a praying position "with her legs twisted under her." Seeing the Misfit's distraught face, the grandmother's "head clear[s] for an instant," and she reaches out to the Misfit as if he is one of her children. Here, O'Connor is telling us that the moment of moral clarity the grandmother has experienced has redeemed her soul.
Often, O'Connor puts her very flawed protagonists in excruciating situations so that—in their shock—the transcendent can enter. The Misfit hints at this when he says the grandmother would have been a good woman if there had been "somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life."
Although "A Good Man is Hard to Find" seems religious only at the end, in fact O'Connor methodically builds a story of a very flawed woman who has an epiphany of compassion when faced with gruesome death. Religion is essential to this story.