Let me paint a picture:
You die. You ascend, or transmute, or do whatever happens, and end up in heaven. You are greeted by angels, ancestors, Jesus, all the people you would wish to see. Then over someone’s shoulder, not too far off, you notice someone perched by a river, working on a watercolour. It’s Adolf Hitler.
Hitler made it.
Now take a moment, and think: How do you feel?
Betrayed? I think that is a likely reaction. “But that’s not what it says! Vengeance is mine, sayeth the lord. An eternity in hell is promised. If Hitler’s not in Hell, who is? How could God do that? I was a good Christian! Hitler killed millions directly, and was indirectly responsible for as many as 100 million deaths. His evil is inconceivable, off the charts.”
I think most negative reactions would have these sorts of sentiments. Frustration. Anger. All beyond comprehension.
Hitler in heaven is a great test for your understanding of your own theology.
But what could possibly be the argument for Hitler being in heaven?
The most basic is the famous “once saved, always saved” line of thought. Many of us have used this to seek self-assurance for loved ones who, once Christian, had fallen from the Way prior to their death. Hitler was raised Catholic. His mother, Klara, is always painted as a particularly devout woman. Hitler even used Christian rhetoric in some speeches, though always with his usual anti-Jewish zeal. (The irony of hating Jews and loving Christ is a well-trod path that I won’t go down just now)
From many Protestant points of view, sin is sin, without scale or degree. The havoc wreaked upon the world between 1933 and 1945 was Hitler’s sin, his separation from God. According to much post-Calvinist doctrine, whether we like it or not, Hitler’s sin is as bad as ours. No better, no worse. We all fall short. You fall short. Hitler falls short.
That’s tricky, isn’t it?
We’re as separated as Hitler. That’s one of those things which you can intellectualise, which you can say, but it’s hard to feel in your bones. It’s hard to look yourself in the mirror and say, “Adolf Hitler was no better or worse than me in God’s eyes.”
If you don’t accept the scriptural accuracy of “once saved, always saved”, there is always the chance of last minute repentance. We don’t know that Hitler made any sort of reconciliation with God in those final, fleeting moments, but we also don’t know that he didn’t. He might have. Tales of last-minute reconciliations with God litter Christian history.
Was Hitler in the bunker, like the man being crucified beside Jesus, suddenly gripped with the tragedy and majesty of the cross?
We don’t know.
Beyond that is the idea that hell is not eternal, that aeon is repeatedly mistranslated, and that Hell is a purging of sin, which leads to ultimate reconciliation. “Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.” (Romans 5: 18)
I think we can likely all agree that at some level, we don’t know who exactly is going to make it, and who is not, in spite of whatever hopes we may hold.
If I saw Hitler sat painting his watercolour, I like to think I’d wander over and have a chat with him, maybe pick up some pointers on how to get the light on the water just right. I like to think that I would recognise, in that most lost of sheep, the love of God, and I would respond to that with love. I like to think that I would be overjoyed.
If there is one thing I hope for in the afterlife, it is surprise, and even disbelief, at the vast limitless expanse that is God’s love.
John Watson discovered Jesus’ footprints late in life, and has been joyfully trying to negotiate The Way ever since. He is a musician and educator, living in Maidstone, in the south-east of England, with his wife and two children.
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