What If Hitler is in Heaven?: Finding Faith at the Eleventh Hour

According to Bullock, Hitler was an opportunis...

Image via Wikipedia

My friend Ryan sent me an interesting email the other day that got me thinking. He asked a question about ‘last minute conversions’ and wondered why Christians get so bent out of shape thinking that someone may have lived a life incredibly far from God and yet be saved at the last possible second of their life.

If you think it is a petty and prideful position…you may be right.  But before you cast judgment on the Christians who judge these conversions as insincere, double-dealing, or unjust, consider the classic WWII dilemma: What if Hitler, at the very last moment of his life, deeply and honestly repented of his plethora of grievous sins and submitted to the Lordship of Jesus Christ? Would God save him?

If you are a Christian, you might be uncomfortable with this possibility. If you are not a Christian, I imagine you might think this suggestion is what makes Christianity sound ridiculous. I mean, how could even heartfelt repentance make up for the murder of millions of innocents? How could a few tears reverse the eternal fate of one who brought tears of despair to the eyes of parents, children, husbands and wives across Europe?

The Bible tells a story very similar to the hypothetical one about Hitler above. God tells a man named Jonah to go announce God’s coming punishment on the city of Nineveh. And rightly so. Nineveh is a major city in the country of Assyria, and the Assyrians are known for their particularly gruesome and cruel war practices during hostile takeovers of foreign nations.

The problem? Jonah doesn’t want to go since he knows that this gives the Ninevites the opportunity to repent and turn to God. God, being the merciful kind of God that he is, will undoubtedly relent. There is no way Jonah will be a part of that. Those people should suffer for the pain they’ve caused! It’s only just.

When Jonah finally submits to God and announces God’s judgment to Nineveh, they do in fact repent (just as he expected). Jonah is ticked. Lesslie Newbigin, a missionary to India in the 2oth century, put it this way:

…Jonah is utterly disappointed. The heathen are not to be punished after all. What justice can there be in a world where God is so absurdly generous? (The Open Secret, 35)

It’s the same story Jesus tells in Matthew chapter 20. In this story, Jesus describes a man who goes out and hires a bunch of workers for his field:

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard.  He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

He goes out early in the morning…and late morning…and in the afternoon…and in the evening (literally ‘the eleventh hour’).  Then when the landowner was paying his workers at the end of the day, he gives a denarius to the ones who worked a full day…and a denarius to those who have been working for practically no time at all.

What?

Outraged, the early-hired workers make a fuss about the slackers starting at day’s end receiving the same amount as they did. The landowner’s response?

“Are you envious because I am generous?”

For those of you who don’t buy Christianity at this point, who think that the concept of God allowing Hitler into heaven is ludicrous and a miscarriage of justice, I applaud your sensibilities of justice, but I want to challenge your premise.  Most people don’t think it is utterly ridiculous that God would have mercy on them, you know, because they have done a few bad things but they’re no Hitler. Hitler was a whole other kind of evil.

I suggest to you that the difference between Hitler and you and between Hitler and me is quantity, not quality. Sure Hitler was quantitatively worse than any of us, but not one of us who have ever held a grudge, ever hated somebody, ever lied to get our way, ever neglected helping someone in need so we could buy more toys can deny that we harbor the same qualitative evil in our hearts.  in our smaller circle of influence, we too contribute to the brokenness of the world.

Hitler has absolutely no right to God’s mercy. But neither do we. That’s why it’s mercy. God’s mercy is undeserved. It is free. It is ridiculously generous. No one is beyond the reach of God’s love.

If you are a Christian and judge all such ‘crisis conversions’ at the moment of death or otherwise as insincere, if they bring a sour taste to your mouth, you should remember not only the bigness of God’s mercy but also your own journey in the faith. Who of us can say that our faith did not begin or at least significantly grow in moments of crisis? When our wrongdoing comes back to haunt us, when our family breaks down, when we lose our only source of income, when we are diagnosed with an illness, we see more clearly the brokenness and fragility of our life. Consequently, we see more clearly our need for God.

One last word. Many Christians have a hard time stomaching the deathbed conversion of someone who lived their whole life for pleasure for a slightly different reason. They’re envious. Like the early-hired workers, they too wish they could have lived life for themselves instead of for God.  They are betraying their lack of belief that they have new and abundant life in Christ NOW. Life in submission to the ‘perfect law that gives freedom’ (James 2) is truly better (not easier) than a life lived for personal pleasure and a shadow of true happiness.

One has to wonder what degree of true freedom people have found in a life submitted to God if they have this attitude toward the eleventh hour converts.  Perhaps they have not found such freedom and joy because, like all of us, they sometimes do God’s will out of legalistic and sour-faced obligation. In other words, they have not realized the bigness of God’s mercy and that they can’t do anything–anything at all–to earn it.

Perhaps this reason isn’t so different after all. Perhaps the envious Christian needs to remember the bigness of God’s mercy, that obeying God cannot earn you brownie points anymore than Hitler’s tears could have earned him salvation.

It’s free…that’s why it’s mercy.

(image courtesy of Wikipedia)
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