Friday, August 2, 2013

Could Hitler be "Saved" - A Thought Experiment

Having been around the around the Christian theological block a few times I think I have a pretty good basic grasp on the subject of salvation (the theo-nerds call it soteriology) and various theories of the atonement, eschatology, the afterlife and so on. I was reading a blog post about Hitler in Heaven and I thought it would be fun to try and figure out just how that might be possible, or even IF that might be possible, within the various doctrinal systems that would pertain to such a thing. I'm sure I'm over simplifying, but here is a quick list of possible scenarios that could allow for Hitler being in Heaven. Note that these scenarios fall within the generally accepted Christian range of belief systems. Certainly people will argue vigorously between the more Reformed side (options 1 and 2) and the more Arminian side (option 3), but you generally won't get thrown out as a heretic for falling into either of these camps.

1. Eternal Security (Once Saved Always Saved)
2. Election
3. Deathbed Conversion

So lets quickly think through these options.

Eternal Security, referred to by the nerdy as perseverance of the saints, would hold that anyone, even someone like Hitler, could technically make it into Heaven by virtue of having had a valid and true conversion experience at some point in their life. If it was a true and valid conversion experience, then God is essentially honor bound (by virtue of certain passages of scripture) to honor that salvation experience. Of course the sheer lunacy of applying this doctrine in a rigid and un-nuanced way has resulted in a sizable number of escape clauses that God can presumably use to avoid having Heaven populated by the likes of a Hitler. Most popular would be the question of whether or not the conversion experience was true and valid. It seems to go without saying that if Hitler was going to make it into Heaven purely by virtue of his true and valid conversion experience at the age of 15 or so that it wasn't actually a true and valid conversion experience. Or something like that...

Election is the idea that God chose in eternity past, before the creation of the world, just who would be saved and who would be damned. From this it generally follows that the elect person would (obviously?) have a conversion experience at which point the perseverance of the saints kicks in and we can jump up to the above paragraph and follow it through from there. Well sort of. With election you don't have the possibility of an untrue or invalid conversion experience so God doesn't have that escape clause open to him should an elect Hitler make it to the pearly gates. Fortunately you can just push things back up the line a bit and deduce that if an elect Hitler showed up at the pearly gates he wasn't actually elect. Never was and never could have been. Phew... 

There is a school of thought that subscribes to once saved always saved but doesn't subscribe to election (Free Will Baptists, etc.). In other words, the conversion experience is a matter of free will but once you've had the conversion experience your will (at least in regards to salvation) is no longer free. Technically your will in regards to, oh lets say, genocide is still free, but those who commit genocide obviously didn't have a true and valid conversion experience... And, well, you get the point...

Having eliminated the first two options we are obviously left with the deathbed conversion. Interestingly the deathbed conversion works just fine with the first two options so I guess we really didn't eliminate them after all. But anyways... the idea here is that a person could live a completely horrible life, they could be as evil as, lets say, a Hitler, and if, for whatever reason, they had a conversion experience at some point prior to their death (even if only minutes or seconds prior), they're good to go. They've got their pearly gate pass in the pocket of their white robe and they're golden.

As I said, this works fine with option 1. They were elect, but perhaps for the purposes of demonstrating God's glory it was determined that Hitler wouldn't have his actual conversion until right before his death. In Hitler's case this is made a little harder by the fact that his death was a suicide (historically a sin), but there's still at least a second or two of consciousness after the trigger is pulled for the conversion to take place. It also works fine with option 2 for pretty much the same reasons.

I don't know about you, but this all leaves me a bit dissatisfied. However, I assure you this conversation has been had many many times in Christian circles. I've been a part of many many such conversations. I don't think I've ever heard a thoughtful and sincere Christian say that it was simply impossible that Hitler could make it to Heaven. Most people are pretty sure he won't be there, but all the various doctrinal systems pretty much have to allow for Hitler to make it to Heaven.

I'd say most people, regardless of their theology, would agree that Hitler showing up in Heaven via any of the above scenarios is kind of hard to swallow. But we have to accept the possibility, because after all to deny it would be to essentially deny that God is all powerful and God can make anything work out. Even a sociopath showing up at the pearly gates with a free pass. Another thing that makes it hard to swallow is that inherent in all of the above doctrinal systems is the idea that when a "saved" person dies they are immediately made perfect (theo-nerds call it glorification) either at the moment of death or at the moment of the resurrection (depending on your doctrinal system). They were "counted" as perfect at the moment of their conversion, but are actually "made" perfect at that post-death point. Nowhere in here is there any notion of making restitution for wrongs done or having to suffer any sort of punishment for the vile deeds done. At least not for Protestants. Catholics have purgatory which, at least in the case of Hitler, sounds pretty good.

If you made it this far you should be wondering something, and if you're not it's probably because I'm not a very good writer. You should be wondering how it's possible that anyone could NOT end up in Heaven. If God is powerful enough to get even a Hitler into Heaven by election, by choosing them before they were ever born and then working things out from there, why wouldn't he just choose everyone? On the other hand, if God can step in between the time a trigger is pulled and the time a brain is splattered and bring even a person like Hitler to conversion, then why wouldn't he do this for everyone? How do we know he WON'T do it for everyone?

By this point you're probably coming to the conclusion that this whole things is starting to get a bit silly. How did we get to the point where we've got to make up all these convoluted scenario's when trying to figure out how a person like Hitler could make it to Heaven? Maybe all our systems and doctrines and rules have boxed us, and God, into a framework that seems to make sense if you don't really push too hard on it, but once you really start pushing at it, and drawing things out to their logical conclusions, you end up with scenarios and arguments that are just plain silly.

Maybe the real story of how God will get people like you and me, even people like Hitler, into Heaven actually makes sense. Maybe it is a lot less silly, and a whole lot more beautiful, than we're making it out to be.

Stay tuned...