I’m a fan of Ask Away with Vince and Jo Vitale, an apologetics podcast from Ravi Zacharias’s ministry. In each episode Vince and Jo (along with host Michael Davis) answer often difficult questions about Christianity that are submitted by listeners.
In the most recent episode, a listener asked the following: “If Hitler repented to God on his deathbed, would he have been forgiven?”
Please note that no one is asserting that Hitler did repent and believe in Jesus. Indeed, since he committed suicide, it seems unlikely that he even had a deathbed. So the question is hypothetical. But I like Jo’s response:
This is what it comes down to at the bottom of it, right? This may be the hardest thing to accept in Christianity. People say that if there’s a loving God, why would he judge people? But I think the much harder thing is, if there’s a loving God, why would he forgive people—even this person, even Hitler? But actually, the reality of the Christian faith is, either it’s for everybody or it’s for nobody. There’s no middle ground here. And I think what this question reveals is that on some level we’re still thinking of forgiveness as about what we deserve: that there are certain people who deserve forgiveness and there are others who don’t. But the bottom line here—the message of the Bible—is that none of us do. Grace is completely unmerited.
The theologian Christopher Wright says that every victim of sin is also a sinner. There is none who is not also sinned against. That’s the state we’re in. It doesn’t mean that all sin is the same. I do think there are certain things that are horrifying and grotesque and sick and evil, and Hitler is the example we go to for that, and the life he lived is absolutely appalling. We’re not leveling out and saying that there aren’t differences in the way that we sin. But nevertheless we are saying that we’re all in the same boat in the sense that, yes, we’re still dead in our sin—whether it was extreme sin that killed us or small sin, we’re still dead in our sin.
And I think the question here becomes, Is the cross big enough to carry it? No matter the horrendousness of the evil, is God big enough to defeat it? Is his love strong enough to wipe out even the most horrendous kind of hate? And what does that say about what Christ carried on the cross, and the gravity of that, and the enormity of it—that even something so heinous could be what Christ is bearing for us at the cross?
My favorite part of her answer is this: “On some level we’re still thinking of forgiveness as about what we deserve.” We believe we have to deserve or earn or pay for or prove ourselves worthy of God’s saving grace. Some people measure up, while others clearly don’t.
What about you? Do you believe that you have to deserve forgiveness?
Before you answer, consider how you respond to the following scene in the movie Saving Private Ryan. If you’ve seen it, you may recall the dying words that Capt. Miller, Tom Hanks’s character, spoke to Private Ryan, played by Matt Damon. After nearly everyone in the unit dies in order to save Ryan’s life, Miller grabs Ryan by the lapels and says, “Earn this… Earn it!”
Next we see an elderly Ryan, decades later, near the end of his own life, standing beside the grave markers at Normandy beach—asking his children and grandchildren, “Did I earn it?”—in other words, did he live a life worthy of the sacrifices that Miller and his fellow soldiers made for him so long ago? Did he deserve the life that their deaths made possible for him?
His family reassures him: “Of course you did, Dad!”
And I’m like, Really? Who are they kidding? A dozen or so men sacrificed their lives to save Ryan’s life: How could he possibly “earn” that sacrifice? How could he repay that debt? How could he balance those scales?
He couldn’t… which is why I find this scene between Miller and Ryan more horrifying than any of the bloody carnage depicted in the movie. Miller places on Ryan an impossible burden of guilt.
Yet, in a way, this scene depicts our predicament before God. Because of our sin, we owe God a debt we can never repay. The difference, of course, is that instead of insisting that we repay the debt—a debt infinitely greater than what Ryan owes—God himself pays it for us on the cross of his Son Jesus, who is also God.
Instead of grabbing us by the proverbial lapels and saying, “Earn this,” God says, “Receive this… receive this free gift, which I paid for on the cross. It was my pleasure to purchase this gift for you because I love you that much! Receive it!”
So the question is not about Hitler, and how evil he is, but Jesus and how powerful the cross is. Do we believe, in other words, that Jesus accomplished something objective on the cross to make forgiveness of sin possible, such that both God’s perfect love and his commitment to perfect justice—both of which are aspects of God’s nature—would be upheld?
If the Bible is telling the truth, the answer is a resounding yes.
In Mark 10:35-45, which I preached on a few weeks ago, Jesus hints at how the cross accomplishes this. When James and John ask about sitting at Jesus’ right and left hand in glory, he says, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”
This “cup” is the same cup to which Jesus will later refer in the Garden of Gethsemane in Mark 14:36 (and parallels): “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” This is also the cup to which the Old Testament refers—a symbol of God’s wrath, which, scripture warns repeatedly, the unrighteous will have to drink as punishment for their sin:
For in the hand of the Lord there is a cup
with foaming wine, well mixed,
and he pours out from it,
and all the wicked of the earth
shall drain it down to the dregs. (Psalm 75:8)
Thus the Lord, the God of Israel, said to me: “Take from my hand this cup of the wine of wrath, and make all the nations to whom I send you drink it. They shall drink and stagger and be crazed because of the sword that I am sending among them.” (Jeremiah 25:15-16)
The good news, as Isaiah prophesies, is that God will remove the cup of his wrath.
Thus says your Lord, the Lord,
your God who pleads the cause of his people:
“Behold, I have taken from your hand the cup of staggering;
the bowl of my wrath you shall drink no more.” (Isaiah 51, 17, 22)
In the interest of justice, how can God do this? Does humanity not deserve to drink this cup? What causes God to take the cup away?
Only this: God offered an acceptable substitute for us. And who could possibly serve as a fitting substitute? Only God.
In other words, we owed a debt to God that only God could pay. So he paid it—willingly, out of love. This is why God came into the world in Christ: to “give his life as a random for many” (Mark 10:45). Jesus’ words in this verse point back to Isaiah 53:5, 10:
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed…
Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;
he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for guilt,
he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.
As a result of God’s offering of himself on the cross, an “offering for guilt,” we—those of us who believe in Jesus—become the “offspring” of God himself. As John himself (the very one who, along with his brother, is squabbling over sitting at Christ’s left or right hand) would later write,
But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:12-13)
This is the gospel, the very foundation on which I’ve built my life. Thank you, Jesus!