Christ the King
Is Hitler in Heaven?
My high schooler came home from Youth Ministry a few weeks ago. “What did you talk about?” I asked, not expecting much of answer beyond the usual, “Stuff.”
Instead, he immediately sat down in the family room. “Heaven, hell, and purgatory. It was really hard. Heaven is easy—that’s being with God. Hell makes sense too—it’s your choice to turn away from God completely. But, purgatory? That’s different. If purgatory is when God meets you, and you’re there, I mean right there, with God, there’s no way you’re going to reject Him. I mean He’s right there with you! He’s real. So, if you accept God then, no matter what you’ve done on earth, you’re in heaven. I don’t know about that. That means Hitler could be in heaven. That’s just wrong.”
Yes, to our way of thinking, on our scales of justice, that is just wrong. But God’s way of thinking is not our way of thinking. He says that over and over again in scripture. “’For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are my ways your ways,’ says the Lord” (Isaiah 55: 8). Even Jesus’s coming reiterates God’s voice in the Isaiah verse. If God’s way of thinking was our way, Jesus wouldn’t have come in a stable nor would He have been crucified on the cross. He would have led the Jewish people to great power. But He didn’t. He was born in a manger, walked the road to Calvary, and led by His example of service not a sword. On human scales, that’s just wrong.
In this gospel passage, Jesus forgives the criminal on the cross with Him and tells him, “today you will be with me in Paradise” (v. 43). We don’t know what the criminal did, but it was bad enough that he had received the death penalty. It was bad enough that he received the same horrible death as Jesus. On human scales of justice, it’s not fair that he should go to heaven.
Yet, the criminal saw Jesus for who He really was, the Messiah. The criminal also saw himself for who he really was, a criminal: “indeed we have been condemned justly…but this man has done nothing criminal” (v. 41). He wasn’t making excuses for himself. He stood up for Jesus, to the extent that he could, hanging from his cross. I don’t know if I could say the same.
The mystery of faith is both beautiful—the real presence in the Eucharist—and bewildering. Sometimes disconcerting even, especially when you think about the fact that Hitler could potentially be in heaven. But Jesus didn’t guarantee Paradise to the other criminal. That’s not to say that guys is not in heaven. But, hanging on the cross, face-to-face with Jesus (about as close to an earthly purgatory as there is), he still “reviled Jesus” (v. 39). So, even face-to-face, some people still reject God. They still put themselves first. Even when the chips are down.
Understanding God and His ways with our human brains is virtually impossible. That’s why belief in Him is called faith. Jesus said, “Everything is possible for one who believes” (Mark 9:23). He wasn’t just speaking to societally-defined “good” people. He was speaking to everyone. The question is, do we really believe it? Do we have real faith?