Friday, August 2, 2013

What About Hitler?

The following was written for the weekly newsletter of the church where I serve, Country Club Congregational United Church of Christ.

            If you spend any time at all talking about theology, philosophy or politics, inevitably somebody brings in a Hitler comparison.  There are even a few terms for this tactic.  Reductio ad Hitlerum is a phrase used to describe when a person tries to refute his or her opponent's views by comparing them to something Hitler would believe or do.  (e.g. Obamacare sounds like something Hitler would do!).  A similar term is "Godwin's Law," a rule about manners on the internet that says, "Given enough time, every on-line argument-no matter the topic-somehow inevitably leads to a comparison to Hitler or the Nazis."  Some have enhanced this latter concept to say that a discussion is officially over when a comparison to Hitler has been made with the person making the analogy to Hitler having lost the argument.  In other words, bringing in Hitler as a trump card to blast your opponent is a sign of intellectual weakness, because you resort to the most extreme horrible example possible to make your point.
            Continuing on from my discussion of Hell in my thoughts last week, I would like to coin a new term: Salvitum Hitlerum or "the salvation of Hitler."  (I feel sure Mrs. Wagstaff my high school Latin teacher would be horrified by my Latin grammar-or lack thereof.)  I believe Salvitum Hitlerum comes into play in theological arguments about God's love, forgiveness, Heaven/Hell, salvation, etc.  The argument goes that Hitler-being the worst human being ever (Osama bin Laden also works)-is the most unworthy of God's grace.  Therefore, to say that God forgives everyone or shows grace to everyone would mean that Hitler would be forgiven too.  Hitler cannot be forgiven, so the idea of God forgiving everyone must be false.  Put a kindlier way, God desires to love and forgive everyone but some reject God's love and forgiveness and spend eternity in Hell (e.g. Hitler).  For God to forgive the sins of Hitler is an affront to the idea of God's justice and/or holiness, since Hitler is the worst human being ever.        
          Don't get me wrong; I'm not defending Hitler.  I want to be officially on the record as abhorring everything Hitler did and stood for.  I am 100% anti-Hitler and anti-Nazi.  But I am wondering if there is room to talk about God's grace and love without resorting to the extreme position of asking, "What about Hitler?"  Can we table the salvation or damnation of Hitler for a moment?
            Any discussion of what happens after this life is by its nature speculative.  Although we have church tradition and scriptures that describe the afterlife (good and bad), the images and definitions are vaguer than most believers would care to admit.  Furthermore, despite occasional claims of people having near death experiences, we don't have objective evidence about any of it.  So, a little humility is called for when we ask what happens after we die.
            Christianity is in agreement that a positive life after death (i.e. Heaven) is a gift of God that humans cannot earn-we call that grace.  Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox may argue about the mechanisms of grace, but all agree that we get to heaven by grace-none of us gets in because we deserve it.  Sure, we can argue that some are more deserving than others-for example, "Everyone is more deserving of heaven than Hitler."-but no one earns it.  (Don't believe me?  Check out Romans 3:23 and Romans 6:23.)  Despite this rare occasion of Christian theological agreement, we still wish to do our own judgment about who really deserves to go to heaven and who does not.  The Bible is pretty clear that we are putting ourselves in the place of God when we judge the worthiness/unworthiness of another to receive God's love and doing so is frowned upon.
            I was raised with a very restricted understanding of heaven and hell.  Only those who accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior could get into heaven; everybody else goes to Hell and suffers for eternity.  This life is your one-time chance to accept God's offer; once you croak it's too late.  As I experienced people of different Christian denominations and even met people of different religions, my neat and orderly view of the afterlife began to crumble.  Would God really send a good person to Hell forever just because he or she happened to be Muslim or Hindu?  My fellow conservative Christians and I would debate whether God would send a Muslim to Hell if he had lived his whole life in Saudi Arabia and never met a Christian to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ?  We would wonder if God would send Gandhi to Hell (sort of the opposite of the Hitler argument)?  Once you begin to consider that God is at least as loving as you are, and if you could see room for grace then God probably could too, then the idea of a heavily populated Hell begins to crumble.
            My understanding of God's grace in regards to eternity really began to expand once I became a minister and began doing funerals.  It wasn't long before I officiated a funeral for someone who was not a Christian or at least not one in any measurable sense.  Was I really going to get up at a funeral and tell a grieving family that their loved one was burning in Hell right now and there was no hope of that ever changing?  For years, I took a sort of agnostic view towards the afterlife and just simply acted as if everyone went to heaven, since I had no real way of knowing for sure that they didn't.  Yet, I still held on to Hell, after all didn't the Bible speak clearly about Hell?  (see last week's Thoughts)  My last vestiges of belief in Hell crumbled when a church member gave me the book If Grace is True: Why God Will Save Every Person by Philip Gulley and James Mulholland.  In a very reverent and pastoral way, the book undermines all arguments for God sending people to Hell-even arguments that involve Hitler.
            I believe very strongly that at least in this life people are free to reject the love and grace of God.  Evidence for humanity's destructive will is everywhere.  I need only look in the mirror to find evidence of my own resistance to God's grace and love.  The question, however, is can we still resist God after this life is over?  Is God's offer of salvation really a "limited time offer" or is it always available to us even after this life is over.  The ancient rabbis told a story about Hell which described it as a room down the hall from Heaven.  In Hell, everyone sat around a table filled with food but they starved, because their utensils were too long to get the food to their own mouths.  Down the hall in heaven, however, everyone was feasting and celebrating, because they realized that although they could not feed themselves they could feed each other with their long utensils.  Is Hell a place people choose to remain but are free to leave once they let go of their own selfishness?
In his book Love Wins, Rob Bell asks, "Does God get what God wants?"  The Bible clearly says that God wants to save everyone from destruction, so does God get what God wants or is God too weak?  The Bible seems to say that nothing can prevent God from getting what God wants.  Psalm 139 in the old King James Version says, "Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence?  If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.The KJV substitutes Hell for a Hebrew word meaning "depths," but in this context it means the opposite of Heaven.  Whatever or wherever the opposite of Heaven is, God is great enough to even be present there.  If Hell exists, why can't God let people out of it?
Some writers and theologians (including Bell, Gulley and Mulholland) argue for the possibility that whatever Hell is it can serve as a means of turning people back to God.  Rather than being a once-and-for-all sentence, any punishment we receive after this life is to help us to repent of our evil ways.  Can a loving and gracious God really set a time limit on chances to repent?  Would God really say, "Sorry, you learned the error of your ways too late.  I know you want to love me now, but I won't let you?"
When I preached on Colossians 1 the Sunday before last, I focused on verse 20, where it reads, "and through [Christ] to reconcile to himself all things."  God's purpose is to reconcile ALL things not just those people who make the right choice in this life.  How exactly that happens and under what time frame, I can only speculate.  Yet, how depressing and fatalistic is it to think that the many divisions between people and God, between people and other people, between people and creation, and between people and themselves will never be fully reconciled-not in this life nor the next.  Which is greater our destructive and selfish natures or God's love and grace?  I choose to believe that God's love and grace are so great that in the end, one way or another, "all things" will be reconciled to God.  (Yes, even Hitler.)
Grace and Peace,

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