One of the hard truths of orthodox Christianity, one that gets ignored by the liberals and pounded on by certain Evangelical sects, is this: Some people whom we think of as basically good, decent human beings will go to hell. On some level of their psyches, they shut God’s grace out, and leave the door locked until death. Those of us raised in more liberal parishes—especially those of the “Kumbaya” era—tend to tiptoe around this particular stumbling block, or just flat-out refuse to believe it. Nevertheless, it remains a truth of the faith … if we don’t like it, tough noogies.
The corollary to this truth is even harder to swallow: Some people whom we think would merit damnation will instead enjoy the Beatific Vision … whether we like it or not.
To illustrate this point, let’s indulge in a little “alternate history” theological fiction and go back to April 29, 1945:
Adolf Hitler sits, alone even in the presence of cronies, sycophants and drones, contemplating the ruin of his Germany even as the Red Army artillery pounds the last standing symbols of the “Thousand Year Reich” into rubble. He carries the pistol and cyanide capsule he will use to take his own life. But, in this alternate time-line, instead of the usual ruts his obsessive mind has habitually fallen into, his thoughts trip over a stray fact into a new path. Suddenly, his heart breaks, and he begins to weep. The breaking of his heart lets the Grace of God pour in; he gets up from his chair and falls to his knees to pray as he once did as a child in Austria.
The catechism he learned as a child from the Church now shapes the new path he must take. He must order the surrender of all German forces. He must shut down the death camps and free the prisoners. He must submit himself to whatever humiliations and punishments the victorious Allies impose … even the rope, the death meted out to scoundrels and varlets. He is only one man, so he can only offer one death in atonement for his actions.
Now, let’s make the conclusion even more outrageous: When Hitler rises to his feet and announces his plans to the rest of the crowd, a zealous young SS soldier, bewildered and incensed by the perfidious betrayal of the Führer, pulls out his Luger and shoots him down. The penance Hitler intended to impose upon himself, as minuscule as it appears when set down next to his crimes, never comes off. As Hamlet muses, while he ponders killing Claudius as the latter prays, “And so he goes … to heaven” (III, iii).
After, of course, an unknowable time spent in purgatory.
This is but an expanded version of the question posed to apologist/blogger Jimmy Akin on the May 17 broadcast of EWTN’s Catholic Answers Live. I never quite caught what religious background the caller was; judging by his reaction to Akin’s response, I would guess either a Calvinist fundamentalist or a “New Atheist”: “You mean to tell me I should teach my two little girls that they can do whatever they want, and at the end they can say they’re tired of it, pray to Jesus and go to heaven anyway?” he huffed, offended and offensive.
The answer is really not quite that simple. Primarily, this leaves out the fact that we don’t know when we’ll die. As Jesus points out in the parable of the rich fool, this night our lives might be required of us (Lk 12:16-21), so we can’t base our response to the gospel on the presumption that we’ll have full, long lives to waste in sin before we repent. Like Claudius, death can catch us in our usual behavior “that hath no taste of salvation in it,” leaving us to kick our heels at heaven.
So let’s rephrase the question to take advantage of the qualification: Is there a point beyond which a person will go to hell regardless of the depth of his repentance and the extravagance of his atonement?
Consider the Prodigal Son (Lk 15:11-32) and the Workers in the Vineyard (Mt 20:1-16): Not only is God ready to forgive those who repent, even those who have wasted all His gifts, He does so even when they come in at the last hour. For He rejoices more over the lost sheep He recovers than over the ninety-nine who never went astray (Mt 18:13). This is stunningly illustrated in Jesus’ words to the “good thief”, to whom tradition has assigned the name Dismas and the dignity of sainthood: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Lk 23:43).
The two parables also indicate God’s response to those who take offense at God’s liberality: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found” (Lk 15:31-32). “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for [what you received]? Take what belongs to you, and go; I choose to give to this last as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity” (Mt 20:13-15)?
These point us to a third parable, that of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Lk 18:9-14). The man who goes home justified—that is, the one who has offered what was needed to balance the scales—is not the self-righteous, professionally religious man who boasts of his tithing and fasting. Instead, it’s the social outcast, the Roman collaborator whose livelihood consists of extorting money from his fellow Israelites, yet who has pleaded, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” For Christ “came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mk 2:17).
The thing about heaven which many people forget—or never learn—is that God is under no compulsion to offer it to anyone, good or evil. It’s nothing you earn, like a Boy Scout does his merit badges; therefore, there is no calculus or ratio of weighted good and evil acts you can apply to the balance of your life or use to create a “budget” for sins. The adultery one never repents of is as damning as the murder of millions; in contraposition, true repentance and firm purpose of amendment—even where atonement is thwarted by death, as in our alternate-history Hitler’s case—finds forgiveness for the greatest of crimes as well as the least.
Saint Paul tells the Corinthians, “But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then every man will receive his commendation from God” (1 Cor 4:3-5).
To be certain, the earlier we learn to live the true life Christ calls us to, a life of mercy and charity as well as of righteous conduct, the more likely it is that we will be called to heaven when our time comes. Also, we must actively discern evil in our midst and resist it … not just the evil to which we are tempted but also the evil others wish to inflict. We must live not just for ourselves but for the people around us, for what we do to and for others, we do to and for Christ (Mt 25:40).
But Christ did not come to validate the judgmentalism of the self-righteous. When Jesus commanded Peter to feed his sheep, and predicted that Peter’s apostleship would end on the cross, Peter asked him, “What about [John]?” Jesus responded, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me” (Jn 21:21-22)!
Likewise, if a condemned mass murderer were to receive heaven because he abandoned himself to God’s mercy in his death-row cell on the last day of his life, what is that to you and me? As St. Paul reminds us in Romans 3:9-18, citing the Psalms, we are all sinners; for this reason, we are all called to repentance and reformation. “Use every man after his deserts,” Hamlet asks Polonius rhetorically, “and who should ‘scape whipping” (II, ii)?
So while we are all called to spread the gospel, and to take concern over the salvation of others, our primary concern must always be to pick up our own crosses, and take the beam out of our own eye before we remove the splinter from someone else’s. I’m certainly not going to reject heaven over the hypothetical possibility that Hitler, Stalin, Cromwell or even Margaret Sanger might be there.
Besides, if God can forgive their sins, he can forgive mine.