Guest post: Why Hitler will (not) be in heaven

Today we have a guest post by Rev. Heath Bradley, who is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. He is also the author of Flames of Love: Hell and Universal Salvation. Heath blogs at the Sunday drive home.

“Our God is a consuming fire.” – Hebrews 12:29

I hold to a hopeful conviction that ultimately everyone will be united with God through the grace of Christ. As I visit with people about this conviction (known as “Christian universalism”), inevitably folks will respond by saying, “Oh, so you think everyone goes to heaven.” In some sense, yes, I do believe that “everyone goes to heaven,” but I am not entirely happy with describing my belief in universal salvation in that way. Because of the popular idea of heaven that many entertain, it can be very misleading for me to say it like that.

I don’t think going to heaven means that we are transported to an ethereal Disneyland beyond the clouds. Heaven, in the Christian theological tradition, is held primarily to be a state of perfect intimacy and full union with God, and I believe that can be experienced here and now, and in the world to come. I don’t pretend to understand the metaphysics of an afterlife existence, but I believe that when we die we live on in the realm of God’s immediate presence, and that the words “heaven” and “hell” denote two opposite ways of experiencing the presence of God’s holy love.

If our lives and hearts are full of love for God and neighbor, the fires of God’s holy love will be experienced as warmth and light.

If our lives and hearts are full of apathy and hatred towards others, then I believe the flames of God’s holy love will be experienced for a time as painful and, in some ways, a source of great torture.

I also don’t pretend to know exactly what God’s judgment will be like. To some degree, we must all use our biblically-shaped imaginations in a speculative way when thinking about this difficult topic. Bishop Will Willimon describes the wrath of God as the ultimate encounter with the painful truth about ourselves. He writes, “Perhaps the wrath, the just judgment of God upon us is a kind of slaying, a kind of baptismal death to our illusions and lies, that pain that happens when we are given time to stare into the mirror of truth, the pain that is harsh but is also due to love?” (Who Will Be Saved?, 83)

This makes a lot of sense to me. God’s judgment is when all the lights are turned on and we must come to terms with the truth. It is the horrible experience of fully realizing the pain we have caused others and that we have caused God through our self-centered ways of living. It is a pain that can be experienced now or then, and it is a pain that can cut deeper than any other pain.

It is also the kind of pain that leads to repentance and reconciliation. This is why Origen, an early Christian universalist, said that even if we could escape God’s judgment, we shouldn’t want to. God’s judgment is like the tough diagnosis that is needed for the right kind of healing to take place. It might hurt like hell, but its purpose is to heal and make things right.

With this is mind, let’s consider one of the most frequent objections to my position, which goes along lines like this: “You don’t really think that Mother Teresa and Hitler are going to end up in the same place, do you?”

My response is a clear “no” and “yes.”

If by “Hitler” you mean a moral monster filled with prejudice and hatred, then no, that Hitler will not be in heaven. You cannot be perfectly united with God and enjoy the intimacy of his self-giving and other-centered love and be filled with anti-God ways of being. Heaven would be hell to someone whose heart is set against God.

But consider this thought experiment about what divine judgment might look like for Hitler. What if God were to punish Hitler in the world to come by transforming and softening Hitler’s heart to make him capable of truly feeling all the pain of his victims? Nothing could be more painful, and yet, at the same time, nothing could be more hopeful. This would be torturous to experience, yet it would also set him on the road to repentance.

Ultimate justice would be for God to bring Hitler to repentance by burning away all his self-protective delusions, giving him a long look into the mirror of truth, and enabling him to experience the pain of his crimes. But God’s justice that can make all things right would not stop there. God could also enable Hitler to participate with God in bringing healing and wholeness to his victims in the world to come, and God could enable his victims to extend God’s forgiveness to Hitler.

The scenario I have constructed for what divine judgment for Hitler might be like is speculation, to be sure, as all such reflection on this topic ultimately is. However, so much speculation about hell has been rooted in the myth that mere retribution achieves genuine justice, as if an eternity of pain for Hilter would somehow balance the scales of justice and make things up to his victims. But when it comes to real justice, scales do not need to be balanced; heart needs to be healed and lives need to restored. So, while this is speculation, at least this is speculation rooted in Jesus’ clear rejection of mere retribution (Matt. 5:43-48), and in God’s clearly revealed purpose, achieved in Christ, to reconcile to himself all things. (Col. 1:20).

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About Kevin Miller

Kevin Miller is an award-winning screenwriter, director and producer who has applied his craft to numerous documentaries, feature films and shorts. Recent projects include "The Chicken Manure Incident," "Hellbound?," "Drop Gun," "No Saints for Sinners," "spOILed," "Sex+Money," "With God On Our Side," "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed," "After..." and the upcoming biopic "The Divine Comedy of Thomas Merton." In addition to his work in film, Kevin has written, co-written and edited over 45 books. He lives in Kimberley, BC, Canada with his wife and four children.

  • Kelly

    This is great. I’ve never heard universalism put quite this way before. Thanks for posting it.

  • wildgwest

    Another way of phrasing an answer to the question “will hitler be in hell?” Is to correlate it to Saul/Paul and refer to how in Revelation we are told that the ones who conquer will get a new name. So Saul (the first century religious terrorist who murdered Christians) will never enter heaven, but Paul (the redeemed, reconciled child of God) will be saved.

  • Lana

    I love this. I have been saying for a long time that if God’s presence brings healing, then it could bring a deeper healing in heaven for those who have rebelled against God. It seems if God is a God of restoration, then this will happen.

  • BabyRaptor

    God created humankind knowing we would fail to meet his standards specifically because he was giving us free will. He knew he would have to punish us, and he created us to fail anyway. The bible literally says humanity is incapable of being perfect. If he insists on punishing us, and convincing us that *we’re* at fault, that’s abuse. Not justice.

    And frankly, I don’t want to be “restored” to where I would see that as okay. If there’s a hell, I’d rather rot in it than be with a being as sadistic as the Christian god appears to be. I’ve done nothing but be how he created me to be…I don’t deserve punishment for that. I’m not at fault. I can’t choose to be any different. And neither do I deserve to be brainwashed into thinking that I deserve to be punished for God’s actions.

    And no, I’m not trolling. I’m calling it as I see it, because nobody has ever been able to actually explain this to me. All I ever hear is “God will make you understand when you die,” if I happen to be talking to a polite person. Most of the time, I get far less polite responses.

    • Kevin Miller

      I appreciate your honesty. The way I see it, too often Christianity is portrayed as a bar that you have to jump over in order to be accepted by God. However, I think the Bible takes great pains to show us that our efforts to get over that bar are destroying us.

  • Ron Boyer

    Willmington’s Guide to the Bible: “The preconversion reign of Manasseh (as recorded in 2 Ki. 21:2-6; 2 Chron. 33:1-20) would probably have surpassed that of Stalin and Hitler in terms of sheer wickedness. … He was imprisoned temporarily by the king of Assyria. He repented while in prison and was forgiven by God. He was later allowed to return as king of Judah. He ruled for fifty-five years and was succeeded by his son, Amon.”

  • Theodore Seeber

    As CS Lewis put it in The Great Divorce- if you make it out of Hell and into Heaven, then it was only purgatory. If you choose instead to *stay in Hell*, that is what makes it Hell.

    God doesn’t send anybody to Hell, he simply lights the fire of truth and then lets us make up our own minds.

  • T. B.

    Sounds an awful lot like Purgatory.

  • jason greene

    wonderful post. I do hope that God intends to reconcile all of the cosmos to himself/herself

  • Mistie Holler

    You’ve pretty much just summed up my belief about he afterlife. You’re the first person I’ve ever come across who believes the same thing as me in this regard.

  • HannibalBarca

    This is one of those things I don’t understand. My dad is a universalist, and I asked him a similar question: (paraphrasing) “So if everyone goes to heaven, Mother Theresa and Hitler and Pat Robertson will all be hanging out in heaven?” And then I basically said, if everyone goes to heaven in the end then it doesn’t matter how we live our lives here. (I’m an atheist, for the record.)
    He didn’t say what you did above, that God will “change our minds” or convince us, but he did say that he thinks that “every knee shall bow” and he interprets this as everyone going to heaven in the end.
    But the point I want to bring up, is that if this is something that will happen to everyone, no matter how vicious or murderous or callous or apathetic they were in life, then when this change occurs to them, they are not the same person. If I spend my whole life not taking care of the poor and ignoring the plight of the people of Africa, and then I am magically transformed in heaven, then THAT PERSON ISN’T ME.
    You might consider that a trivial point, but I think it is an important one. How will we even recognize Hitler in heaven, if he has been transformed to the point that every recognizable facet of his personality has been changed? Ditto for every human in existence?
    I don’t actually believe any of this stuff, but do you think that is a problem?

    • Kevin Miller

      You raise an interesting point here. However, the problem is you could use your logic to argue that any change at all–either positive or negative–essentially makes you a different person. A notion of radical transformation in the afterlife is just an extreme version of the kind of change we all experience throughout life. If I used to be an alcoholic but now I no longer use alcohol to self-medicate, does that mean I am no longer “me”? Was that the real me or is who I am now the real me?

  • John

    What about Jesus? I’m wondering where he fits into the author’s views of God’s justice and the afterlife.

  • Lisa

    This was actually brilliant. I haven’t even been able to digest all that you’ve written but I wanted to say thanks for it all the same.