“Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem…”
I’m taking the phrase “the Hitler types” from a post by Richard Mouw (my former teacher at Calvin College: as if there weren’t enough Calvin connections in this series!). You may want to read Mouw’s whole post, but to set the context for the bit about Hitler, Mouw has stated clearly that he is not a universalist, and in explaining his position, he seems to have indicated that he agrees with Rob Bell that people who choose hell will get it, when he writes:
And I certainly do believe that some folks choose that hell. The Hitler types. The man who kidnaps young girls and sells them into sexual slavery. They are well on their way to hell, to becoming inhuman monsters. To be sure, as the hymn rightly reminds us: “The vilest offender who truly believes/ that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.” But for those who persist in their wicked ways, eternal separation is the natural outcome of all the choices they have made along the way.
And many have (especially recently) expressed finding it especially difficult to believe that the likes of Hitler (or Tony Soprano, in the case of an odd opinion piece in the NYTimes by Russ Douthat!) might make it to heaven. Why? Well, the most natural explanation for the special problem here would be that these “Hitler types” are especially bad. Picking up on that, together with Mouw’s later-expressed openness to hope that people might be able to accept Christ after death, one colorful comment to Mouw’s post reads:
But then, you do affirm hell to be a real place, sir. Full of those “Hitler types” and pedophiles. As for the rest of us gossips, slanderers, and adulterers of the heart, things are looking up. Turns out, God is a God of multiple chances. In this life, and the next.
I don’t think Mouw’s special problem with Hitler types going to heaven is directly that they are just too bad to make it in. Mouw does after all immediately go on to indicate his agreement with the hymn that even the “vilest offenders” can be pardoned, so if there are chances after death (which I don’t read Mouw as necessarily endorsing, but as at least hoping for and not ruling out), it would seem possible that even the vilest offenders might have a chance. My guess is that Mouw’s thinking is that the “Hitler types” are especially unlikely to turn to Jesus, even if they do get the chance to do so after death: They are very solidly in the “choosing hell” column now, and there’s little reason to think they won’t continue to be so.
And so, certain individuals are thought to be especially problematic for universalism. The main reason for thinking they don’t wipe out hope (or so it seems to me) is that we know already from this life that even the most dramatic turnarounds are possible – and we get a pretty good example of such a turnaround in Acts in the case of Saul/Paul, who seems to have been a bit of a “Hitler type”–the “chief of sinners” to use his own (translated) way of expressing that he was “the vilest offender.” (It is perhaps no coincidence that the best scriptural grounds for thinking that Christ’s act of righteousness actually might lead to acquittal and life for all people are from the writings of one who had been something of a Hitler type himself before being redeemed.) My response in my on-line defense of universalism: “We know that some in this life have been only been moving further and further away from accepting Christ. And some people can be very obstinate. And some have become incredibly evil in this life. But, on the other hand, even in this short life, we all know of instances in which people having all three of these problems to a great degree who were brought around and were saved. So, again, I see no grounds for pessimism that an infinitely resourceful God, who is able to take as much time as He needs, will be able to win over everyone eventually.” Of course, I am here supposing that God’s ability to save people continues after their death, and that God does indeed desire that all people will be saved, but given those assumptions, which seem correct to me, I see little reason to give up hope here. (And without those assumptions, hopelessness seems to spread far beyond the Hitler types, so I’m seeing not much of a special problem in these cases.)
Victims and (perhaps even more so) the loved ones of victims of cruel and horrible evils may find the idea of the perpetrators of these evils ever escaping hell revolting. (And I imagine that some of the loved ones of some of the victims of the worst abuses of Saul’s might have found it difficult to hope for his salvation.) This of course doesn’t apply to all of the victims or loved ones of victims: some are astoundingly gracious about this. (A wonderful example of someone adopting a gracious point of view is given in this account of a 9/11 survivor.) Those of us who hold that or hope that even the perpetrators of the worst evils of this world may eventually be reconciled with their victims & with God should recognize that the resistance some people feel to such a view and to such a hope can be coming from a good place — concern for the victims and for justice — even as we think this resistance is somehow ultimately wrong. And while we may hold that joining God in hoping or desiring that all people will be saved is some kind of ideal, we should at the same time recognize that in our messy world, not all cases of adopting this hope would be changes for the better: For some who don’t hold this hope, some of the nearest versions of themselves who do hold such a hope may do so because they are not as concerned for those who have suffered. We certainly don’t want to encourage them to become such versions of themselves.
I strongly encourage those of an opposite point of view to take a similar attitude. If you for instance think that all who fail to accept Christ before death will suffer eternal conscious torment, and you think that this is made clear enough that in some good sense we should not even hope for a better fate for them, you may think that in some sense not hoping for, say, the wellbeing of a deceased loved one is some kind of ideal. (This way of thinking seems very alien to me, but that’s not surprising: the differences in points of view here are very great.) But you can still recognize that those who hold such a hope may be coming from a very good place, and that in our messy world, not all cases of abandoning such hope would be changes for the better.
Perhaps spurred on by the release of and subsequent discussion of Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins, there seem to have been from Christian sources a lot of recent expressions of hope that all people will be saved. In case you missed it, one example of such an expression (though one quite independent from the Love Wins brouhaha) that will be of interest to many readers of this blog came from Alvin Plantinga, in this interview. Money quote:
That’s called universalism. And I don’t myself quite believe it, but I don’t disbelieve it either. I think it’s something that a Christian should at least hope for.
As far as what he thinks is true, Plantinga seems here to be leaning toward universalism. At least that’s how I’m inclined to read the above bit, given the “quite” in the “I don’t myself quite believe it,” and the absence of such a “quite” in what comes next. And the rest of what Plantinga says also inclines me to such a understanding. (He discusses universalism at 2:10 – 4:45 of the video.) But the endorsement of hope in the last sentence of the above is equally interesting.
But also in the air these days are reactions against such hope. In a blog post that is itself an enthusiastic endorsement of hope on this matter (but also a denial that more than hope is called for – and the post also seems to me to contain a little lapse in modal logic), Paul Griffiths notes:
Bell has been excoriated, scarified, and cast into the outer darkness by some in the evangelical world for defending such a hope. They are the ones who are quite sure that universalism can’t be true, and that to affirm it is to reject orthodoxy.
As I know from recent facebook discussions, some Christians (as well as interested non-Christians) are dumbfounded that any Christians would reject even hope on this matter. In subsequent posts, I hope (!) to address what might be thought to be wrong with such a hope, answer such worries, and discuss the role of hope in the Christian life a bit.
Here I just want to set up that discussion by making an important preliminary point. In many Christian churches, communities, and institutions, one can get into trouble for being a universalist, and this drives a lot of Christian universalism (and openness to universalism) underground (as I discussed a bit several years ago here). And this may cause suspicion that some of those who express hope, but not belief or acceptance, that all will be saved may really believe or accept universalism, and are expressing mere hope here in order to avoid trouble. And I have little doubt that that’s so in at least some cases. But certainly not in all cases — and I would certainly think, for example, not in the case of Plantinga. Many seem to genuinely hope that all will be saved, while quite genuinely finding the reasons for thinking that hope will be realized to fall short of justifying acceptance of universalism. The hope-without-acceptance position may constitute an effective shelter for underground universalists from the heretic hunters (in some segments of Christianity), but it does so in part because it’s a reasonable position to more genuinely occupy – and a position that many reasonable Christians genuinely do occupy. At any rate, I will be discussing the hope-without-acceptance position as a genuine stance a Christian might take, and not as position to publicly adopt while more privately holding something else.