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Some thoughts on repentance, redemption and forgiveness.
Could God have forgiven this person?
If you met this man in Heaven, would you shake his hand?
Oliver Cromwell. Can I object if he is in Heaven?
Who should be forgiven? Who ought to be saved?
How would you feel if you died tomorrow, went to Heaven and then found yourself living next door to Adolf Hitler?
Would you be shocked and appalled to discover that the person in the "mansion" upstairs from your own was Josef Stalin, or Harold Shipman, or Al Capone?
I'm Irish. I think it reasonable to expect that Oliver Cromwell, who murdered tens of thousands of my compatriots, should be roasting over an eternal slow fire, but he may not be. I might be going to endless heavenly cocktail parties with him, along with Attila the Hun and Sadamm Hussein.
The reason why I am asking this apparently mad question is because I want to ponder the notion of repentance and redemption, with a little bit of forgiveness thrown in as well.
If, like me, you have a pretty conventional belief in God as the arbiter of our destinies, and as the fount of all forgiveness, can you actually rule out the possibility that His mercy might be extended to many more than we would immediately think.
Take the example of Josef Stalin. Stalin was in life a pretty loathsome character. He was directly responsible for the murder of many millions and the policies he pursued throughout his life led to misery and death for countless millions more.
But when he died in 1953, he was lying helplessly in his room for around fifteen hours and it took him another few days of agony to finally expire after he was found. What thoughts occupied the mind of "the Georgian monster" as he lay on the floor of his urine soaked bedroom?
Was he just conscious of the pain and indignity of his situation?
Was he planning a dreadful revenge on his doctors and his colleagues if he recovered?
Is it possible, that in his last days, an awareness of the terrible things he had done might have seared itself into his brain? When those around his bedside saw him groaning in, what they thought, was agony, might he have been groaning in anguish instead? Anguish over a life misspent, and a God horribly disregarded.
In simple words, could he have repented? Is it possible that, in those last hours of a wicked life, the dictator Stalin could have repented and become reconciled to God? Could he be in Heaven now?
If it turns out that he did, and he is, how would you feel about it?
Let us take another example. Adolf Hitler.
If you ask the average person, who is the most likely candidate for permanent roasting, Adolf Hitler tops the list almost all the time. There is very little in his life to suggest that he might be playing a harp in a heavenly choir. Seventy million odd victims of his megalomania might have something to say if he is.
Yet, think about it. Could he have slipped through?
As many as say he was evil also say he was mad. If he really was insane and totally deluded, how could he be held responsible for his actions, however bad?
Even if he wasn’t a lunatic could he have repented before he died? Hitler is reported to have ended his own life by taking cyanide and shooting himself.
Case closed, you might think. A thoroughly wicked monstrous life, ended in the sin of suicide. No escape for this baby. He is definitely in the lowest pit of Hell.
But, and there is always a but.
Recent evidence suggests that Adolf Hitler may not have died instantly. People who were in the bunker at the time have testified that the cyanide did not give an instant death. Adolf may have died in agony, screaming.
Now, just suppose that in the moments between biting down on that cyanide, and pulling the trigger, Hitler had one of those experiences you hear of with drowning men, when the whole life flashes before them. If this had happened, and a realisation of the great harm he had done came to him, could he have been sincerely sorry?
Would you mind it if he did? Would God have been wrong to forgive him?
On a more personal level, as an Irishman, I have to consider the case of Oliver Cromwell. When this English general returned to England, after his sojourn in Ireland in 1649, he left a country ravaged, and thousands massacred. Not three miles from where I was reared, he set fire to a church tower, and burned to death all the people who were taking refuge there. Later on, in a letter to the English parliament, he boasted about all the cruelties he had ordered.
But have I a right to expect him to be eternally punished? He died in his bed at Hampton Court Palace in 1658. Do I know that he didn’t repent?
If he did and God has forgiven him, have I the right to complain?
Should I be lucky enough to go to Heaven, and I meet Oliver Cromwell, should I shake his hand, or give him a thump?
These are the things that we all have to think about, whether we believe in God or not. Can we forgive? Should we?
Would it be right for someone who really lived a very bad and evil life, to even ask for forgiveness?
Can we ever dare to ask forgiveness for ourselves, (from either people, or from God) if we are not prepared to forgive all others ourselves?
One final question.
If I died today, and went straight to Hell and I looked up from the midst of the flames and saw Hitler, Stalin and Oliver Cromwell, sitting around a table in Heaven enjoying a drink with Jesus, ought I to be annoyed?