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While I was reading Erwin Lutzer’s book, Hitler’s Cross, a line stood out to me. It basically said that Hitler is fully aware of the torment he is currently experiencing.
As I was talking to Ben about it, I said something that may surprise people: “you can’t assume Hitler is in Hell.”
I know this is a heavy topic, so please bear with me and read the whole thing before you comment.
To be clear: I am not condoning any of Hitler’s acts.
What he caused is atrocious. We should be horrified that the world let this happen. We should be disgusted that people were willing participants in the mistreatment, dehumanization, torture, and murder of millions of innocent lives. I’m confident that anyone reading this knows that what Hitler did was sinful.
However, for Hitler to be in Hell, he needed to be in a state of mortal sin at the time of his death: his actions must be mortally sinful and he hadn’t repented of them.
For something to be mortally sinful, it must be a grave/serious matter, the person must have full knowledge that what they’re doing is sinful, and the person must consent to the act. CCC 1857 explains “For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: “Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.””
The CCC defines grave matter as what “is specified by the Ten Commandments, corresponding to the answer of Jesus to the rich young man: “Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and your mother”” (CCC 1858).
The CCC expands on full knowledge in paragraphs 1859 and 1860: “ It presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God’s law…Feigned ignorance and hardness of heart do not diminish, but rather increase, the voluntary character of a sin. Unintentional ignorance can diminish or even remove the imputability of a grave offense. But no one is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law, which are written in the conscience of every man.”
Did Hitler know that what he was doing was gravely sinful? As an outsider, I question how he could NOT realize that. At the same time, I question how a person could have full knowledge of the gravity of what he was doing and continue to do it.
CCC 1860 explains consent as “The promptings of feelings and passions can also diminish the voluntary and free character of the offense, as can external pressures or pathological disorders. Sin committed through malice, by deliberate choice of evil, is the gravest.””
Consent to sin can be a confusing topic. Jimmy Akin’s explanation provides some clarity. The following situations describe when someone may not be deliberately consenting:
1) When we do something on the spur of the moment, without thinking about it first.
2) When we do it when we are asleep.
3) When we do it when we are really groggy (e.g., just going to sleep or just waking from sleep)
4) When we are intoxicated or under the influence of a substance that makes us groggy (e.g., certain allergy or other medications), though this one raises the question of how we got into a state like this and whether we committed a sin in doing so.
5) Under the influence of reason-depriving emotion (e.g., walking in on someone sleeping with your spouse; thinking that your life is in imminent danger)
6) Under the influence of strong psychological illness.
Just how strong some of these have to be for deliberate consent to cease to exist is not easy to determine. Look at grogginess or intoxication as examples. The impairment those involve exists on a spectrum, and it is not easy to say just where on the spectrum deliberate consent stops. Being just a little tired or just a little tipsy is not going to be enough. Yet at some point one reaches a state where one does not have enough possession of one’s faculties to commit a mortal sin.
I’ve heard speculation that Hitler was severely mentally ill and/or was on drugs. It is possible that such things could lessen his moral culpability.
State of Mortal Sin
Because we can only judge if a matter is grave, we must be cautious about accusing anyone besides ourselves of committing a mortal sin.
However, let’s say that Hitler knew what he was doing was gravely sinful and consented to it. There is still the other aspect of this: repentance.
We don’t know if he repented. God is incredibly merciful. Though mortal sin severs our relationship with God (CCC 1855 says mortal sin “destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God’s law; it turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to him.”), true repentance can heal that. If Hitler truly and sincerely repented, it is possible that he was saved.
Could Hitler Be in Heaven?
I recognize this is an incredibly troubling thought. I’m right there I with you, cringing that someone who did such terrible things could still have the chance at experiencing eternal paradise. Though we hunger for justice, we must recognize that God is most just. Our human understanding of Justice is imperfect, and what God has planned is perfect even if it looks odd to us.
I think the best thing to consider is the parable of the workers in the vineyard.
Matthew 20:1-16 says:
“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. Going out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and he said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard, and I will give you what is just.’ So they went off. [And] he went out again around noon, and around three o’clock, and did likewise. Going out about five o’clock, he found others standing around, and said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They answered, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard.’ When it was evening the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Summon the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and ending with the first.’ When those who had started about five o’clock came, each received the usual daily wage. So when the first came, they thought that they would receive more, but each of them also got the usual wage. And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day’s burden and the heat.’ He said to one of them in reply, ‘My friend, I am not cheating you.Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? [Or] am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?’ Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Why are you writing about Hitler in Hell?
I wanted to write about this topic for two reasons. The first reason is this is a perfect example of “judge not lest ye be judged.” The second reason is I believe this could be a huge source of hope for people.
A lot of people like to pull out “judge not lest ye be judged” (Matthew 7:1-3) to say that Christians have no right to judge people. However, what this verse in its proper context actually means is that we cannot judge the state of someone’s soul. We absolutely should judge actions; this is made clear in Scripture as well as just being common sense.
It would be ludicrous to not judge Hitler’s actions. Obviously, starting a genocide and mass mistreatment of human beings is despicable. We must point out the evil he performed. This trickles down to even the most minor acts. There are moral truths out there, and we should defend the truths. Hitler is a very extreme example, but he made it clear why we need to condemn morally evil acts.
Despite that evil, as I explained above, we cannot know for certain if he is in Hell. We cannot judge the state of someone’s soul for the aforementioned reasons, but more importantly, because it is God’s job. Claiming with certainty that someone is in Hell is playing God.
Christ’s ultimate sacrifice was for every single person. If we question if Christ’s sacrifice was enough for a person, we are questioning if God is enough.
While we may long for justice (and trust that God will do that), we should also have hope. If Hitler has a shot at being in Heaven, it is a tangible reminder that no one is beyond redemption.
Again, I am not trying to advocate for Hitler being in Heaven. I am simply trying to say that we can’t say with certainty that he is in Hell. Doing so disregards the meaning of mortal sin, plays God by judging his soul, and underestimates the power of God’s mercy.
If you are interested in this topic, there are two more posts I recommend.
Catholic Life Ministries wrote about Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory. It was an interesting read that provides an imaginative scene as well as discussing Scripture and tradition.
Bill Pratt described God’s grace in a post on Tough Questions Answered, a Christian apologetics blog.