How would you feel if you knew you would meet a Nazi in heaven? Taken aback? Horrified? Resentful? After all, some of these guys committed unthinkable crimes and implemented programs that caused the murder of millions of human beings. Almost everyone you ask would probably come to the same conclusion—if anyone deserves hell, they certainly do. And yet, like it or not, you will meet a few Nazis in heaven. Inconceivable? Absolutely.
Recently I read a book called Mission at Nuremberg, written by Tim Townsend. This book relates the little-known story of LCMS Army Chaplain Henry Gerecke, who was asked to consider a prison ministry position. Now, Rev Gerecke was no stranger to prison ministry. In fact, he had quite a successful prison ministry going in St Louis before he left for chaplaincy during World War II. But this was no ordinary prison. This would require him ministering to the 21 high-ranking Nazis who were on trial for crimes against humanity. He would be ministering to hardened men like Hermann Goering, Wilhelm Keitel, and Albert Speer. And he would be sharing the Good News, talking about the Jewish Savior to men who had just tried to annihilate the Jews. Not an ordinary task by any means. And Gerecke had his qualms about the position. It would be like a pastor today being asked to witness to a group of ISIS terrorists. Who would really want to do that? After prayerful consideration Gerecke did indeed take the position, and ministered to these men during the months of the Nuremberg trials. Believe it or not, a handful of those men actually came to saving faith in Jesus. Men who had planned the extermination of millions of people repented of their sins and were forgiven by the Creator of the universe. Inconceivable!
Believe it or not, that’s not the first time God has forgiven people like that. Let’s look way back to a biblical example. Think about the prophet Jonah. He, like Nahum, was called by God to preach to Nineveh. Today that doesn’t mean a whole lot to us, but it was a frightening enough call for Jonah to try running away. Nineveh became the capital of Assyria around 700 B.C., and the Assyrians were the “terrorists” or “Nazis” of their day. The Concordia Self-Study Bible puts it this way in the introduction to the book of Nahum: “The Assyrians were brutally cruel, their kings often being depicted as gloating over the gruesome punishments inflicted on conquered peoples. They conducted their wars with shocking ferocity, uprooted whole populations as state policy and deported them to other parts of their empire. The leaders of conquered cities were tortured and horribly mutilated before being executed. No wonder the dread of Assyria fell on all her neighbors!” Indeed. And it was to these people Jonah was called. I don’t blame him for trying to run away. So of course there’s the whole exciting episode of him getting swallowed by the fish, but the rest of the book intrigues me far more. Jonah goes to Nineveh and proclaims that their evil deeds and violence are bringing their own doom upon them. Amazingly, the people repent and turn from their ways for the time being, and what happens? God relents! He has mercy on them and spares them from certain destruction. He actually forgives those people. Inconceivable!
Ah, but that’s not the end of the story. How does Jonah react? Does he rejoice that these godless people have turned from their evil ways to believe in the one true God? Not at all. He gets mad at God! So mad, in fact, that he tells God he wants to die! He actually tells God, “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” (Jonah 4:2) Wow. He’s mad that God is compassionate and forgiving. Inconceivable.
But before you go judging him for his hardheartedness, take a look into your own heart. Would you want to minister to those Nazis at the Nuremberg trials? Are you rejoicing that some of them repented and went to heaven? Would you want to see some ISIS terrorists in heaven someday? Would you rejoice to see a serial child molester repent and come to saving faith? What if it was someone who did an unthinkable crime to you or to someone you love? Would you rejoice to see them repent? Honestly, I’m not at all sure I can answer those questions with a resounding “yes.” I’m really no better than Jonah, getting mad at God for His grace and compassion. To me, it’s just too incomprehensible, too inconceivable, that God could forgive such terrible sins. Someone ought to pay for those sins. Someone should suffer for them. And thankfully, Someone has.
Jesus died for your sins. It’s a refrain we hear again and again, and if we truly believe that, then we have to believe that it’s true for all people. Jesus didn’t just die for “petty” sins. He didn’t just hang there abandoned by God for people who go to church every week and try to live a good life. He died for people like that thief next to him on the cross who only came to faith in his final hours, after living a terrible and godless life. Inconceivable? Yes. But so is the entire salvation story. God becoming man to live a perfect life for us and suffer, die, and rise again for our justification? Absurd. But that’s exactly what Jesus did. His death covers the sins of all who believe in Him, no matter what those sins might be. He died for you. He died for me. He died for the murderer in prison who has since repented and come to faith. He died for those Ninevites. And yes, he even died for those Nazis. Absolutely inconceivable. But absolutely true.