Is Forgiveness Unconditional?


Meriam Matthews

March 21, 2003

In the course of a discussion with friends, I was asked if, as a Christian, I forgive Stalin, Hitler, Usama BinLaden and Saddam Hussein  for the heinous mass-murders and torture of millions of innocent men, women and children, and in the case of the latter, "rape rooms". My answer was no, not exactly. I'd like to, only because I love the Lord and He tells me to. Still, in the particular case of these men, I find myself unable to do so.

This article is a serious attempt to ask, not answer, questions about forgiveness. Many good Christians wrestle with these questions. While no revelatory answers may be forthcoming here, perhaps the questions themselves will reach God's ears in order that He may gracefully confer some answers on those of us for whom the issue of unconditional forgiveness weighs heavily. Because the questions are weighty and often beyond our ability to apply the Scriptural dictates into our own lives, answers are, more than likely, forthcoming only through the power of the Holy Spirit. With that as a prelude, here are some thoughts about forgiveness and unforgiveness, for what they are worth.

For the sake of brevity, I will refer to Stalin, Hitler, Usama BinLaden and Saddam Hussein as SHUS.

The New Testament is clear that Jesus died for our sins and wants us to "love our enemies" (Mt. 5:44) and to forgive other people as God forgave us. According to some interpretations, while many verses of the Bible do indicate the precondition of repentance in order to attain forgiveness (Luke 17:3, for example),  most other references to our forgiving each other permit little wiggle room in Jesus' desire that we do forgive them, period.

God Himself is the final Judge of who actually is forgiven, regardless of whether or not we forgive them. It is safe to say that Jesus will not permit the unrepentant sinner into His kingdom because those who do not confess their sins and repent of them are denied entry to the Kingdom of Heaven. (1 John 1:19; Luke13:1-5; Acts 3:19)

Since SHUS have not confessed nor repented, they are not forgiven, according to Jesus' own words (Mt. 4:17; Luke 13:3),  and are thereby denied entry to heaven. Therefore, did Jesus ask us to do that which He did not do, namely to forgive those who do not repent? Are we not supposed to forgive everyone under all circumstances?

It is easy to say, "Jesus tells us to love our enemies and to forgive everyone their trespasses (Mt. 6:14-15) as God has forgiven our trespasses", but do "trespasses" include the mass murder and torture of innocents for sport? Would Jesus have forgiven SHUS without them first confessing and repenting? It is inconceivable to me that Jesus would lump SHUS's "trespasses" in with the less heinous trespasses of His own incarnation's era such as coveting and adultery, but more about that later.

Jesus tells us to forgive "our brothers" (other Christians) but that if they do not repent after repeated rebukes, to cast them out of the church, to excommunicate them (Mt. 18:15-17). This certainly appears to be a conditional forgiveness, not an unconditional one. But what about our "non-brothers"? Do we extend the same forgiveness to those who are not "our brothers" and  who do not repent? If the harsh punishment of excommunication falls upon unrepentant Christians, what, if any, punishment falls to the non-believer who does not repent? We cannot excommunicate them from something they do not belong to. So what is their punishment?

While Christians should be prepared to follow Jesus' commandment to forgive everyone, I do not believe forgiveness on our part is unconditional in all cases because sometimes we are simply not humanly capable of doing that without Divine intervention (Philippians. 4:13).

God is fully aware of this human incapacity within many of us, and in His mercy will forgive us for not being able to forgive SHUS. Some of us are simply not able to forgive because of the outrageously evil nature of their crimes; these are not just relatively minor transgressions such as profanity and coveting -- these crimes are unspeakable mass-murders, torture and rape of innocents, often babies, for pleasure. 

Jesus knew we would never be perfect, but despite the verse which states "Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect" (Mt. 5:48),  His Divine Plan included no perfect human beings on this earth and therefore no perfect forgiveness. Why ask us to be perfect when He knows we cannot be? It is because He wants us to strive to be perfect, to have a spirit of forgiveness, as Jesus typified for us as He walked the earth. In the striving is found the mirroring of Jesus' character, the increased proximity to God the Father, and our total reliance upon Him as we bury the unforgiving Self in His mercy.

When we can honestly forgive someone in our heart of hearts, we may do as Jesus did; we forgive and ask them to "go and sin no more." (John 8:11) Repeat offenders such as SHUS refuse to "go and sin no more" and thereby go against Jesus' commandment to repent, which places them outside God's mercy. Since Jesus is God, is perfect and forgives all who repent, in His all-knowingness, He recognizes that in our imperfection we may not be capable of forgiving in certain notable instances such as that of SHUS. If we were perfect as God is perfect, forgiveness would come easily. Clearly it does not always do so, especially in this case. However, in Scripture, Jesus never alluded to mass murder or to any crimes of the magnitude of those of SHUS.

Wagering a guess, our forgiveness does not come easily, for example, to the parents of murdered children who say they have forgiven their beloved child's killer. Skeptically, I question the sincerity of such claims perhaps because even as a Christian, such superhuman spiritual largesse does not seem genuine.  No doubt that is my own shortcoming and not that of the person doing the forgiving. If their forgiveness is genuine, it seems that it is only God's grace that permits them to do what they could not do on their own in the face of such tragic events.

Only because Jesus says we should, it is understandable to attempt to "love our enemies" and to "forgive those who despitefully use us" (Mt. 5:44), but it certainly is not the natural state of the mind of man. Unless God's grace overrides our own fleshly nature and gives us the ability to do so, many of us do not have such capability in the case of SHUS.  Does this incapacity make us "bad Christians"? Or does it make us imperfect followers of Christ, seeking the grace to do that which seems unnatural to us but that Jesus wants us to do anyway?

If God Himself will not permit the unrepentant adulterer or blasphemer entry to His kingdom, are we really asked to forgive others for stomach-churning crimes against humanity? Does He ask of us that which He already knows our imperfection prohibits us from doing? Jesus does want us to seek a spirit of love and forgiveness, in full recognition that we may often fall short of the mark. When we do fall short, He forgives us once again because He knows we have made the attempt. However, in the case of SHUS, some of us are solidly stalled at wanting to forgive rather than actually forgiving: "The Spirit is willing but the flesh is weak." (Mt. 26:41) This is where grace comes in once again. In some instances, we simply cannot do it without God's grace.

I am compelled to wonder if Christ would have forgiven SHUS. Would He have seen those men not as fallen men turned bad but as evil incarnate? Many people see such perpetrators as evil beings, not human at all, and have a difficult time seeing them as merely misled pathetic men in need of forgiveness. Did Jesus go to the Cross for SHUS as well as for the rest of us? Biblical translations say He did. Would Jesus have agreed with these translations? Again, there is no mention in New Testament Scripture of crimes of this magnitude.

Because Jesus Christ rose from the dead, everyone will rise from the dead at the Last Day. Adam's sin put you in the grave, Christ's sinlessness took you out of it  --  1 Corinthians 15:21-22: "For since by man came death, by man came also resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive." This means that at the Last Day, SHUS will rise from the dead. Where they spend that resurrection is up to God and His Book of Life: "Revelation 20:12-15, And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works. And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire."

Every person will rise again. However, eternity only has two addresses--life (heaven) and damnation, or "hell." Whether hell  is an actual or a metaphorical place of fire and brimstone, we do not know. Literalists believe it is actual. Other Christians believe it to be metaphorical. And some simply do not offer an opinion, probably because they don't know. Wherever one ends up, however, one will live forever in that place. Clearly, an unrepentant SHUS, although resurrected at the Last Day, will more than likely find himself in  hell.  This is mere conjecture, of course.

To date, there have been no attempts by SHUS at either repentance or conversion  to Christianity. Like SHUS, those who do not repent should not plan a trip to heaven any time soon because they do not have the cleansing blood of Jesus to redeem them of their sins. While God alone will decide whose name is written in His Book of Life, this does not prohibit contemplating the question, "Has God forgiven SHUS for these unspeakable crimes, and if so, why?" If He has not forgiven them and dooms them to hellish eternity because He has not found their names in the Book of Life, why did He not forgive them? Could it be that some crimes are beyond even God's generosity?

These are not idle questions and they may not be answered to our satisfaction. Nonetheless, the questions are often troubling dilemmas for many thinking Christians. This is where grace comes in. Only grace can give us the wisdom to know where God wants the line drawn in 21st century America, if indeed He wants any lines drawn.  Jesus never said "Forgive your enemies." He said, "Love your enemies", a different thought. I can "love" my enemies by wanting what is best for them, which is for them to be under God's will. But forgiving SHUS requires a supernatural override of the imperfect human condition in which I function and of which I am presently incapable of overriding.

With a few notable exceptions, Jesus' audience of listeners consisted of people whose horizons were geographically and culturally narrow.  Jesus spoke to the gatherings in parables so they could absorb his radically Divine message with ears tuned to their own sphere of life mainly fishing, animal husbandry and agriculture. Jesus never addressed the issue of forgiveness for genocide and mass murder. He went so far as to speak about "enemies" but in context it seems He was referring to much closer, smaller enemies than the likes of SHUS. Jesus also drew no distinctions among sins; all sins are equal. Therefore, according to Scripture, forgiveness cuts across the board, also without distinction as to the severity of the sin. The single, clear exception to this is the sin of blaspheming the Holy Spirit, for which there is no forgiveness. (Mk. 3:29)

Because Jesus is God, He foresaw the coming of SHUS. In light of this fact, do you suppose He expects His followers to place SHUS on the same forgiveness level as the wheat-grower in the next field who encroached on another's farmland? Or to the sheep-thief?  There are no indications that Jesus viewed stealing sheep as a more serious sin than genocide or mass-murder. Then again, there is no indication that He didn't. Perhaps He viewed genocide and the torture, rape and murder of innocents as  a "blaspheming of the Holy Spirit."  It isn't mentioned. In the New Testament, sin is sin and all sins are to be forgiven each other by Christians. (Mt. 12:31)

Or is there more than meets a cursory reading? There is an alternative: we can attempt to discern the intent of Scripture by reading it in context. We should do our best, with Holy Spirit intervention, to understand what message was intended when certain Scripture was written. For example, what did Jesus intend when He said to forgive men their sins or that we would not be forgiven? Did Jesus have SHUS in mind, too? Would Jesus have clasped the unrepentant SHUS to His breast in a forgiving embrace? Knowing that Saddam Hussein had just tortured a baby to death while the parents were forced to watch, or had his sons serially rape women in a festive setting, would Jesus have loved him enough to forgive him for it? Would Jesus have forgiven and embraced Hitler, knowing he was responsible for the gassing of millions of Jews and Christians during World War II?

Digesting Scripture should go beyond a superficial scan. It seems to be important to know if what we read there  seems to violate the original intent of the verse(s). Knowing why something was written often permits us to apply it properly in our Christians lives. We can do this in harmony with the rest of Scripture, but to deliberately take certain verses or passages out of context and place them in isolation because they fit our preconceived ideas  or long-held biases is to risk distorting the intent of those verses. In doing that, we often adhere to the letter of the law without ever discerning the spirit of the law. What was the spirit of Jesus' commands to forgive?

Taken along with the rest of Scripture, does God wish for us to view SHUS' sins in context or not? Do we lump SHUS in with the sister-in-law who gossips or with the philandering husband? Or do we place SHUS' crimes into the unforgivable column along with blaspheming the Holy Spirit, a sin far closer to the nature of SHUS' crimes than would be, say, bearing false witness against our neighbor? The parable of the king and his servants deals not with mass-murder, genocide, torture and rape; it deals with a king's riches and the loaning of money (Matthew 18:21-35), petty matters by comparison. In my opinion, the intent of these verses is to speak of forgiveness about matters which much of contemporary mankind addresses on a daily basis. Jesus never mentioned anything in all of Scripture which addressed anything even close to the heinous crimes as those committed by SHUS. Why not?

Out of love, God wants all His people to walk in His Way. He wants His children to love and obey Him. He wants us to love one another as He loves us. (John. 13:34). To love another is to want the best for them, and the best for them, for everyone, is to be under God's protective umbrella, not outside it. Prayers for SHUS to come under this umbrella of God's Will are reasonable; as Christians, we would like to see everyone enjoying the abundant life in Christ. However, forgiving SHUS is not reasonable to expect, given the nature of their beastly crimes. Some, like me, find it easier to forgive someone we know than someone like Usama BinLaden, who murdered thousands of people, then cheered in the streets as the fiery towers fell in Manhattan.

It begs the question of whether or not we can forgive SHUS by stating that we should pray for them. It's a given; we should pray for them. The question is whether we should forgive them. We are supposed to but I submit that it is the rare person who can honestly forgive them, deep down, which is one reason our country, currently led by a born-again Christian, is at war against SHUS at this writing. Had we truly forgiven the perpetrators (according to the Scriptural dictate to do so), we'd have turned the other cheek following September 11, 2001. Have we really done this? No, not all of us. Therefore,  we have not forgiven them.

Assuming one has forgiven SHUS, does it not follow that we should imitate Jesus and not defend ourselves against their attacks and that we must lay down our lives for evil men who want to annihilate us? Jesus would call this "loving our enemies" and would ask us to forgive them "seventy times seven", then turn the other cheek. Such pacifism may be acceptable to some, but we must sometimes kill in a Just War to defend ourselves. We have done so in the past. Does this make us evil? After all, it does violate Scripture which tells us to "love our enemies."

Does unforgiveness, in this instance, make us bad Christians? If so, there is Old Testament Scripture that someone needs to rewrite so that God's commands to slaughter entire villages including every man, woman, child and animal are removed from Scripture. But because the changing of Scripture is strictly forbidden by God , the suggestion to change the wording is not a serious one; it is meant to underscore the near-impossibility of maintaining a healthy and free pacifist country if someone else wants to destroy it. It is equally impossible to forgive SHUS when one reads all forgiveness-Scripture in historical context and applies it to the intent of Jesus' command to "love our enemies."

The New Testament is almost evenly divided on those verses which declare that forgiveness is unconditional and those which declare that it is conditional. Here is only a partial list:



Matthew 5:44

Matthew 3:2

Matthew 6:14-15

Matthew 4:17

Matthew 12:31

Luke 13:1-5

Matthew 18:35

Luke 17:3

Mark 3:28

Acts 3:19

Mark 11:25-26

Acts 26:18

Luke 6:37

Romans 10:9-10

Colossians 3:13

1 John 1:9

Ephesians 4:32


 Even considering such division, when taken as a whole the Bible indicates that Christians are to forgive each other as God forgives us. According to what is written, though, God decides who is forgiven according to whether or not they have repented and converted (turned their lives around), which conditional-forgiveness Scriptural references require of the penitent in advance of his actual forgiveness.  Our forgiving someone does not mean God forgives them.

There is this from The Bible Knowledge Commentary" of the New Testament, by Walvoord and Zuck: "Jesus' words in Matthew 6:14-15 ("14For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, 15but if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses")  explain His statement about forgiveness in verse 12: ("..forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors"). Though God's forgiveness of sin is not based on one's forgiving others, a Christian's forgiveness is based on realizing he has been forgiven.This is particularly important because although I am commanded to forgive the repentant sinner, this doesn't automatically confer upon that sinner forgiveness; that is God's decision, not mine. However, if I expect to be forgiven for my sins, I must realize that the Cross was not only for me, but for everyone, or so Scripture appears to state.

I do realize I have been forgiven and have a certainty that in the case of SHUS God's justice will be sound. In my gratitude for being covered by the Blood of Christ, I also have faith that my own unforgiving attitude in the case of SHUS will be forgiven as well. If it is not, with God's grace, I can some day learn better "forgiveness skills" so that I will give glory to God the Father in my persistent but often feeble, attempts to reflect a forgiving Christ.

The matter of unconditional or conditional forgiveness has baffled and tested some of the greatest theological minds in history. The subject of forgiveness may ultimately be one of those matters, much like The Trinity, which many of us will never fully understand in this lifetime. Perhaps it is good to admit there are some things we simply cannot grasp, hard though we try. Or even if we do grasp it, we cannot implement it in full. Perhaps it is good to admit there are things we simply cannot do without God's grace. Maybe we are not to even attempt to understand such things -- 1 Cor. 1:19-21, "For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent. Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe."

Being among those who do not fully "get it", I will pray for whatever understanding God wishes me to have on these matters as well as on all other matters. Perfection has so far escaped me, but the Holy Spirit has been generous to this sinner in conferring some measure of understanding on other issues of concern, so I have no reason to believe His generosity will flag now.

To date, I do not have peace around the issue of forgiveness in the specific case of SHUS, although it is quite easy for me to forgive people I know personally. God may be saving the answers for when we finally meet. He knows how eagerly I sit at His feet waiting to learn, so I'll keep asking the Holy Spirit to teach me. Meanwhile I shall have to settle for my human imperfection so long as I inhabit this mortal coil.