I had honestly never thought about it before. So the first time I was confronted with this question, I was dumbfounded. I had thought through why God would send people to Hell, but this is the other side of the coin.
This question resonates with me. I get it. According to the Bible God offers forgiveness—and therefore salvation, and therefore Heaven—to the worst people. Terrible people. I get a lump in my throat to think of it. How could God forgive them? Pick the worst sin you would dare imagine. For one moment, try to entertain the thought of the very possibility of that person finding forgiveness from God and getting to spend eternity in Heaven. Outrageous!
I believe that the longing behind this question is justified. We want to see justice come to the serial killer, the child molester, and the rapist. We want them to get what is coming to them, to feel the pain they caused. We want no loopholes, no way out. Yet, isn’t that what God offers?
We deal in terms of what people deserve, and there are monsters in this world who deserve no mercy, no forgiveness, and certainly no Heaven.
However, the topic of what people deserve is a much broader topic than we like to admit. We point the question to extreme wrongdoing, as if to differentiate between our “not so bad” wrongdoing. We focus on God dealing with extreme evil in the world, and ignore the “nobody’s perfect” evil in our lives.
But, here’s the thing…
If nobody is perfect, then everybody is guilty.
So, the question really seems to be that if God is righteous, how can he forgive anyone?
How does God see our sins?
Some Christians attempt to answer the question, simply stating, “Sin is sin. All sins are equal in God’s sight.” The implication is that if God can forgive the “small” sins of the liar, the thief, and the disobedient, he can also forgive those “big” sins of the murderer, the molester, and the rapist.
Apologist Greg Koukl recalls his experience as a guest on a radio show, addressing this issue. The talk jockeys were discussing the conversion of serial killer Jeffery Dahmer, and several Christians called in with some form of the “sin is sin” reply. However, as Koukl wrote, “you haven’t really said anything profound when you say sin is sin.” He explains:
Of course, this invited the response–and it’s fully understandable–by the non-believer, “Listen, even I can tell the difference between stealing a pencil and killing someone or eating someone. Why can’t God tell the difference?”
So, are all sins equal in God’s eyes? New Testament professor Michael J. Kruger notes two vital points. First, we must remember the difference between the effect of sin and the heinousness of sin. “While all sins are equal in their effect (they separate us from God),” Kruger writes, “they are not all equally heinous.” Second, the Bible differentiates between sins in terms of impact (1 Corinthians 6:18), of culpability (Romans 1:21-23), and punishment (Mark 9:42 and James 3:1).
Any single sin is enough to separate us from God and merit his judgement (James 2:10). However, with this question in mind it is not helpful to suggest that God sees a serial killer in the same way he sees a kid stealing candy.
I like to put it this way: No sin is little, but some sins are bigger.
How does God see us?
We make a multitude of mistakes when we assume that God sees us the way that we see each other.
We typically operate under a presupposed notion that “nobody’s perfect.” Nevertheless, we also make certain that while we are not perfect, we are also not the worst. This is certainly reasonable, but the danger is that we begin to make ourselves the golden mean of morality, the standard for goodness and badness. But, as I discussed in the previous post, we are not the standard. God is.
We think that God should not forgive the child molester because it is likely we would never forgive them. We think that God should not let the murderer into heaven because we would never let them in. We do not think God should because we never would.
Then again, many people have forgiven what we never would. We have watched Amish parents forgive a man who killed their daughters. We have seen the family of a pastor express forgiveness for his hate-filled murderer. We have observed a pastor forgive the killer of his daughter. We watched and were amazed.
It seems that people are at their best when they are able to forgive the worst. But, when God offers forgiveness, why is there a problem?
How much better is God than we are? Why would it surprise us that God’s capacity to forgive far surpasses our own. Those who everyone sees as unforgivable God sees as forgivable.
Motives are not ignored.
Many people discuss this question with a misunderstanding of the forgiveness God offers to us as sinners. The assumption is that forgiveness comes by some superficial statement or act from the one who needs it. However, the Bible is clear that forgiveness comes only to those who repent, and Biblical repentance is anything but superficial.
In other words, forgiveness does not come to the one who merely seeks to escape or alleviate punishment. There are no magic words. There is no ritual act. There is only repentance.
In January of this year, former gymnast Rachael Denhollander testified in a trial for a monster that had molested her and literally hundreds of other girls. For nearly half of her testimony, she addressed the assailant who had carried a Bible of all things into the courtroom. She spoke powerfully.
You spoke of praying for forgiveness. But Larry, if you have read the Bible you carry, you know forgiveness does not come from doing good things, as if good deeds can erase what you have done. It comes from repentance which requires facing and acknowledging the truth about what you have done in all of its utter depravity and horror without mitigation, without excuse, without acting as if good deeds can erase what you have seen this courtroom today.
Will God forgive a person as horrible as Larry [last name]? Yes, but God knows his heart even more than he knows it himself, and God tests the heart like a furnace. (Proverbs 17:3) We can be sure that when God forgives, motives are pure.
Consequences are not removed.
Another reality we should consider is the fact that forgiveness does not necessarily remove the consequences of our sin.
We should remember that temporal consequences are not removed. David is a prime example of true repentance. He had a man killed to cover up his impregnating the man’s wife. In Psalm 51, we see his soul poured out in overwhelming grief and full contrition. It was true repentance.
Yet, the baby died. His kingdom torn apart by war. His other sons met violent deaths. His family was spoiled by scandal. He repented, but there were consequences.
Such is the case with many who repent. They receive forgiveness from God, but that does not do away with the past reality of their actions. Many Christians today could testify to the struggles they face on a daily basis as the result of past, albeit forgiven, sin. Perhaps, this is what David was referring to when he say that his sin was ever before him. (Psalm 51:3)
We should also remember that eternal consequences are not removed. As I mentioned in the previous post, God cannot allow sin to go unpunished. So, how is it that sinners are forgiven, never having to face God’s wrath?
That, my friend, is the beauty of the Gospel. God in his love supplied what his righteousness required.
As songwriter Keith Getty explains,
Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied
For every sin on Him was laid
Here in the death of Christ I live.
As John Piper explains:
This is the meaning of the word propitiation…. It refers to the removal of God’s wrath by providing a substitute. The substitute is provided by God Himself. The substitute, Jesus Christ, does not just cancel the wrath; He absorbs it and diverts it from us to Himself. God’s wrath is just, and it was spent, not withdrawn.
As the apostle Paul explains,
For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him. (2 Corinthians 5:21)
One of the most earth-shattering realizations in Christian belief is that the punishment we deserve did not disappear; it was redirected onto Jesus Christ. Jesus hung on the cross, our sin on his shoulders, making our forgiveness possible.
How could a righteous God allow bad people into Heaven? Because by his grace he provided what his righteousness required.
Even after taking time to think through these ideas, it is understandable that we are perplexed by the notion that God offers forgiveness to those who in no way deserve it. But, we should ask ourselves how much we deserve the forgiveness offered to us. Perhaps we do not need as much as the serial killer does, and perhaps there are problems with the idea that “sin is sin.” However, guilty is guilty.
The fact is that none of us deserves God’s forgiveness. But, it is available, made possible by the sacrificial death of Jesus. If God can forgive the worst of us, he can certainly forgive the rest of us.
 Greg Koukl, “How Much Sin Can God Forgive?” (https://www.str.org/articles/how-much-sin-can-god-forgive#.W2L9R9JKiUk)
 Michael J. Kruger, “Taking Back Christianese #6: “All Sins Are Equal in God’s Sight”” (https://www.michaeljkruger.com/taking-back-christianese-6-all-sins-are-equal-in-gods-sight/)
 John Piper, “The Cross Absorbed the Wrath of God” (https://billygraham.org/decision-magazine/march-2016/the-cross-absorbed-the-wrath-of-god/)
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