Is redemption possible for someone who commits truly heinous crimes? Someone like a Nazi, a child molester, or a perpetrator of genocide? More specifically, can a fictional character who commits such crimes be redeemed?
A recent controversy in the literary world brought these questions into sharp focus. And as so often happens, the answer depends a lot on definitions. (As a self-confessed word-nerd, I am not a bit surprised). So, if somebody asked me the above question, I would have to respond with another question…
“What kind of redemption are we talking about?”
Let’s start with a little backstory:
The controversy that brought all this to forefront began when the RWA (Romance Writers of America) announced the winners of this year’s Vivian Awards. That’s when the book world found out that the winner of the “Romance with Religious or Spiritual Elements” category was Karen Witemyer’s book, At Loves Command.
And social media exploded in protest.
The problem? Many readers were outraged by the fact that the book’s male protagonist begins the story by participating in the Wounded Knee Massacre. (A real and horrendous historical event where hundreds of Lakota men, women, and children were brutally killed.)
Though the character regrets it deeply afterward, and puts a lot of his time/energy into “defending the innocent” later in the story, many readers felt it was unacceptable for a soldier who participates in genocide to become the hero of a romance. Some also equated it to Nazi romances, one of which was a finalist in the RWA awards several years ago and featured a young Jewish woman who ends up in a romance with her Nazi camp commander.
I have not read either of these books myself, so I’m not here to give my opinion on those particular stories. What I want to address is a repeated theme I saw in comments about the award (which was eventually rescinded due to the outrage). Over and over again I saw the same argument. That certain people/characters, who commit a certain level of evil, simply cannot (or should not) “be redeemed”.
A few examples:
As you can see, it was definitely a reoccurring protest.
Now, as I read these comments I was (at first) very confused. To me, when a person is “redeemed” it implies that they turn away from the evil they were doing, and start serving God and doing good instead. So I thought, “Why wouldn’t you want someone to do that??” Did they mean that once a person reaches a certain level of evil, they are not allowed to STOP being evil? They are required to continue indefinitely? Like if a Nazi said, “Hey, I want to stop killing Jews and help save them instead” would these commenters say, “Sorry. You’ve gone too far and are no longer allowed to do anything good. You have to keep killing Jews now.”
Surely not! That would be a bizarre position. If, in real life, we would want a bad guy to STOP doing evil things, wouldn’t we also want that in fiction? At least in some cases?
Finally, in my confusion, I decided the best thing to do was look up the definition of the word “redeem” in hopes it might help.
And suddenly…everything made a lot more sense.
The Meaning(s) of Redemption
As it turns out, there are actually two very different definitions for the word “redeem.” And when I read them, I realized what the crux of the argument was all about. Here’s what I got when I googled it:
Now I understood.
If definition #1 is what most of these commenters had in mind, then no wonder they were horrified! How could a person who committed genocide ever “compensate for the faults” in their past?
To describe it visually, this kind of redemption puts the bad that a person/character does on one side of a scale, and then puts the good they do later on the other side of the scale, and the good is judged to outweigh the bad. Which means, apparently, that they now “deserve” love, or a happy ending, or whatever.
In other words, they have EARNED forgiveness.
This is the view of redemption that made these commenters argue that it’s simply impossible for a certain class of evil people. Because the evil those people have done is so huge, so heavy, that there is just no possible way any future good they do could outweigh it and make them worthy of being the hero of a story. They CANNOT earn forgiveness. Even if they spend the rest of their lives doing good, it won’t be enough to outweigh the deeds of their past.
As one author said in a message to the board members of RWA:
It’s a reasonable question.
Should Nazis, slave owners, and soldiers who commit genocide be redeemed?
Well, if you are talking about a redemption that somehow allows those people to outweigh their past crimes with their future good deeds, and earn forgiveness, then the answer is obviously NO. Not only would I say such characters “should not” be redeemed, I would say they actually CANNOT be redeemed. It’s literally impossible. If we’re talking about the “Definition #1” kind of redemption, then what on earth could anyone ever do to “compensate for” killing or abusing hundreds of people? Absolutely nothing. Fictional or not, they can never wipe that off their record. Even if they spend the rest of their lives (or the rest of the book) helping everyone they meet, it won’t undo the evil they committed, outweigh it, or make it somehow not matter anymore.
They can never redeem themselves. They can never EARN forgiveness.
But friends, the next point is really, really important. And it is this:
“Earned Forgiveness” is NOT the kind of Redemption offered in the Gospel!
This is where the confusion happens. If we think Gospel Redemption is referring to something like Definition #1, (which is really a redemption “do-in-yourself kit”) then OF COURSE we’ll assume there are some people who simply won’t qualify.
But the thing is, Gospel Redemption actually falls in the category of Definition #2:
“To gain or regain possession of something in exchange for payment“
That’s what makes the difference. Can mass murderers ever earn redemption by compensating for the evil they have done? NO. But can a merciful God reach down and purchase them? Can He regain possession of them in exchange for payment? YES HE CAN.
In the Old Testament, a redeemer was someone who “bought back” land that had been lost to debt. In the New Testaments, the gospel presents Jesus as a redeemer who came to “buy back” those who are lost to the slavery of sin. He didn’t come to redeem people because they deserved forgiveness. He came to redeem them because they DIDN’T deserve it. And never could.
Jesus said everyone who chooses to sin becomes a “slave to sin” (John 8:34). God made us. We ought to belong to Him. We ought to be living lives devoted to Him, and not doing evil things. But instead we choose to ignore our consciousness and “miss the mark” of perfection (that’s the original meaning of the most common Hebrew word for sin). And the longer and more deliberately we do it, the more terrible our evil can become, as we sear our consciousness and become ever more enslaved to the sin we are choosing.
"Don’t you realize that you become the slave of whatever you choose to obey?
You can be a slave to sin, which leads to death..."
We all know people aren’t born Nazis. They get that way one small (or large) sinful choice at a time. Sure, most of us don’t make it to that level of evil. But that doesn’t mean we couldn’t get there, given the same set of circumstances.
We’d like to sit on our high horses and think that “we” would never do such things. “We” would never have perpetrated the Holocaust. “We” would never commit genocide. “We” wouldn’t have participated in slavery. “We” could never be that evil.
But the truth is…”we” DID.
We – Human Beings – did those things. It wasn’t some alien group from another galaxy, or (heaven forbid), a “lower race” who committed all the heinous crimes in history. It was us. People. People who made one sinful choice after another until they were so blinded and in bondage to sin that they did things that appall us. But praise be to God, “People” is exactly the group Jesus came to redeem.
"For you know that you were redeemed from your empty way of life...
Not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ..."
1 Peter 1:18-19
Now of course, technically, Jesus did that for real people, not fictional characters. But if it can happen in real life, then there’s no reason it can’t be written about in fiction.
Real Life Examples:
The writer above suggested that “slave owners” are in the group of “nonredeemables.” I wonder what she would think of a man who spent the early part of his life not just as a slave owner, but as a slave trader, doing all kinds of horrible, heinous things to other human beings. Should he be redeemed?
Spoiler alert. He was.
I’m talking of course about John Newton. A man who was “bought back” by God, and then ended up spending the last half of his life fighting against slavery. He was, in fact, one of the key influences on William Wilberforce, the British politician who eventually succeeded in ending the British slave trade.
Now, does the fact that Newton helped bring an end to slavery somehow “compensate for” his past? No. Can it make up for all the enslaved people he bought, sold, killed, raped, and abused in his earlier life? NO.
Newton would never make it with a redemption do-it-yourself kit.
But again, that’s NOT the kind of redemption we are talking about. What happened to Newton is that he was redeemed (bought back) by God, freed from bondage to sin, and given a new path to walk in life. A path of doing good instead of evil. And if it can happen in real life, then it can happen in fiction to.
Ok, but…what about someone who commits genocide?
Allow me to introduce Exhibit A: Saul of Tarsus.
Wikipedia defines genocide as: “the intentional action to destroy a people—usually defined as an ethnic, national, racial, or religious group—in whole or in part“. And that definitely applies to Saul/Paul. After starting out by participating in what was basically the first century version of a lynching (the martyrdom of Stephen), he set out to violently eliminate the early Christian church. (i.e. he intended to kill and destroy a “a religious group” which means his goal was religious genocide).
“Breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, (Acts 9:1) he “persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it”, (Gal 1:13) casting his vote against Christians when they were on trial for their life, (Acts 26:10) and zealously hounding the early followers “to their death”. (Acts 22:4)
We don’t have any exact numbers to tell us how many deaths Saul was wholly or partially responsible for, but he was so well-known for his brutality against the victims of his religious genocide that after he became a believer, the early Christians were literally afraid to let him in! (See Acts 9:26). They looked at this violent and murderous man who had been traveling from city to city on the hunt for innocent people, and they thought…No way. This must be some kind of trap. It’s impossible that a man THAT evil could actually be redeemed!
But as the rest of the story shows, they were wrong. Saul WAS redeemed. And no, he didn’t deserve it. No, he didn’t earn forgiveness. No, all the good he did and the suffering he experienced himself in his later life DID NOT “compensate” for the evil he had done at the beginning. It was NOT that kind of redemption.
He was purchased. It’s as simple as that. Bought back from the sin he was so thoroughly enslaved to. Given a new life to live in service to God.
That’s what Gospel Redemption is about.
It Matters What Kind of Redemption We’re Talking About
Whether we are discussing real people or fictional characters, we won’t be able to answer this question about redemption unless we know what KIND of redemption we’re referring to. If we’re talking about a Definition #1 kind of redemption, then there’s going to be a lot of people and characters who are totally beyond recovery. But if we’re talking about Definition #2, that’s a whole different story.
When the Pharisees were appalled at Jesus for associating with prostitutes, tax collectors, and others who they viewed as “unredeemable”, Jesus said “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick; I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17)
He came to redeem sinners. Yes, SINNERS. All sinners. Any sinner. Anyone who misses the mark of perfection. Anyone who wants to stop serving sin and begin serving Jesus. ANY SINNER.
The prostitutes? Yes.
The tax collectors? Yes.
The slave traders? Yes.
Also the drug dealers, the bigots, the selfish, the greedy, the religious hypocrites, the kid who is mean to his sister, the woman who blows up at her kids, the drunk and abusive father (like really happened in the story that inspired Where Daffodils Bloom), the dictator who executes thousands of people, the Levite who walked by on the other side of the road, the Nazi, the rapist, and yes Twitter, even the soldier guilty of genocide.
Any sinner, of any kind, who repents and turns to Jesus CAN and WILL be “redeemed.” They will be bought back from their slavery to sin and become God’s possession. Set free and given a new path to walk. A new life to live in service to Christ instead of service to evil. A life defined by love instead of hate. By truth instead of lies. By hope instead of despair.
Does it erase the evil they did in the past? No. Does it outweigh or compensate for it? No. Does it mean they have somehow “earned” forgiveness? NO.
That, Dear Readers, is why it’s called the gospel of GRACE.
They didn’t earn it. They never could. None of us can.
That’s the whole point.