How Much Sin Can God Forgive?

Author Greg Koukl Published on 02/21/2013

How do you respond when someone challenges the notion that God can forgive a Hitler or a mass-murderer? 

I want to talk to you a few moments about Jeffrey Dahmer before it gets too far away.  I am not so much concerned about his death, per se, but rather about some issues that have been raised about the fact that he died a Christian--this man in Wisconsin who was convicted of multiple murders, cannibalism, atrocious crimes, crimes that make us completely shudder when we think about them.  Yet while in prison he apparently committed his life to Jesus Christ and was baptized, and is someone that we have reason to consider a brother in Christ. 

I’ll tell you frankly that I had mixed feelings when I thought about Jeffrey Dahmer being killed.  The first thing that I thought of--and I will be quite honest with you--is I’m glad he got his just desserts.  I felt that he was guilty of a capital offense and he should have been punished capitally.  He should have had his life taken, though I thought the way he ended up dying at the hands of other inmates wasn’t right.  He should have instead been executed at the hand of the law, as God ordained.  But I still felt that he got his just desserts.  And frankly, I had to back off just a little bit and to correct my thinking because I didn’t want to feel gleeful about this fact. 

I wasn’t proud of that feeling because it was more than justice that was being satisfied in me.  There was something else that said, Yeah that guy got what he deserved.  There was a bad edge to my feelings and I had to back off a little bit, especially when I found out that he had made a profession of Jesus Christ and had gotten baptized and died a Christian.  I genuinely hope that was the case. 

Yet there are some who are unsettled about the notion, especially non-Christians.  I have confronted this a number of times in public forums on other radio stations as we talked about religious issues.  When I proclaim the truth of forgiveness in Jesus Christ for anybody, that this forgiveness is available to even the worst criminal, the question comes up, How is it possible that God could forgive such a criminal as a Hitler, for example?  This question came up on a local station here in Southern California pertaining to Jeffrey Dahmer.  The two fellows that were the talk jocks on that show asked the question during drive time.  How could God forgive a Jeffrey Dahmer?  How could a good and righteous God see His way clear to take somebody like a Jeffrey Dahmer, a person guilty of multiple murders and homosexuality and of cannibalism?  How could God forgive such a person? 

Apparently there were a lot of Christians that called the show to make a defense for such a notion, and it was quite disappointing to hear the Christians’ rather shallow, and I would say, inaccurate, responses.  Many Christians just said, “Sin is sin.  All sin is the same to God, so if God can forgive you He can forgive a Jeffrey Dahmer.  It’s all the same to Him.”  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?”  Apparently the Christians were not well-equipped to give a reasonable and even-handed defense on this issue. 

The fact is, all sin is sin and you haven’t really said anything profound when you say sin is sin.  But what you imply is that all sin is equally offensive to God, and that is not true.  That simply is not true.  There are some sins that are more egregious than others.  Jesus made the statement very clearly when He was speaking with Herod at the time of His crucifixion when He said, “The one who delivered me up to you has the greater sin.”  Indeed, even common sense dictates this.  That it is certainly more egregious, it’s more morally weighty to take a person’s life than it is to steal a pencil.  In fact, if this wasn’t the case you could never solve an ethical dilemma where you have two particular things that come in conflict with each other.  When taken in isolation both would be wrong.  Like whether you ought to obey the government or obey God in preaching the Gospel.  Well, we are supposed to do both, but when they come into conflict we do the greater; we obey God and preach the Gospel, and we disobey the government.  We can do that because we know that some things are more morally important than others.  Common sense seems to dictate that, too. 

But when someone says sin is sin, there is another aspect they may be getting at.  That is, any sin disqualifies you from heaven and brings you under God’s judgment.  Even the least of the sins.  That is true.  James says if you are guilty of one sin and not of another, you are still guilty of breaking the law, so you are guilty of the whole law.  Then, if you break even the smallest portion of it you become a law-breaker.  You are guilty before the court and you end up being punished for such a crime. 

I had this same question asked of me by Dennis Prager on his program, and he brought up the pencil illustration.  “Are you saying that it’s just as bad to kill somebody as to steal a pencil?”  No, it’s not.  But stealing a pencil is still a crime that one would be judged for.  But the fact is, nobody is guilty of only stealing a pencil. 

I have calculated this.  Just starting from the time you are ten until you were 60--no sin is accrued to you up to ten years old and no sins accrued to you after sixty, just those fifty years--sinning ten sins a day.  Keep in mind we’re talking about sin.  We’re not talking about just rape, pillaging and stealing.  We’re talking about everything--the attitudes of your heart, your motives, the actions and failing to love God with your whole heart, mind, soul and strength, failing to love your neighbor as yourself.  Those are moral requirements that we fail constantly. 

Just with ten sins a day for 50 years, it comes out to something like 182,500 infractions of the law.  What judge would let you off with that kind of a rap sheet?  And that is the best case scenario.  The point that I’m making is that if people ask the question how could God forgive a Jeffrey Dahmer?, they ought to take inventory of their own lives for just a moment and speculate for just a little bit the kind of debt load they’ll have before God when their time for judgment comes.  They’ll find that they have a lot more to be forgiven for than what they thought.  That puts them more in the class of Jeffrey Dahmer than a Jesus Christ.  The fact is, we sin many more than ten times a day.  So each of us is quite an egregious sinner in that regard, even though we have a pretty high opinion of ourselves. 

I will have to admit that the talk show hosts from the secular station did have a point.  They were concerned about justice.  How could God be considered just if He releases a Jeffrey Dahmer from his sins?  I think the distinction between our actions and Dahmer’s actions kind of misses the point because it suggests that the question of God’s justice only arises with extreme crimes or extreme individuals.  As if God is within His rights, as it were, to forgive minimal crimes but He is not within His just rights to forgive extreme crimes.  It seems to me that the real question of justice is, how can God forgive any sins at all--not just a Jeffrey Dahmer, but even our measly little sins?  At least that’s the way we see them.  How can God even forgive any sin, because the fact is, if He lets anybody off--even us moral light-weights--then He still has a conflict with the issue of justice.  I don’t see any inconsistency in God forgiving little sins or few sins, and God forgiving greater sins or many sins.  In fact, it is consistency that requires such a thing.  If the cross atones for sins at all, it seems to me it atones for all.  That’s the exciting thing about the cross. 

This is the other lesson.  Whether you have one billion sinners being forgiven of one sin, or one sinner being forgiven for a billion sins, it all amounts to the same thing--a billion sins.  The work of the cross is such that it can forgive even the most egregious of sinners.  The fact of Jeffrey Dahmer’s forgiveness, if it is a fact, ought to teach us an entirely different lesson.  Paul put it this way in I Timothy 1:15-16, “It is a trustworthy statement deserving full acceptance (in other words be confident of this), that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all.  And yet for this reason I found mercy, in order than in me as the foremost, Jesus Christ might demonstrate his perfect patience as an example for those who would believe in him for eternal life.”  Paul says, Look, I am the biggest of sinners.  I persecuted the church of God.  I led people to their death because they were Christians.  If God could forgive me, He could even forgive a Jeffrey Dahmer.  He could even forgive a Greg Koukl.  He could even forgive a Ken and John. 

For those of you who are tempted to say, Listen I’m no Jeffrey Dahmer, my response is simply this:  Maybe not, but you are no Jesus Christ either.  You are more like Jeffrey Dahmer than you are like Jesus Christ.  That’s the comparison that ultimately will matter.  If God can forgive Jeffrey, He can forgive you.  And that is good news.