The following was written by Joe Carter for The Gospel Coalition blog. One was a playwright, a creator of absurdist fiction, while the other was a filmmaker, a producer of an absurd film about a socialist Godzilla. One coined the term “Post-Totalitarianism” to describe the modern social and political order that enabled people to “live within a lie”; the other, the last of the true totalitarians, lived completely within a lie of his own creation. One became the leader of his country and a famed defender of human rights. The other also became the leader of his country and gained infamy as an oppressor and destroyer of human lives. The death of these two political leaders—Vaclav Havel and Kim Jong-il—highlights the fact that men can live radically different existences but share the same eternal fate.
The history books, judging by the standards of men, will record that Havel was a noble hero and Jong-il a wretched villain. They will be remembered on earth for the legacies they left behind. But both men now stand before the supreme magistrate who will measure them against the only truly righteous standard: Jesus Christ.
By his actions Kim Jong-il showed disdain for Christ. His regime routinely beat, imprisoned, tortured, and murdered followers of Jesus and punished the families of those suspected of being Christian. In contrast, Havel expressed an affinity for the “Christian sentiment.” Yet, like Jong-il, he appears to have ultimately rejected Christ as his savior.
In 1990 Havel told The Christian Century, “I accept the Gospel of Jesus as a challenge to go my own way.” A few years earlier, in his book, Disturbing the Peace, he made a similar remark in which he “officially disclaimed” the rumors about his conversion:
I certainly have not become a practicing Catholic: I don’t go to church regularly. . . I took part in secret masses in prison, but I didn’t take communion. . . . Perhaps I understand my Protestant and Catholic friends better today—I’m certainly in greater touch with them, which may be why some people think I have converted. But genuine conversion, as I understand it, would mean replacing an uncertain “something” with a completely unambiguous personal god, and fully, inwardly, to accept Christ as the Son of God, along with everything that that entails, including the liturgy, and I have not taken that step.
Perhaps in the decade since he wrote those words, Havel came to know Christ as his savior. In the coming days his friends and family may share with the world a joyous tale of his conversion. Such hope, however, should not keep us from telling the truth to those who wonder about the fate of everyone who lives, both heroes and villains.
There is no sinner so depraved—not even Kim Jong-il—that our merciful God cannot save him. And there is no human so righteous—not even Vaclav Havel—whose good works can gain him entrance into heaven. By his death and resurrection, Jesus atoned for our sin and secured our justification by grace—not by our works. The deaths of these men should serve as a reminder of our need to spread the message that heaven is not the final destination for good men and women, but rather the home for those who have been bought by the blood of Christ.
To be sure, we can still be profoundly grateful for Havel’s accomplishments on earth. In fact, only eternal justice can secure the standards by which we measure Havel a hero and Jong-il a villain. Havel used the common grace provided by his Creator to do much good (though not ultimate good). Provided with life, conscience, and imagination, Havel used his gifts to help others imagine a life free of persecution and tyranny. In contrast, Jong-il used the gifts of common grace to enslave and oppress those he was called to protect.
Reflecting on their lives in the light of common grace will lead us to a greater appreciation of Havel’s kindness and a deeper abhorrence of Jong-il’s cruelty. But it should also stir within us a longing to share the fullness of the gospel. As John Calvin wrote,
the gifts of God also, which they continually enjoy, shall increase their condemnation; for an account of them all will be required: and it will then be found, that it will be justly imputed to them as an extreme wickedness, that they had been made worse through God’s bounty, by which they ought surely to have been improved. Let us then take heed, lest by unlawful use of blessings we lay up for ourselves this cursed treasure.
We should honor Havel because of the God who made him and sustained him. We should praise his accomplishments and his courage. But most of all we should be charitable toward his memory by speaking the truth. His good works could not save him any more than they can save you and me. Havel needed, as he understood, to “accept Christ as the Son of God, along with everything that that entails.” Everything, indeed: if Christianity equals good works, then Christianity is not necessary.