The Shared Fate of Vaclav Havel and Kim Jong-il

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 Kim 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 Kim, 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.

Still Grateful

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 Kim 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, Kim 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 Kim’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.

  • Jonathan Leeman

    Good piece. Thanks, Joe.

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  • Jay Watts

    This is a hard post to read, Joe. I can’t help but be struck by my own hypocrisy. Upon hearing the news of Havel’s death I hoped that he had found the humility to acknowledge the lordship of Christ and his own need for salvation. Though I obviously do not rejoice in any man suffering eternal separation from God, I admit that my reaction to Jong-il’s death was considerably more muted. As you point out, there is no reason for this based on the merits of either man’s worthiness to receive salvation. It is entirely because the man Havel contributed to our world in ways that made me hope for him in a manner that Jong-il did not.

    Great piece. I continue to hold out hope for surprises that can only be revealed on the other side.

  • Mike

    Maybe this just reflects my own sense of soteriology, but I kinda find it ironic that you would use Calvin to illustrate a post that cast doubt on the salvation of anyone. Maybe I’m just an inveterate Calvinist, but you can’t go very far in the Institutes or the commentaries without Calvin making it clear that *we* can never hope to understand God’s relationship with other people. Really, our only certainty can be in ourselves, and even that has some provisional character. Our hope for the salvation of others has to be just that: sincere hope. It’s why I don’t think that Calvin maps on very well to contemporary Evangelical thinking. Still, interesting piece. As a long-time fan of Vaclav Havel, I appreciated it.

  • JMH

    I don’t think I disagree with a single word here. And yet this article is really frustrating to me. I find it opportunistic, tone-deaf and rude.

    It’s not necessary to jump in with this same “all that matters is whether you’re a Christian” article every time a famous person dies. (And again, I agree with every word.) In an ultimate sense, yes, it is all that matters. But honestly, it’s just rude. It takes an event of serious weight and sadness and turns it into a chance to make a point. If someone did this in personal conversation we would find it obnoxious. Being obnoxious is not the same thing as being “Gospel-centered.”

    Also, it flattens distinctions there’s no need to flatten. Yes, Havel and Jong-Il both stand guilty before a holy God. But Havel was a great man and Jong-Il was a monster. The Judge of all the earth has done right with both; we don’t undermine His holiness when we speak honorably of honorable men, even if they were not believers.

    You acknowledged these things in the piece, but again, I think writing it in the first place was just sort of tacky and unnecessary.

    • Joe Carter

      It’s not necessary to jump in with this same “all that matters is whether you’re a Christian” article every time a famous person dies.

      When I was about ten years old I remember sitting in church and listening to yet another sermon about what was required for salvation. After the service I complained to my dad about the preaching and asked him why we needed to hear the same thing every week when everyone I knew in church was “saved” already. My dad’s response was something about how it may be the only time that someone comes to the church and, for them, the message could have eternal importance.

      Since then I don’t complain about hearing the gospel preached (though now I understand that it’s a message even those of us who are already “saved” need to hear frequently).

      I can emphasize with your complaint because it’s something that I’d say myself. But I also know that if I were to ask many Christians if Havel was in heaven they’d answer that of course he was. After all, he was a good man and good people go to heaven.

      Another commenter made a similar comment on his blog that you did. He wrote, “As true and important is the message of Carter’s blog, I don’t find it particularly helpful for the occasion.” But then when you look at the first comment you’ll find someone asking, “I’m not 100 pct sure I got the Havel V Jong-Il bit. So no matter how much good or bad I do in life, I will still go to hell if I’m not a proper church going christian? Stupid question perhaps, but I honestly dont know, what does it take to be “christian enough”?”

      While many of us—particularly readers of TGC—are clear that good works don’t earn you salvation, there are millions of people (including Christians) who still need to hear that message. That was the reason I wrote the article.

      • Rob

        I don’t disagree with the point that is being made of the importance of spreading the Gospel and proclaiming the truth of Christ, but as a missionary to the Czech people I find this in extremely poor taste. This has been a huge blow to the Czech people but at the same time it’s opened a door, and it’s something that we here on the ground are seeing. But to have someone flippantly rattle off these things without knowing the Czech people or how they process things is a very sad commentary and a lack of knowledge about the Czechs and Havel as well. This article could be true of Havels place with God, yet it is the gospel of Jesus Christ that should be offensive, not us.

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  • Melody

    All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.

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  • pentamom

    A minor quibble, but referring to Kim Jong Il (I’ve never seen the hyphen used before, I don’t think Korean has an equivalent) as Jong-il is rather like referring to Vaclav Havel as Vaclav. The family name is Kim.

    • Collin Hansen

      Thank you for the correction on Kim. I’ve made the change. “Jong-il” is the form of his name used by The New York Times and other media.

  • Lynn Rutledge

    Great article. Enjoyed it.

  • Brandon

    I agreed with everything, and find it both tactful and helpful, as others have written. I would, though, make a one word correction. At the end you wrote “if Christianity equals good works…”

    I would change that to read “if Christianity equals works,” without throwing in the adjective “good.” if we go with Jesus’ definition of “good” there really are two kinds of “works.” The ones done through faith in Jesus empowered by the Holy Spirit, and the ones not done through Jesus and the Spirit (the “filthy rags” kind). Does that make sense? I hope that’s helpful. It’s been helpful for me to think of it that way.

  • ondrej

    I am greeting everyone form Czech Republic. Vaclav Havel was no doubt a man with certain moral qualities, but also defects.

    He was not a Christian, but shared some values of our faith. Dalai Lama was his close friend. Havel founded in 1997 the platform for world representatives the Forum 2000 ( which promotes interfaith dialogue, etc.

    Here in Czech some people even “deify” him. One actress at his funeral said, that he is a “lamb that takes away sin”. Majority of Czechs are atheists, but the tendency of each human soul is to worship someone or something.

    The article expressed what I agree with. If faith in Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation, then good works have no help (sola fidei). Our works are appreciated by God when done only through Jesus Christ.

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