November 25, 2020

Thinking of the Unthinkable Pastoral Response

horror.jpgI’ve never done a funeral for an infant. I did a graveside service for a 9-year old boy who, for all of those nine years, had lived only through constant medical care that made up for enormous mental and physical limitations. I remember that the sense of grief was mitigated by the sense that the family was emerging from a time of unspeakable testing. Still, it is one of the worst things any minister must do, and the smaller the infant, the more emotionally and mentally wrenching is the whole event.

If a person were to suspect or even believe that infants who die in infancy go to hell, I wonder what they would say at a funeral of an infant? Calvinists affirm the “T” of the T.U.L.I.P., but when it comes to the damnation of those who die in infancy, there is no small amount of careful theologizing and interpretation that goes on to be sure no one must stand before a family and say something like this: “Unless God gave to your child the gift of salvation through sovereign election and the gift of faith, then that child is in hell. Since we had no clear indications that this child ever placed his/her faith in Christ, then we must conclude that the child is, indeed, damned by God and is suffering conscious torment in hell right now for the sin of Adam.”

Pretty stiff doctrine at a time of loss and questions, but such sentiments are the necessary and logical outgrowth of some sterner explications of the T.U.L.I.P.

It sometimes seems to me that in such a case, the Christian has been trapped by his own commitment to put together a collection of texts in a way that yields a coherent theology to maintain such a horrendous premise. I sympathize with these brethren and what their theological seriousness has brought them to consider. Their view of the Bible has become an accumulation of factors that must be integrated through some kind of Holy Math into a proposition makes them say things like this in order to keep the Bible from being disqualified as inspired and authoritative in their view.

If someone were to say to me, “What is the Bible’s teaching on the salvation of infants?”, I would say several things.

A. The New Testament never mentions the damnation or salvation of infants specifically or explicitly. Other, closely related matters are mentioned- such as filling with the spirit or speaking the praises of God- but not salvation/damnation.

B. On occasions, the Bible gives us a picture or affirmation of believing infants, or infants with faith/acts of faith. This isn’t universalized or explained, only stated. It is the work of the Spirit and the sovereign freedom of God.

C. The Old Testament is of little help here, other than to tell us infants sometimes have faith, go to Sheol and will be in the recreated earth.

D. If one were to look at Jesus and his interactions with children, one would be hard pressed to say “We need to look past this and go to Romans for a doctrine of human depravity that includes sending infants to hell.”

That’s it.

What I know is this: In the end, the Christian needs to speak about God more than anything else. Our articulation of the faith should resolve into the Bible’s message about God. If a minister comes to a funeral and his word to the family is the damnation of infants on account of his belief in total depravity, then, in my view, he has resolved his theology not so much errantly as too soon, too short of the Final Word.

The human race is guilty and depraved. We are sinners. These kinds of corporate statements are everywhere in scripture and Christian theology. At the same time, the Bible tells us the Gospel. The final word about God isn’t his commitment to uphold total depravity to the point where infants are damned, but God’s commitment to glorify himself in the salvation of sinners through Jesus and to glorify himself in the redemption, resurrection and recreation of the cosmos. When faced with where I will “resolve” my pastoral care to a family who has lost a child, I will resolve on the God of the Gospel.

Now I am well aware that I must answer those who will say that the children of Sodom and Gomorrah were judged, as were the children of the Canaanites and so on. God’s command to execute the children is plainly part of the Old Testament record. As I said earlier, if this is where I am supposed to be at the death of an infant in my church, I have to say, I’m simply not there. When I arrive at the incarnation, I am not looking back to these passages to tell me the eternal destiny of infants. They are the judgement of God that fell on Jesus Christ rather than on us. They will not be the text for a funeral service.

The New Testament resolves on the God of the Gospel, not on the judgement of the Ammonites. It does not leave us hanging on the justice of God- “Who will God damn?”- but on the mercy of God “Look at how God loves and saves sinners!”

Over the years, I’ve become aware of how many families have a family member- usually a child- who is profoundly retarded or limited mentally in some way. Here on our own campus, we have several staff children with various diagnoses of this type. I’ve known many in my churches, including children born entirely without the higher brain functions.

On one hand, we have the question of humanity, a question that the Christian gospel answers in a profound and deeply significant way. On the other hand, we have the highly cognitive demands of certain forms of Christian faith; demands that require comprehension of the Gospel, conscious repentance and conscious faith.

This is a dilemma. We dare not eliminate the humanity of these persons. It seems ridiculous to me to say they are not part of the depravity that afflicts the human race. Yet, it seems just as ridiculous- more so- to say that they participate in that depravity in the same way, and that God deals with them in the same way he deals with a fully comprehending person.

The grace of God seems to me to be most magnified when we look at the ultimate weak, tiny, lost sheep and say, “The great shepherd leaves the ninety-nine and goes after this one.” Not because of the sinfulness of the lamb, but because this lamb can do so little on its own. It cannot even hear or comprehend or repent or believe. It glorifies the shepherd by simply resting in his arms, and the shepherd is pleased to be glorified by such.

If one believes the shepherd is more glorified to send the little ones to hell in order that the doctrine of total depravity be held consistently, I must say that I simply disagree. I cannot match you verse for verse or assertion for assertion, nor can I answer all the questions that might be raised. I cannot match these theologizers for consistency, and I won’t attempt to do so. I can only say Jesus loves the little children, and takes them in his arms and blesses them. I simply suggest that, I cannot imagine this sort of doctrine coming from the lips of Jesus, or Jesus hearing it without saying something similar to his words in John: You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. I do not receive glory from people. But I know that you do not have the love of God within you.

Comments

  1. It’s disturbing to me that there are Calvinists out there seemingly too eager to confirm everyone’s final destiny, heaven or hell, infant or adult, mentally stable or mentally challenged. Spurgeon has a helpful sermon on this from 1 Kings I believe … “It is well with the child.” He concludes that heaven is full of infants, children, aborted children, etc. It’s a calvinistic message of hope, as he says the reason these children are saved is for all the same reasons we are. I’m sure one could find it on his site if they looked. Still … good stuff today. Thanks.

  2. panhandle says

    I tend to fall back on Jewish tradition here (as far as I understand it), and use the bar mitzvah as a rough indication of the time at which the child starts being completely responsible for his/her actions. Up to that point I think the parents are the ones responsible for the actions of the child.

    So, yes, the child participates in the fallen nature of humanity, but up to an age (or a maturity?) level, the responsibility for their actions resides with the parents.

    No doubt this is a fairly weak theological position, but it makes some sense to me.

  3. Michael, this essay moved me deeply. What compassion laces your words! Sometimes, we work so hard to make sure that we don’t imply or dispense more grace than God Himself gives, we forget that He IS gracious. As if. As if we *could* extend more grace to babies (or anyone else for that matter) than God Himself. He’s GOOD! We are….not so much.

    I believe with all my heart that babies are born little sinners, but it sometimes seems that we’re so eager to make a case for His grace being narrow, rather than wide. I loved your word picture of the Good Shepherd carrying the helpless, infant lamb home.

    Blessings,
    Barbara

  4. Roger Duffy says

    Dear Michael,

    I have read and enjoyed your site for some time and this is the first time I felt I had to respond. First, I am a Southern Baptist and I hold to Reformed theology. I know many Calvinists and I have never heard any mention that any babies’ souls were destined for hell. While there are many things that I cannot reconcile in my own finite mind, I do know all things are possible with God. Scripture, while not clear, does suggest that children are fallen but also protected by God.
    Secondly, and more importantly, you mentioned the younger the child, the more emotionally and mentally wrenching the whole event. I doubt that many families of dead children would agree. Four years ago my 21-year old daughter was killed by a reckless driver. I believe it is almost unbearable to lose any child, but my experience has been that it must be “easier” to lose a younger child. Our bond deepens as the child matures and the future potential which appears clearer as the child matures causes a deeper sense of loss. My daughter walked with God and served Him lovingly and faithfully. She was about to start Medical School and she felt her calling was to serve as a Medical Missionary. Since her death, it’s as if I’m in a foreign land and there is no returning to what I knew and expected. Had I lost her at a much younger age, and almost did because of a serious respiratory illness, I do not see how the grief would have been as intense.

  5. Thank you for this post, Michael.

    I wrestled, for a while, trying to find the words to explain my gratitude for what you have written here, but I finally gave up. Let me just say that while I always find your writing interesting and thought-provoking, once in a while it has been, for me, a much needed and appreciated ‘breath of fresh air’ after a sometimes frustrating and discouraging tour of the Christian blogosphere.

  6. Roger,

    I hope my post hasn’t offended you. That was never my desire.

    My subject of Calvinism and pastoral care is another essay for another day. I believe Calvinism gives certain comforts and raises certain questions. How an individual family would be comforted or distraught over either one is not for me to say.

    As to the relative griefs of families who lose younger or older children, your point is well made and well taken. I do believe that if these families were interviewed, there would be differing perspectives on these experiences depending on a diverse number of factors. I did not mean to relativize your grief or loss in comparison to someone else. Forgive me if I did so.

  7. Since I believe in Sola Scriptura, it is often very useful to realise that when God chooses not to reveal things to us, it is because we do not need to know.

    I have no doubt that if children who die without Christ go to to hell, then it is because of their sin and because God is just. Yet, as you have pointed out, the Bible does not teach this, which is important.

    At the other end of the spectrum is the idea that all children are saved until they enter into the vague “age of accountability” that many Christians hold. Again this is problematic since it could be argued that Christians should murder their own children in order to get them to heaven, rather than allowing them to be corrupted by the world and be damned to hell. Again, there is no bible to back this up.

    Since I believe in Sola Scriptura, what do I say? I say that God has chosen not to reveal this information to us, aside from the intentionally vague promises we get about the children of believers.

    I used to hold the “children go to hell” belief many years ago because it appeared to be a logical and natural result of biblical teaching – original sin, only Jesus saves, and so on.

    Yet while it may “fit” into our concepts, God has chosen not to reveal this information to us. The biblical response is not to advocate one particular point of view, but to deny that a point of view can be held.

    And it’s not as though people at the time didn’t worry about such things. Infant mortality was very high in the ancient world and Christians would not have been immune. Yet in the midst of such a situation, Paul, Peter, John and the other NT writers ignored the topic completely.

    Why? Because God has decided that we don’t need to know. And that’s good enough for me.

  8. Brian Pendell says

    Mike,

    I’m not a Calvinist, but I believe I can think like one if I wish. And this would be my answer:

    Babies go to Heaven… but because of God’s mercy, not his justice.

    Yes, infants partake of the sin nature and therefore are sinful from birth. Yes, they deserve to be condemned along with the rest of the sinful race of Adam.

    However! Jesus is a gracious, compassionate, merciful being. I believe that means that he is looking for reasons to grant people mercy, not to damn them. If you think of him as an attorney, I believe that he would take up the case of an infant accused by Satan before the Father pro bono, even if the kid couldn’t ask him for an attorney. After all, he himself tells us to speak up for those who have no voices (Proverbs 31:8) — does anyone think he wouldn’t do the same thing?

    So now that he’s agreed to take the case … well, first of all he’s got to acknowledge the justice of the charge. Child is a son of Adam and therefore guilty. Jesus then makes the argument that this is one of his sheep, paid for by his blood, and the Devil has no claim on him.

    Devil: “But there’s no evidence he ever put his faith in you!”

    Jesus: “But there’s no evidence he DIDN’T, either. ‘I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy’ (Exodus 33:19). Since there is no indication of deliberate turning away on this child’s part, I choose to believe in his faith and to take him under my wing.”

    The ball is then in the Father’s court. Now, if the Father really is the gracious, compassionate being that scripture describes him … and he has the choice entirely on HIM, all other things being equal, to show mercy or to not show mercy … which do you think he will do?

    So I have no problems with believing both total depravity and believing that babies go to Heaven, because I believe in a merciful God who will not blot anyone’s name from the book of life without a good reason. Original sin is a technicality in the sense that an infant doesn’t have any other sins of commission or omission and had absolutely no control over his condition at birth. I don’t believe in a God who sends people into everlasting torment because of technicalities.

    Revelation 20:12 tells us that the dead are judged according to their deeds. What deeds does an infant have, that would justify denying him or her mercy?

    I believe that no one, even infants, deserves salvation. I believe that all, even infants, who reach heaven reach it because of the mercy of God.

    And I believe that a God who desires that “none should perish” will extend his mercy on any reasonable pretext … and I simply can’t believe that he would fail to extend mercy to an infant, to someone who never had a chance to tell him to go to ****.

    Respectfully,

    Brian P.

  9. Very good post. A few thoughts:

    I’m not so sure it’s accurate to say that the children in Sodom and Gomorrah, Canaan, etc., were judged in the same way as the adults. If children of a certain age are not damned, then, in a sense, the fact that they perished during God’s judgment of those cities was a blessing for them, because they would likely have otherwise grown up to worship idols. Perhaps a wider view of God’s mercy here helps us understand just a bit more how these OT judgments could have extended to children. (But we need to be very, very careful here, because life is immeasurably valuable and there are no scriptural principles that would support any notion of holy war).

    You could raise a related set of sticky wickets for folks who believe in the rapture. If there is a rapture, what happens to children when it occurs? What about the children of unbelievers? This is one of the key reasons I’m no longer convinced that the rapture is a Biblical doctrine — there’s no indication that a billion or so infants and children will suddenly disappear from the earth, and it’s impossible to consider something a “blessed hope” if it means my little ones will be left to fend for themselves.

  10. As a half-way-there convert to Calvinism, I can say from this vantage point that paedo-baptism resolves this issue for believing parents, until their children become adults. We believe they come into the covenant through baptism, just as Jewish children came under the covenant through circumcision. The New Testament seems clear on the parallel. (Being only half-converted so far, I am of the opinion that God accepts infant dedications, too, or even just the intention the parents have to bring up their child in the faith). As for the rest, I really like One_SalientOversight’s last comment.

  11. I appreciate you perspective on this difficult subject.

    As a Believer who is “all-the-way-there” to Calvinism I must admit that this does not cause me problems…we serve the God who is both just and loving. Because we do not see indications of Spiritual Fruit in infants does not mean that God has not graciously saved them.

    As you indicated in your essay, I too would point to “God’s commitment to glorify himself in the salvation of sinners through Jesus and to glorify himself in the redemption, resurrection and recreation of the cosmos.”

    Ultimately, we rest in His Goodness and not in a systematic theology.

    V

  12. Michael,

    Thought-provoking post. I’m a pastor who’s a Calvinist and who’s done my share of funerals (nearly one hundred in seven years). I trust the goodness, justice, and love of God – He’ll do what is right whether I understand it or not. John MacArthur’s little book “Safe in His Arms” has been helpful for me. I wrote a longer response that’s available on my blog “Coram Deo” (www.larrysnyder.blogspot.com). I certainly didn’t take any offense – it’s a good question.

    Gratia Dei,
    Pastor Larry

  13. Speaking from the Catholic world, it looks like the Catholic Church is posed to drop the idea of limbo, too, as an intermediary place between heaven and hell where unbaptized babies go, for the same kinds of reasons you discuss. Both John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, I’ve read, believe that babies go to heaven.

    Limbo was never defined as a doctrine, but speculated on in the middle ages as a response to earlier, harsher theological speculation that unbaptized babies go to hell.

    Personally, I think that to say that one MUST believe and be baptized or go to hell, and so even babies will go to hell if they don’t, makes our faith (and baptism) seem mechanistic, faith itself as a kind of works. Faith is a gift of God, as is salvation, which He does because He loves us and wants to save us, not because He wants to set up some kind of test, and condemn those who fail because they’ve never even heard of the test, let alone studied for it. Does that sound like the kind of thing a just God would do?

    We need to be freed of sin, and since God made us, He has the power to do it, and so can do it with babies who can’t do it for themselves. None of us can do it for ourselves, without His grace.

    Thanks, Michael, for this great post.

  14. aaron arledge says

    My response would be. Your child is in the hands of a loving and merciful God who loved the world so much he gave his only Son to die so that we could have eternal life. God knows your pain. God loves you. He is full of mercy and grace. Jesus loved and welcomed children to himself and warned people not to hinder them from coming to him.
    That is just a brief response to an issue that has bothered me tremendously. I do not believe all the answers are clearly in the text, on this issue, but trust that God is in control and all of these things i said are true of who he is.