Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Assurance for Parents, On the Death of Infants

See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.
-- Matthew 18:10

It is a common question, because it is unfortunately a common occurrence: losing a baby. I think we all tend to believe that God receives departed infants into heaven, but perhaps we're not sure why we believe (other than that the alternative seems unconscionable). Many times grieving families seek assurance. This post is my imperfect attempt at offering cause for hope.

The question "What happens to babies who die?" (and for this line of argument, I'm going to include the mentally handicapped) is fairly complex and has been debated for quite some time. One thing is Scripturally sure: all persons are sinful from conception and therefore deserving of hell. Nobody, no matter their state or age or experience, deserves heaven, and this includes babies, toddlers, the mentally handicapped, the comatose, etc.

Now, that everyone deserves hell is a matter of Scriptural clarity, BUT, whether God in his mercy extends grace to those unable to act out on their sinful nature is another matter entirely, and trust in God’s love certainly lends itself to the idea that God will not eternally punish those who are not able to express the sin that is in their hearts either physically or mentally. For this reason, then, there is good reason to believe that infants and the mentally handicapped who die are saved. This does not mean that all babies are saved. It means that all babies who die as babies will be saved.

Isn't This Just "Age of Accountability"?

I think there is good reason to believe that infants who die are elect. At this point someone usually asks if this isn't just warmed over "age of accountability" talk. But this view is somewhat different from the "age of accountability" idea for a couple of reasons:

a) Customary age of accountability belief appears to argue that we are somehow born with a blank slate, innocent spiritually, and our sinful nature kicks in at some point in time that is different for each person. The view I'm representing tracks with the Reformed view of election and argues that we are all born with sinful natures and deserving eternal separation from God.

b) Age of accountability belief tracks with a more free will decisional regeneration theology. The idea is that children are innocent until they're not, at which point they become responsible. This view is necessary because the adherents typically believe that salvation is contingent upon making a decision for Jesus (whether that is praying the sinner's prayer, walking the aisle, or what-have-you). This view of infant salvation insists instead that infants who die are elect, saved by God in his goodness and by Christ's effectual work applied to them by the Spirit. If salvation is contingent on a free will decision, then babies are out of luck. Which is why "age of accountability" was invented despite a lack of biblical evidence for that and a wealth of biblical complications (like original sin). This view, rather, says that if salvation is God's work and contingent upon a born again heart regenerated by the Spirit, we can continue affirming the doctrine of original sin and yet still believe God elects infants who die unto salvation.

What Does the Bible Say?

It is probably wise not to claim certainty on this matter, but it is not out of bounds to believe Scripture indicates this view is true. Some Scriptural reasoning for the election of deceased infants may be found in two primary places.

In 2 Samuel 12, David assumes he will go to where his departed baby has gone.
David noticed that his servants were whispering among themselves and he realized the child was dead. "Is the child dead?" he asked.
"Yes," they replied, "he is dead."

Then David got up from the ground. After he had washed, put on lotions and changed his clothes, he went into the house of the LORD and worshiped. Then he went to his own house, and at his request they served him food, and he ate.

His servants asked him, "Why are you acting this way? While the child was alive, you fasted and wept, but now that the child is dead, you get up and eat!"

He answered, "While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept. I thought, 'Who knows? The LORD may be gracious to me and let the child live.' But now that he is dead, why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me."


David takes for granted that he will be reunited with his child. Skeptics may point out that David could just mean "the grave," but this avoids the belief the Israelites had about the afterlife, in which faithful children of Israel entered a place of repose in paradise (sometimes called Abraham's Bosom).

Jesus’ teaching on children having a purer faith also indicates a special dispensation for those unable to exercise the natural inclinations of their sinful nature. "The kingdom of God is for such as these." This is not Jesus just telling the grown-ups to have a "childlike faith." This is Jesus declaring a connection with children (who were largely avoided/ignored by Jewish men) that says something particular about children.

Ronald Nash's Arguments

In his excellent book When a Baby Dies: Answers to Comfort Grieving Parents, Ronald Nash lays out the case for believing “that all children who die in infancy and all mentally handicapped persons whose intellectual and moral judgment cannot surpass that of children are saved” with the following points:

1. Infants are incapable of moral good and evil. (Deut. 1:39; Jer. 19:4). Nash affirms that all infants possess the stain of original sin that deserves eternal punishment, but argues that infants are innocent in the sense that their status as infants make it impossible for them to know or understand the things necessary for them to perform good or evil acts.

2. Divine judgment is administered on the basis of sins committed in the body. (2 Cor. 5:10; 1 Cor. 6:9-10; Rev. 20:11-12). Nash’s point is that although our sinful nature deserves for us a place in eternal judgment, the final judgment “is based on sins committed during our earthly existence.”

3. Cases in Scripture of infant salvation. For example, God’s choosing Jeremiah in the womb (Jer. 1:5); John the Baptist being filled with the Spirit in his mother’s womb (Luke 1:15); and David’s hope for his departed baby.

4. Jesus’ special treatment of the little children. Nash argues that Jesus’ saying that the kingdom is for “such as these” cannot be merely figurative about a “childlike faith” for adults, but rather that they are, because they are children, relying more fully on God (even if they do not realize it) than those who are more mentally aware. Nash cites John Calvin as a historical supporter of this view.

5. The work of God in salvation. This support may or may not appeal to all, but Nash is a Calvinist, and he argues that if a free will decision is necessary for salvation, infants and mentally handicapped can never be known for sure to be saved because they are incapable of making a decision. Rather, he says that because God does the work of saving, God predestines babies and the mentally handicapped to salvation. They are “elect,” in other words. Again, this doesn’t mean he’s saying all babies are elect. He’s saying all babies who die as babies are elect.

A Theologically Consistent Cause for Hope

To sum up this view:

1. All persons are sinful from conception, fallen as Adam and deserving of separation from God for all eternity.
2. The work of salvation is God's, applied by the Spirit in the regeneration of the hearts of the elect whom God has foreknown.
3. Infants and mentally handicapped persons who die before they are able to physically and mentally exercise the sinfulness of their hearts are elect, because they have not committed any sinful deeds or thoughts by which to be judged at the end of days.

Thoughts? Questions?


Daniel said...

Say my 5-year-old and 3-year-old were to die today. How would I have any assurance that they are in heaven? My 5-year-old says she loves Jesus but doesn't fully grasp much beyond "Jesus died on the cross." She and her sister just aren't THERE yet in comprehension. I know they are sinners and they know they are sinners (though not necessarily in those terms).

I have struggled and wrestled with "the elect" question for a few years and am still not fully on one side or the other. Of course, an "age of accountability" provides an easy answer but I'm not sure that it is correct.

Please help me if you will.

Bob said...

Honestly, what are the odds of us ever being able to leave God as Sovereign and say we cannot say who He will save and who He won't?

Also, what are the odds of anyone telling a grieving parent that their baby wasn't among the elect?

Any theology we construct around this question will be colored by the answer we want to give. If that's the case, it is just a justification/rationalization and not necessarily truth.

Jared said...

Bob, very "charitable" of you to suggest I may be only offering a nice lie. How about actually interacting with something -- anything -- said in the post?

Daniel, good question. You know I'm a father of young children who act like sinners all the time too. :-)

My brother asked the same thing in a different way at The Thinklings.

My answer tends to be the same. In God's economy, he knows which children will die before they are consciously, willfully sinning and which ones won't, and I believe there is Scriptural cause to trust the ones who do are saved.

I don't imagine all, if any, of the children Jesus received despite the disciples' grumbling were babies.
So I think this reasoning can apply to small children, as well.

I also think the wrong starting point is to expect children to have the same developed awareness of either sin or Jesus' atoning work as adults do. The grounds of salvation is not intellectual clarity, but trust. And I think one thing Jesus was pointing out is that nobody trusts more purely than children.

In the end, we have to obviously trust God and submit to whatever his will is. But my point in this post is to say that our hope need not be purely emotional (as Bob seems to be saying it is). There is Scriptural grounds for our hope.

Michael Awbrey said...

This is blunt, I know, but if we take this argument, could not it be said then that abortion is the most efficient and effective evangelism program with 100% success?

Also, how does it work that all babies are elect, and then at some point those who grow up suddenly become unelect?

Jared said...

Michael, I'll answer the second question first.

My argument is not that all babies are elect. My argument is that all babies who die as babies are elect. God knows which are which.

So not all babies are elect. Some of the ones who grow into responsibility are and some aren't. I'm saying that all who die as infants are elect.

As to your initial question, it is a gross leap. I guess a sinful jerk could say that abortion would then be effective evangelism. But God says all human life is precious and that murder is evil.
Just like Scripture says that God predestines people to salvation but commands us to evangelize.

Randy Alcorn addresses the implications of infant salvation on advocacy in his book Heaven.

He writes:

Although I believe God makes special provision for children to welcome them into Heaven, I’m concerned that this doctrine – which is at most implied and certainly not directly taught in Scripture – has been twisted in a way to make many people feel indifferent about two heartrending situations: abortion and children dying of sickness and malnutrition . . .

Perhaps in Heaven many people will meet their children who were aborted or their children who died in miscarriages (even some miscarriages their mothers weren’t aware of). Many parents will be reunited with children who died at an early age. Perhaps these children will grab our hands and show us around the intermediate Heaven. Then one day, after the final resurrection, we’ll enjoy each other’s company on the New Earth – and experience its wonders together.

If children do go to Heaven when they die, why doesn’t God tell us that directly? It may be that he anticipates the twisted logic and rationalization it might foster in us. It might take from us the sense of urgency to see our children come to faith in Christ. It might cause us to be less concerned about the sacred God-given task of extending physical and financial help to the underprivileged and getting the gospel to children around the world. We must do what God has called us to do, which includes protecting, rescuing, feeding, evangelizing, and discipling children.

Jack Hager said...

I think John 9.35-41 sheds light. Jesus obviously segues from physical blindness to spiritual blindness as the Pharisees ask "Are we blind also?" and replies, "If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say 'we see,' your guilt remains."
Genuine spiritual "blindness" - infancy, aborted babies, those born mentally challenged have not made a profession of "seeing" (religion, etc). I am not dogmatic, but I think this applies...

Jared said...

Jack, very good contribution. That's a good one, and I appreciate the spirit with which you put it forward.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jared...

Hope you and your family had a great Christmas and New Year.

Here is my take... and I am very concerned with the elect aspect of your point.

We are all called to share in the salvation and union with Christ. We are made in His image and we are all His Children so it couldnt make any Fatherly sense to elect some and not others. Could you elect only one of your children?

He desires all of us to be with Him. The ones who will not share this eternal gift are those whom turn from HIM. Say, Thanks for the offer, but No Thanks.

Children, Babies, Mentally handicapped dont have the capactiy to say No to Christ and turn their backs to God. So upon there death, they are with their Father.

You can grab one or two Scripture versuses and support anything, this is my issue as a RCC with Scripture only thinking, you negate the whole process and guidance of the Holy Spirit when the Bible was canonized and through out so many good Doctrines and teachings that were in place. You can research and read early chruch Fathers and writings and get great clarity of things like this.

Thanks again for your blog.

Covered by His Grace and filled with His Love.

Your RCC brother

Jared said...

Stephen, this is not the place for the umpteenth Protestant/Catholic debate, so I will leave most of your point unanswered.

It's probably obvious that we have different understandings of salvation/election as well as where/how we learn about these things.

Bob said...

Sorry Jared. I'll pick something directly from your post. You wrote: Now, that everyone deserves hell is a matter of Scriptural clarity, BUT, whether God in his mercy extends grace to those unable to act out on their sinful nature is another matter entirely, and trust in God’s love certainly lends itself to the idea that God will not eternally punish those who are not able to express the sin that is in their hearts either physically or mentally.

I agree with this portion. All deserve hell. All we can do is trust in God's love and mercy.

The portion about whether or not God's mercy extends based on our actions and then drawing conclusions about who is or is not among the elect is (IMHO) a little beyond our place.

We know our place. We know God's place. And all we can do is trust that He will be the loving and righteous judge that His nature makes Him to be.

Jerrod Tune said...

"all we can do is trust that He will be the loving and righteous judge that His nature makes Him to be."

Heard that! "Will not the judge of all the earth do right?"

Anonymous said...

Try reading Jonah: "Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know {the difference} between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?"
Jared, God seems to agree with you, so shall I.
Daniel, I don't think I am there yet either in my comprehension of the cross, it is deep you know, but I take comfort that i am saved by my faith in a merciful God and that He has the power of salvation, not my understanding. I am also assured if there is a final exam, the Holy Spirit Himself will take it for me. Jesus seems to have rigged the deck in my favor. Thank You Lord!!

Kevin S Newman said...

My name is Kevin and I am the father of two; Aiden,3; and Reagan Marguerite Newman,14months R.I.P. Died two months ago.

Lose your child then tell me whether she/he went to heaven. I serve an AWESOME God, with love and Grace. MY God allows me the Faith to believe he has taken my baby "Reagie" home to be with him. That's it.

Jared said...

Kevin, my condolences.

I don't know who you're responding to with your comment, but:
a) I have lost a child
b) this post argues that children who die go to heaven.