07 October 2014

What Happens to Children Who Die Before They Can Accept the Gospel?

Here, RC Sproul addresses a question I've often been asked. In my understanding, it comes down to whether a child dies before reaching "the age of consent", meaning whether they were old enough to understand the difference between right and wrong - and to then be able to make a choice concerning Jesus.

I believe R.C. Sproul is on the right track with his conclusion, below.

In my own theological tradition, we believe that those children who die in infancy are numbered among the redeemed. That is to say, we hope and have a certain level of confidence that God will be particularly gracious toward those who have never had the opportunity to be exposed to the gospel, such as infants or children who are too disabled to hear and understand.

The New Testament does not teach us this explicitly. It does tell us a lot about the character of God—about his mercy and his grace—and gives us every reason to have that kind of confidence in his dealings with children. Some will make a distinction between infants in general and those who are children of believers, the reason being that when God made a covenant with Abraham, he made it not only with Abraham, but with Abraham's descendants. In fact, as soon as God entered into that relationship with Abraham, he brought Isaac into it—when Isaac was still an infant and didn't have an understanding of what was going on. This is the reason, incidentally, that a large number of Christian bodies practice the baptism of infants; they believe that children of believers are to be incorporated into full membership in the church. We see this relationship within the family in biblical history.

We also see David's situation in the Old Testament when his infant child dies. Yet David is given the confidence that he will see that child again in heaven. That story of David and his dying child gives a tremendous consolation to parents who have lost infants to death.

Now the point that we have to make is that infants who die are given a special dispensation of the grace of God; it is not by their innocence but by God's grace that they are received into heaven. There are great controversies that hover over the doctrine of original sin. Lutherans disagree with Roman Catholics, who disagree in turn with Presbyterians, etc., on the scope and extent of what we call original sin. Original sin does not refer to the first sin that was committed, but rather to the result of that—the entrance of sin into the world so that all of us as human beings are born in a fallen state. We come into this world with a sin nature, and so the baby that dies, dies as a sinful child. And when that child is received into heaven, he is received by grace.
~ from: Now - That's a Good Question! by R.C. Sproul


eiaftinfo said...

Interesting topic. I always lean on the "suffer the little children and forbid them not" POV. If we truly have a merciful God, I simply not imagine a child (whole different discussion on when childhood is left behind) being reject from His presence.

As for the comment that Lutheran doctrine and Catholic doctrine being different on the idea of original sin . . . he's simply wrong. Raised Lutheran, converted after 22 years of marriage to the Catholic faith . . . there is no difference in thinking between those two faiths regarding the concept of original sin.

Rev. Paul said...

eiaftinfo - I agree with you on all points. That's why I said only that he is "on the right track with his conclusion". :)

Bob said...

Ellis Peters addressed this very issue in one of her fine Brother Cadfael mysteries, The Heretic's Apprentice:

(Here, the apprentice in question is being questioned by his bishop, having been charged with four counts of heresy)

Prior Robert had them written down, and delivered them with a neutral voice and impartial countenance, as if even he had felt how the very atmosphere within the enclave had changed toward the accused.

"My lord, in sum, there are four heads: first, that he does not believe that children who die unbaptized are doomed to reprobation. Second, and as reason for that, he does not believe in original sin, but holds that the state of newborn children is the state of Adam before his fall, a state of innocence. Third, that he holds that a man can, by his own acts, make his own way toward salvation, which is held by the Church to be a denial of divine grace. Fourth, that he rejects what Saint Augustine wrote of predestination, that the number of the elect is already chosen and cannot be changed, and all others are doomed to reprobation. For he said rather that he held with Origen, who wrote that in the end all men would be saved, since all things came from God, and to God they must return."

"And those four heads are all the matter?" said the bishop thoughtfully.

"They are, my lord."

"And how do you say, Elave? Have you been misreported in any of these accounts?"

"No, my lord," said Elave firmly. "I hold by all of those. Though I never named this Origen, for I did not then know the name of the elder who wrote what I accepted and still believe."

"Very well! Let us consider the first head, your defense of those infants who die unbaptized. You are not alone in having difficulty in accepting their damnation. In doubt, go back to Holy Writ. That cannot be wrong. Our Lord," said the bishop, "ordered that children should be allowed to come to him freely, for of such, he said, is the kingdom of heaven. To the best of my reading, he never asked first whether they were baptized or not before he took them up in his arms. Heaven he certainly allotted to them. But tell me, then, Elave, what value do you see in infant baptism, if it is not the sole way to salvation?"

"It is a welcome into the Church and into life, surely," said Elave, uncertain as yet of his ground and of his judge, but hopeful. "We come innocent, but such a membership and such a blessing is to help us keep our innocence."

(it goes on, and Elave is found free of heresy, the kindly bishop - - the historical Roger de Clinton - - only requiring that he publicly say the Creed, which Elave joyfully does).

Rev. Paul said...

Bob, I disagree with the idea that children are born without sin, because the Bible makes it clear that the sin nature came to the human race through Adam. However, the point is that children are considered innocent until they can understand that salvation is needed.