Most of my work in ‘apologetics’ (the defense of the Christian faith) involves fielding stupid questions by arrogant people who know next to nothing about what it is they are objecting to. The truth is that many of the reasons put forward for not believing in God and Christ are exceedingly lame, and would not be tolerated in any other scenario. (For example, the 19th century Christian Richard Whately responded to David Hume’s arguments by showing how they equally show that Napoleon didn’t exist–an absurd proposition.) To top it off, many of the people who object to Christianity are ‘bad faith’ debaters.
In this context, you can well imagine that someone might get tired of dealing with such people, and I freely confess that I am tired.
There are, however, a class of questions which are totally understandable, fully expressed in good faith, and real stumpers. If there are genuine objections to Christianity, they are usually expressed by people wrestling with what we call the ‘problem of suffering.’ The problem with the ‘problem of suffering’ is that on intellectual grounds, it can be answered (see: Plantinga or Eleonore Stump) but that is hardly the point. The problem of suffering (and its cousin, the problem of evil) are often raised by people who have suffered profoundly, or been close to those who have, or have been inflicted personally by evil men or circumstances which are out of everyone’s control–except God’s. Hence the very personal question, where was God when it was all going down?
Well, I can’t know the personal backstories of all who will read this. Just let it be known that this is being written by someone who has also experienced the death of loved ones and other various tragedies. While I have not yet experienced the horrors of Job, I myself feel the weight of these questions.
Now to the question, “Do babies who don’t believe in Jesus go to hell?” A loaded question, if ever there was one. My ‘bad faith’ debater described above rarely conjures up this question, because to piece it together, you have to have some actual knowledge of the Scriptures, and make some attempt to piece together a logically cogent worldview. This question usually surfaces on the lips who have attempted to reconcile difficult teachings within Christianity, without pre-judging it. Which is ironic, because this is a question that is even harder than the one often raised, about why God called upon Israel to destroy the Canaanites, including women and children.
I mention this distinction between the good faith and bad faith debater because the ‘answers,’ as it were, comes from taking the Scriptures even more seriously, not less. In our modern era, it is common practice to slice and dice the Scriptures up, ejecting the unpleasant parts, or those that frown on behaviors we really don’t want frowned upon, but in my experience, most of the hard questions are addressed by simply taking the Scriptures as they are. In ejecting an unpleasant part, you may very well chop out the very idea that answers your present concern. Astute readers will notice several things I use in my answer that are widely repudiated these days, even within Christian circles. I would maintain that those repudiations make finding an answer to this question even more difficult.
Let’s give it whirl.
The Biblical account of world history goes like this: In the beginning, God created everything good and perfect. This included two human beings who possessed what God intended them to have, namely ‘free will.’ They used this will to disobey God, effectively severing the intimate relationship that existed between humanity and God. The result of this severance was that people would now die. While God was constrained to allow this to play out (if ‘free will’ was to be a real, not an imagined feature of human existence), it did not mean that he didn’t love us and didn’t want to repair the damage. He initiated a plan to rescue the human race.
It is essential to understand in this context that the entire human race, with no exceptions, became subject to the reality of death. On this portrayal, there isn’t a single person who has ever existed–save Jesus himself–who did not warrant punishment, even of the eternal sense. (Romans 3:9ff pounds home this point).
In this view, the fate of little children and the fate of grown adults are all under the same judgement. There isn’t a real difference between how we would address the fate of babies and how we address the fate of everyone else who has ever existed. The difference is in our emotional response.
More on that in a moment.
Yes, this account paints a dire picture of the human race, but if we examine the Scriptures closely we see that God is hard at work in history implementing his plan for redemption.
He made a promise to Abraham, which was stalled for 400 years while his descendants were enslaved in Egypt. But he rescued them with power. The Jews were judged again for their disbelief and disobedience (of a particularly obstinate sort, since they were direct witnessed to God’s power!), forced to wander the wilderness for many years, but eventually they entered the promised land. Even here, the people who were evicted had been given time to repent, and had not. Later, God showed his affection even for those who were not of Israel by sending Jonah to Nineveh, which was filled to the brim with Israel’s enemies. In that story there is a profound statement by Jonah: he does not want to preach repentance to Nineveh because HE KNOWS that God is patient and forgiving, and there was thus a real chance that Nineveh would be saved–a horrible thought in Jonah’s mind.
The nation of Israel now went through a cycle of obedience and disobedience, with constant interventions by God who sent prophets to warn them, and Israel often killed those prophets. Finally, God allowed the Assyrians and the Babylonians to send them into exile. But even here, God did not forget them. Eventually, the Israelites came home and rebuilt Jerusalem. Then followed a four hundred year period in which the Jews patiently awaited the coming of the Messiah, who was supposed to end this cycle definitively.
Throughout the Scriptures (there was no ‘New Testament’ at this point), God had made it clear that he would send a person to reconcile Man to Him, and gave details of his identity. For example, as early as Genesis 49:10, God hints that this redeemer would come through the line of Judah. In Deut. 18:15, Moses alerts the Jews to the fact that a prophet would come like Moses. Isaiah 11:1 narrows it further, saying this redeemer would come from the ‘stump of Jesse.’ Which Jesse? The one referred to in the book of Ruth (4:22). Didn’t you ever wonder why the little book of Ruth was included in the Scriptures? Now you know.
These passages traverse more than a thousand years (and I could give more), and show that while God was a holy God, not to be trifled with, it also showed at God that was in pursuit of people. He wanted as many to be saved as could be saved.
When finally the Messiah appeared, it would not be to deal with the relatively minor matter of restoring Israel’s place among the nations, but to provide his over-arching answer to the problem of death itself. Not only for the Jews, but for everyone. God’s story of grace unfolds over thousands of years and offers a definitive path to redemption and reconciliation to every person who has ever existed, exists today, and will ever exist.
This is the testimony of the Scriptures, both ‘old’ and ‘new.’ In saving Mankind, God did not minimize our sinful disobedience, but made it abundantly clear just how serious it was–to deal with it required that He himself pay the price. In saving Mankind, God did not want to obliterate our free will and our free choice.
And now we turn our attention to all of the suffering, and wonder if the suffering is a fair price to secure our free will and free choice. Well, on this narrative, we don’t even know a tiny fraction of the suffering that has been endured. For whatever horrors we may have experienced personally, it is a small slice of human history. God has experienced the suffering of every human who has ever existed, exists today, and will ever exist. God is not at all indifferent to our suffering. Through his own suffering and defeat of Death, he intends in the end to bring about an entirely new heaven and new earth, at which point, well… maybe I’ll actually provide the whole verse this time:
Revelation 21 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.”
Today we live in a period which is not without precedent in the Scriptures. God told Adam and Eve that he would reconcile–but they did not live to see it. God told Noah that a judgement was coming… it took 100 years to come about. God told Abraham that the land of Israel would belong to his descendants–it took 500 years for this to actually take place, but it did. Then the Jews were exiled, and upon their return, urged to watch out for the Messiah (Daniel 9), whose arrival they were eagerly anticipating at precisely the time when Jesus came–and launched an entirely ‘new religion’ to which more than 1 billion presently adhere to. That we would now be in the ‘lull’ between certain promises (eg, Jesus will come again) and the fulfillment of those promises (his actual return) isn’t really surprising, given God’s observed pattern.
And he has his reasons, I suppose: “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” 2 Peter 3:9.
On the face of it, it may seem that I haven’t answered the question about babies. Not directly, I’ll concede, but I have laid down some very important groundwork. If we’re going to answer a question like this, we need to place it in the full context of the Scriptures, and use all of the Scriptures to help us understand any passages that may be relevant to the question, but also to help us understand God’s nature.
And for that last point–understanding God’s nature–I am convinced from the Scriptures that God is fully aware of the conundrum regarding little children and their fate, and while I may not know exactly how he reconciles the fact that due to original sin, they warrant death and damnation as much as the rest of us, with his unquenchable grace which seeks the redemption of everyone, I am fully persuaded that HE WILL DO THE RIGHT THING. In His own time and in His own way, but he WILL reconcile these two aspects of his posture towards the human race.
I don’t personally need to know the ‘how’ in this particular case, because I believe he has given sufficient evidence in the rest of his conduct towards us that he does in fact have a ‘how.’
To bottom line it before I go further:
Though I don’t know exactly the fate of the innocent (from our perspective), I know that whatever He does, and however He does it, he will not minimize the seriousness of the separation between Mankind (including these youngsters) even as he reconciles them and us to Himself, consistent with his wish that we retain our ‘free will.’
Having said all this, the Scriptures give us some hints on God’s approach to the matter.
Before delving into that, we should resist the urge to minimize the ‘original sin’ element, and simply say, “Every innocent person, whether the mentally handicapped, or the unborn, or the newborn child, will go to heaven–God would never punish the likes of them!”
Well, if this is your view, then it rationally follows that if you wanted to ensure that these people go to heaven (read: live on the ‘new earth’), the best thing you could do for them is KILL THEM before they get old enough to disobey or choose to reject God. Abortion, instead of a horrific murdering of the unborn innocent on a scale beyond all that Hitler, Stalin, Lenin, and Pol Pot ever did, is in fact the best way to stuff heaven with people.
Don’t laugh. I’ve heard this argument before. And there is historical precedent for people reasoning like that. I remember hearing a tale that I cannot presently substantiate, that there was one occasion where the natives were forced across a river, baptized half way across, and then murdered on the beach–thus ensuring their salvation before they could commit another sin.
In other words, while it might seem thoroughly compassionate to merely declare that no ‘innocent’ person will be damned, it could lead to a thoroughly uncompassionate approach, wherein we reconcile ourselves with grave injustices, on the view that “at least they will be in heaven” when we should remain thoroughly outraged.
Not that this view is inevitable, mind you, but it is a rational position based on the premise. The one who does not want to take that position has the responsibility for shoring up their worldview in a cogent manner so as to preclude that position.
While I cannot provide a definitive hope for the case of all innocents, I believe, as I said, that there are clues that God does have a special place in his heart for them.
Let’s take, for example, Jesus’ words: “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 19:14).
That sentiment, uttered by God incarnate, strongly suggests that God does indeed have a way to reconcile his firm stance on sin with his insatiable grace when it comes to young people.
Further evidence comes a little earlier in Matthew (18):
At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, a it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”
This being the case, one can imagine God’s response to those who slaughter little ones wantonly–or justify it.
From these two passages alone, it is clear that while we do not know for sure how God resolves the problem of reconciling his own justice with his own compassion, in the case of little children, he surely does have a resolution.
There are further hints as to how God might do it, but they really begin to narrow the problem.
I am thinking in particular of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7:
If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.
Why does Paul argue this way?
He is referring to the fact that according to God’s plan for man and women, when they have sex, they literally and truly become one flesh. He has just referred to this principle in 1 Cor. 6, when he warned against sexual immorality. He makes an argument that I don’t think many people would expect, then and now:
Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.”
Yes, Paul is saying that all sexual intercourse unites the people as one flesh. Uncomfortable implications there! But note his support: “The two will become one flesh.” And where was that written? All the way back in Genesis 2.
Here, then, you have your most direct example of how cutting out a piece of Scripture ends up harming you later on. Many people are very willing to dispense with Genesis 2 (and the rest of Genesis, as well, for that matter), but it is based on the logic of Genesis 2 that Paul makes his claim that the children are holy, merely by virtue of being born where one of the persons is a believer, even if the other person is not.
If the ‘children are holy’ this surely provides further basis for having hope that the child of a believing parent is near to God’s grace. But if you chop out Genesis, you chop out the basis of Paul’s argument, and you therefore undermine your hope that God has a ‘tweaked’ outlook on the ‘innocent.’ So, chop up the Scriptures at your own risk!
But I said that this narrows the problem, which is to say, it doesn’t eliminate it. This passage only applies to the children of believers, and does not address the children of non-believers. Thus, while we may have given some tangible hope to believers, we don’t have a similar basis for the millions of children born of non-believers. Are we right back to where we started?
However, before I give up on this angle, I wish to address this idea of ‘believing’ as a basis for salvation. In full disclosure, I should indicate that my outlook is Lutheran. As such, I already have an expanded basis for understanding the concept of ‘faith’ than a lot of my protestant brothers and sisters. For example, it is clear in Romans 6 that baptism is an act of God, not of men, wherein God–not men–joins a person into the actual body of Jesus. By virtue of being (literally) with Jesus when he died, we are with him (literally) when he rises from the dead. It’s all right there in Romans 6. (I have a defense of ‘Lutheran’ baptism in this book.) Romans 6 makes no reference whatsoever to the age of the person being acted upon by God.
Many protestants think of ‘believing’ and ‘faith’ as almost purely intellectual acts, acts of the will which give assent to God and his will for us. I do not exclude such things but I also include the relational element of ‘faith.’ The best way I can briefly describe it is of a child growing up in the household of loving parents. In the beginning, the child contributes virtually nothing to the arrangement, and certainly never intellectual ‘assents’ to being part of the family. The child is a part of the family because of the parent’s decisions and actions. As the child grows up, he observes the patterns of the parents (like I did earlier, observing how God interacts with humanity over the long stretches of history), and if the parents are loving (as I posited), there is a growing intellectual awareness of the nature of being part of that family, but it is grounded on a trust for the parents which was absorbed early on, long before the child has the powers of cognition to put into words. I regard this whole enterprise–the grounding of trust, as well as the intellectual assent–‘faith.’
I believe the passages of 1 Corinthians I mentioned above and Romans 6 (to name just 2) support this expanded understanding of ‘faith’ and gives further hope for the children of those born of believing parents–or also the stillborn.
Which brings me now at last to the narrowed case of those who are not born of believing parents. What of them?
We have officially returned to my bottom line:
I don’t know exactly the fate of the innocent (from our perspective), [but] I know that whatever He does, and however He does it, he will not minimize the seriousness of the separation between Mankind (including these youngsters) even as he reconciles them and us to Himself, consistent with his wish that we retain our ‘free will.’
I believe this because of my own faith in God, which is not mere intellectual assent, but the trust I have in God which I have acquired by looking at his pattern of behavior over history, and my daily walk with him.
It’s a loose end, but then, my own children do not yet understand all my reasons for doing things, and perhaps they never will. But hopefully my children know me, and know that whatever I do, I’ll at least try to do it for the best reasons, and the more they come to know me, maybe it is the case that they will understand my actions even more. But at any rate, I am nothing compared to God, who unlike me (flawed, and inconsistent, and weak), is able to bear all pain and suffering while he awaits the unfolding of his plan to its fullness.
I don’t know the full answers to every question in this class of questions, but I do trust God, my father, who has a long history of being both firm and compassionate.