The destiny of those unable to believe

A number of years ago, a university student from our Church who worked in a home for children with profound mental disability asked me about, “the eternal salvation of those with severe mental handicaps.”
  • “How much can they understand about their need for forgiveness and salvation?”
  • ”Will God hold them accountable for the things they don’t understand?” 

Expressing heartfelt concern, she said, “I love these children and hope they will go to heaven when they pass away.”

The question is also close to my heart. I had a cousin with similar problems whom I loved and spent considerable time with when I was young. When he passed away I reflected again on this question.

It’s also a matter of immense pastoral significance because it equally applies to babies and young children who died before being able to exercise faith.

Over the years, a number of answers have been suggested.

  1. Those who believe in the universal salvation of humanity would say, “Of course these people will be in heaven!” “All people will be saved!” But the problem with this explanation is that it has no basis beyond the imagination of man. This is one of those things we might like to believe because it’s emotionally appealing, but we need a more reliable basis than emotions.
  2. Others would consider God obligated to the grant these people eternity in heaven. “After all,” it is argued, “it wasn’t their fault that they were born this way!” This might sound like a matter of justice but sinners are in no position to tell the Judge of  all the earth what He is obligated to do. When approaching the Holy God of the universe, we should be asking for mercy not justice. 
  3. In other traditions, the answer is found in baptism — the washing away of original sin. This view, however, attaches more significance to baptism than warranted in Scripture. Baptism is not a requirement for salvation nor does it impart any saving grace. Baptism is an outward display of the inner reality of what God did for us in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ on our behalf. 
  4. Then there are those who can only say that it is a matter of election. If these folks were elected by God to eternal life, then they will be in heaven. If not, they will be under God’s eternal judgment. Scripture does teach that, “all who were appointed for eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48). But what about those who were not able to believe?

Although Scripture does not explicitly address the eternal destiny of those who are unable to respond to God’s offer of salvation, there are biblical truths that would lead us to believe that such people will be in heaven.The OT passage often applied to this subject comes from the life of King David. When David’s baby became seriously ill, he was grief stricken. When the baby died, David took heart and said, “I will go to him, but he will not return to me” (2 Samuel 12:23). This was more than David acknowledging that one day he too would die. David was speaking about being reunited with the child in a way that brought him comfort. 

In the NT, some see an answer in Jesus’ invitation for the children to come to him, and his subsequent statement that, “…of such is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:14-15). Jesus also said that whoever does not receive theKingdom of God as a little child simply will not enter it (see Luke 18:16-17). More significantly, in three different places scripture indicates that there is an age of accountability (Deuteronomy 1:39;Isaiah 7:15-16;Jonah 4:11). Although an exact age is not established, it would be a time when a person is capable of being held morally accountable before God for rejecting God’s provision of salvation.

Since scripture repeatedly appeals to people in a way that recognizes their accountability for their choices, those who are incapable of responding have not reached an age of accountability.

Although such people are born with an inherited sin nature, they never choose to act upon that nature in a way that knowingly rebels against their Creator. Without getting into the deeper theological discussion (see: here), it seems appropriate in light of what we know about God to concluded that through Christ’s sacrificial death, God can choose to forgive and receive them to be with him in heaven.

Steve Cornell

Seven reasons to desire heaven

 

  1. Heaven will be a place unhindered fellowship with God. (A place where sin cannot molest)
  2. Heaven will be a place where we always do what pleases God. 
  3. Heaven will be a place of unhindered fellowship with each other. (No more conflicts to resolve!)
  4. Heaven is eternal — no permanent partings in heaven. (No separations)
  5. Heaven is home to Jesus our Savior, the Holy Spirit our comforter and the Father of mercies.
  6. Heaven will be beautiful beyond comparison. (It’s architect and builder is God, see: Revelation 4:1-6).
  7. Heaven will be a place of unimaginable and undisturbed joy! (see: Psalm 16:11; Luke 15:10)  
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (John 14:1-3).
Steve Cornell
 

The Destiny of those unable to believe


A university student once asked me about the salvation and eternal destiny of people with severe mental retardation. “How much can they understand about their need for forgiveness and salvation?” “Will God hold them accountable for the things they don’t understand?” she asked. She worked in a home for children with profound mental disability and loved these kids. “I just want to be sure that they will go to heaven when they pass away.” she said.

The eternal destiny of those with mental disability is close to my heart. I had a mentally challenged cousin with whom I was close in my youth. Several years ago he passed away, causing me to reflect again on this question—a question with immense pastoral significance because it equally applies to young children who died before being able to exercise faith.

Those who believe in the universal salvation of humanity would say, “Of course these people will be in heaven!” “All people will be saved!” The problem with this explanation is that it has no basis beyond the wishful imagination of man. It might be emotionally appealing to accept this answer but we need a more reliable basis for our beliefs.

Others think God is obligated to give these people eternity in heaven. “After all,” it’s argued, “it wasn’t their fault that they were born this way!” This is very dangerous thinking because as mere humans, we’re in no place to obligate God to do anything. We sinners cannot hold God accountable to work things out on our understandings of justice. Our cry is, “Have mercy on us, O God.”

In some traditions, the answer is found in baptism—the washing away of original sin. This view, however, attaches more significance to baptism than warranted by Scripture. Baptism is not a requirement for salvation, nor does it impart saving grace.

Then there are those who can only say that it is a matter of election. If these folks were elected by God to eternal life, then they will be in heaven. If not, they will be under God’s eternal judgment in hell. Scripture does teach that God elects some people for salvation. For example, it says that, “all who were appointed for eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48). Yet what should be said of those who were not able to believe?

Although scripture does not explicitly address the eternal destiny of those unable to respond to God’s offer of salvation, there are biblical truths that would lead us to believe that such people will be in heaven and will not come under God’s eternal judgment.The OT passage often applied to this subject comes from the life of King David. When David’s illegitimate baby became seriously ill, he was grief stricken. When the baby died, David took heart, and said, “I will go to him, but he will not return to me” (II Samuel 12:23). This was more than David acknowledging that one day he too would die. David took courage about being reunited with the child.

Some find an answer in Jesus’ invitation for the children to come to him, and his subsequent statement that, “…of such is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:14-15). Jesus said that whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God as a little child simply will not enter it (see Luke 18:16-17). More significantly, in three different places scripture indicates an age of accountability (Deuteronomy 1:39;Isaiah 7:15-16;Jonah 4:11). Although an exact age is not established, it would be a time when a person is capable of being held morally accountable before God.

As an aside, one of my board-elders is a neurophysiologist. He informed me that the brain is not fully developed until age 20. I found it interesting that God allowed all who were 20 and under to enter the land. I am not trying to build a case for merging physiology and theology, I am just noting it with interest.

Since Scripture repeatedly appeals to people in a way that recognizes their moral responsibility for the choices they make, those incapable of making such choices have not reached an age of accountability. Although such people are born with an inherited sin nature, they never consciously choose to act upon that nature. Therefore, it’s reasonably concluded that through Christ’s sacrificial death, God can forgive and receive them to be with him in heaven (I John 2:2).

Steve Cornell