Sunday, 29 November -0001 18:42

The Doctrine of the Last Things (7) Salvation for the Innocents?

Written by Rev. C.A. Schouls
In Study # 3 we discussed the various Biblical words for hell, such as sheol and hades. Although they can be interpreted in various ways, the Bible does clearly teach the doctrine of everlasting punishment for those who reject Christ (see 2 Thess.1: 9; Matt.8: 11,12; 22:13; 25:10-13, 41, 46; Lk.13: 27,28; Rev.9: 1, 2, 11; 11:7; 17:8; 20:1, 3; 22:15). These passages we should know for it is (again) very popular today to deny the doctrine of eternal punishment. The question is often raised in this connection whether all people who die outside of Christ go to hell--the reference then is particularly to two classes of people: the pagan who has not heard the gospel and the child who dies in infancy. These we will now consider.
Amos 3:1,2 and Luke 12:47,48 give us some guidelines in considering whether all these ÒpagansÓ are lost. It is often stated thus: ÒWhy would God, who is love and justice, cast pagans who have not heard the gospel into the depths of hell?Ó The point is, He does not-- there are obviously degrees of punishment. It is true, Amos teaches that only Israel (New Testament = church) is chosen from among all the nations. Note, however, that this is placed in the context of punishment for Israel because, although they had these great privileges, they did not respond to God in faith and they will be severely punished. Note also in the parable in Luke 12, that there is spoken of degrees of punishment. So, it is not right to speak of those who have not heard the gospel as being consigned to the depths of hell; that place will be reserved for those who have known the truth and not responded to it.

What a solemn thought, for it means that people like us will be more severely punished, if we believe not, than pagans from primitive, godless societies.

ÒInnocentÓ Pagans?
Next, consider whether there are Òinnocent' pagans. For years, missionaries have told us that there is as much (if not more) cruelty, dishonesty and hatred in pagan societies as anywhere. Recent reports out of various countries in Africa where the Òdiamond warsÓ are fought tell of unspeakable atrocities committed against men, women and children. Entire village populations are lined up, arms outstretched, to have them hacked off for no other reason than to instil terror (see National Geographic, March 2002, ÒDiamonds - The Real Story,Ó p. 28 and photo p. 8). The idea of Òthe noble savageÓ is a romantic one, left over from the 18th century, in which it was believed that people unspoiled by the corruption marking western man would be good and noble. The truth is otherwise. Basic to all mankind is the fact that their state is one of condemnation in Adam (Rom.5: 12, 17, 18) and by nature they all are children of wrath (Eph.2: 3; Rom.7: 14, 1 Jn.5: 19). They reject God and can come to life in no other way than that of rebirth.

Some may object that there are pagans who, Òthough they have not the law, do by nature the things of the lawÓ (Rom.2: 14)--will they also be punished with such damnation? We can answer that, indeed, by the remnants of natural light, some men are able to do natural good, but these glimmerings of light are not enough to bring even the best pagan to a saving knowledge of God. God looks not just at the outward deeds, but at the heart of man. Man's best works are as filthy rags (Isa.64: 6). Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation (see Jn.3: 16; 14:6; 15:5; Acts 4:12; Rom.3: 21 and following; 1 Cor.3: 11 etc.). Without the hearing of the gospel man (infants are not in the picture here) cannot be saved (Rom.10: 17).

Why then, does God not cause every man to hear? That is His good pleasure. Blessed are we for having heard the gospel. We can say, ÒWhy does God give health and wealth to some and not to others?Ó We confess, in the Canons of Dort, I, 3 - ÒAnd that men may be brought to believe, God mercifully sends the messengers of these most joyful tidings, to whom he will and at what time he pleases...Ó

One thing is sure: lost in Adam and adding to his guilt daily, man has no inherent right to salvation or even to hearing the way of salvation. If he does hear it, that is grace. The plight of the heathen should lead us not to criticize God but to burning zeal to bring the Word of God to such people. Without the saving knowledge of Christ, the Gentiles perish (Rom.1: 32; 2:12; Rev.21: 8).

Are All Those Who Die in Infancy Saved?
This subject is of great practical importance and has been for many years. It has only been in recent years that Òinfant mortalityÓ rates have declined sharply. A few generations back (our grandparents) it was quite common that the number of children who died in infancy in any one family was greater than the number surviving to adulthood. Modern medicine and improved standards of living have sharply reversed this trend (in the West!). However, it seems that no sooner had this rate improved than another factor entered: abortion. Although exact figures are not available, the fact is that, if abortions were to be counted as Òinfant deaths,Ó the current infant mortality rate would be much higher than it is acknowledged to be. It is in dealing with this terrible situation that the question arises, ÒWhat happens to all these children? Are they all lost? Are they all saved?Ó Let us consider some answers given.

Roman Catholic View
Rome teaches the doctrine of ÒLimbus InfantumÓ (see also Study # 4). The souls of all unbaptized infants go here, whether the parents are heathen or adherents of the Church of Rome. It is held that unbaptized children cannot enter the kingdom (Jn.3: 5). Although this ÒLimbus InfantumÓ is supposedly on the outskirts of hell, these souls suffer no actual pain; they are simply excluded from full bliss. They know and love God by the use of their natural powers and have full, natural happiness. The Roman Catholic church has not definitely stated the details of this doctrine and views vary with different theologians.

Two remarks must be made: 1) Scripture nowhere attaches such great importance to the omission of baptism; 2) it nowhere teaches this doctrine. This must be kept in mind when joining forces with Roman Catholics in the ÒPro-Life movement.Ó

Evangelicals' View
Many evangelical Protestants, also involved in ÒPro-Life,Ó hold that these infants are all innocent and therefore enter heaven. They believe that original sin, if it can be spoken of at all, is not punished when there is no actual transgression. Little children cannot transgress the law of God, therefore they are considered saved if they die in infancy. We may find more common ground with these people than with others; however, we cannot agree with their position on this. Scripture teaches that, infants too, are guilty in Adam. Further, they are not innocent (Job 14:4; Ps.51: 5; Rom.5: 12, 18, 19; 1 Cor.15: 22; Eph.2: 3). If they are to be saved, this salvation will be grounded, not in their innocence, but in the merits of Christ.

Confessional Statements
This is what the Canons of Dort, I, 17 have to say about children of believers who die in infancy. ÒWe must judge concerning the will of God from His Word, which declares that the children of believers are holy, not by nature but in virtue of the covenant of grace, in which they are included with their parents. Therefore, God‑fearing parents ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom God calls out of this life in their infancy.Ó

Basically, the same truth is taught in Westminster Confession of Faith (Christ, 3): ÒElect infants, dying in infancy are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit, who works when and where and how he pleases.Ó This confessional statement of Presbyterianism was interpreted by the Presbyterian Church of the USA in 1903 to mean Ò...that all dying in infancy are included in the election of grace and are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit, who works when and where and how he pleases.Ó Note the difference--this is much broader than the original statement. (The PCUSA, which was the original Presbyterian Church, merged with another group in 1958 to form the United Presbyterian Church in the USA and has become quite liberal.)

Various Reformed Theologians
Charles Hodge, B.B. Warfield and L. Boettner represent a class of American Presbyterians who hold that all infants, dying in infancy, are saved by the application of the merits of Christ. They may put this idea in different and varying terms, but it all comes down to the same thing. Notice, they said all infants, regardless of the faith, or lack of it, on the part of the parents.

Reformed theologians of a Continental (mainly Dutch) background were a little more cautious in their statements. Herman Bavinck states, ÒThe children of the covenant, baptized or unbaptized, enter heaven when they die; with respect to the destiny of the others, so little has been revealed to us that the best thing we can do is to refrain from any positive judgmentÓ. The late and respected Christian Reformed theologian, L. Berkhof, fully agreeing with Canons I, 17, states of other children: ÒThere is no Scriptural evidence on which we can base the hope that .. Gentile children that have not yet come to years of discretion will be saved.Ó

Biblical Teaching
1. It is in agreement with all the general teaching of the New Testament that all who are saved are saved on the basis of the work of Christ. This includes infants.

2. From Jonah 4:11 we learn that God is moved with compassion, not only over the children of believers, but also of unbelievers.

3. ÒGod's tender mercies are over all his worksÓ (Ps.145: 9); ÒGod is loveÓ (1 Jn.4: 8). We may conclude that the love of God is broader, deeper and higher than we can ever imagine.

4. Infants cannot sin in the same way as adults who have consciously and deliberately rejected the gospel and/or have committed gross sins, against the voice of their own conscience.

5. Scripture nowhere teaches that the children of unbelievers, dying in infancy, are saved. Although on the basis of 2, 3 and 4 above we may wish to draw that conclusion, we can never base it on clear, Scriptural proof.

6. Believers and their seed have been given the promise as found in Genesis 17:7 and Acts 2:38, 39. See also 1 Corinthians 7:14. On this basis we hold to what the Canons teach in I, 17 but go no further.

1. ÒThe heathen are hungry for the gospelÓ. Is this true? Discuss.

2. Do you really believe that no heathen can be saved without the preaching of the gospel? Can God not reveal truth to him in other ways, such as by dreams or visions. What about those who are seriously mentally impaired, and who cannot grasp the gospel--can they be saved?

3. What does the fact that salvation can be only by the Word have to do with our responsibility regarding missions? If it Òpleases God to send his word when and where,Ó etc., should we be concerned about missions? If yes, how should we stimulate our children in this?

4. You are working with a Pro-Life group and constantly you hear the refrain, ÒAll these innocent children are in heaven.Ó How do you respond?

5. ÒSatan gets the greatest numberÓ--what do you think? What is meant by the age of accountability and when does a child come to that age? Should the matter of accountability be impressed upon a young child?

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