The Bible teaches in no uncertain terms that everyone has sinned and has consequently fallen short of God’s divine standard. Sin separates us from God, and God’s just decree is that sin is punishable by death. But Jesus Christ took the penalty for our sins upon himself. By dying on the cross he satisfied God’s wrath against the sinners whom he came to save, and by rising from the dead he proved that God had accepted his sacrifice on behalf of all those who, by faith alone, receive him as their Saviour.
But the Bible is equally clear that saving faith is reasonable faith. The gospel must first be processed in the mind before it is obeyed from the heart. We must process, with our God-given ability to reason, the biblical categories of sin, punishment, substitution and deliverance. We cannot believe the gospel from our heart if we haven’t first understood and processed it with our mind.
This truth, however, presents us with an intriguing question, and one that has been debated for centuries by thinking Christians: If the gospel must first be processed intellectually before it can be believed wholeheartedly, what ought to be said of those who lack the intellectual capacity to wrestle reasonably with the implications of the gospel? What of infants, or those who are so severely mentally handicapped that they lack the ability to reason? Will they face God’s judgement even though they were, by virtue of their intellectual inability, unable to reason with the gospel; or will they escape that judgement by virtue of their God-ordained inability?
This question is fraught with emotion, for we no doubt all know someone who has lost an infant, or has suffered the death of a severely handicapped family member. We may even have been asked this very question—either from a purely hypothetical standpoint, or perhaps by someone we know who has been personally affected by its implications.
It would be a simple matter to answer this question if the Bible said, “He who lacks the intellectual capacity to grasp the gospel shall be saved.” Unfortunately, the Bible just doesn’t say that. Nowhere does Scripture directly address the eternal destiny of infants or the mentally handicapped. “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved” is clear. The fate of those who lack the intellectual capacity to believe is not quite so.
Nevertheless, Scripture is our final authority for all matters of faith and practice. The question is not an unimportant one, and if we will have any convictions at all, they must be grounded as far as possible in the teaching of Scripture. It is my conviction that, at least by implication, the question is addressed in God’s word. It is addressed by means of overriding themes in the Bible.
The question must be addressed, at grassroots level, in terms of the character of God.
First, we know that God is completely sovereign. There is no sphere of life that escapes his complete sovereignty. He sovereignly determines who is and who is not saved. The eternal destiny of infants and the mentally handicapped is determined by the sovereign decree of God.
Second, we know that God is completely just. The judge of all the earth always does what is right. This means that the eternal destiny of infants and the mentally handicapped is determined within the parameters of God’s justice.
Third, we know that anyone who is saved is saved only by the grace of God displayed in the death, burial and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. If infants and the handicapped are saved, it is only on the basis of Christ’s righteousness.
Second, we must consider the question in the light of the Bible’s teaching on sin. The Bible distinguishes between at least two, possibly three, categories of sin.
First, there is the category of imputed sin. This is sin that is judicially passed from Adam to every human being since him (Romans 5:12). In Eden, Adam stood as the federal head of humanity, so that, when he sinned, he sinned on behalf of the race. Every human being born since Adam and Eve sinned inherited a sinful nature from Adam.
The second category of sin in Scripture is personal or actual sin. While “sin came into all the world through one man,” ultimately “all sinned” (Romans 5:12). Or, as it is stated elsewhere, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Because we were conceived in sin (Psalm 51:5), we all actually sin. Having a sin nature, inherited from Adam, is one thing; but the reality is that we all actually commit sin against God.
A third category, recognised by some, is what we might refer to as inherited sin. Inherited sin is spoken of as the sin that is passed from one generation to another. And so, while we all inherited a sin nature from Adam, we more specifically inherit sin from our biological father.
The third lens through which the question must be considered is the lens of the person’s personal sin.
Since infants and the mentally handicapped are human, they were represented in the garden by humanity’s federal head, Adam. And since death spread to “all men” because of Adam, we must acknowledge that even infants and the mentally handicapped are sinners by nature. They are recipients of imputed sin. But are they guilty of personal or actual sin? To answer that question, we must determine what it means to sin.
Sin can be defined as “missing the mark” or “falling short” of a standard. God’s standard is perfection, and we sin when we fail to meet that standard. However, we must have some concept of the standard if we are to fall short of it. We must know what the mark is in order to miss it. Do infants and the mentally handicapped understand what the standard is?
If a child is incapable of understanding the standard, is he or she guilty of breaching the standard, of missing the mark, of falling short? Can an infant—or a mentally handicapped person—actually sin? If not, does God hold that infant personally responsible for imputed sin?
Fourth, the question must be asked in terms of the Bible’s teaching on accountability.
Some argue that God cannot justly hold an infant, or a mentally handicapped person, accountable for sin if that person does not understand the standard. Others disagree quite strongly. Ultimately, the question should not be whether God can hold an infant accountable, but whether he will. What does the Bible teach about the basis of accountability?
The Bible makes it clear that every single human being who ever lived will ultimately stand before the judgement seat of Christ. Second Corinthians 5 teaches that “we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (v. 10). Revelation 20 speaks of the great white throne judgement in similar terms: “They were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done” (v. 13).
The concept of deeds and acts committed in the body seems to be the focus of these judgements. In other words, the basis of the judgement does not appear to be imputed (original) sin, but actual (personal) sin.
If we conclude that infants and the mentally handicapped, since they are incapable of understanding God’s standard, have not committed actual sin, and if the Bible teaches that the final judgement is based on actual sin, the logical conclusion, it seems, is that infants and the mentally handicapped will not face God’s wrath because they have not committed actual sin. This is not to say that they are any more deserving of God’s favour than anyone else. It is simply the case that God, by his kind and eternal decree, has chosen to save them. And he has chosen to do so, not on the basis of their own righteousness, but, like anyone who is saved, on the basis of Christ’s imputed righteousness.
Infants are no more innocent and no less depraved than their adult counterparts. Neither are the mentally handicapped any more innocent or any less depraved than their mentally healthy counterparts. No one deserves God’s favour, regardless of their ability to understand the implications of the gospel. Anyone who is saved is saved only because Jesus Christ secured God’s favour on the behalf of those for whom he died.
I am persuaded that this is the overall biblical theology of the eternal fate of those who are incapable of grasping the implications of the gospel. In my next post, I hope to deal with some of the related issues and popular objections, after which I intend to wrestle with some of the proof texts and alternate arguments. This is not an issue with which the Bible deals in any great detail or with any absolute clarity, but it is, I believe, an important issue on which we can arrive at some conclusions with biblical reasoning.