And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” Mark 10:13-15
I wasn’t sure I’d ever get this written, but it really is the only additional thing I wanted to write concerning Alice, so after a few attempts, here goes…
I believe Alice is in the Palace, or if you like, she is truly Alice in Wonderland. What I want to do is attempt to explain why I think she’s there. And in doing so, I want to be an encouragement to the many other parents who have lost little ones. One thing this ordeal has taught us: we are not alone in our sorrow. If I have wondered about Alice’s whereabouts, perhaps others have too. Hopefully this helps, it’s helped me. At Christmastime, we need something to be cheerful about, because there seems to be more tears than smiles in our house this year…
RC Sproul tells the story of the young monk Martin Luther taking a trip to Rome. While there, Luther climbed “the holy stairs,” supposedly the same stairs Jesus climbed as he stood before Pilate, later hauled off to Rome. As he ascended, he stopped on each step, kissing it and saying prayers, in the hope of relieving his grandparents’ suffering in purgatory. As RC tells it, Luther reached the top step, said his final prayer, and then muttered to himself, “But what if it isn’t true?” Really, does kissing stairs and saying prayers get grandparents out of purgatory? For a whole host of reasons, including doubts about the existence of purgatory and the wisdom of smooching steps, I don’t think it does.
It’s all well and good to envision my Alice laughing and carrying on and having a jolly old time in heaven; I even prefer to think she’s joined a chorus of impatient saints urging Jesus to hurry along and wrap up earthly history so she can get her body back, her family back, and get on with being a kid again. Spirits don’t eat noodles or “eggs like a ball;” I can’t help but wonder if she doesn’t miss them from time to time, and in her obsessive way repeat, “Jesus, we can have some later,” which really means, “I’ll give you two minutes, then I’m asking again…”
Imagination is all well and good, to a point. But a thing isn’t true because I want it to be. What Alice is doing right now has little to do with my imagination; it has everything to with a reality I can’t see. On top of that, I’m a total cynic concerning those who claim to have gone to heaven and come back. That’s another matter for another day. At any rate, if my imagination determined reality, she’d be bodily sitting here beside me right now playing with her little toys. So that doesn’t work.
I read recently that half or even up to three quarters of all pregnancies end in the death of the child before the mother is even aware that she’s pregnant. Of course, others miscarry after they are aware. So perhaps 75% of the population of heaven or hell will be comprised of persons who never took a breath, said a single word, or have experienced any kind of consciousness. If you add the number of children killed intentionally through abortion, that percentage goes up even higher. So this is a big deal.
It’s apparent to me from Scripture that the same body that dies is the same one that’s perfected and raised. I take that to mean in whatever state of development it’s in, that’s the state it continues post-resurrection. You can make a 95 year-old perfectly healthy and he’ll probably look like an energetic, fully developed ageless human being, but when Alice is raised and made perfectly healthy, she’s still going to be a 4 year old child with lots of growing to do. That’s what I think, anyway. Of course, I don’t exactly know how that translates into Alice’s 4 siblings that reached heaven before her via miscarriage and how their development will happen. But I really do believe that Shelly and I will somehow get to raise those little ones too. If you tied me to a stake and threatened to burn me if I didn’t recant that belief, I’d recant. But I’d gladly take a paper cut with lemon juice for it and not back down.
For several years and long predating Alice’s cancer, some of my dearest and godliest friends and I have had this ongoing debate about the destiny of children who die, and they have tenaciously held that: a) some kids make it to heaven, b) some kids don’t, and c) we just can’t know which ones. They have good company in the history of theology. Probably more and better company than me: I’ve always maintained they all make it. That makes for some interesting conversations between us now.
It’s one thing to argue logical points over a cup of coffee with friends, but it would be another thing for them to accompany me to Alice’s grave and say, “I sure wish we knew where she was right now.” None of my friends has ever done that, and I doubt they would, and I’d never put them in that position. No one that I know could or would say to me out loud, “I’m so sorry that Alice is now frying in hell.” There’s a pretty strong consensus that she’s in the company of angels. But to me, that only makes the question “What if it isn’t true?” all the more challenging; we all so badly want the question of “where would I send Alice’s picture so she gets it?” to have a favorable answer that it’s admittedly difficult to consider the dilemma with any sort of objectivity. And there’s something to that, and we shouldn’t ignore that universal instinct.
But Alice is my daughter, I really want to know where she is. Friendly theological banter about abstract concepts moves into another realm when there’s a little girl we all loved lying in the churchyard beneath a big black piece of etched granite. I’ve labored throughout this ordeal to try to understand and face things as they are, now how I want them to be. That posture has helped greatly in enduring Alice’s sickness and death, so I’m hesitant to abandon it.
The issue of the destiny of children is a little complicated, but I’ll try to make it simple as I can, and I’m not sure I can. But here’s the deal; the Biblical path for how a person reaches heaven is rather simple, and leads to a rather difficult conclusion:
- All people are sinners (Rom 3:23).
- The way to be saved from sin is through faith in Jesus (Acts 16:31).
- Everyone who dies not believing in Jesus will be condemned (John 3:18).
- Little babies who die, didn’t believe in Jesus. They couldn’t believe in anything. See #3.
The only way to have any biblical assurance that Alice or any little ones who are taken from us will be awaiting us in heaven is to find a way around one of those first three points. And people have done so in different ways. Some have suggested that children really aren’t sinners, so they’re “in” because of their innocence. Of course, that might help those who miscarried, but it’s harder for me to make the case Alice never sinned, because of course she did. She was wonderful, sure. Perfect, no. Besides, another problem is that innocent people don’t die; people die because they’re sinners. Death is the result of sin, that’s biblically clear. And if such a thing as an innocent person (besides Jesus) existed, then Jesus dying wasn’t really all that necessary and all of us would have a fair shot at it without him.
Here’s the best way I’ve been able to understand this reality that all people are “sinners.” Suppose that dogs are the perfect animal, except for one thing: they bark. I don’t think anybody is particularly charmed by that sound. I’ve knocked on doors, only to hear a dog start barking like crazy, followed by a frustrated voice, “Oh Rover shut up!” Neverhave I heard the voice say, “Please knock again; I want to hear this poodle bark some more!”
Now let us suppose that heaven is open for all dogs, except the ones who bark. (aside… sometimes I’m asked whether or not dogs will be in heaven. My response is that I’m okay with mydog being in heaven, but it would be hell to live next door to yourdog for all eternity. So in the name of fairness – dogs are out.) Some dogs bark more, some less, some can even be trained to quit barking, but the cold reality is this: dogs are barkers. It’s their nature to bark. You can breed them to have different temperaments, to run faster or slower, to be different colors or have different kinds of hair, but at the end of the day, dogs are barkers. And if you take dogs to heaven without somehow getting the bark out of them, some celestial mailman will come walking up to your house, knock on your door, and the barking will commence. Then what?
So is a newborn puppy a barker? Well, yes and no. It’s a barker because it’s a dog. It’s never barked because it’s only 2 minutes old. Maybe it doesn’t have the cognitive or physical development yet to bark, but give it some time, it’ll bark, because it’s a dog.
This is at least a little bit what the issue is with sin. Is a newborn a sinner? Well, yes and no. It is by nature, and give it some time, the little angel will prove to have plenty of devil in it. But there’s also a really good reason our judicial system treats children differently than adults; we don’t put 3 year olds on death row, even if a couple of troublemakers were able to toddle into the missile silo, insert the keys, press the red button, and blow half the world to smithereens. To put it another way, a baby who fills his britches deserves a good change; an ordinary teenager who does the same deserves the joy of doing his own laundry, and maybe a bit of shame.
So that’s the first premise in a simplistic nutshell, “all are sinners.” Assuming little kids don’t stay little forever – which they don’t – unless something (or Someone) changes their fundamental nature, they’ll grow into sinners who sin. And sinners in heaven doesn’t work. It would ruin a perfect heaven just the way one sinner, Adam, ruined a perfect earth.
The second premise was this: “the only way to be saved from sin is through faith in Jesus.” This is basic Bible teaching, and in the early days of the church, that’s what was taught. But then people started noticing that babies and kids died. And they died without believing, because they couldn’t believe. So people started trying to figure a way around this dilemma, because nobody can really stomach the thought of a nursery in hell, but if we just say everybody gets in, then we might as well set the Bible aside and just make up our own rules, because it’s pretty clear that not everybody gets “in.” It’s actually a pretty significant dilemma.
Several ways have been proposed to try to get around this: the Catholics and Lutherans proposed salvation through baptism, others proposed salvation through covenant (the child’s parents are believers heading for heaven, so the kids get the same benefits as their parents), some, like my friends, propose salvation through election, meaning God will choose freely to make some (or all) “saved” before they die, either apart from faith or by giving them faith even though they can’t cognitively appreciate or comprehend it.
But in all these cases, even supposing they “work,” we’re left with the problem of dealing with unbaptized babies, uncovenanted babies, or unelect babies, who are left more or less “out in the cold” or more accurately, “out in the hot.” In the case of the un-elect babies, we might assume they’re all chosen, so they’re all in, but then, who really knows? In the classic case of twins, Jacob is in heaven, Esau is not, because God chose one and not the other. That’s not a particularly comforting thought in the middle of the night pondering the state of my little ones, believe me. I mean it helps that there might be hope, but I’d really like more, please.
The third premise, “everyone who dies not believing in Jesus will be condemned” is the reason I really, really want people to believe in Jesus, because I believe that premise to be true. Believing in Jesus is actually a difficult thing to do, because it means having to take what Jesus said seriously, like as seriously as if God said them, because as God, he did say them. And He meant them. Jesus never really talked just to hear the sound of his own voice. So believing in Jesus means living life under someone else’s rules, not my own, and that’s a hard pill to swallow. It’s far easier to ignore Jesus and pretend like he doesn’t have any meaningful authority over how I live my life, or blindly assume he’s just pretty happy with me just the way I am. Except Jesus knows me too well for that to be true. So anyone can (and many people do) say, “I believe in Jesus,” but live as if he is either dead, disinterested, or can be entirely disregarded without consequence. Naturally, nobody lives as if gravity can be disregarded without consequence, at least they don’t live very long that way, but many people live that way in regards to Jesus, and he’s as real and far more powerful than gravity, and that’s going to spell trouble for them.
The Bible is crystal clear: No Jesus, no heaven. Those who depend on him for life will receive it; those who don’t, won’t. Nobody gets to pretend Jesus’ opinion doesn’t matter, then expect him to haul us to heaven so he can eternally tolerate our cold shoulder and self-styled way of living. And, to be fair, like having to live next door to a yippy neighbor dog forever, I’d rather not have to live next door to anyone for eternity who is living life by their own rules, and you’d not want to live next door to me following my own rules. Eventually, probably sooner rather than later, if we’re all doing our own thing, heaven becomes hell.
So Now What?
The fate of children who die has occupied much of my mind over the course of the last year, even when I found myself so mentally foggy I could scarcely think. My poor friends had to listen to me stammer because I couldn’t spit out words… It’s terrible feeling like your brain doesn’t function anymore. That fog is lifting though, thankfully.
The simplest place to begin is with the story of King David having full confidence in seeing his dying little one again in heaven, although David didn’t bother to lay out any reasons why he believed that (2Sam. 12:19-23). One or two extra lines would have been helpful! But in my way of thinking, if his little one made it, others might too, even if I couldn’t figure out exactly how.
I decided to write my first seminary paper a couple weeks ago on the fate of children who die. As I studied the reality of sin in all people including children, pondered the holiness of God, and tried rather unsuccessfully to find any meaningful hope in any kind of salvation apart from faith, I really wrestled in my soul and felt crushed by the weight of the big hard truths involved. Sin is a big problem, and we’ve all got it. And even if you were to back up the age of a child until they couldn’t commit an “actual” sin, Alice was long past that age. (“Actual sin” is a technical term, kind of like an “actual bark.” At some point every barker barks for the first time, and every sinner sins for the first time.)
So after spending all day in my office poring over my books and pondering these matters, my mind weary and shadowed by rather dark and hopeless thoughts, I returned home one night and began walking down our driveway, once again looking up to the stars like I’ve done a hundred times this past year, thinking about the greatness of God and the smallness of man, and begging Him for some sort of help. I just couldn’t understand how Alice could be in heaven without basically making sin meaningless, making faith meaningless, or belittling God’s perfect holiness. But the thought of her not being there was so terrible I couldn’t make sense of that either. There have been a couple times in my life when, like Jacob, I’m ready to wrestle with God until he blesses me, even if I limp forever. The week I had to watch Alice die was one of those. This was another.
I thought about “all have sinned” and I wrestled with God saying “Esau have I hated.” I thought about how this entire matter of what happens to kids who die is built upon who the kids are as human beings, who God is, and what God does with human beings who are sinners. In some ways, theology is like a giant calculator; you put in the data, add this piece with that one, maybe add one or two other relevant pieces, and come up with a conclusion. Or sometimes the Bible gives a conclusion, and we have to figure out the pieces that lead to the conclusion. It’s actually really helpful and necessary, and believe me I’m not knocking it. I’d love to be a theologian someday. God wrote the Bible in such a way that we could use it to know more about him than is explicitly stated. The frustrating part to me as I wrestled is that God’s judgment of sin is constant and predictable; his mercy is a bit of a variable, and only predictable when faith is present. God owes judgment. He doesn’t owe mercy. So if there’s no reason to assume mercy is present, we can always assume judgment is. That’s holiness, and God is holy. The most predictable calculations are not at all in our favor.
The other constant to me was human nature. There’s a good reason for that, of course: people are people, and there’s no person who is more or less valuable than any other, and that goes for the homeless guy, the billionaire, the great-grandmother whose Alzheimer’s is so bad she’s of no practical use to society, the mentally incapacitated 6-year old who will never learn to say his own name, and the fertilized embryo lost in some freezer somewhere. People are people, each made in God’s image, having an immortal soul, and going to live somewhere for all eternity, and as such, all equally significant in God’s eyes, as they ought to be in ours.
And then I thought to myself, you know, a child’s eternal destiny is not determined by an impersonal judge running people through an impersonal process of calculations concluding their eternal state; a child’s destiny is determined by Judge Jesus, the very same one whose death is the only thing that made it possible for anyone to get into heaven, and who said he can give eternal life to whomever he wishes. In other words, if anyone could get them into heaven, it’d be him. And he could do so as simultaneously judge and sin-eraser. And so I asked myself, “How could I know what the holy, sinless Jesus did when my precious little sinner stood before him 6 months ago, unable to enter heaven unless he intervened on her behalf?” What does the Bible say? Is there something about Jesus that’s predictable enough for me to base my hopes upon? There’s one clue that was especially meaningful: children were brought to Jesus, the same Jesus who Alice met, and when the adults tried to pull them away, Jesus said, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:14) Then he put his hands on them, and blessed them.
The very thought struck me like a bolt of lightning, not in some mystical way, but because it just didn’t hit me before: if Jesus said “let them come,” who was left to “hinder” them? Sure, Jesus wasn’t speaking directly of admitting children into heaven. But he was speaking to them in a different way than he spoke to adults. It is an insight into how God acts toward children. This same Jesus is Alice’s judge, and he said, “Let them come!” I’ve rarely been so happy about anything in my life. For the first time probably since the week she died, I wept. I walked over to my shop, where her radiation mask is hanging off the wall, and little scraps from building her coffin lie scattered about the floor, where pieces of plywood she’d scribbled her name on were leaned up against the table saw, a place I’ve not been able to enter very often or for very long. As tears ran down my face, I cried over and over again, “Lord Jesus, you said ‘Let them come! You wouldn’t turn her away!’”
Jesus is the judge of my Alice. Sure, she’s guilty of being a sinner. As far as I know, she didn’t have faith in Jesus any more (and sadly maybe less) than she believed in SpongeBob. She just didn’t have the brain-power to understand the gospel yet. I’ve never studied another person more intently in my life. I knew Alice, and I knew her well. And I loved her, I hope well. I wanted to see some sign of faith in the worst way, believe me. At the end of the day, in a very real and special way, in death she was entirely dependent upon the mercy of the only one who could save her to save her in that moment, and I happily and confidently trust the one who said, “Let them come.”
Michele and I handled all of Alice’s affairs in life. Alice never got to say whether or not she would endure radiation or chemo. And you know, she trusted us so implicitly she never questioned us. Those were things beyond her comprehension. We had to make life or death decisions for her, doing so strictly on the basis of our love for her and our understanding of her condition. For our part, we had to trust Jesus with the decision to let her get sick and die, because there are things going on that He’s aware of but are beyond our comprehension. So I’m entirely confident that the One making the decisions concerning her eternal destiny on the other side has received her to his arms. That’s what he always did and does with children. It’s who He is. Not because she deserved it, but because if he wouldn’t receive her, no one else could. He is her only hope. It’s a good hope to have.
That’s not to say Jesus is unwilling to send people into what he called “outer darkness.” Jesus is no teddy bear, which is good, because no teddy bear can defeat sin and raise the dead. In Lewis language, the Lion is not safe, but he’s good. Jesus did, after all, allow the rich young ruler to ignore his demands and walk away from him and into eternity without him. Hell’s population is not zero.
The children though, taken from this world all too soon, Jesus receives to himself, purely by his grace, covering their sins, changing their natures, making them fit to be his own brothers and sisters. Jesus is inclined to mercy; he’s not as rigidly unforgiving as mathematics. If you read the wonderful stories in the Bible about Jesus raising people from the dead, I think with only the exception of his friend Lazarus, he always raised children. There’s something to that. I long for the day when he stands beside Alice’s grave, and says like he once did, “‘Talitha cumi,’ which means, ‘Little girl, I say to you, arise’” (Mark 10:14). I reserved the spot beside Alice for my own grave, Michele gets the other side of me, so we get front row seats (beds?) for the occasion, and I’m rather excited to see it.
This was already too long, and I realize I haven’t covered half the appropriate ground or answered half the questions, and the other half I didn’t probably answer satisfactorily. Others have done it better and more succinctly. If interested in pursuing the subject further, here’s some good places to start:
To read someone who thinks some children who die are saved and some are lost, check out Tim Challies’ take here
Dr. Tom Schreiner put out a little video clip that we watched as a family a few weeks before Alice died, you can find that here. It’s mostly hopeful, and explains the issues well.
Charles Spurgeon’s belief and reasons that all children are received by Christ can be found here. You can’t go wrong with Spurgeon!
John Piper’s thoughts taken from a funeral sermon for a child are summarized here
My own feeble paper on the subject, a little more academic and far less personal than this blog, is here
Once again, thank you all so much for your kindnesses expressed to us in so many ways.