Haven’t Heard

Adam Harwood, PhD
Assistant Professor of Christian Studies
Truett-McConnell College
Cleveland, Georgia

This is the first article in a two-part series. Part one considers the eternal destiny of the uncondemned, comprised of infants, young children, and the mentally incompetent. Part two will consider the unreached, people who are morally accountable to God but die without hearing the message of the Gospel. These were published in the Oct. 18 and Nov. 1, 2012 issues of The Christian Index.

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Southern Baptists differ on many political, social, and theological issues. But we’re united in affirming that faith in the Risen Christ is the only way to be forgiven of sin and reconciled to God. Thankfully, we are united on the Gospel. But this question is sometimes raised: “How does God deal with people who die without hearing the Gospel?” This question is not referring to people who hear and understand the Gospel but refuse to repent of their sin and place their faith in Christ. Rather, this concerns people who die without ever hearing the message of the Gospel. What is their eternal destiny? Those people can be placed into one of two groups, the uncondemned and the unreached.

Some individuals never mature mentally beyond early childhood. They are mentally incompetent, or mentally disabled. Among this group, there are different levels of mental maturity. Some people have the mind of a newborn; others have the mind of a 4-year old. What is the eternal destiny of a 30-year old man with the mind of a 3-year old? Because the Bible is silent on mental incompetence, we can only speculate. These people have a trusting and childlike nature. The conclusions regarding the eternal destiny of infants and young children will be applied to adults who have the mind of a child.

Tragically, miscarriage, abortion, stillbirth, and SIDS claim the lives of some infants. Each of them was a special creation of God, made in His image (Genesis 1:27; Psalm 139). The SBC’s confessional statement provides insight. Article 3 of the BFM 2000 explains that all people “inherit a nature and an environment inclined toward sin.” It continues, “Therefore, as soon as they are capable of moral action, they become transgressors and are under condemnation.” Infants and young children have not yet become transgressors and are not yet under condemnation. They inherit a nature inclined toward sin. They may experience physical death. But they are not condemned by God.

The Bible records God’s judgment against sinful thoughts, attitudes, and actions. In the days of Noah, God judged people for their sinful thoughts and actions (Gen 6:5), carried out since “childhood” (Genesis 8:21 NIV84, NLT), or “youth” (ESV, HCSB, NKJV). The younger generation of Israelites in the desert was not held accountable for the sinful actions of the group. The younger generation escaped judgment due only to their age (see Deuteronomy 1:39; Numbers 14:31). In Romans 1:21-32, Paul lists the many sinful thoughts, attitudes, and actions which have prompted God to pour out His wrath on all humankind. Read the passage and consider if any of those sins can be committed by infants and young children. A similar list appears in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10.

Jesus had a chance to ask a group of children to repent. Instead, He blessed them and pointed to them as examples of citizens of God’s kingdom (Mark 10:13-16). Also, consider David’s comment about one day being with his deceased infant son (2 Samuel 12:23).

All people need to hear and respond to the Gospel. Nevertheless, the biblical texts above (and many others) provide a compelling case that although infants, young children, and the mentally incompetent inherit a sinful nature, that nature alone does not bring God’s judgment and condemnation. God welcomes them into His arms.