*This article was originally published at Dr. Comer’s website A Living Faith and was used by permission.
In the spring of 1986 I was a sophomore at Mississippi State University and I was excited about the things God was doing in my life. I had been appointed to serve as a Baptist Student Union Summer Missionary in Northwest Pennsylvania in the upcoming summer. But before I could begin my summer mission work, there was still much to be done at school. There were tests to take, papers to write, and duties I had to fulfill.
One of my responsibilities was my work-study job at the University’s Forest Products Resource Laboratory. I worked as a laboratory assistant and it was in the laboratory that I had my eyes opened, not just to the properties of forest products, but to a theological question that I had never before considered.
One of the graduate students who worked in the lab was involved in something with which I was unfamiliar. It was called the Reformed movement. I had grown up in a traditional Baptist church and had never encountered anyone who was “Reformed” (although I did know a few people who could have benefited from reform school).
On this particular day we were working in the lab with small blocks of wood on which tests were being performed. We were weighing them and compiling data for the research leader to use in her work. In the midst of our tedious work the conversation turned to the doctrine of salvation.
I had always been taught that God created the world and it was good, but that Adam and Eve sinned and their posterity inherited a sinful nature and thus were separated from God. But God, due to His amazing love and marvelous grace, gave his one and only Son, Jesus Christ, to die for the sins of all mankind so that those who believe in him would not perish but have everlasting life.
This belief was at the core of the preaching and teaching that I had been exposed to for the first 19 years of my life. It was central to my faith. It was fundamental to my belief system. And it contained another element that flowed from this basic outline of the gospel. I had always been taught that babies who died before an age of moral accountability were safe from eternal judgment.
But on this day, those beliefs were about to be challenged. As we worked on our tedious duties in the lab I listened as my reformed co-worker shared a version of the Christian story with which I was unfamiliar. He told me that Jesus didn’t die for the sins of all people, but only for those who were the elect. In fact, those who were not chosen from before the foundation of the world to be in the family of God were not just unlucky or unfortunate; they were objects of God’s wrath. In some astonishing way, their sad predicament even reflected the glory and greatness of God. And there was nothing they could do about their plight. It was fixed by an eternal decree given before the foundation of the world.
I explained to my friend that I had never heard this kind of thinking and it was foreign to me. As a nineteen year old who had only been a Christian for three years I didn’t know how to respond to such ideas. Did God decree from eternity who would be saved and who would be lost? Did evangelism make a difference? Was I wasting my upcoming summer by going to serve on the mission field? My mind was filled with questions.
Then, it came to me. Certainly God’s desire to save wasn’t limited and I felt like I could prove it to my co-worker. So I asked him a question that I thought would expose a major flaw in his theology.
If every person’s eternal destiny is settled before the foundation of the world and there is no changing God’s eternal decree of those who would be saved and those who would be condemned, then what, I boldly asked, happens to babies who die in infancy? Surely he would not say that little babies would go to hell. I couldn’t imagine that he would say that the eternal fate of babies who pass away in infancy is determined and that a loving God would condemn some of them to hell.
Perhaps he might assert that God had decreed they all go to heaven, but I couldn’t imagine anyone consigning little babies to an eternity of fire and brimstone. Having grown up in a traditional Baptist church that believed that God’s grace extended to children who died before the age of accountability, a belief that I wrongly assumed at my tender age of 19 was taught by all churches, I thought I had my co-worker cornered.
His answer was stunning. You must remember that we were working in a laboratory on little blocks of wood as we were having our discussion. And my co-worker picked up a little block of wood and dropping it on one side of his work station said, “If this baby was predestined to go to heaven, he goes in the heaven pile.” He then picked up another little block of wood and dropping on the other side of his work station said, “If this baby was predestined to go to hell, he goes in the hell pile.”
And he continued dropping blocks of wood into two piles while saying, “this one goes in the heaven pile, and this one goes into the hell pile.”
I was in shock. His unemotional, heartless, and unconcerned dropping of symbolic children into the hell pile made my blood run cold.
I could not, did not, and still do not believe that God, before the foundation of the world, created people for the purpose of being dropped into the hell pile.
Jesus didn’t say to Nicodemus, “Too bad, Nick, there is a hell pile for most people and you had better hope you drew a good number in the pre-creation salvation lottery when the decrees were made.”
Instead he said to Nicodemus, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:16-17).
That doesn’t sound to me like God has a “hell pile” created for infants, children, and adults. Instead it sounds like He has a plan to save infants, children, and adults.
Jesus lamented over Jerusalem saying “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!” (Luke 13:34).
That doesn’t sound like a Savior who was unwilling to save. It sounds like a Savior whose heart was breaking because the only thing that kept the inhabitants of Jerusalem from entering His Kingdom was the fact that they “were not willing.”
God has repeatedly revealed His desire to redeem sinful mankind. In the Old Testament, the sacrificial lamb was required for redemption. In the story of Abraham and Isaac, one lamb was substituted for one son (Genesis 22). In the story of the Passover, one lamb protected one family from judgment (Exodus 12). In the worship on the Day of Atonement, one lamb was substituted for one nation (Leviticus 16). It is evident that as God progressively reveals himself and his plan in the Old Testament, that the stream of redemption is ever widening.
First, there is one lamb for one child, then one lamb for one family, then one lamb for an entire nation, and then we come to the New Testament where we are told that Jesus Christ is the “lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
From one lamb for one child to one lamb for the entire world! Jesus didn’t come to condemn people to the hell pile. He is the sin bearer who came to take away the sin of the world, and to tell the world that, “to all who received him, to those who believed on his name,” he would give “the right to become children of God” (John 1:12).
God loved the world and sent His Son to die for the sins of mankind in order that mankind could be reconciled to Him. Through faith in Christ there is hope for all people. God loves the entire human race. And because of that love, in the words of Paul, he “wants all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).
As C.S. Lewis pointed out in The Great Divorce, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’”