Tuesday, July 25, 2006

What will happen to the unborn?

This is a copy of a message I sent a younger friend in response to his question.

Here's my thoughts, for what they're worth...you might want to talk with Steve more about this. He has spent lots of time thinking about issues of God and providence. Would it be ok if I forwarded your message to him, and let him chew on it? Meanwhile, here's my take.

You wrote: "I was talking with a few other people and the question about children who die before really having a chance to make a decision about Jesus."

Ok, this speaker is clearly coming from an American Evangelical perspective. Remember, it is just one wing of the Church Universal. Americans are Enlightenment people. That means that for them, freedom and choice are sacred. No wonder, then, that they view the most important part of the Christian life as one's "Decision."

Have you ever been to a Baptist service, or a Billy Graham crusade? Their high points are not Eucharist/communion (as it is in premodern churches, like Orthodox and Catholic ones) or even the sermon (as it is those of Calvinist/Reformed traditions). The entire service climaxes with "The Invitation," also known as "altar call" or "coming forward to receive Christ." According to Christians of this persuasion, anyone who does not make a public, conscious choice for Christ is not saved. (In the church I grew up in, while charismatic expression was frowned upon, people expected you to attest to some sort of "glorious" emotional experience accompanying one's decision, as evidence of your sincerity and God's grace.)

That makes the situation of persons who are unable to make a public conscious choice for Christ problematic. Think about all those aborted fetuses, or profoundly retarded persons who haven't been able to walk the aisle, muchless make any choices. So this is a real problem, and I want to commend whoever brought it up for their careful thinking and courageous question, because it is one that has a long history, though perhaps it has been framed a bit differently in the past.

Whereas moderns have made conscious public choice the point of entry into relationship with Christ, premoderns made the sacrament of baptism that portal, so the way they would put it is, "What happens to children who die before they have been baptized?" Catholics have wrestled with that formulation of the question for centuries, and even developed a popular but unofficial teaching about a place called "limbo" where such unfortunate persons would go after death. (Check out the Wikipedia article http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Limbo or the even more detailed New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia entry at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09256a.htm if your are really into this.)

Protestants have never accepted the idea of Limbo, and it seems like the Catholic Magisterium (teaching authorities) are moving away from it:

In recent years, the theological speculation of Limbo has fallen out of popularity amongst many lay Catholics and theologians alike. The Catechism of the Catholic Church entrusts the fate of infants and the unborn to the mercy of God:CCC #1261 states:"As regards children who have died without baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God, who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus' tenderness toward children, which caused him to say, 'Let the children come to me, do not hinder them' [Mark 10:14, cf. 1 Tim. 2:4], allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without baptism. All the more urgent is the Church's call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy baptism."

The International Theological Commission was asked by Pope John Paul II to consider the question of the fate of unbaptized babies. Under Pope Benedict XVI, the Commission recommended that the theological hypothesis of Limbo be replaced by the more compassionatedoctrine that all children who die do so in the hope of eternal salvation. A Catholic News Service article quotes Redemptorist Father Tony Kelly, an Australian member of the commission, as saying that turning away from the idea of limbo was part of "the development of the theological virtue of hope" and reflected "a different sense of God, focusing on his infinite love."

All that would seem to affirm your speaker's intuition:
"... I thought that it would be reasonable to think that God has a method of judging them. Maybe they are essentially given a choice then and there, maybe it's a little more vague... But I never really got past that idea: that, if Christianity is the truth, then there is a way in which the destination of their souls can be justly determined."

I guess I would add that historically, Christians have destroyed forests debating how that determination happens. Is it entirely God's will? (St. Augustine, Calvinists, and all those who teach total depravity and predestination, where what a person chooses doesn't matter, only what God chooses matters). Is it entirely human will? (Pelagius) Or is it some combination of both human and divine wills? (Molina) If the latter, does God's will "fill in" when human will cannot function (as in victims of abortion)? And to those who have been given much freedom of choice, does He expect more? You can see that the answer to this question depends on one's prior theological commitments/ hermeneutics about divine providence.

Steve preached a series of sermons a while back about this stuff, and you might want to reread the one on God's concurrence, at http://www.valleycovenant.org/sermons/providence/providence04.htm.As you read, remember that the "occasionalists" are those folks who say everything is caused by God's will (Augustine/Calvin). The "deists" would include those who say that everything is a result of human will (Pelagius). The "concurrent/cooperatives" are those who say both God and human beings can be agents. (Molina). But only the latter perspective is able to speak of degrees of cooperation.

Perhaps it is the case that in some situations, there are human beings who have little or no possibility of cooperation/choice, so God "helps them out." That would be the act of a gracious God, completely in character with what the Bible tells us about Jesus as a shepherd carrying for helpless lambs. But perhaps there are other situations where human beings have a high degree of possible cooperation/choice. In those situations, what would be the most gracious thing for a gracious God to do? Why, allow those persons their freedom, of course! (And expect a lot more of them, as well.) Thus, it's neither totally random and relativistic (postmodernism) nor a matter of formulae (modernism), but of relationship (premodernism) between God and human beings.

It seems to me that this is exactly what is going on in Romans 1 and 2, which mirrors your first question by asking it this way: "what happens to people who perish apart from the law?" Romans 2:12-29 indicates that God will determine the future state of /judge the Gentiles who do not have the law differently, but no less justly, from the way he will judge the Jews. The only relationship those Gentiles have with the Lord is through nature and conscience, neither of which is as direct and intimate as the relationship the Jews enjoy through His Word. The Gentiles who lack the Law are thus in a different position to be able to make their decision about God, and how to live good lives; so God will relate to them as they are able to relate to Him. In a way, they are comparable to the unborn and the retarded, who do not have the full capacity to choose/ cooperate with God.

But those who do have that capacity--the Jews, who enjoy His special revelation, and not just natural revelation--those people will be related to according to their capacity to relate to God. As Jesus says in Luke 12:48, "From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked." So much for that.

Next, we must deal with the second question:
"if there is a perfectly just and acceptable way of placing souls who haven't had any chance to make there decision on Earth, as most humans presumably do, then why even bother putting people on Earth? "

Ahh, you do ask some great questions! This one will require another separate response. I'll do my best...please be patient as it will be a while before I can get around to replying. And I'll try to be more succinct. I do so enjoy our conversations. Please tell me what you think of what I've written so far.


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