Some things you don’t forget. A few years back, I read Kathleen Norris’ “Amazing Grace: a vocabulary of faith”, which is a pretty thoughtful, if not a theologically suspect, book. At one point, she talks about the words of a conservative Lutheran pastor (from the country) to the mother of an unbaptized infant who has died. He, evidently very matter-of-factly, tells her that her child is in hell.
I don’t recall if he said that to a believer or an unbeliever, but in any case, what sticks, sticks. I also recall a seminary professor who talked about the the right way to handle this kind of question. If I recall, he said that when Martin Luther spoke of infants dying prior to baptism (and I guess there were few if any “unbelieving” parents to speak of in his day), we hope for their salvation not on the basis of any “innocence” on their part, but rather on God’s mercy.
So I think: God does not just want us to say that He desires all persons to be saved but He really and truly and earnestly does, and so I hope that unbaptized children who die are saved because of God’s mercy (here, I think, many pastors, if not Luther himself, even feel they can give Christian parents certainty). This also means that I hope that this is true for babies of non-Christian parents who die (by the way, I also hope that by using the word “hope” in this way, I am not confusing it with that hope we read of in the N.T. that is a certain hope!).
But I wonder, is this mercy of God with or without faith in Christ? Surely with faith, and here I think further about how this might occur, and I run with the ideas of the Lutheran theologian Oswald Bayer (these are not his stated views though)…
I hope that many pagan infants who die are saved because they are given faith in Christ when they receive externally good works from those who “know how to give good gifts to their children” – even though these parents, like their infants, are evil (even themselves unredeemed!) In other words, their “good deeds” (not really good of course because they are not only done without some measure of fear, love and trust in God, but none!) do not only not contradict the core message of the Scripture, namely, the Promise of God’s love, mercy, and grace in Christ Jesus, but that they can’t not be intimately and inextricably connected with – be of one whole with – that saving Word, that Logos.
So… the hope is that these actions to – these gestures – though done by persons with evil and even unredeemed hearts, could be a “saving word” of sorts. This would not be salvation according to “nature” or “natural law”, because here we would acknowledge that the Creator would be acting in His creation in a undetectable, special, and highly personal way to create saving faith when and where He chooses. This would be God intervening in His creation with deliberate communication that is intended to restore – and in fact does restore – a human being’s saving fellowship with Him. In any case, usually He does not do this directly (the Apostle Paul), but “naturally” (“natural” in this sense, as in ordinarily, not in the sense of any “nature-grace” dichotomy) through the feet of the redeemed who preach (not “common grace”, although it occurs commonly!). Still, God often works in spite of the conscious cooperation of His willing servants, and I pray He does here to.
Now, this is only a hope – there is no guarantee of this, since it is not clear from the Word of God that this is indeed the case. We only know the way that He has given us: namely, by making Christ and His work explicit. Further, if my hope in God’s mercy for those who die in infancy were limited to this kind of activity, where would this leave the abandoned and the aborted? Here, if God were to be merciful, He would need to create faith in Christ in other ways (perhaps that were even more “interventionist” – even more special, as with Paul).
In addition, even if infants were to receive faith early on in the way described above, without consistent nurturing in the Word, there would be little hope that they would retain their faith in Christ. As their capacity for language and understanding of creation grew, to grow in grace they would definitely need to hear a clear articulation of the Gospel message, especially given the ambiguities of “nature”. Therefore, such a hope as I have outlined above should not make us feel less of a need to spread the Word far and wide, but more of a need. This alone is our certain charge. One best avoid the phrase “Once saved, always saved” not because it is misleading or gives the wrong impression, but because it is clearly wrong!
Of course, now that I have opened this can of worms, some creative mind given to heretical visions can take it even further (like this, from this website). Seriously though, I think this is what happens when we do theology in earnest, and we always walk the line between what we should and should not say, what is helpful and what is not. I wouldn’t blame myself for reading Oswald Bayer, or Bayer himself for any cognitive contamination some may feel I am suffering from. I believe I say what I say because God desires that all would be saved, and I cling to this truth, for my sake and the sake of everyone else (contra the Reformed and perhaps even some Lutherans today, I insist that God’s jealousy for His own glory need not be pitted against His stated desire to save all: in fact, they go hand in hand, for when He is lifted up from the earth [in glory] He will draw all people to Himself). However, I would blame anyone who does not critically evaluate the words of any teacher in the light of Scripture – and take them and their concerns seriously through the lens of God’s love for the world in Christ, as the Scriptures proclaim.