Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Tragedy of Newtown and the Hope of Heaven

“Do infants and little children go to heaven when they die?”

This is an emotionally charged question, and it should be. We ask it out of desperation or a sense of great injustice. Or both.

As funeral services are held this week with tragically tiny caskets, hope will be offered concerning heaven. And while the words of hope from religious professionals will be appreciated, many thoughtful parents may ask, “Does this guy really know for sure my child is in a so-called ‘better place’?”

Truly, no human being has the resources within himself to answer this or any question about eternity. Any answer that is to carry any weight needs to come from God himself. He’s the one who is in heaven, after all.

So as a pastor, I turn to the Bible: God’s “public” record. It’s a story of salvation, hope, and redemption: thus the Christmas story we hear, or used to hear, at this time of year. The Bible is a story but it also contains instruction and answers to tough questions: not all questions, but lots of them. And even though it’s far more than a manual attaining a pleasant afterlife, it certainly addresses eternal issues; in fact, it specializes in them.

Based on the Bible, the answer to this question is not a blanket statement about all children. As I study it (and have for some time), the answer I see runs something like this:

A parent may find hope for a child’s eternal salvation, but only if he or she first gains that hope. 

A Christian parent may baptize their child, based on the hope of the gospel. They may formally or informally dedicate that child to the Lord. They may take great comfort in Jesus’s surprising blessing of little children brought to him in Matthew 19:13-15. Or they may hold to the promise in 1 Corinthians 7:13 that children of believers are set apart to the God. They may look at the big picture, and see that throughout the Bible God promises blessing to believers and their children (see Genesis 17:17, Acts 2:39).

Additionally, in the face of tragedy, a believer may pray to God for assurance of a lost child’s salvation, and God may very well comfort them with such assurance. He knows how to get through to each of us, and can reach us with the answer we seek. He will not contradict Scripture (since he gave it) but may bring it home more personally.

“Personally” is a key word here. I don’t see any hope for children in Scripture being disconnected from the parent’s relationship to God through Jesus Christ. There is no verse that says, “All children under this age will be brought to heaven.” It would be fantastic, wouldn’t it?  I hope we see every kid from Newtown in heaven, and the same for every child lost through other widespread injustices – historical and contemporary. But the Bible says “the secret things belong to God” and this is one of them.

And I think God left this somewhat of a mystery because he wants parents to look to him in faith, not only in tragedy but at all times. Parents who do not believe the good news of Jesus and eternal salvation are simply going to be hard pressed to find hope – for themselves or their children. How could they find hope in something they don’t believe anyway? Or trust God with their little children when they don’t trust him with their own lives?

The great news is that we can have hope! We just can’t have hope in God apart from really knowing God. But you can know him. Again, that’s what Christmas is all about, God making himself known.

If you do not have a relationship to God that gives such hope, I would encourage you to consider this: The Bible is a story of salvation, in which God himself takes on human flesh (Christmas) and dies for our sins (Good Friday) and rises from the grave (Easter). He promises us eternal life for all who believe. But not only eternal life “some day,” but eternal life now: a relationship with the living, all powerful, holy, yet gracious God.

In the context of that relationship, we can find hope.

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