Cognitive Disability and Eternal Destiny
Open Letter to Uncertain Loved Ones
My heart aches as I think about the recent loss of your beautiful 15-year-old daughter, Hannah. I grieve for you both and the pain you must be experiencing. You are wonderful parents who loved Hannah well and honored Christ in her ongoing care. I am praying you experience the tender, steadfast love of God in this difficult time (Psalm 59:16–17). He is truly sufficient to sustain you and strengthen your weary hearts (Psalm 55:22; 28:7). He is near and is our peace, dear friends.
You wrote to ask me if the Bible provides any hope regarding the eternal destiny of your daughter, since she functioned at a very limited intellectual capacity her entire life. My wife and I have pondered this question over the years. We lost a baby boy before he was born and have thought deeply about our oldest son, Levi, who is almost nine years old but understands and processes the world around him like an infant. I know well the joys and challenges of loving a child who ages in years but continues to function at a very limited cognitive level. Oh how our hearts long for him to know and treasure Christ and be restored from his broken body living in a fallen world.
What happens eternally to a person, whatever his or her age, who possessed a limited lifelong cognitive ability? Whether it is someone like your daughter, or a baby who dies in the womb, or a child who dies in infancy, the question is the same. Each of these people is unable to grasp spiritual truths, does not commit conscious acts of sin, and does not understand the concept and choice between right and wrong. Does God call these precious souls home to heaven to enjoy the pleasures of his glorious presence, or does he destine them to an eternity of pain and suffering in hell, away from his fellowship?
What Does Scripture Say?
You asked a weighty question and, sadly, there are some confusing resources out there trying to offer some measure of hope regarding the salvation of people like your daughter and my son. Some claim a form of special revelation through lack of knowledge, and I have read others who even claim salvation through the faith of a caregiver.
But I want to offer biblical answers, not theoretical ideas. This is no trifle. Let us not build our hope on sentiment, but rather look to the Scriptures. I want to show you why I wholeheartedly believe God saves those who die with limited lifelong cognitive ability.
I cannot simply give you one biblical passage to answer your question. As with many theological questions, the Bible provides an answer in various ways and in various passages. God’s word does not directly address the question you have raised. Yet I believe God’s word is sufficient to provide an answer — one you can hold with conviction, confidence, and comfort in our sovereign, wise, and good God.
Three Truths to Affirm
Let me first clarify three important biblical truths we must affirm and not neglect.
No One Is Innocent
No person stands innocent before God. Everyone is conceived and born sinful, worthy of God’s judgment (Psalm 51:5). All human persons are “by nature children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3), “alienated and hostile in mind” (Colossians 1:21), and thus under God’s judgment (John 3:36).
Because of Adam’s original sin, God subjected the entire world to death and futility (Romans 8:20; 1 Corinthians 15:21). Additionally, condemnation justly passed to every individual person who would ever live (Romans 5:12–19). Every human being is therefore desperately in need of redemption in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Salvation Belongs to the Lord
Every human person is an eternal soul. Each will live forever (John 5:28–29) either under damnation and judgment in hell, separated from God (2 Thessalonians 1:9; Revelation 14:9–10; 20:15), or with immeasurable joy in heaven, communing with God (Psalm 16:11; Matthew 25:34).
Salvation belongs to God (Psalm 3:8). From all eternity (2 Timothy 1:9), God in his own purpose and grace determines to save guilty sinners through his Son Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5) from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation (Revelation 5:9; 7:9). God foreknows and predestines these individuals (Romans 8:29–30). He chooses them according to the purpose of his will to be holy and blameless before him (Ephesians 1:4–5; Romans 8:29) to the praise of his glorious grace (Ephesians 1:6).
Salvation comes only in and through the atoning work of Jesus Christ. As the apostle Peter so boldly declares, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
God Saves Through Faith
Throughout the Bible, God gives spiritual faith through cognitive capacities. The Spirit–enabled abilities of spiritually hearing (Romans 10:17), spiritually seeing (2 Corinthians 4:6), and spiritually understanding (1 Corinthians 2:12) the glory of Jesus Christ in the gospel come by way of intellectual capacities. Salvation comes through faith, and faith is always intertwined with a certain level of cognitive understanding.
John Piper writes, “One must see and interpret the human language of the Scriptures in order to see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ in them. Which means that the only pathway to the self-authenticating light of the glory of God in Scripture is the path of human observation and human reasoning” (A Peculiar Glory, 271). It is through the understanding of the mind in combination with the affections of the heart that one receives Jesus Christ as saving refuge and ultimate treasure (John 1:12). Thus, verifiable salvation is possible only when the gospel goes forth, and its hearers or readers have the cognitive capacity to comprehend and receive that message (1 Thessalonians 2:13). Without cognitive understanding, faith has no truth to trust.
Two Reasons for Confidence
Now, in light of these truths, here are two biblical reasons why I wholeheartedly believe God saves those who possess lifelong limited cognitive ability and why you can have confidence that your precious Hannah is joyfully experiencing the presence of Jesus.
1. God reserves his wrath for those without excuse.
In Romans 1, Paul writes that God reveals his wrath against those to whom he has made himself “plain” (Romans 1:19), to whom he has “shown” what can be known about himself (Romans 1:19), who have “clearly perceived” his eternal power and divine nature in creation (Romans 1:20), and who have “known” him and yet suppressed his glory and dominion (Romans 1:21). Such people “are without excuse” (Romans 1:20). In other words, God pours his wrath upon people who have the ability to comprehend him and yet suppress him.
Every person is guilty in Adam and lives under God’s eternal wrath. However, Romans 1 implies that God gives those without the cognitive ability to understand him and consciously dishonor him an excuse not to experience his eternal judgment. This excuse exists because those with severely limited intellectual capacities do not have the ability to perceive, understand, and honor. They therefore never consciously dishonor God by perceiving and then rejecting him. A lack in perceiving and understanding corresponds with a lack of certain guilt before God.
Consider also what Jesus says to the Jewish leaders in John 9:41: “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains.” Again, we see that a lack in perceiving and understanding corresponds with a lack of responsibility before God. At an infant’s funeral sermon several years ago, Piper helpfully commented on this text:
The point for us is that even though we human beings are under the penalty of everlasting judgment and death because of the fall of our race into sin and the sinful nature that we all have, nevertheless God only executes this judgment on those who have the natural capacity to see his glory and understand his will, and refuse to embrace it as their treasure.
I believe he is right. God reserves his punishment for those with the ability to behold his glory and refuse to receive him as Savior.
2. God judges people for conscious individual sin.
Although Adam’s sin is imputed to all human beings (Romans 5:12–14), this sin is not the basis of God’s individual eternal punishment. Scripture teaches that God punishes sinners based on the sins they individually commit. Additionally, God punishes only for sins that people willingly desire and pursue.
Universal human death is evidence of God’s judgment upon all due to Adam’s sin, but only those who willingly commit sin are eternally punished for sin (2 Corinthians 5:10; Revelation 20:12–15). God’s judgment accords with sins that a person with severely limited cognitive ability is unable to commit (see, for example, the sins listed in Matthew 15:19–20 or Revelation 21:8).
Deuteronomy 1:35–39 reveals that God punishes people for personal, individual sin. In this passage, Moses hearkens back to God’s declarative judgment on the wilderness generation: it is not the children of this generation, those “who today have no knowledge of good or evil,” who will be condemned, but rather their parents (Numbers 14:20–35). God deals differently with people who have limited intellectual abilities than he deals with those who are capable and guilty of conscious sin.
Deuteronomy helpfully reveals that one may be temporarily unable to distinguish right from wrong. Isaiah acknowledges the same reality when he writes, “Before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good . . .” (Isaiah 7:14–16). These passages suggest there is a state when a person is unable to distinguish between right and wrong. As such, God does not hold such people to the same standard he uses for those who willfully disobey. When this state extends throughout one’s entire life, there is no individual sin for God to eternally punish.
For these reasons, no biblical author describes an infant, someone with any form of limited intellectual ability, or even a young child as under God’s judgment after death. Instead, we find hints of the opposite. Job and the preacher in Ecclesiastes, for example, remark that stillborn children are at rest (Job 3:16–17; Ecclesiastes 6:3–5). In context, these statements imply that these infants have not merely escaped the trouble of this world, but have entered into everlasting rest.
Safe in the Arms of Jesus
The Bible provides sound hope regarding the eternal destiny of your daughter. I believe Hannah is with Jesus. I believe you can confidently trust that God saves all who die in infancy, as well as those, like your daughter, who possess a lifelong limited intellectual capacity.
All the glory and thanks be to Jesus alone! It is only through the finished work of Jesus Christ, who defeats the sin of Adam and offers everlasting life, that we confidently rest in the hope that those with lifelong limited cognitive abilities are safe in his arms. And not only safe, but filled with love to Christ. Because heaven is for people who love Jesus, I believe God saved Hannah through faith in Jesus Christ at the moment of her death and the first sight of her Savior.
Hannah was a beautiful young lady. She was fearfully and wonderfully created by Jesus and for Jesus (Psalm 139:14; Colossians 1:16). And now she is joyfully glorifying her God with a perfectly restored body, free from all the effects of living in a sinfully broken world. She is free from hindrances in her mind and heart as she unreservedly lives in the everlasting delight of her glorious God.
Never Stop Sharing
Some might propose that, since God saves all who at the point of death possessed a lifelong limited cognitive capacity, then we don’t need to articulate the gospel to those who we believe fall into that category. What folly! Who are we to determine who does and does not understand the beauty and glory of Christ in his gospel?
I am grateful you continued sharing Jesus with Hannah until the end of her days. That is also something we continually share with our Levi. God alone reigns sovereign over salvation. Our task is simply to be faithful with the message of Christ, never stop sharing the gospel, and pray like crazy that God would graciously ignite a heart of faith, even if we never see evidence on this side of glory. And at the end of each day, we rest in the sovereignty, wisdom, and goodness of our great God.