Yesterday, Ainsley Higgins, a girl almost 7 years old, died as a result of a mitochondrial disease. Our family has known too many children who have died because of this disease. We are involved with this didn’t-want-to-join-but-had-to community because our eight year old daughter Gwendolyn also has a mitochondrial disease. In addition to the anguishing grief, Christian parents may wonder what happens to their children after death. The Scriptures are clear that all have sinned and deserve condemnation and an eternity without God. But what about children who didn’t have a chance to choose Jesus? I believe the Scriptures do offer real comfort to families dealing with the death (or likely death) of a child. There is good news about their eternal destination.
The classic text on this issue is King David’s response to the death of his first son with Bathsheba from 2 Samuel 12:22-23:
He answered, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept. I thought, ‘Who knows? The Lord may be gracious to me and let the child live.’ But now that he is dead, why should I go on fasting? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me.” (NIV)
David, a man commended by God (except in the matter of Bathsheba and Uriah), is confident that he will see his son in some future afterlife. His surety is not rebuked by anyone, priest or prophet. Thus it stands out as evidence that children who die young have eternal life with God. It is shaky, though, to derive a full-blown theology on such a critical issue from one man’s declaration that is not explicitly echoed by God.
However, Jesus, who is God, does seem to echo this declaration, in opposition to His disciples and the prevailing view of children in His day. Read Mark’s account:
People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them. Mark 10:13-16 (NIV)
Jesus blessed the children. He didn’t condemn them or send them away as unimportant. Mark’s placement of this account is also very telling. It occurs just before Jesus’ encounter with a rich man who asks how to inherit eternal life. Jesus’ response, which challenged the man to sell everything, astounded the disciples. If this man, who claimed to follow the law, cannot be saved, who can? Mark’s inference is clear: children will inherit the kingdom even when the rich and “good” turn away from it. The last will be first (Mark 10:31).
Finally, there is comfort in knowing God’s character. He is just, righteous, and good. Even if the Bible doesn’t describe the “mechanism” of salvation for those unable to make their own decision, we can trust that God’s decision are just and good. His demonstrated goodness and mercy are enough to convince me that He will do what is right and good. If He would give up His own Son for us, wouldn’t he do everything for our children?
Because of Gwendolyn’s condition, I have thought about this often. Even if she has a long life, we do not know how much she understands. What if she (and others) can never make that decision for Jesus? (Infant baptism to deal with original sin is one tool that some Christians use. As a Baptist, I know that baptism is a sign for believers, not infants.) In Gwendolyn’s case, we often wonder if she has her own communication with God. Sometimes she just laughs for no apparent reason. We have decided that God is telling her jokes. Maybe Gwendolyn and God have a better relationship together than He and I do. No matter what, I trust God with my daughter’s eternal life. David’s confidence, Jesus’ example, and God’s character are enough for me. May He give you encouragement and hope if you are facing those darkest days when your child dies.
At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do. Matthew 11:25-26 (NIV)
How we have hope when there is no cure for our daughter
Brighter days: an interview with Gwendolyn’s mito doctor about the state of mito medicine