Evangelical and fundamentalist positions on what happens to those who die as infants or children are all over the map. Some follow the Calvinist line that God has preordained where we are to spend eternity, and that therefore some children who die go to heaven while others go to hell. Some justify this by saying that it depends on what the child would have chosen had he or she lived. Many simply say we cannot know, but must trust God. I was taught, though, that before the “age of accountability,” which is generally somewhere between ages seven and ten, children who die go straight to heaven because they never had a chance to make the choice to accept or reject God. But while this belief was comforting, it was also confusing.
I remember wondering at an early age why we were fighting so hard against abortion when abortion sends babies straight to heaven, so that they never have to live through the trials of life or face the possibility of going to hell. And since abortion minded women weren’t likely to be Christians (I thought), their babies were likely to be raised without Jesus or his saving gift, and therefore would have a good chance of going to hell. So why not encourage abortion? Why not abort all babies, therefore sending them all straight to the joys of heaven? Wasn’t that the merciful way?
When I heard about how Andrea Yates drowned her five young sons in a bathtub before they reached the age of accountability in order to guarantee that they would go straight to heaven, I was confused at the outcry. Horrific, yes…but didn’t her logic make sense? Even as I joined others in condemning her actions, I was troubled, because even my young teenage mind could see that, given our beliefs, she was right. She might have been ending her sons’ lives, but she was saving their souls in the process – and wasn’t that what I had always been taught was more important? Our lives here are but a moment, but eternity is forever.
Just today I read conservative theologian William Lane Craig’s justification of Old Testament genocides in which God commanded that all be killed, including even the children, and the same themes reappeared.
But why take the lives of innocent children? The terrible totality of the destruction was undoubtedly related to the prohibition of assimilation to pagan nations on Israel’s part. In commanding complete destruction of the Canaanites, the Lord says, ‘You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons, or taking their daughters for your sons, for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods’ (Deut 7.3-4). […] God knew that if these Canaanite children were allowed to live, they would spell the undoing of Israel.
Moreover, if we believe, as I do, that God’s grace is extended to those who die in infancy or as small children, the death of these children was actually their salvation. We are so wedded to an earthly, naturalistic perspective that we forget that those who die are happy to quit this earth for heaven’s incomparable joy. Therefore, God does these children no wrong in taking their lives.
Before he ends his piece, William Lane Craig becomes only more disturbing.
So whom does God wrong in commanding the destruction of the Canaanites? Not the Canaanite adults, for they were corrupt and deserving of judgment. Not the children, for they inherit eternal life. So who is wronged? Ironically, I think the most difficult part of this whole debate is the apparent wrong done to the Israeli [sic] soldiers themselves. Can you imagine what it would be like to have to break into some house and kill a terrified woman and her children? The brutalising effect on these Israeli [sic] soldiers is disturbing.
Thus William Lane Craig argues that God did no wrong to order the Israelite soldiers to kill all the inhabitants of a town, including even the children, because those children would, through death, be send straight to heaven, whereas if they lived to adulthood they would almost certainly go to hell.
How, then, can Craig also condemn abortion? Does not my childhood realization that abortion sends babies straight to heaven stand? And how, with Craig’s reasoning, can anyone fault Andrea Yates for sending her children straight to heaven by killing them? I know how a Craig and others like him would respond to this, of course. It’s wrong when people take these sort of things into their own hands, but when God does it, it’s not wrong because God is, well, God. It’s wrong to kill children…unless God commands it. Then it’s actually good to kill children, because good is defined as what God commands.
One question my friends and I used to bat around was what would you do if God commanded you to kill your mother? The gut reaction was that he wouldn’t do that, but the question was not whether he would do that but rather what we would do if he did. Our conclusion was always that if we could be absolutely and completely sure that that was his command, we would have to do it. After all, we had been taught that sin is “disobeying God’s commands” and that righteousness was “obedience to God’s commands.”
What now boggles my mind is that we were taught that we had absolute morality while everyone else practiced relative morality. The only thing absolute about our system of Christian morality was this: what God says goes. Commands like “do not kill” are not absolute but rather relative, because morality is not based on some sort of overarching rules or standards but rather on the commands of God. If God commands the killing of whole tribes, it’s right. If God strikes a man and his wife dead for telling a simple lie, it’s right. If God tests his devoted follower by giving Satan permission to kill all of his children, it’s right. There is no absolute system of morality here at all, but rather simply what the big guy says goes.
There appear to be (at least) two positions in Christianity on this point. While some Christians define morality as “what God says goes” others hold God to an ethical standard that must somehow be above even God himself. While conservatives defend Biblical genocide, liberals argue that God could never have commanded such a heinous thing and deny that it is more than myth. While conservatives argue that absolute morality can only be found by tying right and wrong to whatever God commands, liberals hold God to a higher ethical standard and generally accept that one can have morality and ethics without God.
I actually feel like I have a much more solid ethical basis today as an atheist than I did as a conservative Christian where morality consisted of whatever God said goes. As a conservative Christian justified Old Testament genocide as right because God commanded it, asked myself internally why killing children could possibly be wrong when their earthly deaths would send them to heaven and save them the threat of hell, and admitted that if God commanded it, it would be morally right to kill my mother. In contrast, today I can articulate why genocide, the murdering of children, and matricide are wrong. I now follow actual ethical standards rather than defining good as “obeying God’s commands” and basing my system of morality on the caprice of a God who can command humans not to kill and and then order them to commit genocide in the same book.