Daddy, What Happens to Babies if They Die?
Like many parents of “tween” girls, I have listened to more than my share of Taylor Swift lately. It could be worse. My girls could be hip-hop fans. If nothing else, pop songs can have catchy (actual) melodies, and in spite of my best efforts, they sometimes get stuck in my head. Plus, Taylor Swift has shown the ability to write songs that are not just of the generic love song variety.
At the moment, my older daughter’s favorite song is called “Ronan.” It is based on a child that Taylor Swift read about who died of cancer when he was four years old. Before being a parent, I would have seen this as just another sad little pop song. But once you are actually a parent, a song like this is a description of your ultimate nightmare. Growing up, I heard lots of older people say that they would have gladly taken the place of one of their suffering or dying children. Now, I understand what they were talking about.
In a world filled with daily tragedies and injustices, it is no wonder that humans over the generations have found comfort in the idea of an afterlife, of a place far away where we all fly to someday. It solves two of life’s great dilemmas. First, there is the question of why the righteous and innocent suffer while so many seemingly useless, ungrateful, and/or downright evil people prosper. But we have no need to worry. In the next world, the righteous will get their reward and the evil their just penalty. But even more importantly, a belief in the afterlife can help us deal with the temporal nature of life. No one, after all, wants to say goodbye to the people, experiences, or things that they love. And many would argue that a temporary life is also an inherently meaningless one. (Personally, I would prefer a short, meaningful life to one that is eternal and pointless.)
For all I know, there may be some kind of existence for all of us after we die. But as a practical person who tries to be rational, I find myself stuck on some simple questions. One of them is the question in this little essay’s title. If a baby or very small child dies, what eternal destiny does he or she face? The question seems so obvious, especially given the fact that throughout most of human history, a significant percentage of people died before the age of five. And yet Christianity, the main religion with which I am familiar, does not provide a definitive answer.
Most Christians, I suspect, would say that a child who dies gets a free ticket to heaven. God, after all, would have to be quite an ogre to banish a child who had no capacity for moral or intellectual judgment to an eternity in hell. The problem for Christianity, however, is that the apostle Paul clearly spelled out the concept of original sin. When Adam sinned way back when, in a sense, all humans sinned. So from the time of that original human’s first mistake, our inherent nature is to sin. But when Jesus came and died a sacrificial death, he became the new Adam. So if humans believe in Jesus, they become sinless before God, taking on Jesus’s sinless nature. (See the Book of Romans, chapter 5.)
The great mystery for the apostle Paul was not why God allows people to be eternally punished. Instead, the mystery is why God has chosen to save anyone. Punishment is what we humans deserve due to our sinful nature, but God through his grace has made salvation possible for those who believe. So if you follow this “logic,” then children who die deserve punishment from God. They were born, after all, as sinners in need of salvation, a salvation that can only come through faith in Jesus.
Now some would say that Paul’s argument could not possibly apply to people who died very young. But the Bible, as far as I know, does not clearly state that dying children receive a free pass to heaven. In fact, you could make a good case that it would be unfair to give the dead child a free pass. But if a dead baby does have a free ticket punched for heaven, we should celebrate his or her passing. For if a child grows up, there is a chance that he or she will reject Jesus and pay the price for it. But if they never reach the age of responsibility, whenever the heck that is, they will never have the chance to make bad choices. Dying young is therefore a blessing in disguise. This life is so short and filled with potential suffering anyway. It is a blessing to be able to skip it.
But even if I can convince myself that a dead child goes straight to heaven, I am still thoroughly confused about this whole afterlife concept, particularly as it applies to children. If someone dies as a baby and moves on to the afterlife, then who is this person for the rest of eternity? Does he or she remain an infant with an infant’s limited capacity to think, communicate, and perceive reality? Personality, after all, is not an inherent part of our nature that is fully determined at birth. Personality is a combination of both certain tendencies that might be innate and of our various personal experiences. So if an individual dies without amassing much in the way of experience, will that person have a personality throughout eternity? Is there some sort of a soul within us that transcends our personality, experiences, memories, and everything that makes us who we are? Does that child get to grow up in heaven? Do those of us who die at eighty continue to grow and evolve in the afterlife? And if we do not change in eternity, do we get to be ourselves at 20, 40, or 80?
Obviously, I am not the first person to raise these questions. I find it both fascinating and irritating, however, that the Bible, which is supposed to be the dictated word of God, does not bother to address these types of simple, obvious, fundamental questions in close to an adequate way. God, after all, found the time to describe in minute detail the laws, history, and idolatrous mistakes of a second-rate Middle Eastern kingdom that existed thousands of years ago. He also went through the trouble of inspiring four (often repetitive and/or contradictory) versions of the life story of Jesus. So why not give us a little assurance that the countless millions of babies and children who died from disease, parental abuse, accidents, murder, war, starvation, or natural disaster moved on to a better place? And why not give us a clearer idea of what this next world is likely to be? Heaven as the modern world defines it, after all, is not even a clearly described Biblical concept. New Testament writings promised a soon-to-be second coming of Christ that was going to remake this world, not some sort of a spiritual netherworld where all souls would someday journey. We humans, however, eventually felt the need to develop our common concepts of heaven and hell when Jesus kept failing to show up. The expressed, Biblical version of judgment day was no longer adequate to meet most Christians’ needs.
I am no expert on Hinduism, but based on my limited understanding, Hindus have a better way of dealing with the problem of dead children. In their worldview, a human life in this world is not a one-time thing. Instead, humans (and all creatures) may be reincarnated thousands of times before the soul reaches its final resting place. And sure, the concept of reincarnation brings up some problematic, practical questions. But it makes sense to believe that our eternal destiny is not based on one trip – lasting anywhere from a minute to roughly one hundred years – through this messy, unjust world. Instead, our destiny is shaped by the accumulated behavior of countless lifetimes. And when we reach the Hindu concept of salvation, we are absorbed once again into the eternal oneness that pervades all reality. The western concept of the individual soul, therefore, has no meaning in this worldview, making some of my earlier questions irrelevant.
Of course, when you watch a child die of cancer, all of this abstract theorizing about various concepts of the afterlife may not provide much comfort. It can be nice, however, to think that the child gets to fly off to a better place, a place where loved ones will get to see him again someday. And ever since humans tens of thousands of years ago began to conduct ceremonies to bury their dead, this belief that there must be something more has been embedded into our consciousness. And if we write off this longing for heaven that seems to be programmed into our DNA, we may be denying a part of ourselves. So I can guarantee one thing. If I am ever forced to watch one of my children die, I will be hoping to see her once again in a better place than this mess of a world.