Monday, January 11, 2021

Anonymous Asks (127)

“Do illegitimate children go to heaven?”

A child is called illegitimate when born to a woman not legally married to the father. He or she may be the product of any of a variety of circumstances: a one night stand, a brief, broken or casual ongoing sexual relationship, prostitution, adultery or even incest. Artificial insemination has also made it possible for a woman to bring a child into the world without committing to a relationship with the donor, and this option is becoming increasingly popular in some demographics.

Some illegitimate children are raised by the state in institutions and foster homes. Some are raised by grandparents or other relatives. Some are adopted. The majority are raised by single mothers.

Despite the omnitolerance of modern society, most illegitimate children still experience tremendous disadvantages in life. The available statistical evidence shows children raised by single mothers have a better than average chance of being impoverished, mentally ill, drug or alcohol abusive, suicidal, poor in school, pregnant in their teens and/or disposed to criminality. You can probably add to that data no small amount of anecdotal evidence from personal observation; I know I can.

So are we going to add to that list of miseries a God who packs illegitimate children off to hell for the sins of their parents? I sure hope not.

The Utility of Social Stigma

Historically, illegitimacy has carried with it a fair bit of social stigma, greater in some societies than others. Much of this “shaming” was actually well-intended, even if it seems unkind to us today: when society incentivizes an activity — sexual promiscuity, for example — we invariably see more of it. This may be demonstrated easily enough by comparing our own increasingly permissive generation, with its illegitimacy rate of 40.7%, against the 1940 U.S. illegitimacy rate of slightly under 3%. It seemed unwise to our ancestors to encourage the casual production of children from relationships where they would get inferior (or non-existent) parenting, most of whom would go on to become the burden of society. Who can blame them for that? This seems unfair to the illegitimate child, who had no say in how he came into the world, but it kept the numbers of children born out of wedlock from precipitating an economic crisis and social disaster.

So then, if single motherhood is indeed the dyscivic institution the statistics suggest, then the social stigma historically associated with illegitimacy, unpleasant as it seems to us now, actually served a useful purpose.

A Little Religious History

In Western societies, Roman Catholicism reinforced the stereotype of the illegitimate child as afflicted by a “defect of birth”, and barred bastards from the priesthood, the diaconate and from religious orders, apart from special dispensation. A child born out of wedlock was believed to be tainted by the depravity of its parents.

Some of the extreme social and ecclesiastical reservation about illegitimacy is indeed derived from the teaching of the Bible. The Law of Moses forbade children of a forbidden union from entering the “assembly of the Lord” even to the tenth generation. This did not mean an illegitimate child could not live and move among his own people; but it did restrict him from participating fully in Israelite communal life — which is to say the nation’s religious, legal and military affairs. An illegitimate child was a second-class citizen in Israel, with a fixed ceiling on how far he could rise in society.

Bugs and Features

Again, there is a certain inescapable logic to this: children raised in unstable circumstances were less likely to be inculcated with good moral values and civic priorities, and on average cost ancient societies more than they benefited them. The prohibition in the Law of Moses had the effect of discouraging adults from engaging in sexual behaviors that would put their offspring at a permanent social disadvantage. This was a feature, not a bug, and it was especially critical in a society where the only consistently efficient birth control method was abstinence, and abortions were so inconvenient and dangerous that most of the “byproducts” of sexual immorality made it into the world.

So then, the Old Testament says a great deal about sexual immorality but very little about illegitimate children. God’s primary concern appears to have been that Israelite adults not behave like the nations around them and thereby create disasters for their families and for society.

Going to Heaven

How does this all relate to question of whether illegitimate children go to heaven? Well, in Catholic theology, unbaptized persons go to limbo rather than to heaven. While most Catholic sources say they have always been willing to baptize illegitimate children, it should be obvious that the frequency of child baptism would have been significantly lower in cases where the child’s mother felt unwelcomed by the church. In largely Catholic societies, this association of the “unbaptized” state with illegitimacy may have given rise to the myth that illegitimate children are barred from heaven.

There is no truth to this. The New Testament consistently teaches that an eternal family relationship with God is available to anyone who wants it simply by confessing Jesus Christ as Lord and believing that God raised him from the dead, and in no other way. Nothing bars or forbids an illegitimate child from expressing faith in Christ, and Jesus himself said, “Whoever comes to me I will never cast out.” Heaven is the glorious destination of everyone who dies in Christ without exception, regardless of the circumstances of his or her birth.

For that matter, there is at least one instance in which Jesus himself may have been accused of being illegitimate, though that interpretation is often disputed. If so, to the extent that there is still a social stigma or disadvantage to an accusation of illegitimacy, then the Lord Jesus surely understands exactly what that feels like.

1 comment :

  1. I am not sure it was even worth writing an entire blog along the lines of this topic since these questions can be resolved in a much quicker and easier and more natural fashion. You can do that by simply asking yourself a few questions. First, have you ever met an unbaptized person or do you think an unbaptized person that you would meet is not someone who you could consider as a friend or friendly acquaintance? I assume most normal persons would not have an issue relating to an unbaptized person. So how would the idea even come about that you may be superior to God because he would shy away from such a person and deny his friendship? Obviously that is nonsense. So, unless you want to spin the most convoluted, incorrect and uncharitable assumptions the answer is clear, God is probably just a little better and more charitable than you are and has no problem with such a person.