Wednesday, August 17, 2022

What Does Your Proof Text Prove? (19)

I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.”

Do the souls of aborted babies go to heaven? Do babies and children go to heaven when they die? These are questions of deep concern both to believers and even to the occasional agnostic, who might be willing to risk finding him- or herself before the great white throne one day, but not their children.

And yes, people like this do exist. I know one.

Destined for Heaven?

The quotation above is from King David, whose sin with Bathsheba resulted in the death of their child. What did he mean by it? An unnamed writer at GotQuestions attempts an answer:

“David’s words reflect a clear understanding that the child could not come back to earth, but David would be with his child one day in heaven. This indicates not only David’s assurance of his own future in heaven (Psalm 23:6), but also the assurance that his child would share that future. From this account, we can conclude that infants who die are destined for heaven.”

Does David’s comment prove this? I don’t think it does.

Now, bear in mind that I am not questioning the fate of unborn babies or very young children who die before whatever the age of responsibility might be. I am quite happy with other arguments GotQuestions uses to draw the conclusion that our God can be trusted to take care of such matters in a way that will satisfy us when we witness it. These are: (1) that an unborn or very small child has no opportunity to wilfully sin; (2) the grace of God; (3) the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice; and (4) God’s love for children. To these I would add Abraham’s conviction that the Judge of All the Earth will do right, a conviction confirmed by the Lord’s salvation of Lot and his family out of Sodom.

However, I do not believe the David quote supports the writer’s argument at all, and here’s why.

The House of the Lord Forever

First, Psalm 23 does indeed support the thesis that David believed in resurrection. “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever” sounds pretty confident. Moreover, in Psalm 16 he writes, “My flesh also will rest in hope. For you will not leave my soul in Sheol, nor will you allow your Holy One to see corruption. You will show me the path of life.” Of course, we know here he is primarily speaking prophetically of Christ, but a future resurrection of Messiah that left David and the rest of us to rot would be a pretty lame thing to celebrate as he does in Psalm 16.

So then, it is not at all unreasonable to assume David too hoped in resurrection. But it does not follow from David’s unusual personal faith and hope that he was making a theological pronouncement about where babies go when they die. To correctly interpret what David meant when he said “I shall go to him”, we need a better understanding of the way the Old Testament saints thought and talked about death. Most did not have David’s faith and prophetic insight.

The Meaning of Sheol

The word Sheol simply means “the grave”. When Hebrews talked about Sheol in the OT, they were recognizing that at death the human body goes into the ground. So when they talked about “going to” your fathers or your loved ones, all they meant was that your body would be buried alongside them, or buried just like they had been. They believed both good and bad men went to Sheol, because “Sheol” was simply a cave or a hole in the ground. It was the state of the body being dead and no longer active on the mortal plane. Most OT writers had no concept of a gathering of godly spirits in “Abraham’s bosom” while awaiting the resurrection of the body, let alone a future Father’s House in which there are many mansions (or rooms, if you prefer). Those revelations awaited the coming of the Lord Jesus, though a few, like David, anticipated them by faith.

This is why Hezekiah recoiled in horror at the news of his imminent death. Here is his reaction:

“Sheol does not thank you; death does not praise you; those who go down to the pit do not hope for your faithfulness. The living, the living, he thanks you, as I do this day; the father makes known to the children your faithfulness.”

Hezekiah was a righteous man, a believer and a good king, but he had no specific revelation from God on which to pin his hopes for eternity. His hopes were all in this life, and he begged for and received more of it. He saw Sheol as a place of silence and inactivity, which, for the body at least, it certainly is. The idea of two distinct destinations after death — Sheol for the body and “Abraham’s bosom” for the spirit in anticipation of a later reuniting — was quite foreign to him.

Saul and the Medium

In fact, we find the same concept of “going to be with” someone after death used by the same writer (or at least the same editor) in 1 Samuel 28 concerning Saul. You will remember that God refused to speak to him in his last days, and so he consulted a medium and asked her to bring up Samuel for him to tell him his fate. Here is what Samuel told him:

“The Lord will give Israel also with you into the hand of the Philistines, and tomorrow you and your sons shall be with me.”

The words “with me” echo David’s “I will go to him.” But if going to be with someone after death refers to heaven rather than Sheol, the person who argues that David meant that he would join his infant son in heaven would also have to argue for consistency that Samuel promised Saul that he and all his sons would join him in heaven. I could buy that if we were only talking about Jonathan, who demonstrated tremendous, consistent faith in God and obedience to his word, but this is the murderer of the entire priestly city of Nob we are talking about. Further, why is Samuel depicted as coming “up from the earth” rather than descending from the sky, where Elijah would later be taken? It should be clear that Samuel merely meant that Saul and his sons would shortly join him in death.

Reading into the Passage

So what did David mean by “I will go to him”? I believe he used the normal Hebrew idiomatic language to describe what his people believed happened after death. He meant that he would join his child in burial at some point, but that his child would not return to the land of the living, that’s all.

Our own hopes for eternal life with Christ are based on later revelation. We have no warrant to read them back into the minds and mouths of the Old Testament saints. There are certainly a few moments of exceptional faith and unique prophetic insight about resurrection to be glimpsed in the OT, but there is no textual or logical reason to believe David intended to say anything different from what other men of his day would have said in similar circumstances. To argue that David is making a case for dead babies going to heaven is to say way more than the passage does.

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