Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Are babies saved without Baptism?

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about whether infants and young children can be saved:

Q:  If Jesus is the only way to salvation, then what happens to the souls of children who die before they are old enough to express their trust in Jesus to save them?    

The heavy emotional impact of the answer as well as the lack of a clear, concise statement in Scripture that, “all children are saved” or “all unbaptized children are condemned,” make this one of the most difficult questions that Christian theology must make sense of.

Even though we cannot judge with absolute certainty when we deal with questions of salvation in others, we have some indications from mature persons, such as their own statements affirming faith, or at the very least, we understand their regular attendance at a church to mean that they believed what was taught there; but with infants and young children, we lack this sort of observable testimony to faith, making this a particularly challenging exercise in Biblical discernment.

Numerous attempts have been made over the centuries to alleviate this uncertainty regarding deceased children and therefore give Christian parents hope (or in some cases anxiety) about the eternal state of these young deceased: 

Some have proposed that all children who have not attained the ability to recognize or form intent to sin are innocent and therefore saved.  A related proposition acknowledges that children are guilty of sin but that it is not counted against them until they attain the ability to understand and believe the Gospel. 

Others have proposed that those who have not been Baptized are absolutely condemned.  Still others have proposed that there is a neutral third place (sometimes called “Limbo”) for those who die apart from the opportunity to receive God’s grace through the preached Gospel or the Sacraments. 

Because of the lack of a single-sentence answer in the Bible, it means that Scriptural answers will have to bring together evidence from throughout the Bible.  When formulating such a Biblical answer to this difficult question, there are several factors to take into consideration. 

First, Scripture is very clear that salvation must come through Jesus, so any answer which proposes salvation apart from Jesus cannot be considered.  Similarly, the only means through which Scripture promises God’s grace, won by Jesus, will be delivered are the Gospel and the Sacraments, particularly Baptism, so any solution which proposes a connection to Jesus through any other means is, likewise, unreliable. 

Additionally, because Paul and James clearly indicate the sinfulness of “all people” in their epistles, and because in the Psalms King David specifically applies this judgment to begin “from birth, from the time my mother conceived me,” answers which deny the children’s guilt for sin prior to their ability to observably commit sin are also unbiblical. 

Finally, there is no scriptural evidence for the existence of any “third place,” and a statement approved by Pope Benedict several years ago eliminated the rationale to teach of such a place based on church tradition. 

In spite of the clarity of the Bible that children are also guilty of sin and that forgiveness can only come because of Jesus, this does not mean that children are condemned by default until an age where they can hear and trust the Gospel.  Scripture gives numerous occasions for hope for children’s forgiveness and salvation. 

Peter’s promise that “Baptism now saves you,” and that “the promise is for you and your children,” along with our Lord’s instruction to “Let the little children come to Me,” are the clearest invitation to apply God’s grace to our children through Baptism and thereby gain certain hope that they have received God’s grace. 

Even when Baptism has not been possible, such as a stillbirth or a sudden accident, Scripture gives ample reason for hope.  This includes the faith of John the Baptizer even prior to birth (Luke 1), David’s declaration of His deceased newborn son’s salvation in 2 Samuel, along with numerous indications that Jesus dies for “the world” and that God desires to save “all people.” 

Martin Luther also found hope for the salvation of the children of Christian parents based on God’s promise to answer the prayers of those who trust in Him, combined with the fact that their parents had certainly prayed for them prior to their birth. 

Ultimately, although we cannot pronounce with absolute certainty the salvation of unbaptized children (or of anyone other than ourselves for that matter), and although why and how remains shrouded in mystery, the plentiful promises and revelations of God’s merciful character found in Scripture mean that there is certainly no cause for despair or anxiety when children of Christian parents die prior to Baptism.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013


My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about Hypnosis:

Q:  How should Christians approach hypnosis, whether the self-help variety used to quit smoking or lose weight, or the entertainment variety that is often seen during prom season? 

Even though there are diverse methods and definitions, the common thread that defines hypnosis as an intentional practice seems to be that the practitioner of hypnosis induces upon another person a mental state other than that in which they normally exist.  Characteristics of this mental state might include such things as sleepiness, increased suggestibility, decreased inhibitions, or heightened concentration. There are even natural hypnotic states that occur spontaneously, such as when a person spaces out while watching television or becomes sleepy as a result of the motion of riding in a vehicle.

As noted in the question, there are also a variety of purposes for which hypnosis is employed.  Sometimes, it is merely for entertainment (stage hypnosis).  Other times, it is used to achieve behavioral ends, such as smoking cessation or weight loss, or as an attempt to relieve pain, phobias, or anxiety.  On other occasions, hypnosis is used as a spiritual discipline for recovering memories, particularly those from supposed past lives in a cycle of reincarnation. 

For Christians, this final purpose of hypnosis would obviously be inappropriate.  Since we know that humans live once, are judged at death, and will one day be resurrected to live out the rewards or consequences of that judgment, any past-life memories are certainly fraudulent and to be rejected.  Likewise, even if hypnosis were to be used only for the purpose of recovering memories within natural life, research regarding such results suggests that the recovered information is frequently unreliable. 

Similarly, for a Christian to subject oneself to a stage hypnotist seems unwise.  In many cases stage hypnotists use deception to make their acts appear genuine to audiences, which would make the Christian who participates with them complicit in deception or fraud.  Even when this is not the case, Christians should instinctively be cautious about an activity which causes them to yield any degree of control over their thoughts or behaviors to someone else, particularly in a scenario where they are likely to experience decreased inhibitions, and especially when the potential gain is merely entertainment and not more significant benefits such as found in the final category in the following paragraph.

This final category of hypnosis is probably the one for which it is most difficult to exclude Christians from participation.  Many people seeking behavioral change or relief from anxiety or physical pain do report benefits from hypnosis.  Although there is debate concerning whether these benefits are an actual result of hypnosis or a placebo effect, even beneficial results would not automatically allow participation, thus necessitating closer examination. 

Even though there are no Bible verses conclusively referring to hypnosis or necessarily naming participation in it a sin, several concerns would still exist for the Christian considering hypnosis.  First among these would be its connection to the meditation practices of Eastern religions like Buddhism and Hinduism and to cultic and New Age philosophies.  Since the Bible forbids Christians from engaging in the worship of other religions, this would require thorough contemplation and research on the part of the Christian before they engage the practice. 

Additionally, because of the reduced inhibitions or suggestibility often associated with hypnosis, the character and beliefs of the practitioner would be of great importance to the Christian considering hypnosis.  A practitioner who follows a false spirituality or is lacking character could potentially cause spiritual harm during the practice of hypnosis. Furthermore, the mental state associated with hypnosis does not seem to be consistent with Biblical admonitions to “be on your guard” (1 Cor. 16:13) or “Be alert and sober minded” (1 Peter 5:8). 

Finally, the orientation of Christianity is that we seek solutions to spiritual problems outside of ourselves (namely from Jesus) and that spiritual benefits are delivered through external means (namely the Bible, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper).  Hypnosis suggests the opposite—that we can achieve desired outcomes or overcome troubling behaviors and thoughts by looking deeper into ourselves—a reversal of the Biblical direction.

In his Large Catechism, Martin Luther defined a “god” as “That from which we seek the highest good.”  For this reason, it seems that even if hypnosis is not a sin, and even if hypnosis did not render a person vulnerable to spiritual harm or to sinning as a result of reduced inhibitions, even therapeutic hypnosis would be an ill-advised choice for Christians, because it seeks solutions to spiritual problems by human manipulation and introspective techniques rather than from God and His divinely-appointed means of delivery.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Christians and Pornography

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about a Christian response to pornography:

Q:  What is the Christian approach to pornography?  Since a person is not engaging in a physical relationship outside of marriage and nobody is being hurt, is it still a sin?

The starting point for this question would be the same as any other inquiry about sexuality, which is the sixth commandment, “You shall not commit adultery,” along with Jesus’ explanation, “whoever looks with lust upon [another person] has already committed adultery in his heart.” 

Spiritually speaking, pornography, live shows featuring nudity, physical extra-marital affairs, and even inappropriate fantasies about other people who remain fully-clothed, are all violations of God’s intentions for human sexuality. 

God institutes all of the horizontal relationships of human life (father-child, mother-child, husband-wife, pastor-congregation, government-citizen, etc) to be reflections of the greater vertical relationships between God and humanity or Jesus and His Church, and whenever an alteration occurs, whether to the number or the identity of the participants, even if only in thought or fantasy, or to the permanence of the relationship, they fail to reflect the greater divine truth as he intended.   

Video or photographic depictions of other people, which are created for the purpose of arousing erotic desire certainly achieve this relational destruction in a similar manner to live nudity and physical affairs.  Although the practical consequences might build more slowly or seem less severe, the spiritual and relational destruction occur all the same. 

Practically, repeated studies have shown direct relationships between increased levels of pornography usage and decline in measures of marital satisfaction and the user’s desire or ability to please or be pleased by their partner intimately.

It has also been observed that habitual pornography usage alters responses in the human brain so that the ability to achieve pleasure or the degree of pleasure people experience from various forms of stimulus is diminished, which in turn causes a continuous increase in the amount of stimulus necessary to create the desired response, very similar to that observed in drug addiction. 

This often results in further increases in usage, (accompanied by increased withdrawal from health relationships and appropriate outlets) or sometimes escalation to other behaviors such as soliciting prostitutes and other risky sexual actions.

In addition to the marital consequences, many sources are beginning to report that fathers’ use of pornography negatively impacts their ability to relate to and express affection toward their daughters as they grow from little girls into young women, which then may manifest in undesirable emotional or behavioral consequences in their daughters. 

Even further, an alarming relationship has recently been observed between pornography and human trafficking, so that many of the women involved in the making of pornography (along with large numbers in prostitution and exotic dancing) are actually victims of kidnapping, rape, and other atrocities, who are deceived or forced into various forms of sexual slavery. 

Even those who enter this profession voluntarily report dramatically increased rates of mental illness, as well as alcohol and drug abuse as a consequence of the psychological trauma of their occupation.  Most experience short careers followed by extreme guilt and regret over their involvement.  Meanwhile those who produce and sell the product rake in yearly revenue that exceeds that of all professional sports combined.

Even if a person disagrees with the spiritual and moral evaluations of pornography usage based on Biblical commands, it ultimately has to be acknowledged that the human suffering created by the industry would inspire nearly-unanimous agreement that it is necessary to refrain from this product in order not to contribute to the extreme consequences experienced by those employed by the industry, as well as to avoid the negative impact on the marriages and families of those who use it.