The root of this question stems from wondering whether someone can have a saving relationship with Jesus without having the mental capacity or maturity that would be required to understand the gospel even as a little child. Three specific types of people who might fall into this category are:

  1. People with profound mental disabilities
  2. Unborn (or newborn) children
  3. People in a "vegetative" state due to some trauma or medical condition

One example that might apply to this is John the Baptist, who was filled with the Holy Spirit "from the womb" (Luke 1:15). Are there any other scriptures that speak to the possibility of knowing God apart from an active, intellectual assent by the "understanding" part of the human mind?

UPDATE: If it helps to clarify, the underlying element I'm most interested in is whether or not there is a scripturally identifiable division between the spiritual part of us and the physical part of us in terms of how we relate to God. Perhaps it sounds pretty simple when phrased this way, as most people would probably say "yes", but I've not heard much discussed on how that division actually plays out. Perhaps because in life we attempt to worship him with every part of our being, there isn't as much need to understand the division. But in the case of a person whose natural mental faculties are diminished or undeveloped, it seems to me that the spiritual/soul part of them should still be able to relate to God on that level. And my question, then, is do the scriptures speak to how the spiritual/soul part of us may still be able to commune with God in such circumstances. The salvation part of it is important (because true fellowship/communion with God can't be separated from salvation), but it's the "can such a person still relate to God on a deep level in the spiritual/soul plane though facing limitations in the capacity of their earthly mind" question that I'm interested in.

  • I would scope the question. Catholics would say that unborn and newborn children who die before they are baptized are most likely going to end up in Limbo. The alternative is to hope that God's mercy allows the innocent babies to enter heaven.
    – Double U
    Sep 8 '13 at 4:59
  • @Anonymous I think the "what happens after death" angle is a bit different than what I'm asking. I'm trying to get at whether or not it is possible to actually know God before you die if you find yourself in one of the conditions I've described.
    – RSW
    Sep 8 '13 at 5:09
  • I suppose you want a theological response to this type of situation, not the psychological response. Psychologically, it would be like asking whether babies would have religious experiences. Since babies can't talk, no opinions have been recorded for them.
    – Double U
    Sep 8 '13 at 5:31
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    @Anonymous Yes, I believe you're correct. For example, Psalm 139:13 talks about how God was forming our inward parts and knitting us together in our mother's womb. If someone wanted to argue from this (and possibly other supporting scriptures) the possibility that because God is intimately present with us while in our mother's womb that it should be possible for him to reveal himself to us spiritually and for us to respond in like manner, then this would be the type of answer that might apply. (Or even better, scriptures that directly answer the question, if they exist)
    – RSW
    Sep 8 '13 at 5:36
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    @Dan I would like a variety of perspectives if it is acceptable under the site's guidelines
    – RSW
    Sep 8 '13 at 5:37

Can such a person still relate to God on a deep level in the spiritual/soul plane though facing limitations in the capacity of their earthly mind?

Blesses are the pure in heart: for they will see God. (Matt 5:8)

God does not judge us by what we know. He judges us by what we love, and how much we love.

We are saved or damned according to what we love. If we love God, we shall ultimately get God: we shall be saved. If we love self in preference to God then we shall get self apart from God: we shall be damned. (Frank Sheed, Theology and Sanity)

Scripture isn't clear as to how exactly how a mentally handicapped person is saved (using "handicapped" in the modern sense of the word). From the Apostolic period to relatively recent times mental disabilities and vegetative states of existence were addressed more as some sort of retribution from God. Today the science of psychology and medicine have revealed much more depth about what causes these afflictions.

The closest Sacred Scripture comes to expliclty addressing the handicap of ingnorance is when Jesus speaks of children.

Luke 18:17 - Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter therein.

Matthew 18:3 - And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.

Mark 10:13-16 - And they brought young children to him, that he should touch them: and [his] disciples rebuked those that brought [them].
(Read More...)

Matthew 21:16 - And said unto him, Hearest thou what these say? And Jesus saith unto them, Yea; have ye never read, Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise?

The Code of Canon Law of the Roman Catholic Church has no official policy about the sacraments and the developmentally disabled as such. The nearest parallel can be found in the principles relating to infant communion, specifically, the age of reason. According to the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia article on Communion of Children:

In the best-supported view of theologians this phrase means, not the attainment of a definite number of years, but rather the arrival at a certain stage in mental development, when children become able to discern the Eucharistic from ordinary bread, to realize in some measure the dignity and excellence of the Sacrament of the Altar, to believe in the Real Presence, and adore Christ under the sacramental veils.

Canon 913 states:

§1. The administration of the Most Holy Eucharist to children requires that they have sufficient knowledge and careful preparation so that they understand the mystery of Christ according to their capacity and are able to receive the body of Christ with faith and devotion.

§2. The Most Holy Eucharist, however, can be administered to children in danger of death if they can distinguish the body of Christ from ordinary food and receive communion reverently.

Outside of Canon Law, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Guidelines for the Celebration of the Sacraments with Persons with Disabilities states that:

The criterion for reception of holy communion is the same for persons with developmental and mental disabilities as for all persons, namely, that the person be able to distinguish the Body of Christ from ordinary food, even if this recognition is evidenced through manner, gesture, or reverential silence rather than verbally. Pastors are encouraged to consult with parents, those who take the place of parents, diocesan personnel involved with disability issues, psychologists, religious educators, and other experts in making their judgment. If it is determined that a parishioner who is disabled is not ready to receive the sacrament, great care is to be taken in explaining the reasons for this decision. Cases of doubt should be resolved in favor of the right of the baptized person to receive the sacrament. The existence of a disability is not considered in and of itself as disqualifying a person from receiving the eucharist.

It is essential that all forms of the liturgy be completely accessible to persons with disabilities, since these forms are the essence of the spiritual tie that binds the Christian community together. To exclude members of the parish from these celebrations of the life of the Church, even by passive omission, is to deny the reality of that community. Accessibility involves far more than physical alterations to parish buildings. Realistic provision must be made for persons with disabilities to participate fully in the eucharist and other liturgical celebrations such as the sacraments of reconciliation, confirmation, and anointing of the sick (Pastoral Statement of U.S. Catholic Bishops on Persons with Disabilities, November 1978; revised 1989).

Speaking from a parent's perspective with a child with autism, I have learned more from my son about living the Gospel by loving unconditionally than I ever could from any of the best theologians. I've observed from working with disabled children in the field of Psychology that the more severely handicapped a child is, the more beatific their disposition - at least in most cases.

For more detailed resources about the implementation of programs that draw people with disabilities visit the National Catholic Partnership on Disabilities.

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    The middle part of your answer speaks to practice and policy, but the first and final parts of your answer spoke to me with power from the tenderness of God's heart. Thank you for that.
    – RSW
    Sep 10 '13 at 7:28

The Reformed understanding of the Bible places those above categories together in terms of God's mercy to those who cannot reason from the Scriptures. I have applied it especially to infants dying in infancy below. A couple of helpful references are Spurgeon and B. B. Warfield who explain the doctrine quite clearly from the Bible. Warfield also deals with the historical development of this doctrine from the early Church fathers to the 19th century.

"[David] answered, "While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept. I thought, 'Who knows? The LORD may be gracious to me and let the child live.' 23 But now that he is dead, why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me." (2 Sam. 12:22-23, NIV). Thus if we assume David to be saved, then he will meet with the infant in Heaven.

"Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these."" (Matt. 19:14, NIV). See also Mark 10:14, Luke 18:16. Here we see the compassion of the Lord Jesus upon little children.

Revelation 7:9 also supports this view, "How can there be in heaven a countless number of people from every nation, tribe, people and language (Rev. 7:9)? Surely not every tribe of people around the world has adult believers. Is it not possible, therefore, that a number of tribes will be represented by children who die in infancy?"

There being a "multitude that no man can number", seems to be a stretch if we consider the number of adults who profess Christ in any generation. But those dying in infancy since Creation would indeed be a vast multitude.

Jonah 4:10-11 "But the Lord said, “You have had pity on the plant for which you have not labored, nor made it grow, which came up in a night and perished in a night. 11 And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left—and much livestock?” Now it would seems highly improbable that Nineveh had 120,000 mentally handicapped people running about that could not tell their right hand from their left, but perhaps they did. Rather it seems more likely that there were 120,000 infants upon whom the Lord would shower His mercy, for infants cannot tell their right hand from their left.

It would seem that if there are more people in Hell than Heaven, then the Devil has won the contest. I do not think he will be able to gloat on the Last Day for a milli-second when the full number of the elect are gathered around the Throne of the Lamb. God will get the glory in the numbers He has saved.

It gives great comfort to parents whose little ones have died.

And should indeed be a great spur to those same parents to believe in Christ, so they will see those babes again and not stand condemned by them!


Regarding the question of comprehension and responsibility when it comes to salvation, there are 2 quotations from our Lord that we can compare or contrast.

In Luke 19, He sees Zacchaeus while traveling through Jericho, telling him "this day is Salvation come to thy house." This was after the crowd "murmured, saying, that He was gone to be guest with a man that is a sinner." Zacchaeus was a man, responsible for his actions, capable of comprehension when addressed by our Lord.

In this case the quote that our Savior gives is "For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost." (Luke 19:10)

Comparing this with a very similar quote in Matthew 18, we read (about children): "Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you, That in heaven their angels do always behold the face of My Father which is in heaven. For the Son of man is come to save that which was lost." (Matthew 18:10-11)

This shows that He makes a difference for the children - they may not be capable of comprehending their need, or His wonderful provision... but He "saves" them. With those who can understand, He "seeks and saves", working with the heart and conscience to bring them to repentance.


Rom 2:11-12 - or God does not show favoritism. All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law.

Rom 14:12 - So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.

The context for the above verses has to do with judging others but I believe it applies as it gives us an idea that God deals with people as individuals taking into account their circumstance rather than being legalistic.

Rom 2 asserts that if you live outside of the law (by choice or otherwise) you will be judged by the moral standards you live by. also as an observation of what I know to be God's character

John 10 - Jesus the good shepherd (even leaving the 99 to go after the 1) Rom 8 - nothing can seperate us from the love of God 1 John 3 - God loves us and call us his children ...and many more...

It simply doesn't make sense that this God would disregard the circumstance of those who did not choose to be disabled or handicapped in any way. A god who arbitrarily punishes a person because the letter of the law was not followed just doesn't yell love and compassion (God IS love by the way 1 John 4)

Yes I understand that in the OT (Old Testament) God was sometimes like this too. But you can't put OT God in today's context - to which the question is asking.

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