My previous post has got me thinking about an issue that came up during a recent conference I attended on the sovereignty of God and disability, hosted by Desiring God. It was a phenomenal conference that examined several aspects of disability through a theological lens. One of those aspects was how God judges people with disabilities.
There are certainly several cognitive impairments that people can suffer from that might limit said person's ability to understand the gospel, or even make it impossible for them to understand the gospel. How does God judge these people when they die? I've been thinking about this because one of my wife's special ed. students passed away unexpectedly this morning.
In one sense, we can have somewhat of an emotional reaction to the thought that God would judge someone who is not physically or mentally able to appropriate the content of the gospel message for himself or herself. How could God hold such people to such a standard? Certainly such a practice would be unfair at best, and cruel at worst. I certainly wouldn't want to submit to - much less love - a God who would judge a person as guilty because he or she couldn't comprehend the knowledge that could lead to their innocence.
The picture that we see of God in scripture, however, is not like the one described above. Instead we see a God who will judge each one according to his deeds (Rom. 2.6, 1 Peter 1.17). In other words, God's judgment is personal, and takes the unique circumstances of the person into account. God knows ever detail about every person, and his judgment is rendered accordingly. God does not make far-reaching, sweeping judgments on groups of people, but on individuals.
Secondly, we see that their is a degree of judgment, based on the amount of "light" a person has been given. In Luke 10 we see Jesus condemning cities of his day for rejecting the truth that they had been exposed to as a result of his preaching and miraculous works. He says that it will be better on the day of judgment for wicked cities of old who had never seen or heard him than it will be for those who had seen and heard him but nevertheless rejected him. So God holds some people to a higher account than he does others, seemingly based on the amount of truth he has exposed them to. Because of this, I believe that people who have never read the Bible, heard about Jesus, etc., will be held to a different standard than those of us who are swimming in revelation. I think this applies to people with cognitive disabilities that could impede their comprehension of the gospel message.
But what comfort is there in that? OK, people who can't understand the gospel won't be judged as severely, but they'll still be judged. Not much consolation there for those with friends and family members who suffer from such impairments. But there's one thing we have failed to mention thus far, and that is God' s unquenchable sense of justice.
When we think about God's justice, we usually think about the pouring out of his wrath on deserving sinners, or on his Son as he died on the cross. But another part of God's justice is his relentless commitment to give people what they deserve. God will never give someone something they don't deserve. He will never unjustly punish someone, nor will he ever award someone who is unworthy of it. God always does what is right - always.
What does this mean for people with cognitive disabilities who may not be able to understand the gospel in its entirety and could seemingly "miss" some of the necessary ingredients for salvation? What it means is that God will always deal fairly with those people, taking into account their personal situations and circumstances that influence the way they think and understand. This should be a remarkable comfort for all of us who are touched by disability: we may not know exactly how God will judge people with disabilities, nor do we know to what standard he will hold them accountable, but we do know that what he will do with them will be fair, just, good and right.
This is a remarkable and praise-worthy reality. It might not be so if God were a vindictive or vengeful or angry God. But no, he is in fact, a kind and good God who delights in showing mercy. Therefore his justice is always good, and that includes when his justice interacts with people who have disabilities.
One of the speakers at the conference I referenced earlier told a story about his severely disabled adult son. His son is non-verbal and wears adult diapers. To the best of his ability, his father has explained to him the gospel, his sinful condition, and his need for a Savior. Does the son understand the message? Has he fully comprehended the truth about sin, righteousness, and judgment? The speaker explained that he frequently asks his disabled son, "Where is Jesus?" and his son points toward the sky. "Where else is Jesus?" the father asks, and the son points toward his own heart. This is all the assurance this faithful father has that his son has indeed appropriated the truth of the gospel for himself. The speaker told us at the conference, "Although that might seem rather tenuous at best, to me his pointing at the sky and at his heart in answer to the question 'Where is Jesus?' says, 'Jesus Christ is forever at the right hand of the father interceding on behalf of the saints!'" I think that's a good assessment!
There are some questions that we can't and won't have answers to. But the things we do know about God can provide assurance and comfort and hope in times and periods of uncertainty. We may not know what is going to happen, but we do know that we have a God who is good and kind and delights in showing mercy who is sovereignly ordaining all things! This is our hope, and we rest comfortably in that hope, in spite of doubts and difficult questions.