How can people who don't even have the ability to know what the word God means be saved?

by Alex Carmichael

Shortly after I became a Christian my freshman year of college, I became a fan of the rock group The Who. One of their albums, Tommy, is a concept album whose title character is a “deaf, dumb, and blind kid.” The lyrics to the song Christmas in that album have always intrigued me:

And Tommy doesn’t know what day it is
He doesn’t know who Jesus is or what praying is
How can he be saved
From the eternal grave?

As a young believer and not knowing the Bible very well, I really didn’t know how to answer that question. How could someone who couldn’t hear, who couldn’t speak, who couldn’t see-- how could that person come to know Jesus (or even know about Him)? How, as the song asks, could a person like that be saved? I just had no clue how to answer this difficult question. It was an issue I found to be perplexing, even a bit troubling.

And this difficult issue was compounded for me one summer when I worked at a camp for mentally retarded people. As God would have it, I was assigned to care for a pair of teenage half-brothers who were severely mentally retarded and physically handicapped, and were confined to wheelchairs. Their mother requested that, if possible, their camp counselor was to read the Bible to them and pray with them every day. That privilege fell to me, the only Christian at the camp. Just as God would have it.

I would read the Bible to them and pray with them, but they had no response at all. Even when we would try to engage them in other activities at the camp, or even take them on field trips, their outward responses were always the same. I really didn’t think they could ever respond to the spiritual kinds of things that I was doing with them, the very thing their mother most desperately wanted for her boys.

A few years after that experience, the complexities of this issue were compounded even further for me when I taught a Sunday School class, The Foundations of the Faith. In this class, along with the items that were on the syllabus, I also had people submit questions to me about the faith with which they had difficulty. One lady posed this question: “What happens to unborn babies who die in the womb?”

She had several miscarriages and was deeply concerned about the eternal fate of her unborn children. She wasn’t sure, but her husband was-- and he was quite certain that they were doomed to an eternity in Hell, as “they hadn’t chosen Christ.”

It was a troubling part of their marriage, and it greatly grieved her heart. So I gave this question the thorough attention and study it deserved.

After an incredible amount of research, I came to a conclusion that the Bible, on this issue, is rather silent.

But on the issue of God’s character, the Bible is anything but silent. I told her that from a knowledge of who God is, we can be certain that He is loving, that He is just, and that He is righteous. I told her that whatever the fate of these children, we can have the complete assurance that it will be in accordance with His holy character. We may not have an answer this side of Heaven, but we do have a God in whom we can have complete trust.

This answer seemed to give her a sense of peace, and it did for me as well.

But many years after that class, a close friend told me that he had an unsaved relative who had slipped in and out of consciousness before eventually dying. Family members had wondered if it were possible that God could have revealed Himself to him in this situation. One even asked, “While in an unconscious state, can a person talk with God and ask for forgiveness and be saved? Can God intervene and bring him to salvation?”

That situation got me thinking about people who were in similar circumstances, such as people who were in comas or were in persistent vegetative states; that is, people who cannot hear or respond to the outward call of the Gospel. Could God save them, even though they seemingly wouldn’t be able to choose Him?

It’s then that I realized that all of the people I’ve mentioned so far-- the deaf, dumb, and blind, the severely mentally retarded, the unborn or those who die in infancy, those in unconscious states-- all of them have one common denominator, in that they are seemingly unable to respond to the Gospel. This new insight on the problem greatly fascinated me and pushed me to look at the issue once again with a fresh perspective.

So I searched not only the Bible once again, but also what the Church has said about this kind of issue over the centuries. I discovered that a great deal has actually been said about it, mostly addressing it in the manner of what happens to those who die in infancy or those who are incapable of responding to the outward call of the Gospel. But for all the different situations that I’ve mentioned, the core issue is the same.

In regard to the unborn and babies dying in infancy, there are a few prevailing theories as to their eternal fate and a great deal of similarities in them. And I say theories, because there is nothing concrete or definitive in Scripture to clearly state that what they propose is without question what happens to those who die in infancy (or even those who are mentally incapacitated, for whatever reason).

These theories all boiled down to either their being saved because they haven’t reached an age of accountability, or that God would not condemn those who did not have the mental understanding to choose Him. Basically, that God would not condemn those who could not choose Him.

Some of these theories take an emotional track, and state that there must be an “age of accountability” where a child is not old enough, of their own volition, to make a responsible decision to repent, believe, and confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Up until that point, the child is deemed “innocent.” Many who hold to this kind of doctrine would also state that this would also cover the spiritual state of mentally incapacitated individuals as well.

One of these theories also postulates that anyone, because of age or mental handicap, who does not have the capacity to accept Christ as Lord, “has automatically assigned to them the Advocate of Heaven.” And because of that, they are automatically saved.

Needless to say, there are major theological problems with these theories. For one, those dying in the womb or in infancy would seem to be saved by youth alone, not faith alone. Yet even an angel foretold that John the Baptist would "be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb" (Luke 1:15). So it is indeed possible for one to be “born from above” before they are even born.

There is, however, nothing in Scripture that says this is the standard case for the unborn, that they are automatically saved when in the womb; in fact, if all such babies are indeed saved, that would also mean that many of them will lose their salvation at some point as well. What this verse does show, though, is those who are that young can truly be saved by God, if He so deems.

Another problem with some of these theories is that they beg the question of what happens to those who have never heard of the name of Jesus. They could easily be placed into the category of those who are incapable of responding to the Gospel message, as they’ve never heard it-- and they’d be saved by ignorance alone.

And in regard to the mentally incapacitated, even those who have been that way since birth, the problem lies in the fact that they are still sinners. We’re all born sinners, tainted with sin from the moment of our conception (Psalm 51:5). That, in fact, is the problem all of us face -- yes, even those who are still in the womb, or those who have never heard the Gospel, or those who are mentally retarded from birth. We are all sinners in desperate need of a Savior.

The main objection that is a problem for all of these theories is simple: in all these views, salvation is found outside of Christ. In each case, they find salvation without having saving faith in the atoning work of Christ.

All of this got me thinking about what isn’t theory in Scripture, which doesn’t focus on people but on God. A verse which is definitive about those who are saved is found in John 6:37, which says “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out.”

All that the Father gives to His Son will be saved. This may be the deaf, dumb, and blind, the severely mentally retarded, the unborn, those who die in infancy, or those in unconscious states. Along with being able to trust in the fact that God will act in accordance with His holy character, we can also have complete faith in the fact that those the Father draws to the Son will be saved.

And that is the key to it all: it’s not about us, but about God. That, in fact, is what the entirety of Scripture shows us. Jesus is the “Author and Finisher” of our faith (Hebrews 12:2), the One who gifts our faith to us (Ephesians 2:8).

Here are two definitive verses that show it’s all about God, even the reason behind our salvation:

  • John 1:12-13, "But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.
  • Romans 9:16, "So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy."

From beginning to end, it’s not about us -- it’s all about God.




About The Author

Matt Slick is the President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry.