A website submission poses the question about what to say to a parent whose child died without having a faith-relationship with Christ. The parent might say something like this: “If I choose to believe that salvation comes only through Christ, I would also have to believe that my child is in an eternal hell … and I just can’t do that.” What can be truthfully said to that hurting parent? (The person submitting the question has also struggled with losing a teenage son.)
RESPONSE: I am deeply moved by the story of your son and your struggles. I have no intention of offering a simplistic answer to your heart-wrenching and spirit-shaking experience. Several years ago a beloved 16-year-old great-niece was instantly killed in an automobile accident. While she had an evident Christian faith, as did her parents, the earthly loss was, and is, devastating. That same year, we had three other family deaths--two of them to cancer.
Your question, however, raises even more difficult issues. We are contemplating one's eternal state and the apparent lack of "saving faith." When asked by a parent, especially by one who is not a Christian believer, the prospects of giving the "right" or "acceptable" answer seem impossible.
With all of that said, I will offer some considerations. After all, the question is real and we are appropriately obligated to offer some response. (Before I begin, I want to say that I would love to hear the responses that you have already offered. You have lived this much more directly than have I.
First, if time allows for the conversation, I would want to find out more about the circumstance (e.g. How old was the child? Why is it thought, and by whom, that the child did not have a faith-relationship with Christ?). I think the age and accountability level of the child are very important. While the so-called "age of accountability" is not explicitly presented in Scripture, I believe it is theologically justified. And even though it's not possible to specify a singular chronological age, this could be a relevant factor in some situations.
Second, I would try to emphasize the point that God is not simply a God of justice (i.e. someone who demands total righteousness), but also a God of mercy. While I do not believe that this should be used as some guaranteed assurance that one's child is eternally in a good state, I think that it can serve as a helpful reminder that God's judgment incorporates His mercy as much as His justice.
A third suggestion partly follows from the second: only God knows what was truly in the heart of an person; and since He judges with both truth and mercy, we must be careful not to feel so absolutely sure about one's eternal condition.
Fourth, the balanced truth-and-mercy aspect of God suggests to me that His judgment will be appropriate for the unique nature and circumstances of each individual. As I have indicated in one of our website articles, I think that one of the false psychological/emotional hurdles is the notion that every person is eternally in only one of TWO possible categories: saved or lost and that everyone in each category will be respectively judged in exactly the same way. Another way of coming at this point is to consider that God's judgment will perhaps be subject to a vast range of possibilities--again, directed by His justice and by His mercy. The words "eternal hell"--as one might express it--may simply be too "loaded" with all kinds of questionable theological baggage that disregards God's appropriate and metered judgment. (See the article location at http://www.roomfordoubt.com/examine/2/Questions-of-Faith/10/If-God-is-loving-how-could-He-condemn-people-to-an-eternity-of-suffering-in-hell.)
Fifth, somehow I would stress the amazing love of God that is available TODAY. I know that this is precisely what seems so difficult in this situation. Devastated parents may well feel that they are being forced to choose between God and their child, as though accepting God somehow means abandoning their child. But if the parent can come to acknowledge the immeasurable love of God that was so great as to "lose" His Son for us, perhaps that parent will find some basis for seeing God differently and for finding some level of comfort in the previous considerations.
I hope and pray that these considerations will provide some help as you minister to families and friends of lost ones--physically and spiritually.
-- Rich Knopp