God and Dementia
- Dr. Roger Barrier Preach It, Teach It
- 2012 16 Aug
Editor's Note: Pastor Roger Barrier's "Ask Roger" column regularly appears at Preach It, Teach It. Every week at Crosswalk, Dr. Barrier puts nearly 40 years of experience in the pastorate to work answering questions of doctrine or practice for laypeople, or giving advice on church leadership issues. Email him your questions at [email protected].
If a person were a Christian and served God faithfully before getting Dementia will God condemn them for sins committed after getting Dementia? That is, if they do not remember to ask for His forgiveness?
SEE ALSO: Mental Illness & the Church
Dementia is a terrible thing. We all know someone, or of someone, who is mentally degenerating. Also, we all know of one or more families who are facing years of long-term debilitating care for a loved one who is losing his/her mind.
One of the pastors in our church, we’ll call him Paul, had a dementia-ridden mother-in-law who was under he and his wife’s care. She was living with them and their children. The tension at home was increasing with each passing day.
One morning at work he was telling us about an incident the night before when mother-in-law had a headache. Paul came into the kitchen to find her taking aspirin to remove her headache pain. How many doses had she taken? Fortunately, it was not enough to warrant stomach pumping. The aspirin bottle was rather full. So, Paul took the bottle of aspirin away and hid it from mother-in-law.
Paul proceeded to make a light-hearted joke about how tempting it was to leave the aspirin bottle open on the counter. Their problem would be solved by morning! We all chuckled. It was funny.
Then, Paul began to cry.
Debra, about the only passage in the Bible that has to do directly with dementia is found in Ecclesiastes 12:1-8 . Solomon painted a poetical picture of what it’s like to grow old and die. It is not a pretty picture. Every part of the body is slowing down and declining—including the brain and the mind—until finally the “golden bowl” is broken.
You ask, can someone with dementia sin? Of course they can! In the early stages of dementia people are still cognizant of their actions and responsible for what they do. They are able to repent, confess and ask for forgiveness. However, I believe that there comes a time in the latter stages when they have little concept of where they are and what they are doing. Suppose that one in the last stages of dementia picks up a knife in anger and stabs someone—and within minutes the act is entirely forgotten. Their behavior is certainly sinful. However, it is not possible for that demented one to deal appropriately with the consequences—including confession and repentance in order to receive forgiveness.
In this case I can’t imagine that God would hold this sin against the demented one. God’s grace, mercy and forgiveness will surely be forthcoming.
SEE ALSO: Coming to Grips with Mental Illness
Now, let’s be clear that no one goes to Heaven based on whether or not they have unforgiven sin when they die. When we received Christ all of our sins were forever forgiven. Nothing we can do in the future can take away salvation—whether we lose our minds or not (Read Romans 8:28-39).
Those in the final stages can certainly commit sinful acts. But, it matters little whether or not they ask for forgiveness. According to the Bible, the blood Jesus shed on the cross covers all of our sin.
The purpose of confession, repentance and forgiveness for Christians is to restore the intimate relationship that we have with Christ which was impaired by our sin.
Debra, before I finish, I want to share a related question that may throw additional light on your question. Here is my friend’s question and my response.
If you have never accepted Jesus and then something happens to you and you become a "vegetable" (i.e. brain damage), can you ever get a chance to accept Christ again?
Questioner from Casas’ “What’s Next” Class
According to Hebrews 9:27, the answer is a resounding, “No! There is no second chance. The writer to the Hebrews declared: “. . . man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment …” I know of no other way to interpret this verse than at face value. It matters not whether we die without Christ in a car accident or lose our thinking capacities through a stroke. If we die without having received Christ as our personal Savior then we have no second chance. Our eternal destiny is forever fixed the moment we die. The time to receive Christ is while we are still alive, in our right minds and can make a choice. The writer to the Hebrews repeats again and again, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts."
In Romans chapter two Paul puts to rest the question of what happens to the religious person who never hears of Christ but who lives a moral and upright life to the level of the “Light” they have received from their inner conscience and the hand of God in the creation. Paul’s response is, “Show me one!” There is not one. No one lives up to the light they have received.
In 1 Peter 3:18-20 Peter described a time between Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection when He went to Hades and gave all the Old Testament people who had rejected God’s offer of salvation before the Flood a second chance to receive Christ: Peter wrote: “He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.” Some feel that if these people got a second chance then God may give others second chances as well. The truth is that this passage is rather problematic and we should not build our theology on disputed passages.
In an argument from silence, some reason that God will, of course, give brain-damaged humans another chance because God is a God of love and it is only fair for these folks not to be penalized just because of an unfortunate incident leading to their brain damage.
Finally, your questions begs the question regarding the many babies who are born brain damaged and/or who never reach a level of consciousness where they could accept or reject Christ! Children with “Downs Syndrome.” are some of the happiest people that l know. However, depending on the severity of their afflictions, many can never comprehend the theological dynamics of Christ’s work on the cross or of our need for a personal reception of Him into our lives. I believe that in Matthew 19:14 Jesus assures us that we will one day see these folks in Heaven’s glory: "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these."
When all is said and done, I think that the final answer must come from Hebrews 9:27 : We die once, then comes judgment. We must assume that people who die or become incapacitated without Christ will be judged according to whether or not they received Christ before they died.
Now Debra, I thank you for asking such a relevant and intriguing question. I would suspect that many others were thinking the same thing.
May God grant you and me clear-cut thinking with no signs of dementia until finally we head off into Glory.
Dr. Roger Barrier recently retired as senior teaching pastor from Casas Church in Tucson, Arizona. In addition to being an author and sought-after conference speaker, Roger has mentored or taught thousands of pastors, missionaries, and Christian leaders worldwide. Casas Church, where Roger served throughout his thirty-five-year career, is a megachurch known for a well-integrated, multi-generational ministry. The value of including new generations is deeply ingrained throughout Casas to help the church move strongly right through the twenty-first century and beyond. Dr. Barrier holds degrees from Baylor University, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Golden Gate Seminary in Greek, religion, theology, and pastoral care. His popular book, Listening to the Voice of God, published by Bethany House, is in its second printing and is available in Thai and Portuguese. His latest work is, Got Guts? Get Godly! Pray the Prayer God Guarantees to Answer, from Xulon Press. Roger can be found blogging at Preach It, Teach It, the pastoral teaching site founded with his wife, Dr. Julie Barrier.