Thursday, November 29, 2018

What to tell a dying child

Here's a follow up to my previous post:

A longtime reader of Triablogue ran my query by CA. On Twitter, he responded as follows:

In fact, if my child did have a terminal illness, depending on the age you wouldn't want to tell them if they couldn't handle it. But you would make them as comfortable as possible and spend as much time with them as possible. /1

What is the alternative? Tell a child who can't handle the reality of death they're going to be with a god that let them get sick and won't heal them, taking them away from their parents? As if that'll make them feel any better. 2/2

1. CA is struggling to be a consistent atheist. Does CA think it's wrong to tell a dying child a comforting lie? Most atheists don't think lying is intrinsically wrong. From a secular standpoint, if it's a choice between a child who dies in terror if you tell it the truth and a child who dies in peace if you tell it a comforting lie, what should an atheist say? Should he speak as an honest atheist or speak as a loving parent? 

This dilemma is less about the child than the atheist. It goes to the question of whether atheism is livable. 

2. Some atheists might bite the bullet and say it doesn't ultimately matter if the child died in peace or died in terror because he won't remember how he died. What difference does it really make whether he was happy or terrified in the last few weeks, days, or hours prior to death? Death wipes out everything that went before. 

3. CA evades the issue by casting the Christian alternative in the most jaundiced way he can think of. To begin with, death will take them away from their parents according to Christianity and atheism alike. And from a secular standpoint, that's permanent, whereas, from a Christian standpoint, there's the hope of reunion. 

Yes, it makes a dying child feel better that he won't pass into oblivion, but go to a nicer place. I had an Aunt Vera who died of diphtheria at 3 1/2. Her last words were, "Kiss me papa, I'm going to Jesus!"

4. But in fairness, there's also the issue of how a Christian should answer this question. Some Christians believe in universal infant salvation. That is to say, they believe everyone who dies before the age of reason is heavenbound. 

5. There are less sanguine theological traditions. There's the old Catholic view that unbaptized babies either went to hell or went to Limbo. 

6. Then there's the view that elect babies are heavenbound, but we don't know if all dying babies are elect. What should a parent or pastor who takes that position tell a dying child? 

i) I'd mention, inter alia, that atheism offers the dying no hope whereas Christianity offers the dead some hope.

ii) In the context of what to tell a child, that assumes the child is lucid and old enough to have some level of understanding. So that's a great opportunity to tell the child about Jesus. Young kids are often more spiritually receptive than adults. So this isn't about the eternal fate of dying children in the abstract, but having a conversation with a dying child. The child's reaction provides concrete evidence to give him consolation. 

iii) There's the danger of giving people false assurance. But that's mainly applicable to adults. False assurance can preempt repentance. Be an impediment to the Gospel. But when death is imminent, and you've already evangelized the individual, there's nothing more to be done. Time is running out. Either it took or it didn't. 

7. Apropos (6), much of what we believe falls short of certainty. It would lead to paralysis if we required certainty for everything we believe or do. Even if we might be mistaken in telling someone they are heavenbound, that in itself is not a reason to withhold the prospect of heavenly consolation, since we might be mistaken in much of what we say.

8. Apropos (7), there's a risk of error in more than one direction:

i) Suppose I tell the dying that they are going to heaven. They die in peace. And, in fact, they went to heaven when they died. In that event, there was nothing to lose and something to gain by giving them that consolation.

ii) Suppose I tell the dying that they are going to heaven. They die in peace. But, in fact, they went to hell when they died. Is that worse than if I said nothing? Hell swamps whatever I told them, one way or the other. Even if I was mistaken, I think that's an innocuous error. Did I wrong them or harm them? Would they be better off if they died in terror? 

I'm not suggesting that we should intentionally mislead the dying. Rather, this would be a case of an innocent mistake. And the effect was to make them feel better rather than worse. 

iii) Suppose I play it safe by not giving them any consolation. But that's not risk-free. Suppose, from an overabundance of caution, I don't tell them they are going to heaven. They die in terror, but wake up in heaven. In that event, they lost the consolation of a peaceful death. 

9. The upshot is that even if you don't subscribe to universal infant salvation, I don't think there's anything to lose by telling a dying child that heaven awaits him. 

1 comment:

  1. Atheism is paralyzing. I couldn't imagine having moral beliefs and values in my everyday life, but then finding it impossible to justify such subjective notions in my thinking. It must be difficult for the atheist who is self-aware. I would much rather have to worry about how human moral responsibility go hand in hand, or how Genesis harmonizes with science, than ask the difficulties atheism is left with.