By Stephen Ferguson | 14 September 2018 |

Some readers may find this article distressing. Nevertheless, I do believe it is a worthy topic, as it raises fundamental questions about the plan of salvation.

Introduction – Downfall  

Will Magda Goebbels’ children be in heaven? That was the question my dad, Ashely S.D. Ferguson, recently asked me as we watched the 2004 movie Downfall.

This Academy Award-nominated German-language film follows the last days of Nazi Germany, centered on key events within Hitler’s bunker in Berlin. Apart from the Führer himself, major characters explored in the movie include the Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, his wife Johanna Maria Magdalena (“Magda”) Goebbels, and their six children: Helga (age 12), Hildegard (age 11), Helmut (age 9), Holdine (age 8), Hedwig (age 6) and Heirdun (age 4).

The Nazi Nativity Couple

If Hitler saw himself as something of a demigod chosen by Providence, then Joseph and Magda Goebbels were perhaps the “Joseph and Mary” of this Nazi-inspired nativity story. Not only did their names eerily match, but Magda, in particular, attained her own cult-like status—a kind of Nazi devotion rivaling the cult of the Virgin Mary within Roman Catholicism.

One should recall that Hitler didn’t have a wife. The infamous Eva Braun was only his long-time mistress; at least, she was until a mere 40 hours before their double-suicide. For this reason, for over a decade Magda took the role as de facto “First Lady” of the Reich.

The Beauty and the Horror

With this background in mind, the story upon which Magda would gain her infamy was the deliberate murder of her six children in Hitler’s bunker on May 1, 1945. In one notable scene of the film, the penny drops for Hitler’s Secretary (the narrator of the story), who suddenly realizes in horror that Joseph and Magda have no intention of letting themselves or their children escape.

After changing the children into their nightgowns, and brushing their hair, Magda administers a strong sedative to each child with the assistance of Hitler’s personal physician, Dr Stumpfegger. The children are told they are being given a special medicine, although, the movie suggests the eldest daughter Helga suspects the truth. When Helga refuses to drink, Magda forces her to take the liquid.

After they all fall asleep, Magda crushes a cyanide capsule into each of their mouths, killing each in turn. A few hours later, both Joseph and Magda ascend out of the bunker, whereupon Joseph shoots Magda, and Joseph orders guards to shoot him.

So how do children get to heaven? Can they have faith?

With that horrible background in mind, let us return to my dad’s original question. Will the Goebbels’ children be in heaven?

Christians commonly believe, citing biblical principles, that we are saved by grace when we believe in Jesus Christ (Eph. 2:8). But the Goebbels children didn’t believe in Jesus. They believed in Hitler! The Bible also teaches we need to be baptized (Mark 16:16), but there is little evidence that any of the Goebbels children were.

Infant Baptism and Limbo

As most would be aware, the traditional Roman Catholic view on deceased children centered on the idea of limbo: “understood as a state which includes the souls of infants who die subject to original sin and without baptism, and who, therefore, neither merit the beatific vision, nor yet are subjected to any punishment, because they are not guilty of any personal sin.”[1] That is, God would not send innocent unbaptized children to hell, but He would send them to a never-never realm[2] on the edge of hell.[3]

The historical Protestant denominations hold the view, that children must be baptized in order to be saved. For example, in the Reformed Canons of Dort (1618) it says, “Salvation is only for the infant of believers.” Similarly, in the Lutheran Augsburg Confession (1570) it condemns Anabaptists, who only baptized adults, for “rejecting the baptism of children, and saying that children are saved without baptism.”

Presuming the Goebbels children were not baptized, is the most we can hope for them some sort of limbo at the edge of hell? Is salvation an accident of birth?

Interestingly, today’s Catholics now admit that “People find it increasingly difficult to accept that God is just and merciful if he excludes infants, who have no personal sins, from eternal happiness, whether they are Christian or non-Christian.”[4] Mainstream Protestants have similarly backtracked on such harsh views.[5]

The Traditional Arminian Position: an Exception to the Rule

The Arminian viewpoint in the Anabaptist tradition, which emphasizes free will and is mostly found today within contemporary Evangelicalism, commonly holds children are saved neither by faith nor by participating in the ritual of baptism. Instead, “the Lord reserves all initiatives of salvation as divine prerogatives of God.”[6] In other words, as God is sovereign He provides something of an exception to the ordinary rules.

This position is immensely superior to traditional Catholic and mainstream Protestant views.[7] Nonetheless, I still find such theological exceptionalism unsatisfying, as it never quite explains how salvation works. Surely if Jesus said children are the epitome of faith (Matt. 18:3), they would form the centerpiece, not a mere exception, to the plan of salvation.

The Traditional Adventist Position: Saved by the Faith of Parents

Finally, the traditional Adventist view, as found in the counsels of Ellen White, is a bit confused. Perhaps offering something of a hybrid model, Mrs White saw salvation of children through faith, but nonetheless wrote: “I answer that the faith of the believing parents covers the children, as when God sent His judgments upon the first-born of the Egyptians.”[8]

With fairness to Mrs White, she admitted these were only her personal views and not to be taken as official light: “God has not told us definitely about this matter in His Word… There are things we do not now understand.”[9] Yet this question matters greatly because I have known Adventists who have worried themselves sick, thinking they were condemning their children to hellfire based on their own lackluster religious devotion.[10]

Children Are Saved by Grace Through Faith, Because Their Parents are Proxy Types Representing the Creator

If my dad raised the question, then it was my mother, June B. Ferguson, a somewhat amateur theologian in her own right, who provided me with the answer. My mum’s view is that these traditional Christian views are all on the right track but somewhat backwards.

Yes, the role of parents is vital, but it isn’t the faith of parents that matters. Rather, it is the faith of children in their parents that counts.

Children are saved by grace through faith just like everyone else. It is just that children’s faith in their parents is a symbolic type – a representative theophany of God. Just as Adam was a type (τύπος) representing all humanity (Rom. 5:14), and just as the ancient children of Israel were not saved by the literal blood of animal sacrifices (Heb. 10:4-5), so parenthood itself is a symbol to accommodate the faith of children.

According to my mother, the cornerstone of this idea is the realization that parents are in fact co-creators with the Creator. It is why God in Genesis tells us in one breath that humanity is made in His divine image (Gen. 1:27), and then in the next breath He tells us to go and procreate (Gen. 1:28).

For this reason, my mum thinks we often read the Ten Commandments all wrong. It isn’t four commands about worshipping God and six commands to do with our social relationships. Rather, the fifth commandment, to honor one’s father and mother, actually belongs with the first table.

To honor your own parents means more than simply helping another human. It is an act of worship, giving honor to the Creator’s proxies. It is in this sense that parents, holding this awesome divine responsibility, can be saved through childbearing (1 Tim. 2:15). Being a godly parent doesn’t automatically save the children, but children often have the uncanny ability to save their own parents.[11]

So Where Does This Leave the Goebbels Children?   

To that end, it isn’t relevant whether Joseph and Magda lacked faith themselves. The fact is that their children did. The manner in which they went to their death, trusting in their mother and father to the end, illustrates that.

“After all, children don’t provide for their parents. Rather, parents provide for their children” (2 Cor. 12:14, NLT).

As we get older we of course lose that trusting innocence – that kingdom-faith Jesus talked about. We reach a state in our own lives where we can “wilfully persist in sin after having received the knowledge of the truth” (Heb. 10:26-27).

It seems to me salvation is very much an “opt-out” kind of system. It is not, as many Christian denominations wrongly seem to emphasize, an “opt-in” one.

Seriously, if the Goebbels children aren’t destined for heaven you can count me out as well. I wouldn’t worship such a God. But my heartfelt belief is that they will be there. If I, as a sin-corrupted human father, feel this way about these innocents, how much more in the way of love, grace and mercy can I confidently expect from my Father in Heaven! (Matt. 7:9-11)

[1] “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Baptism,” Catholic International Theological Commission, 2017. However, the document does note that although a widely held Catholic view, it was never official Catholic doctrine in the fullest sense: “This theory, elaborated by theologians beginning in the Middle Ages, never entered into the dogmatic definitions of the Magisterium, even if that same Magisterium did at times mention the theory in its ordinary teaching up until the Second Vatican Council.”

[2] Incidentally, as a favorite fan fiction theory, there is an argument that Peter Pan’s Never-Never Land is in fact limbo, filled with the dead unbaptized children of Victorian London (the Lost Boys), supposed “savages” (that is Native Americans, as Dickens saw it from his time and culture) and pirates (enough said). It is why in this place none of the Lost Boys ever seems to grow up and why, apart from the Native Americans and pirates, there are no adults.

[3] Limbo literally comes from the Latin meaning, “edge of hell.”

[4] Phillip Pullella, “Catholic Church Buries Limbo After Centuries”, Reuters, Apr 21, 2007, citing “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Baptism.” The document also says regarding unbaptized children, that one can have “strong grounds for hope that God will save infants.”

[5] At the beginning of the 20th century a somewhat embarrassed Presbyterian Church USA amended the phrase “elect infants, dying in infancy,” taken from the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646), and changed it to “all infants, dying in infancy” will be saved.

[6] John Olstad, “Universal Legal Justification: A Failed Alternative Between Calvin and Arminius,” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society, 23/1 (2012).

[7] Although again, modern Catholic and Protestant views have embraced similar logic. Catholics now cite a similar “we don’t quite know but hope” exception argument too, stating, “Infants who die without baptism are entrusted by the Church to the mercy of God, as is shown in the specific funeral rite for such children”: “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized.”

[8] Ellen White, 2 Manuscript Releases, 147.2.

[9] Ellen White, 2 Manuscript Releases, 146.6. She also was inclined to see that those who lacked capacity, such as those suffering from “imbecility” or “idiots” (politically incorrect terms today) would be saved: 8MR 210 (1893); 3T 161.2 (1872).

[10] For example, a “backslidden” Adventist friend of mine recently expressed real panic when his child became gravely ill. Adopting what he thought was White’s view, he was worried sick that were the child to die she would not be in heaven because his own faith had been lacking of late. The parents had enough to worry about, without further worrying that their own faith would be the standard for the child’s ascension into heaven at the resurrection.

[11] 1 Tim. 2:15 is a notoriously difficult text to interpret, and many scholars can’t seem to agree what it is about. There are questions whether Paul meant women in a generic sense, or was alluding to Eve, who gave salvation to the world through her descendant, the Messiah. However, in my own mind the general principle remains. As parents act as proxies for the Creator, we participate in the salvational experience for our own children. This is not to say we can gain a “free ticket” to heaven merely because we have kids. The context of the passage doesn’t say that at all. Rather, as I have watched personally on many occasions, Adventist-Christians who leave the church in their youth return for the sake of their children, and quite often end up with a recommitment to their own faith as a result. Or if you prefer, just watch the children’s movie, Despicable Me, which has a somewhat similar idea.

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Stephen Ferguson is a lawyer from Perth, Western Australia, with expertise in planning, environment, immigration and administrative-government law. He is married to Amy and has two children, William and Eloise. Stephen is a member of the Livingston Adventist Church. 

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