As a pastor, I have been asked this question numerous times during my time in ministry: how do mentally ill people get to heaven?
While it is often worded in different ways, it normally comes from a concerned person who has watched a family member suffer from mental illness. While nearing or following a death, people want relief regarding the family member’s eternal status.
How do mentally ill people get to heaven?
Fundamentally, they can enter heaven in the same way that anyone else enters heaven – salvation by grace.
Salvation By Grace
No person enters heaven by personal merit or righteous reputation. Anyone’s desire to come to heaven is always preceded by God’s desire for that person to come to heaven. It is God’s love for the world that he gave his Son so that salvation could be experienced (John 3:16). God demonstrated his own love for us in that while we were still sinners, he sent Jesus to die for us (Rom. 5:8).
- For the soul able to comprehend such a glorious gospel, God holds each person responsible for either trusting or rejecting his clear way to heaven.
- For the soul unable to comprehend and respond to such a gospel, I believe that God is wise enough to navigate such situations.
Search for Principles
Scripture always provides principles where it does not include specifics.
Such is the case in this situation. While the Bible does not speak clearly to how God addresses people with limited mental faculties regarding processing the gospel, we do find principles to help guide us.
- When King David mourned the loss of his infant son, he revealed his hope that his child was in heaven. “Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me” (2 Sam. 12:23).
- In a prophecy in Isaiah, the prophet includes a helpful comment about discernment and maturity. He speaks of a time before a child “knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good” (Isa. 7:15-16).
While this concept is often coined as an age of accountability, it refers to a time of mental maturity in which someone can understand the nature of sin and the claims of the gospel.
Many believe that an adult body restricted by a childlike mind would be under such protection as well.
If a person struggling mentally never matured to a level in which to comprehend the gospel, many would claim that God would not hold them accountable. This concept is how many process the death of children, the mentally ill, and people with special needs.
In such a situation, these people would be covered by God’s grace provided through the death of Jesus Christ.
I believe God will hold accountable for the manner in which a person can be responsible.
Rest in Hope
One time when Jesus saved a man from demon possession, all noted that the man was finally clothed and in his right mind. Jesus’ response to all the shocked onlookers? “Go home and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you” (Mark 5:19). While demon possession and mental illness are not the same things, I think we can find a reassuring principle here as well. God desires to show mercy to those internally imprisoned and has the power to set free. Deliverance was equated with mercy.
While Scripture does not speak specifically to this issue, the principles reveal that lives never reaching some level of maturity can be made peaceful by the mercy of God. If this is true, there will be many people who never experienced a restful moment in this life who will be clothed and in their right minds in the next.
Travis Agnew serves as the Lead Pastor of Rocky Creek Church in Greenville, SC. His most recent book is Just (About) Married.