...it often happens that devout parents, particularly the wives, have sought consolation from us because they have suffered such agony and heartbreak in child-bearing when, despite their best intentions and against their will, there was a premature birth or miscarriage and their child died at birth or was born dead. ... First, inasmuch as one cannot and ought not know the hidden judgment of God in such a case why, after every possible care had been taken, God did not allow the child to be born alive and be baptized these mothers should calm themselves and have faith that Gods will is always better than ours, though it may seem otherwise to us from our human point of view. ... Second, because the mother is a believing Christian it is to be hoped that her heartfelt cry and deep longing to bring her child to be baptized will be accepted by God as an effective prayer. ... Who can doubt that those Israelite children who died before they could be circumcised on the eighth day were yet saved by the prayers of their parents in view of the promise that God willed to be their God? God (they say) has not limited his power to the sacraments, but has made a covenant with us through his word. Therefore we ought to speak differently and in a more consoling way with Christians than with pagans or wicked people (the two are the same), even in such cases where we do not know Gods hidden judgment. For he says and is not lying, All things are possible to him who believes [Mark 9:23], even though they have not prayed, or expected, or hoped for what they would have wanted to see happen. Enough has been said about this. Therefore one must leave such situations to God and take comfort in the thought that he surely has heard our unspoken yearning and done all things better than we could have asked. In summary, see to it that above all else you are a true Christian and that you teach a heartfelt yearning and praying to God in true faith, be it in this or any other trouble. Then do not be dismayed or grieved about your child or yourself, and know that your prayer is pleasing to God and that God will do everything much better than you can comprehend or desire. Call upon me, he says in Psalm 50[:15], in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me. For this reason one ought not straightway condemn such infants for whom and concerning whom believers and Christians have devoted their longing and yearning and praying. Nor ought one to consider them the same as others for whom no faith, prayer, or yearning are expressed on the part of Christians and believers. God intends that his promise and our prayer or yearning which is grounded in that promise should not be disdained or rejected, but be highly valued and esteemed. (Martin Luther, Comfort for Women Who Have Had a Miscarriage, Luthers Works, Vol. 43 [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1968], pp. 247-50)
The question remains whether an unborn infant, with only a hand or a foot projecting from the womb, can be baptized. Here I will confess my ignorance and make no hasty decision. I am not sure whether the reason they give is sufficient that in any part of the body whatsoever the entire soul resides. For it is not the soul but the body that is externally baptized with water. But neither do I share the view of those who insist that he who is not yet born cannot be born again (even though it has considerable force). I leave these things to the teaching of the Spirit, and meanwhile allow everyone to enjoy his own opinion [Rom. 14:5]. (Martin Luther, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, Luthers Works, Vol. 36 [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959], p. 74)
This they call Gods ordered power, namely, when He makes use of the service either of angels or of human beings. ... But if at times some things happen without the service either of angels or human beings, you would be right in saying: What is beyond us does not concern us. We must keep the ordered power in mind and form our opinion on the basis of it. God is able to save without Baptism, just as we believe that infants who, as sometimes happens through the neglect of their parents or through some other mishap, do not receive Baptism are not damned on this account. But in the church we must judge and teach, in accordance with Gods ordered power, that without that outward Baptism no one is saved. (Martin Luther, Lectures on Genesis, Luthers Works, Vol. 3 [Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1961], p. 274)
...Peter...says in 1 Peter 3:18ff. that Christ died for our sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order that he would bring us to God. He was, indeed, put to death according to the flesh but made alive according to the spirit. In the same, He in spirit, came and preached to those who were in prison, who were once unbelieving when one waited on the patience of God at the time of Noah, while the ark was being constructed. Here Peter clearly says that Christ appeared not only to the dead fathers and patriarchs, some of whom Christ, as He arose, no doubt raised with Himself to eternal life; but that He also preached to some who at the time of Noah did not believe and waited on the patience of God, that is, who hoped God would not deal so harshly with all flesh. He (Christ) did this preaching in order that they might know that their sins were forgiven through the sacrifice of Christ. (Commentary on Hosea, St. Louis Edition VI, 1224 [translated by Gaylin R. Schmeling])
[1 Peter 3:]19. In which He went and preached to the spirits in prison, 20. who formerly did not believe when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. 21. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22. who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to Him.
This is a strange text and certainly a more obscure passage than any other passage in the New Testament. I still do not know for sure what the apostle means. At first the words give the impression that Christ preached to the spirits, that is, to the souls who did not believe many years ago, when Noah was building the ark. I do not understand this. Nor can I explain it. Nor has anyone ever explained it. But if anyone chooses to maintain that after Christ had died on the cross, He descended to the souls and preached to them there, I will not stand in the way. These words could give such a meaning. But I do not know whether St. Peter wants to say this.
On the other hand, these words could also be understood to mean that after the Lord Christ had ascended into heaven, He came in the spirit and preached, yet in such a way that His preaching was not physical. For He does not speak with a physical voice and no longer performs the natural functions of the body. Therefore if this meaning, which the words seem to express, is correct, namely, that He preached to the spirits in His spiritual life, such preaching must also be a spiritual preaching which He does inwardly in the heart and in the soul, so that it is not necessary for Him to go with the body and preach orally. The text does not state that He descended to the souls and preached to them when He died; for it reads “in which,” that is, when He was put to death according to the flesh and was made alive according to the spirit, namely, when He divested Himself of His existence in the flesh and of the natural functions of the body and entered into a spiritual existence and life such as He now has in heaven. Then He went and preached. Now He did not descend again into hell after He had assumed such a new existence. Therefore one must understand these words to mean that He did this after His resurrection. Since these words tend to force one to conclude that spiritual preaching is spoken of, we shall cling to the opinion that St. Peter is speaking of the office which Christ administers through external preaching. For He commanded the apostles to preach the Gospel physically. But in addition to the preaching, He Himself comes, is spiritually present, and speaks and preaches to the hearts of the people, just as the apostles address their words orally and physically to the ears of the people. Then Christ preaches to the spirits who are in captivity in the prison of the devil. Thus the going, like the preaching, should be understood in a spiritual sense. (Martin Luther, “Sermons on the First Epistle of St. Peter,” Luther’s Works, Vol. 30 [Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1967], pp. 112-14)
But here [in the Flood] Gods wrath makes no difference; it overwhelms and destroys the adults together with the infants, the cunning together with the artless. This horrible punishment seems to have induced the apostle Peter, like someone in a frenzy, to utter words we cannot understand even today. This is what he says (1 Peter 3:18-20): Christ was made alive in the spirit, in which He went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when Gods patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. It is surely an amazing verdict and almost a frenzied utterance that this awful spectacle appears to have wrung from the apostle. Peter declares by these very words that there was some unbelieving world to which the departed Christ preached after His death. If this is true, who would doubt that Christ brought Moses and the prophets with Him to those people bound in prison, in order to make a new and believing world out of an unbelieving one? Peters words surely sound as though they conveyed this meaning, although I would not make any authoritative statement about them. Furthermore, there is no doubt that those whom he calls the unbelieving world are not the godless despisers of the Word and the tyrants; of these it is sure that they were condemned if they were destroyed in their sins. He appears to be applying the term unbelieving world to infants and others whose artlessness prevented them from being able to believe; they were carried away by the offenses of the world as by a swift stream and were engulfed, so that they perished together with it and only eight souls were saved. Thus Peter emphasizes the vastness of the horrible wrath. But he also praises the patience of God for not removing the saving Word from those who, at the time, counted on Gods patience and therefore did not believe or could not be persuaded that God would subject the entire world at the same time to such shocking punishments. We do not know how this was done; but this we know and believe: that God is wonderful in His works and is all-powerful. Therefore He who preached to the living when He was alive, also was able to preach to the dead when He was dead; for all things hear, feel, and touch Him, even though human comprehension does not grasp this. Yet it is no disgrace, even if we lack knowledge about some mysteries of the Holy Scriptures. The apostles had their own individual revelations, about which it is presumptuous and foolish to engage in extensive discussions. One such revelation dealt with Christs teaching the souls of those who perished at the time of the Flood; to this it is perhaps fitting to apply the section in the Creed that speaks of Christs descent into hell. (Martin Luther, Lectures on Genesis, Luthers Works, Vol. 2 [Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1960], pp. 85-86)
Cicero was an excellent philosopher; he felt that the soul is immortal. Just so he has excellently described natural, moral, and rational philosophy. He was a precious man, a man who had read and passed judgment on many things and then could also speak. He wrote about his subject in earnest, did not play so and Grecize (graecissavit) as did Aristotle and Plato. I hope our Lord God will be gracious to him and his like, though it is not for us to judge and determine this matter. Rather we should remain with the revealed word: He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved (Mark 16:16). But as to whether God could make some other provision and discriminate among other people in His own time and way, it does not behoove us to know. For there will be a new heaven and a new earth, wider and broader than the present. He can well reward individuals according to their merits. (Martin Luther, quoted in What Luther Says [Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1959], pp. 1050-51 [WA-T 3, 3904, 3925])
Cicero is the best philosopher, for he felt that the soul is immortal. He wrote best on natural, moral, and rational philosophy. He is a valuable man, reading with judgment and able to express himself well. He wrote in earnest and did not fool like the Greeks Plato and Aristotle. I hope God will forgive such men as Cicero their sins. Even if he should not be redeemed, he will enjoy a situation in hell several degrees higher than that destined for our Cardinal of Mayence. (Martin Luther, quoted in Preserved Smith, The Life and Letters of Martin Luther [second edition] [Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1914], p. 342)
My gracious lord, Count Albrecht of Mansfeld, etc., has requested me to instruct you, gracious sir, by letter on the question whether God can or will save people who die without faith. ...we have formidable passages of Scripture [to the effect] that God cannot and will not save anyone without faith. Mark 16[:16] says, He who does not believe will be lost. Also Hebrews 11[:6], Without faith it is impossible to please God. Also John 3[:5], Whoever is not born of water and the Spirit cannot enter the kingdom of God. Also John 3[:18], He who does not believe is condemned already. If God were to save anyone without faith, he would be acting contrary to his own words and would give himself the lie; yes, he would deny himself. And that is impossible for, as St. Paul declares, God cannot deny himself [II Tim. 2:13]. It is as impossible for God to save without faith as it is impossible for divine truth to lie. That is clear, obvious, and easily understood... It would be quite a different question whether God can impart faith to some in the hour of death or after death so that these people could be saved through faith. Who would doubt Gods ability to do that? No one, however, can prove that he does do this. (Martin Luther, Letter to Hans von Rechenberg , Luthers Works, Vol. 43 [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1968], pp. 51, 53-54)
Another matter which has worried me for some time: In your absolutely correct and necessary insistence that Christ is the only Way to Salvation, do formulate more carefully especially as regards hell. It is surely not helpful to be insisting at every turn that such and such shall undoubtedly burn in eternal hell. As with unbaptised babies, so with those who never heard the Gospel, for instance, the Church has been much more reticent than that. We certainly don’t want to give the impression that we share the idea attributed to my hero, Thomas Aquinas, that knowledge of the tortures of the wicked will be part of the joys of Heaven! On the basis, particularly, of I Peter 3 and 4, 1 have for some years believed that God may yet have more and other ways of mercy in Christ than what He has told us about. Of course, I agree with the Preus statement that we cannot act on the basis of the assumption that there are other ways after death. We are bound to God’s revealed will, and must act accordingly. But He is not bound not to do more, or to be more merciful than He has promised! Of course it is clear that if one takes I Peter 3 & 4 in its most obvious, natural, historical-grammatical sense, as giving a case of salvation of such as died while still impenitent on earth, that too is not an instance of another way, outside of Christ: He is still the only Way, but He offered that Way to those beyond the grave.
To repeat, we cannot base our proclamation or ecclesiastical action on this sort of speculation, but are bound to God’s revealed will. But, as Dr. Koehne once pointed out to me: when Adam sinned, all he knew was ‘the day you eat thereof you shall surely die.’ He knew nothing, because God had not revealed it, about any future Savior or Salvation. Yet God had already provided this. Hence I like the explanation a Russian Orthodox lay-theologian once gave me of the formula ‘anathema maranatha’: it means that the Church’s judgments (anathema) stand until the Lord returns (maranatha). Then the Great Judge will make His own decisions.
In any case, I think John 21:21, 22 has some relevancy: To Peter’s question ‘What about him?’ the Lord replies ‘That's my business – you just follow me.’ I think the whole Bible is like that. It tells me my duty, responsibility, and opportunity – but I’m not to become too theoretically dogmatic about my neighbor’s fate. That’s up to God.
I am by no means arguing against the seriousness of the Last Judgment, or the reality of hell – only I believe these things should not be stressed sort of in isolation (poor apologetics!), but must be seen in the total New Testament context. And this means to me at least that the dogmatic ‘defense perimeter’ around the central NT truth that Jesus is the Way, the Life, and the Truth, without Whom no one shall come to the Father, should not be overextended to such doubtfully defensible propositions as: ‘Whoever cannot affirm with dogmatic certainty that all those who have never heard about Christ will undoubtedly burn eternally in hell is not an orthodox theologian.’
I realize that this is a very inadequate treatment of a very serious issue, but I do not pretend to have exhausted it. These are only random thoughts as they have occurred to me over the years. If you can contribute to their further clarification, I’d be very thankful. (Kurt E. Marquart, Letter to Herman Otten; quoted in Christian News, Vol. 49, No. 21 [June 6, 2011], p. 5. Emphases in original.)
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