The Bible does not make a direct statement regarding the afterlife of those who have mental challenges that prevent them from clearly understanding and believing in Jesus as Savior. However, a close look at related passages of Scripture appears to indicate that those unable to believe in Jesus due to age or ability will be covered by the grace of God.
Do mentally challenged people go to heaven?
One example can be found in 2 Samuel 12:23 where David's newborn son is sick and then dies. When asked about the event and his response, David answered, "Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me." David was confident he would one day see his son again in heaven.
Jesus also often expressed great love toward those who were either possessed by evil spirits or showed signs that would be described today as mental health issues. For example, in Mark 5 Jesus sent the evil spirits out of a demon-possessed man who "was always crying out and cutting himself with stones" (v. 5). When the healed man asked to travel with Jesus, he was told, "Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you" (v. 19). The mercy of Jesus and what he does for those unable to care for themselves appears to be a general biblical principle that can apply to anyone unable to express faith in Jesus on his or her own.
However, there is also a distinction in Scripture between mental illness due to evil spirits and naturally occurring mental illness. David appeared to be "insane" before the king of Gath in order to escape death (1 Samuel 21:12-13). King Nebuchadnezzar had a temporary (seven year) period of mental illness (Daniel 4:33-34). The applicable principle is that Jesus loves and provides mercy to those in such situations.
In addition, the Bible is also clear about the need to share the good news of Jesus with all people (Matthew 28:18-20). God alone can provide salvation, yet He commands believers to share his message of hope and live it out among all people. This clearly includes those with mental health challenges of all kinds. Some mentally challenged individuals likely do understand and make a decision to believe in Jesus even when he or she cannot express the decision in words.
Mental illness can impact anyone. Yet this article focuses on those with lifelong mental illness that would prevent the person from making a conscious decision to believe in Jesus as Savior. It is clear that God alone is the One who determines whether a person enters heaven and that doing so is based on what Jesus Christ has provided through His death on the cross. Though the Bible is not explicit in answering this question, the closest biblical passages appear to indicate that those who are unable to choose faith in Christ are loved by God and cared for by His mercy, including salvation and eternal life. Yet because no one knows for certain how much a person with a mental illness is able to understand, it remains important to show love to those with mental illnesses and to share the good news of Jesus, demonstrated through a life that shows genuine care and compassion for those in such situations.
What is the Truth about salvation?
Is there an age of accountability in the Bible? What happens to babies that die?
Are some children too young to ask for salvation? Can a 3 or 4 year old truly believe?
What is the eternal destiny of those who have never heard of Christ?
Before Jesus died for our sins, could people be saved? How?
Truth about Salvation