This is a very tough question that is all the tougher because most people see it as an easy one. The teaching of the evangelical community has been 99.9% on the side of infant salvation. That’s certainly where my heart is, and after reflecting on Scripture, if I had to put money on it, I’d put it on infants going to Heaven when they die. But there are many difficulties to consider.
I am also concerned that the teaching of infant salvation, which I tend to believe is correct, has been twisted in a way to make many people feel better about two things that both of us are burdened about: abortion, and children dying of sickness and malnutrition.
I was shocked years ago to have several pastors independently tell me that they thought civil disobedience to stop abortion was wrong because “after all, if these babies die now it’s the most merciful thing; if they grow up in these nonchristian homes most of them, after reaching the age of accountability, will end up going to hell. But if they die today, they’ll go to Heaven.”
Evangelism by abortion…now there’s a thought.
The pernicious logic of this could be applied equally to born children. If babies go to Heaven when they die, it could be regarded not only as unnecessary, but positively harmful to feed babies, especially in a Hindu or Muslim country, only to have them grow to—in all likelihood—end up serving Satan and going to hell.
Certainly the Scriptural commands and principles refute this, but believe me I’ve often had to say things like “if what you’re saying is true, then the best form of evangelism is to slaughter children. Isn’t every Christian parent’s desire to see their kids go to Heaven? Shouldn’t we be willing to make every sacrifice to this end? Then why not kill them before they reach the age of accountability? If my three year old would go to Heaven if she died today, and I know that the time will come where she would go to hell if she died, wouldn’t the loving thing just be to kill her now? Why run the risk of her going to hell?”
Of course, just because people abuse a notion (e.g. eternal security) doesn’t prove it is untrue.
Scripture makes no reference to an age of accountability, nor does it even seem to imply one. (It is an assumption based on the premise that children are born saved and the attempt to then explain how and when they could become lost.) The huge problem of course—and I don’t just mean from a Calvinist perspective but a biblical one—is Romans 3 and all the depravity passages.
Children sinned in Adam, have a guilty standing before God, and a sin nature that not only gives them a tendency toward sin, but causes God to view them as real and true “sinners,” even before they’ve had a long life to commit lots of sins. If God was willing to tolerate say, a total of 5,000 sins but no more, then you could make the case that children who die young may not have reached their limit and therefore are qualified for Heaven. Scripture says no such thing. In and of themselves, certainly children are not qualified for Heaven. They are not innocent.
The teaching of Scripture is that we are conceived sinners (Psalm 51:5), born sinners (Psalm 58:3), and to be a sinner is to be lost and unqualified to enter Heaven. Logically and biblically, you would then expect a child to remain lost until he becomes saved, wouldn’t you? But infant salvation seems to require that we believe children are conceived saved and stay saved until they reach a certain age, at which point they become lost. Where does Scripture teach any such thing?
A logical case can be made that if God allows some people to go to hell without ever hearing the gospel, why would it be any more unjust to let babies go to hell without ever being old enough to hear the gospel? We know there are other areas in which God does things that seem unjust to us. (We’re wrong of course, but that’s our perception.) So why are we sure this isn’t another one?
So, if children are saved, it cannot be because of innocence, because while they are cute and adorable and a pleasure, they are not innocent. For any person to be saved, it must be through the work of Christ (1 Timothy 2:5). Unless someone is born again he can’t enter the kingdom of God (John 3:3). How can a child be born again without consciously choosing Christ? I don’t know, but I console myself with the fact that God is bigger than my ignorance. At the same time, I have to soberly look at it and realize it’s not an easy question. To say “Well, of course children are saved” is not the answer, because there is no “of course” about it.
My belief is that while an age of accountability is not a biblical teaching (it’s abiblical, not necessarily unbiblical), what is clearly biblical is God’s special love for children. That’s why I believe it is very likely God in his mercy and his special love for children covers them with the blood of Christ. I base this partly on wishful thinking, but on more than that, specifically Christ’s words about needing to become like children to enter God’s kingdom, and his embracing children when the disciples wanted to exclude them.
Christ used children as examples of faith. Now, you could argue these were believing children, not infants, but I could easily see Christ holding an infant and covering him with his love. God’s favor is unmerited for all of us—we don’t earn it by confessing our sins, though that is in fact necessary for us to do. Whether it is necessary for those who are too young to do so is a matter for God, but I trust him, and I trust the clear and special love he showed for children. (Consider the passage where Jesus says the angels assigned to children “continuously behold the face of my Father in Heaven.” Clearly this is special treatment, at least opening the door to other acts of special treatment, including salvation apart from the normal process of recognizing sinfulness, confessing and repenting.)
So children should be viewed as guilty sinners who are lost and need to be saved. Then, if children go to Heaven when they die, God must have some just way of doing it despite the fact that they have not made a conscious decision to embrace the gift of salvation in Christ.
There is a little open door for this, perhaps, in John the Baptist being filled with the Holy Spirit even in his mother’s womb (Luke 1). Isn’t this an example of God placing some righteous standing—or at least a special spiritual sanctifying work—on someone even though he is a sinner but is too young to have confessed his sinfulness or made any conscious yielding to God? Yes, this appears to be a very special case, but nonetheless if God could do that with John, could he not do it with other children? In Psalm 22:10, David says that since his mother bore him God has been his God, and God told Jeremiah he knew him since before he was in his mother’s womb. (Nonetheless, we have to say this is not the usual way God saves people, and that those who can respond to him by confession and repentance must do so or they cannot be saved.)
What about the possibility that some children go to Heaven when they die and others don’t? Some say that God has a covenant with Christian families that saves their children, but not those of unbelievers. This is sometimes based on 1 Cor. 7 and the words about the presence of a Christian parent making the children holy. That’s a bit weak though, because it also says the Christian wife “sanctifies” her husband. Does that mean if he dies without accepting Christ he’s saved? (It appears to mean setting them apart to a position of privilege to hear the gospel.)
But certainly you can see through Scripture God’s pattern of saving the children of those who follow him (Noah in Genesis 7 and Heb. 11; Rahab in Joshua 2:18; Psalm 103:17; Acts 2:38-39; 16:31; Titus 1:6). Of course, believers can have unbelieving children too— look at the sons of Eli and Samuel, and look at Absalom and Esau.
The central biblical argument used for infant salvation is David’s statement about his infant son who has died in 2 Sam 12: “I will go to him, but he won’t return to me.” I think this is significant, though not quite as definitive as some make it. You can make a case for saying David’s point is, he will die and go to Sheol, the place of the dead (both righteous and unrighteous). So it’s “my baby’s died and I will join him in death.” But you have biblical characters, both believing and unbelieving who are said to die and sleep with their forefathers, even though some of them would be in Abraham’s bosom/paradise and others in hell. Still, I think David, in his personal agony, was consoling himself with the belief that he literally would be with his son in Heaven. Therefore I feel free to use this with people who have lost a child or are struggling with the issue.
I think we should view Scripture as largely silent on this subject, leaving us to draw from its principles and to trust in the character of our God. Though I waver now and then, for the most part I still see children as miraculously covered by the blood of Christ—in a special expression of his grace, despite their sinfulness, unworthiness and lack of choice to receive Christ.
I still think it’s critical to realize that most people base their beliefs about infant salvation on a ground that is not biblical—”children deserve to go to Heaven” or “children don’t deserve to go to hell.” From a human point of view, that seems right. (And I’m human enough for it to appeal to me.) But from a Scriptural point of view it isn’t.
So, bottom line, I believe that babies who die go to Heaven. But even as I say that, I realize it’s a big stretch and I cannot prove it scripturally.
I do take great comfort in both the mercy and justice of God, and that he is free to do things that do not fit within the obvious confines of our understanding of salvation. Certainly, our inability to square certain theological issues is no deterrent to God doing what he chooses either one way or the other. Sometimes I think he doesn’t want us to know the answers to some of these things, so we will have to come to him in faith and uncertainty rather than with full knowledge and the presumption it can foster.
For more information on this subject, see Randy Alcorn's book, Heaven.
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