One of the most frequent, and most difficult questions I am asked is this: What is the eternal future of those who die in infancy? Consider these thoughts:
1) The question (what happens to infants who die, or others who never reach an intellectual capacity necessary for saving faith) is not easily answered simply because there are a host of theological issues involved.
2) Here’s what we know for sure:
a) Every individual born except Jesus comes into the world with inherited guilt from Adam (Romans 5:12) as well as their own intrinsic sin nature.
b) As far as God has revealed in Scripture, the only way the inherited guilt is taken away is through faith in Christ.
c) If there is another way inherited guilt is taken away, God has not told us.
3) Given these facts, there are three ways to come to the conclusion that these infants are regenerated by God and taken to heaven:
a) We could say that there is no inherited guilt, but only the sin nature, and that guilt only happens when sin actually occurs, and that infants are unable to sin until such time as they can understand punishment for sin. That is, until they are intellectually capable of understanding accountability for sin, God does not consider their actions to be sinful. Thus, until they reach a certain age, they are innocent, and dying as innocents they go to heaven.
There are problems with this view as follows:
• The Bible seems clear that guilt is inherited from Adam’s sin as a function of human nature (Ps. 51:5).
• There is no teaching anywhere in the Bible that would lead us to believe that sinful acts are not accounted as sinful acts unless the perpetrator understands they are sinful. The request in Ps. 19:12,13 indicates that there are things we do that are sinful even though we think they are okay. A depraved conscience will often engage in things it thinks are good when they are not.
• There are real problems with an “age of accountability” doctrine. What age is it? How do we know? At what age does an infant understand right and wrong? It is impossible to tell, but I am of the belief that it happens at a very young age. My kids all showed signs of pride and stubbornness at during their first year.
b) Covenantalism: A second way to argue that infants who die go to heaven is to assume that there is another way, other than personal faith in Christ, for inherited guilt to be taken out of the way. The most prominent of these is espoused by the truly Reformed folks who believe that the faith of the parents holds the infants until they are old enough to express their own. They believe that children born to parents of faith are in the covenant until they reject their baptism (infants are baptized as a sign of inclusion in the covenant of God). Thus, baptized infants dying in infancy are “saved” on the basis of their parents’ faith, and their own inclusion in the covenant.
c) Pluralism: this view also believes that there is another way, other than personal faith in Christ, for inherited guilt to be taken out of the way. They would say that God’s mercy prohibits him from punishing infants for their sin because they could never comprehend the justice of the punishment, making the punishment of no use to the sinner. Further, they would say that the “wideness in God’s mercy” applies also to places where the Gospel never reaches, and that this “wideness” means that all people, not just infants, may be accounted right with God through means other than personal faith. Roman Catholicism takes this route and says that “those who live out the dictates of their conscience and strive to live the best life they can” are also granted forgiveness.
The problem here, of course, is that once you grant that there is another way to deal with inherited guilt other than personal faith in Jesus Christ, you open Pandora’s Box and suddenly no longer believe in the exclusiveness of Jesus Christ and salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone.
So, where does that leave us? Here’s my view:
I don’t know what happens to infants who die because the Bible is not clear on this. Further, I am glad I don’t know because:
1) If I knew for sure that all babies dying go to hell for their sins I would be in despair, and would have to constantly fight against my anger at God for what seems unjust.
2) If I knew for sure that all babies dying go to heaven I would have to consciously re-think my total opposition to abortion since it would have to be seen as the mechanism that is populating heaven to a great extent. But, this would be ridiculous to live with as well!
So, I end up saying that God knows, and God always does what is best and right in every situation, including this one. I do believe that I can tell grieving parents that they have every right to rejoice, even in the death of their children, knowing that their Heavenly Father will do what is best and in keeping with his perfection, and that his love carries us even in these dark times.