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What is the Eternal Destiny of those who Die in Infancy?

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Recent revelatory videos about the practices of Planned Parenthood have stirred many to ask about the eternal destiny of these precious unborn babies. Continue reading . . .

Recent revelatory videos about the practices of Planned Parenthood have stirred many to ask about the eternal destiny of these precious unborn babies. Here is a shortened version of what I wrote in my book, Tough Topics: Biblical Answers to 25 Challenging Questions (Crossway). If you want a more in-depth analysis that interacts with the many different answers, see Tough Topics, pp. 104-119.

So, are those who die in infancy lost? The same question would apply to those who live beyond infancy but because of mental disability or some other handicap are incapable of moral discernment, deliberation, or volition. This is more than a theoretical issue designed for our speculation and curiosity. It touches one of the most emotionally and spiritually unsettling experiences in all of life: the loss of a young child.

The view that I embrace is that all those dying in infancy, as well as those so mentally incapacitated that they are incapable of making an informed choice, are among the elect of God chosen by him for salvation before the world began. The evidence for this view is scant, but significant.

First, in Romans 1:20 Paul describes people who are recipients of general revelation as being “without excuse.” That is to say, they cannot blame their unbelief on a lack of evidence. There is sufficient revelation of God’s existence in the natural order to establish the moral accountability of all who witness it. Does this imply that those who are not recipients of general revelation (i.e., infants) are therefore not accountable to God or subject to wrath? In other words, would not those who die in infancy have an “excuse” in that they neither receive general revelation nor have the capacity to respond to it?

Second, there are texts which appear to assert or imply that infants do not know good or evil and hence lack the capacity to make morally informed and thus responsible choices. According to Deuteronomy 1:39 they are said to “have no knowledge of good or evil.” This in itself, however, would not prove infant salvation, for they may still be held liable for the sin of Adam.

Third, we must take account of the story of David’s son in 2 Samuel 12:15-23 (esp. v. 23). The first-born child of David and Bathsheba was struck by the Lord and died. In the seven days before his death, David fasted and prayed, hoping that “the Lord may be gracious to me, that the child may live” (v. 22). Following his death, David washed himself, ate food, and worshipped (v. 20). When asked why he responded in this way, he said that the child “has died; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me” (v. 23).

What does it mean when David says “I shall go to him”? If this is merely a reference to the grave or death, in the sense that David, too, shall one day die and be buried, one wonders why he would say something so patently obvious! Also, it appears that David draws some measure of comfort from knowing that he will “go to him”. It is the reason why David resumes the normal routine of life. It appears to be the reason David ceases from the outward display of grief. It appears to be a truth from which David derives comfort and encouragement. How could any of this be true if David will simply die like his son? It would, therefore, appear that David believed he would be reunited with his deceased infant. Does this imply that at least this one particular infant was saved? Perhaps. But if so, are we justified in constructing a doctrine in which we affirm the salvation of all who die in infancy?

Fourth, there is the consistent testimony of Scripture that people are judged on the basis of sins voluntary and consciously committed in the body (see 2 Cor. 5:10; 1 Cor. 6:9-10; Rev. 20:11-12). In other words, eternal judgment is always based on conscious rejection of divine revelation (whether in creation, conscience, or Christ) and willful disobedience. Are infants capable of either? There is no explicit account in Scripture of any other judgment based on any other grounds. Thus, those dying in infancy are saved because they do not (indeed cannot) satisfy the conditions for divine judgment.

Fifth, and related to the above point, is what R. A. Webb states. If a deceased infant

“were sent to hell on no other account than that of original sin, there would be a good reason to the divine mind for the judgment, but the child’s mind would be a perfect blank as to the reason of its suffering. Under such circumstances, it would know suffering, but it would have no understanding of the reason for its suffering. It could not tell its neighbor – it could not tell itself – why it was so awfully smitten; and consequently the whole meaning and significance of its sufferings, being to it a conscious enigma, the very essence of penalty would be absent, and justice would be disappointed of its vindication. Such an infant could feel that it was in hell, but it could not explain, to its own conscience, why it was there” (The Theology of Infant Salvation [Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1981], 288-89).

Sixth, we have what would appear to be clear biblical evidence that at least some infants are regenerate in the womb, such that if they had died in their infancy they would be saved. This at least provides a theoretical basis for considering whether the same may be true of all who die in infancy. That is to say, “if this sort of thing happens even once, it can certainly happen in other cases” (Ronald Nash, When a Baby Dies [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999], 65).These texts include Jeremiah 1:5 and Luke 1:15.

Seventh, some have appealed to Matthew 19:13-15 (Mark 10:13-16; Luke 18:15-17) where Jesus declares, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” Is Jesus simply saying that if one wishes to be saved he/she must be as trusting as children, i.e., devoid of skepticism and arrogance? In other words, is Jesus merely describing the kind of people who enter the kingdom? Or is he saying that these very children were recipients of saving grace? But if the latter were true, it would seem to imply that Jesus knew that the children whom he was then receiving would all die in their infancy. Is that credible?

Eighth, Millard Erickson argues for the salvation of deceased infants in an unusual way. He argues that notwithstanding Adam’s sin, there must be a conscious and voluntary decision on our part to embrace or ratify it. Until such is the case, the imputation of Adam’s sin to his physical posterity, as is also true of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to his spiritual posterity, is conditional. Thus, prior to reaching the “age of accountability” all infants are innocent. When and in what way does this ratification of Adam’s sin come about? Erickson explains:

“We become responsible and guilty when we accept or approve of our corrupt nature. There is a time in the life of each one of us when we become aware of our own tendency toward sin. At that point we may abhor the sinful nature that has been there all the time. We would in that case repent of it and might even, if there is an awareness of the gospel, ask God for forgiveness and cleansing. . . . But if we acquiesce in that sinful nature, we are in effect saying that it is good. In placing our tacit approval upon the corruption, we are also approving or concurring in the action in the Garden of Eden so long ago. We become guilty of that sin without having to commit a sin of our own” (Christian Theology [Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984], 2:639).

But there are at least two problems with this. First, if we are born with a corrupt and sinful nature, as Erickson concedes we are, our willing ratification of Adam’s transgression and the guilt and corruption of nature which are its effects is itself an inevitable effect of the corrupt nature to which we are now ostensibly giving our approval. In other words, how else could a person who is born corrupt and wicked respond but in a corrupt and wicked way, namely, by ratifying Adam’s sin? If Erickson should suggest that such a response is not inevitable, one can only wonder why it is that every single human being who ever lived (except Jesus) ratifies and embraces the sin of Adam and its resultant corruption of nature. Surely someone, somewhere would have said No. Erickson would have to argue that at the point when each soul becomes morally accountable it enters a state of complete moral and spiritual equilibrium, in no way biased by the corruption of nature and wicked disposition with which it was born.

But that leads to the second problem, for it would mean that each of us experiences our own Garden of Eden, as it were. Each human soul stands its own probation at the moment the age of moral accountability is reached. But if that is so, what is the point of trying to retain any connection at all between what Adam did and who/what we are? If ultimately I become corrupt by my own first choice, what need is there of Adam? And if I am corrupt antecedent to that first choice, we are back to square one: my guilt and corruption inherited from Adam, the penal consequence of his choice as the head and representative of the race.

Finally, let me close with a ninth argument that is entirely subjective in nature (and therefore of questionable evidential value). We must ask the question: Given our understanding of the character of God as presented in Scripture, does he appear as the kind of God who would eternally condemn infants on no other ground than that of Adam’s transgression? Admittedly, this is a subjective (and perhaps sentimental) question. But it deserves an answer, nonetheless.

I can only speak for myself, but I find the first, third, fourth, fifth, and ninth points sufficiently convincing. Therefore, I do believe in the salvation of those dying in infancy. I affirm their salvation, however, neither because they are innocent nor because they have merited God’s forgiveness but solely because God has sovereignly chosen them for eternal life, regenerated their souls, and applied the saving benefits of the blood of Christ to them apart from conscious faith.

3 Comments

What about the promise of all nations worshipping in heaven? The definition of nations may vary by person, but I imagine at least one nation (people group) went extinct before the gospel reached them. How else what that nation be represented in heaven unless their infants who died are there?

Hi Sam - I was wondering whether you could comment on Psalm 51:5, 'Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me' (ESV). Some modern versions state the verse as 'Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me' (NIV) and 'For I was born a sinner--yes, from the moment my mother conceived me' (NLT). I understand that any English translation is always going to involve interpretation. But it is interesting that the Septuagint which is probably the earliest translation and commentary that we have on the Old Testament renders it in such a way that suggests any form of sin being discussed was his mothers alone - 'For behold, in evils I was conceived, and in sins my mother conceived me'. Perhaps the defense of original sin in recent years has influenced the translators. Just wondering what your thoughts on the verse were and whether you could explain the disparity.

Thank you again for stating a position clearly and with convincing arguments. God bless you for your insights, wisdom and ministry to the church at large.

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