What becomes of those who die in infancy, before reaching an age of intellectual and moral development that would make it possible for them to understand and respond to the revelation of God in the gospel and in creation? This question also applies to those who grow into adulthood suffering from such severe mental impairment that they are incapable of moral discernment, deliberation, or rational decision-making. If human nature is corrupt and guilty from conception, the consequence of Adam’s transgression (Ps. 51:5: Eph. 2:1ff.), are those who die in infancy lost? Here are ten things that will help us respond to this issue.
(1) One view insists that those dying in infancy are saved for the simple reason that there is nothing in them or done by them that merits condemnation. In other words, they are born in a state of moral neutrality or moral equilibrium. They do not possess a sin nature nor are they corrupt. They are, in a word, characterless. They lack moral standing. There is nothing in their souls that is properly the object of divine judgment. Hence all dying in that state are saved for no other reason than that they are not condemnable. Several texts would seem to contradict this view, among them Pss. 51:5; 58:3; Prov. 22:15; Gen. 8:21; Job 15:14-16; and Eph. 2:3.
(2) Another viewpoint simply asserts that all will be saved, inclusive of those dying in infancy. None will suffer eternal condemnation. God’s saving grace extends effectually to the entire human race. Again, countless texts could be cited to disprove this idea, among them Matt. 7:13-14, 21-23; 8:11-12; 10:28; 13:37-42; Luke 16:23-28; 2 Thess. 1:9; Jude 6; Rev. 14:10-11; 20:11-15.
(3) Others have appealed to 1 Corinthians 7:14-16 to argue that the infants or children of a believing parent or parents are, for that reason, granted special salvific privilege in the kingdom of God. Again, this view is only as cogent as is that particular interpretation of 1 Cor. 7. A related perspective advocated by a number of Reformed theologians is that some who die in infancy are elect, and therefore saved, while others are non-elect, and therefore condemned.
(4) Certain traditions within Christianity have affirmed baptismal regeneration, according to which the waters of baptism are used by God to effect the regeneration, spiritual cleansing, and forgiveness of the infant. Needless to say, this view is only as cogent as is the case for baptismal regeneration, and the case for the latter is worse than weak. In addition, it fails to address the question of what happens to the vast majority of infants in the history of the world who died without the benefit of Christian baptism.
The Roman Catholic Church has acknowledged the possibility of a state of natural blessedness or happiness in which unbaptized infants experience a form of eternal peace but not the consummate joy of heaven itself. The concept of Limbo in Roman Catholic theology is tied to their beliefs concerning original sin and the necessity of baptism for salvation.
According to Roman Catholicism, two things are accomplished in water baptism: first: the individual is purified from the guilt of both original sin and all personal sins (the latter, of course, would be relevant only in the case of adults); and second, the person experiences regeneration or the new birth. In the Catechism, we read that “Baptism not only purifies from all sins, but also makes the neophyte ‘a new creature,’ an adopted son of God, who has become a ‘partaker of the divine nature,’ member of Christ and co-heir with him, and a temple of the Holy Spirit” (Catechism, 1265).
Children are likewise to be baptized. According to the Catechism, “Born with a fallen human nature and tainted by original sin, children also have need of the new birth in Baptism to be freed from the power of darkness and brought into the realm of the freedom of the children of God, to which all men are called. . . . The Church and the parents would deny a child the priceless grace of becoming a child of God were they not to confer Baptism shortly after birth” (1250).
As for children who have died without baptism, “the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus’ tenderness toward children which caused him to say: ‘Let the children come to me, do not hinder them,’ allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism” (1261).
(5) There are some biblical texts that seem to suggest, by inference, that those dying in infancy are saved. 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?
(6) 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?
(7) There is also 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. Related to this point is something R. A. Webb has noted. 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, 288-89).
(8) 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. These texts include Jeremiah 1:5 and Luke 1:15.
(9) 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?
(10) This final comment is an 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.
Although the biblical evidence is not as pervasive or explicit as we might wish, 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.