In the article I wrote yesterday I began discussing the issue of what happens to children who die in infancy. I looked at the view which states that all children who die are immediately ushered into heaven and I pointed out what I feel to be a serious flaw with that argument. Today I’ll continue this discussion by commenting on the other two positions popular among Christians and end with a statement of my beliefs.
But before I do that, I’d like to return briefly to yesterday’s article. I tried to be as responsive as possible in the comments area, so it may prove valuable to read the comments posted there. I would like to respond to a concern expressed by a couple of people who suggested that the idea of an infant going to hell is repugnant.
I would tend to agree that the thought of a tiny infant in hell is repugnant. Such a view, though, presupposes that people who go to hell are the same age in hell as they were when they died. I think it is more likely that in eternity age will be of little consequence. Those who died old and infirm will likely be restored to when they were more able-bodied and when they were of sound mind. Or so I would think. I would also suggest that infants will be made older. Gene Bridges said it like this: “In heaven, wouldn’t you, in a sense, age up, age down, or both? You would age down in the sense that if you were past your prime when you died, you’d then revert to an optimal time of life—both mentally (in the intermediate state) and physically (in the final state). But you’d also continue to mature—in that same ageless and youthful state—to mature intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.” This is speculation, but speculation that seems consistent with what we know of God and of hell. Also, it seems clear in Scripture that, just as not all who are saved will receive the same degree of reward, so all who are condemned will not receive the same degree of punishment. It may well be that children, should they be condemned, will receive a much lighter degree of punishment than those who have committed many more and many greater sins. In my mind this is similar to how Christians are saved by grace but rewarded, at least partially, on the basis of works. Finally, God knows not only what a man has done, but what is in his heart and what he is capable of doing. An infant who died when still tiny, may well have gone on to lead a life in which he committed terrible and horrifying atrocities. God knows. We do not and we cannot.
Let’s turn now to the final two understandings of what happens to children who die in infancy.
The Children of Believers Are Saved
This view is held by many Reformed believers, especially those with firm beliefs in covenant theology. These people believe Scripture teaches that God continues to work through covenants, much as He did in Old Testament times. As God made a covenant with Abraham that extended not only to him but to his children, and thus entered into a relationship with both Abraham and Isaac, in the same way He sets apart to Himself the children of believers today.
This is the view of the writers of the Canons of Dort which says “Since we must make judgments about God’s will from his Word, which testifies that the children of believers are holy, not by nature but by virtue of the gracious covenant in which they together with their parents are included, godly parents ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom God calls out of this life in infancy.” While it speaks of the salvation of infants of believers, it does not speak about the children of unbelievers.
The Westminster Confession takes a slightly different view, choosing not to explicitly mention the covenant. “Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit, who worketh when, and where, and how he pleaseth. So also are all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word.” The question that might arise in response to this answer is “who are the elect infants?” I believe the writers would answer in a similar fashion to the Canons of Dort, indicating that believing parents can have assurance where unbelieving parents can not. In short, this view presupposes that God’s act of election foresaw which children of believers would die in infancy, and He sovereignly elected those children to be numbered among the elect. God graciously provided salvation for these children through His covenant.
I have more sympathy for the view of the Westminster Confession than that of the Canons of Dort. The Confession explicitly states that elect infants will be saved. And I agree that, if God has seen fit to elect children who die in infancy, they must be saved. I believe the Canons of Dort steps outside the clear teaching of Scripture when it says “godly parents ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom God calls out of this life in infancy.” This is a possibility, but hardly something that is made plain in Scripture.
We Can Have No Assurance
Surprisingly I was able to find little formal and well-articulated support for this view. I find this surprising because where Scripture does not explicitly state a doctrine, we might expect Christians to be slow to speculate. It would seem that this view requires the least amount of speculation. Herman Bavinck believed we could have no assurance saying “I would not wish to deny, nor am I able to affirm.” Cornelius Venema concurs, saying “caution is preferable to the confident denial or affirmation of this possibility.”
The weakness in this view is simply that it is not very satisfying. As inquisitive beings we wish to have answers to all of our questions. Stating that we do not and cannot know does not satisfy our desire to know.
I suppose it would be unfair to do all this research and not indicate what I believe, so I will provide a few thoughts. I grew up in churches that had strong views on covenant theology and believed in the doctrine of presumptive regeneration (which states that children of believers are presumed to be saved until they prove otherwise). The view I was taught was that children who die in infancy and are members of believing families are saved, but that we can have no certainty about the children of unbelievers. I abandoned this view on the basis of empirical evidence long before I abandoned it on the basis of Scriptural evidence. I saw countless spiritual delinquents living with the belief that they were saved simply because they were children of the covenant. The inestimable privilege of growing up in a Christian family was reduced to a license to sin. Parents refused to challenge their children and felt little need to share the gospel with them. When I did turn to Scripture to wrestle with this issue I was not surprised to learn that it cannot be adequately supported. I am thankful that my parents did not support this view and that they constantly challenged myself and my siblings to know and believe and trust the gospel.
After doing much study and reflection on this topic, I find myself simply shaking my head and realizing I am unable to know from Scripture what happens to all infants who die. While I would like to believe that all children are immediately ushered into heaven, I simply do not find Scripture to support the idea that God will categorically overlook the imputation of Adam’s sin that is held against all humanity, and even the tiniest child. It seems to me that those who adhere to the view that all children are saved must gloss-over or downplay original sin, and that is something I cannot do. Children who die in infancy are as fully implicated in Adam’s sin as I am and are thus fully deserving of hell. While that does not necessarily indicate that God will not or cannot save them, I do not find evidence in Scripture that He always will. I also do not find strong support for the idea that only the children of believers will be saved and that all the children of believers will be saved.
What I believe we can know from Scripture is that at least some children who die in infancy will be saved, for the Scripture speaks of John the Baptist who was filled with the Holy Spirit while still in the womb. At least one child was saved before birth. If we are justified by faith as a free gift, and if we believe in our total inability without His grace, surely God, who creates tiny babies, can speak to their hearts in a way that can fill them with the Spirit. If God, through His grace, wishes to save an infant, I’m sure He can. But as to the extent or wideness of this grace, I cannot speak for God does not tell. I would also assume that, just as God is gracious to show mercy to generation after generation of believing families, it is likely that children who die in infancy as members of Christian families are more likely to be numbered among the elect than those who are members of unbelieving families.
And so my view seems to hover between the second and the third. I believe we can have little assurance about the eternal destination of all children, but that we can have some degree of assurance about some children. Scripture does not state that all children are saved and it does not say that all children are condemned. My position falls between these two. I believe, as did the Puritan divines, that “all elect infants dying in infancy go to heaven.” As with the rest of God’s elect, we will not infallibly know who these people are until we are ushered into God’s presence. And at that moment I am convinced that we will all be overwhelmed not by how few there are, but how many. I have concluded that in His wisdom God has chosen not to reveal what happens to all children who die in infancy. Thus it is best not to speculate or to comfort ourselves with false assurances, but instead take confidence in what we do know—that God is just, but gracious. I am left crying out with Paul “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!”
An article explaining John Piper’s understanding of this issue concludes with reflections on George Mueller’s sermon text after the death of his wife. His three points were: The Lord was good, and did good, in giving her to me. The Lord was good and did good, in so long leaving her to me. The Lord was good and did good, in taking her from me.” This is an attitude of great faith. Mueller knew that God always does good. We must conclude the same, even if God chooses to give us an infant for only a short period of time. I hope and pray that I would have the strength and faith to thank God for the time I’ve spent with my little Michaela, even if He took her from me after only three months. For certainly He was good to give her to me and to leave her with me for this long. Who am I to believe that He could take her from me too soon? He knows best and He does best. This must be my refuge.
Having discussed children who die in infancy, I’d like to turn in another article to a defense of my view that my children are likely unsaved.