If you read this site on a regular basis, you’ll know I have been doing some research on the topic of what happens to children who die before they can hear or accept the gospel. I first wrote about this here. This is an issue almost every Christian faces at some point during his pilgrimage and one for which there is no easy answer. Surveying the writings of the great Christians of the past or present will produce no clear consensus.
Before I begin I will ask you to excuse my brevity. This article weighs in at nearly 2000 words, which though not terribly long, is already too long for Internet standards. If it gets much longer than that people simply won’t read it! Therefore this discussion merely touches on many topics that could be written about at length. Perhaps in the future I will give this topic a more thorough treatment.
The predominant views found amongst believers are:
All children who die in infancy are saved.
If one view holds an edge on the others in terms of the quantity of adherents, this would likely be it. While all admit the Bible is not explicit in stating that all who die in infancy are saved, they believe it can be deduced from a study of relevant passages in Scripture.
The children of believers are saved.
This view, held by a minority of believers, depends on covenant theology which would put it at odds with many believers. This view indicates, then, that the children of most, if not all unbelievers, are reprobate.
We can have no assurance
This view simply states that there is not sufficient evidence in Scripture to make a firm determination. Eventually we must simply state that we do not know and leave it to God to work out.
Unbaptized infants are not saved while baptized infants may be
This is the view of the Roman Catholic church and Protestant denominations which teach some form of baptismal regeneration. Because this view clashes with the beliefs of the vast majority of Protestants I will not address it at this time, for it would require in-depth understanding of the Catholic doctrines regarding baptism.
We will briefly examine each of the first three teachings.
View 1: All Children Who Die In Infancy Are Saved
As mentioned earlier, this seems to be the predominant view in Christian circles, both Evangelical and Reformed. Among those who hold to this view are R.C. Sproul, John MacArthur, John Piper, B.B. Warfield and Charles Spurgeon.
This view teaches that God, out of His grace chooses to save all who die in infancy. While adherents affirm the seriousness of original sin and acknowledge that all infants have inherited a sin nature from Adam, they also teaching that extends special grace to these infants. Sproul says ‘infants who die are given a special dispensation of the grace of God; it is not by their innocence but by God’s grace that they are received into heaven.’ (Now That’s A Good Question, page 295). Sinful nature, then, is not sufficient reason for God to condemn the child, for where salvation is by grace, damnation is by works. Those who have not had opportunity to do works which explicity and willfully reject God are not condemned to hell on that basis.
John MacArthur, in his book Safe In The Arms of God points out that the Bible consistently refers to the inhabitants of hell as being those who willfully committed sins and rebellion. He believes God does not condemn infants because: they have no willful rebellion or unbelief; they have never suppressed the truth; they have no understanding of sin’s impact or consequences; they have no debased behavior; and they have no ability to choose salvation. MacArthur concludes ‘there is no place in Scripture in which a person suffers the judgment of damnation on the basis of anything other than sinful deeds, including the sinful deed of disbelief — a conscious, willful, intentional choice to disbelieve. Furthermore, God does not charge people with sins until sins are committed.’ (page 89)
John Piper, after acknowledging the presence and importance of original sin, says that ‘if a person lacks the natural capacity to see the revelation of God’s will or God’s glory then that person’s sin would not remain – God would not bring the person into final judgment for not believing what he had no natural capacity to see.’ In response to Romans 1 which speaks of God’s revelation through nature as leaving those who have never heard the gospel without excuse Piper says ‘if a person did not have access to the revelation of God’s glory – did not have the natural capacity to see it and understand it, then Paul implies they would have an excuse at the judgment.’ He concludes: ‘The point for us is that even though we human beings are under the penalty of everlasting judgment and death because of the fall of our race into sin and the sinful nature that we all have, nevertheless God only executes this judgment on those who have the natural capacity to see his glory and understand his will, and refuse to embrace it as their treasure’Infants, I believe, do not yet have that capacity; and therefore, in God’s inscrutable way, he brings them under the forgiving blood of his Son.’
We see, then, that the one thing this view fails to satisfactorily reconcile is original sin. The teaching of Scripture is clear: even if I never committed a sin throughout my entire life, I would still be condemned to hell because of the original sin of Adam. This sin is imputed to me because Adam, as representative of the human race, sinned on my behalf. This very sin is the reason Jesus had to be born of God — that is the only way He could be born freed from original sin. As such He was pure, not just in His actions but also in His very nature.
View 2: The Children of Believers Are Saved
This view is held by many Reformed believers, especially those with firm beliefs in covenant theology. They 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 infance, 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.
View 3: We Can Have No Assurance
Surprisingly I was able to find little ‘official’ support for this view. It is surprising because generally where Scripture does not explicitly state a doctrine Christians are 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 very nearly believed in presumptive regeneration (that children of believers are presumed to be saved until they prove otherwise). The view I was taught was that the children of believers are saved and that we can have no certainty about the children of unbelievers.
After doing much study and reflection on this topic, I find myself simply shaking my head and realizing I simply do not know. 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 simply categorically overlook original sin in all children. Adherents of this view simply gloss-over or downplay original sin, and that is something I am not willing to do. These children 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 that He always will. I also do not find strong support for the idea that only the children of believers will be saved. This leaves me in the third camp, believing that God knows best. In His wisdom He has chosen not to reveal what happens to children who die in infancy. Thus it is best not to speculate, but instead take confidence in what we do know — that He 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!’