What happens to infants who die? This is an issue almost every Christian faces at some point during his pilgrimage and it is one for which there is no easy answer. What’s more, surveying the writings of the great Christians of the past or present produces no clear consensus. Here are the predominant views found amongst believers:
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 here, 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 a belief in covenant theology and holds that the children of believers are ushered into heaven; it takes no clear stand on what happens to the children of unbelievers.
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 are (or 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.
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, in 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 teach that God 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 (see Now, That’s a Good Question!). Sinful nature, then, is not sufficient reason for God to condemn the child, for where salvation is by grace, damnation is by works.
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 committ 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, which is a conscious, willful, intentional choice to disbelieve.
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 Gods 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.
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 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.
View 3: We Simply Aren’t Told
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.