Do Infants Go to Heaven When They Die?

Question from a Site Viewer
Do unborn children and infants go to heaven when they die?

Tim’s Answer
Your question concerning whether the unborn and infants go to heaven when they die is a good one. Different segments of the church have come to different conclusions on this issue. For instance, some have taught that infants must be baptized to go to heaven. Others believe that there is an age of accountability and that all individuals who die before that age go to heaven.

In Scripture there is not any direct passage that says, “Unborn children and infants go to heaven when they die.” There also is no passage stating that they do not go to heaven when they die. But this does not mean that Scripture is completely silent on the issue.

First, Scripture tells us that we have a God who desires none to perish (Ezekiel 18:32; 1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9). It is for this reason that Jesus, the second person of the Godhead, came to this earth in the likeness of men (Philippians 2:7) and paid the death penalty for our sins (1 Peter 2:24; 3:18). He paid the penalty for the sins of everyone (John 1:29; Romans 5:6; 1 Timothy 4:10; 1 John 2:2). Accordingly, there is no longer a sin problem that keeps people from heaven, but a belief problem. In John 3, we are told that the one who believes is not condemned, but the one who does not believe is condemned already because that one has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God (John 3:18). The concepts in verse 18 are not a passive belief and a passive unbelief, but rather an active belief and an active unbelief. People stand condemned because they choose to reject Christ, to “not belief” in His name. Stated another way, Jesus has paid the penalty for the sins of the whole world and made it possible, I believe, for none to perish. The only thing that keeps people out of heaven is their own unbelief. Stated yet another way, the sin nature of humanity is no longer the basis of condemnation. Condemnation is based solely on mankind’s choosing not to believe. (I realize that some may argue that unbelief is a sin. And, indeed it is. But it is not the fact that unbelief is a sin, but rather the fact that unbelief rejects the holy offer of God that brings about condemnation.)

Second, with the sin problem resolved by the cross, Scripture makes a series of statements that make sense only if infants and the unborn go to heaven.

I begin with Job because I believe Job best addresses the issue. Job laments his birth in Job 3 and states:

Why did I not die at birth? Why did I not perish when I came from the womb? . . . For now I would have lain still and been quiet, I would have been asleep; Then I would have been at rest with kings and counselors of the earth . . . Or why was I not hidden like a stillborn child, like infants who never saw light? There the wicked cease from troubling and there the weary are at rest. There the prisoners rest together; they do not hear the voice of the oppressor. The small and great are there, and the servant is free from his master . . .
(Job 3:11-19)

I think it is clear from this passage and Job 19:25-27 that Job believed there was life after death.

From Job 3 I believe it also is clear that Job believed that peace and rest was the destiny of infants and the unborn who die. This stands in sharp contrast to what Job saw as the destiny of the wicked. In Job 21:30 Job states:

For the wicked are reserved for the day of doom; they shall be brought out on the day of wrath.

Job did not see infants and the unborn sharing in the judgment of the wicked. Rather, their end was peace and rest.

The next Biblical text I find helpful to resolve this issue is 2 Samuel 12:15-23. In this passage, we have the story of David’s first child with Bathsheba. God struck the child with an illness, we are told. David prayed for God to spare the child. God did not grant David’s request and took the child. David, when he learned that the child had died, arose and went into the house of God and worshiped. When his servants asked about his response to the news of the child’s death, David then makes the statement:

Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.

Now some might read this as simply an acknowledgment that David knew that he would die. However, the words chosen indicate to me much more. David stated that he would “go to him.” These do not seem to be the words of despair, but rather they are words of reunification – of hope. By so stating, David indicated that when he (David) would die, his son would be where David would be. I cannot imagine that David, or any parent, would have such a response if he believed that his son had just gone into hell’s torments. I note that in the deaths of the rich man and Lazarus, in Luke 16:19-31, that there is no reunification of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man was tormented upon death. Lazarus was comforted. And there was a great gulf between them. If David believed that his son had just gone where the rich man went, David’s response makes no sense. And, in no sense could David go to him, if in fact his son went to hell. But, David’s son did not go to hell. Rather, I believe that David’s son went to Abraham’s bosom, the place where the just went at death, and the place where David would go when he died.

Some might counter with the example of Korah, Dathan, and Abraham in Numbers 16 where in verse 27 it states that they stood at the door of their tents with their wives, their sons, and their little children when the earth opened its mouth (verse 32) and swallowed them up with their households and they went alive into the pit (verse 33). They would state that this shows that the little children went straight into the pit. Yet, the same book that describes the death of Korah also tells us that the children of Korah did not actually die at this time (Numbers 26:11). In fact, the Scriptures tell us children shall not die for the sins of their fathers (Deuteronomy 24:16; Ezekiel 18:20). Some might also bring up the account of Achan in Joshua 7:24-25, but this passage is not at all clear that the sons and daughters were either young or without complicity in the crime.

In Matthew 19:14, Mark 10:14; and Luke 18:16, Jesus said that the kingdom of God is composed of little children. He was speaking of infants that were being brought to Him. This statement makes no sense if Jesus thought that infants were going to hell. It makes sense only with a view that infants are part of the kingdom of God and if they die they go to heaven.

Based on these and other Scriptures, such as 2 Kings 4:26; Jeremiah 31:15-17; Ezek. 23:37; Matthew 21:16, I believe that children are favored by God, and those who die as children, including the unborn and those with mental illness rendering them incapable of reaching a level of responsibility, go to be with the God who loves them. I think this is the best reading of Scripture and is consistent with the revealed character of God.

I find in Romans 5:13 a statement that God does not impute sin when there is no law. Now, Paul is not stating that there ever was a time on earth when there was not a moral law that existed. Rather, the focus of Paul’s thought in Romans is that it takes knowledge of law to allow the imputation of sin. Paul relies on this same position in Romans 2 where he argues that the Gentiles are guilty because they have a law within their own minds that they violate. When there is no knowledge of law, sin still exists (because our conduct does not comport with God’s glory), but personal sin is not imputed. This is also consistent with James 4:17:

Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin.

Another passage that advances the same thought is John 15:22-24, as does Deuteronomy 1:39. Nevertheless, the Adamic sin passes to all of us as evidenced by the fact that we all die.

Because I believe that an accountable knowledge of right and wrong is essential to impute personal sin, I do not believe that infants, the unborn, and those without mental capacity to discern right from wrong have personal sin imputed to them. Moreover, I believe that even if it was, their sin problem is resolved through the death of Christ. And likewise, I believe the Adamic sin is also resolved through the death of Christ. That is, Christ died not only for our sins – our acts of sin (1 Corinthians 15:3) but also our sin – our sin nature (John 1:29). Accordingly, with judgment now linked solely to active disbelief (John 3:18), I conclude that those without a capacity to actively disbelieve do not stand condemned. I believe that the God of Scripture has made a way to reach these “powerless” of the earth with His saving grace.

There is yet another reason why I believe that infants, the unborn, and the mentally ill go to heaven when they die. In my view, the fact that the issue is not a significant one in the Biblical text can be explained only by accepting a view that the death of an infant is not a eternally condemning event. As so viewed, it is understandable that there is little mention of the issue. If, in contrast, infants and the unborn stand universally condemned as Augustine taught, the silence of Scripture on the issue is inexplicable. The plea of adults for the mercy of God and the plea of mothers and fathers for Jesus to have mercy on their children pale in comparison to the anguish of a soul who believes that their dying son or daughter, or the unborn, is destined to eternal separation from God and from them. If any of those coming to Jesus believed that their little ones risked eternal damnation by dying, their anguish would have been a different kind. There is no indication that anyone in Scripture believed that a miscarriage or the death of an infant wrought such horrendous result.

I note that apparently the earliest church also accepted the position that infants went to heaven when they die. In the Shepherd of Hermas, a second century church document often called the Pilgrim’s Progress of the early church, a document that some in the early church including Ireneous viewed as being divinely inspired, it is stated:

All of you, then, who shall remain stedfast, and be as children, without doing evil, will be more honored than all who have been previously mentioned; for all infants are honorable before God, and are the first persons with Him.
Shepherd of Hermas, Similitude IX, Book III, Chap. XXIX

Also, Ireneus, a second century bishop of Lyons who taught within some 50 years of the death of the Apostle John, and who listened to Polycarp, a contemporary of the apostles, speaks of “innocent children” as having been saved. (Against Heresies, Book IV, Ch. XXVIII, Sect. 3).

Augustine, a 5th century church leader, taught the complete opposite of what was stated in the Shepherd of Hermas. Augustine stated that unbaptized infants go to hell. His conclusion was based on the facts as he saw them that all people have sin imputed to them and until they are brought into the fold though baptism, they remain condemned. So powerful was his influence that later church leaders long followed this view. The harshness of this theological position led to the tentative doctrine of Limbo propounded within the Roman Catholic Church, which was a place for the unbaptized dead infants that was neither heaven nor hell. However, the concept of Limbo has no Biblical support. Recently (January 19, 2007), the Roman Catholic Church has reassessed the issue and concluded that neither the condemnation of the infants nor Limbo accords well with the statements of Scripture.

Others have long returned to the earliest view of the church in believing that infants who die go to heaven. These include many of those in the Protestant tradition, as well as others. The Orthodox position appears to be somewhat mixed on this issue, but I have no support among the Orthodox for Augustine’s harsh position.

I believe that Augustine and those who follow his teaching on this issue are in error. I certainly accept his conclusion that the Adamic sin has infected everyone, including infants and the unborn. However, I see the death of Christ as resolving the sin problem of the world. I reiterate what I previously stated: people now go to heaven based on their decision to believe or their decision to reject belief. I do not imply by this that those who have never heard will not be held accountable for the knowledge that they have (Romans 2:12-16, Romans 10:14-18).

I believe that Augustine’s view is counter to Job’s and to David’s, and contrary to the direct teaching of Christ. Infants make up the kingdom of God.

In conclusion, I believe that infants, the unborn, and the mentally ill, who lack capacity to make a meaningful choice on the issue of belief or disbelief, go to heaven when they die. The cross has resolved the sin issue for them. For those who have never developed the capacity to believe or reject, I join with Job and David in concluding that their end is rest and peace, with the saints. I believe this is what Jesus meant when he said “of these is the kingdom of God.” The salvation of such is consistent with the revealed heart of God who makes a way for people to be saved and desires the salvation of all.

I hope this helps you in your understanding of this matter. May the Lord Jesus guide you and give you His peace.

a servant of Christ,

tim

What's Your Opinion?