The Salvation of the 'Little Ones': Do Infants who Die Go to Heaven?
By R. Albert Mohler, Jr. (President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary)
and Daniel L. Akin (President of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary)
(This article was written while Dr. Akin worked at Southern Theological Seminary)
The death of an infant or young child is profoundly heartbreaking - perhaps the greatest grief a parent is called to bear. For Christian parents, there is the sure knowledge that our sovereign and merciful God is in control, but there is also a pressing question: Is our baby in heaven?
This is a natural and unavoidable question, calling for our most careful and faithful biblical study and theological reflection. The unspeakable anguish of a parent's heart demands our honest and humble searching of the Scriptures.
Some are quick to answer this question out of sentimentality. Of course infants go to heaven, they argue, for how could God refuse a precious little one? The Universalist has a quick answer, for he believes that everyone will go to heaven. Some persons may simply suggest that elect infants go to heaven, while the non-elect do not, and must suffer endless punishment. Each of these easy answers is unsatisfactory.
Mere sentimentalism ignores the Bible's teaching which bears on the issue. We have no right to establish doctrine on the basis of what we hope may be true. We must draw our answers from what the Bible reveals to be true.
Universalism is an unbiblical heresy. The Bible clearly teaches that we are born in sin and that God will not tolerate sinners. God has made one absolute and definitive provision for our salvation through the substitutionary atonement accomplished by Jesus Christ our Lord. Salvation comes to those who believe on His name and confess him as Savior. The Bible teaches a dual destiny for the human race. The redeemed - those who are in Christ - will be raised to eternal life with the Father in Heaven. Those who have not believed in Christ and confessed Him as Lord will suffer eternal punishment in the fires of Hell. Universalism is a dangerous and unbiblical teaching. It offers a false promise and denies the Gospel.
The Bible reveals that we are born marked by original sin, and thus we cannot claim that infants are born in a state of innocence. Any biblical answer to the question of infant salvation must start from the understanding that infants are born with a sin nature.
The shifting of the focus to election actually avoids answering the question. We must do better, and look more closely at the issues at stake.
Throughout the centuries, the church has offered several different answers to this question. In the early church, Ambrose believed that baptized infants went to heaven, while unbaptized infants did not, though they received immunity from the pains of hell. His first error was believing in infant baptism, and thus in baptismal regeneration. Baptism does not save, and it is reserved for believers - not for infants. His second error was his indulgence in speculation. Scripture does not teach such a half-way position which denies infants admission to heaven, but saves them from the peril of hell. Augustine, the great theologian of the fourth century, basically agreed with Ambrose, and shared his understanding of infant baptism.
Others have taught that infants will have an opportunity to come to Christ after death. This position was held by Gregory of Nyssa, and is growing among many contemporary theologians, who claim that all, regardless of age, will have a post-mortem opportunity to confess Christ as Savior. The problem with this position is that Scripture teaches no such post-mortem opportunity. It is a figment of a theologian's imagination, and must be rejected.
Those who divide infants into the elect and non-elect seek to affirm the clear and undeniable doctrine of divine election. The Bible teaches that God elects persons to salvation from eternity, and that our salvation is all of grace. At first glance, this position appears impregnable in relation to the issue of infant salvation - a simple statement of the obvious. A second glance, however, reveals a significant evasion. What if all who die in infancy are among the elect? Do we have a biblical basis for believing that all persons who die in infancy are among the elect?
We believe that Scripture does indeed teach that all persons who die in infancy are among the elect. This must not be based only in our hope that it is true, but in a careful reading of the Bible. We start with the biblical affirmations we have noted already. First, the Bible reveals that we are "brought forth in iniquity,"(1) and thus bear the stain of original sin from the moment of our conception. Thus, we face squarely the sin problem. Second, we acknowledge that God is absolutely sovereign in salvation. We do not deserve salvation, and can do nothing to earn our salvation, and thus it is all of grace. Further we understand that our salvation is established by God's election of sinners to salvation through Christ. Third, we affirm that Scripture teaches that Jesus Christ is the sole and sufficient Savior, and that salvation comes only on the basis of His blood atonement. Fourth, we affirm that the Bible teaches a dual eternal destiny - the redeemed to Heaven, the unredeemed to Hell.
What, then is our basis for claiming that all those who die in infancy are among the elect? First, the Bible teaches that we are to be judged on the basis of our deeds committed "in the body."(2) That is, we will face the judgment seat of Christ and be judged, not on the basis of original sin, but for our sins committed during our own lifetimes. Each will answer "according to what he has done,"(3) and not for the sin of Adam. The imputation of Adam's sin and guilt explains our inability to respond to God without regeneration, but the Bible does not teach that we will answer for Adam's sin. We will answer for our own. But what about infants? Have those who die in infancy committed such sins in the body? We believe not.
One biblical text is particularly helpful at this point. After the children of Israel rebelled against God in the wilderness, God sentenced that generation to die in the wilderness after forty years of wandering. "Not one of these men, this evil generation, shall see the good land which I swore to give your fathers."(4) But this was not all. God specifically exempted young children and infants from this sentence, and even explained why He did so: "Moreover, your little ones who you said would become prey, and your sons, who this day have no knowledge of good and evil, shall enter there, and I will give it to them and they shall possess it."(5) The key issue here is that God specifically exempted from the judgment those who "have no knowledge of good or evil" because of their age. These "little ones" would inherit the Promised Land, and would not be judged on the basis of their fathers' sins.
We believe that this passage bears directly on the issue of infant salvation, and that the accomplished work of Christ has removed the stain of original sin from those who die in infancy. Knowing neither good nor evil, these young children are incapable of committing sins in the body - are not yet moral agents - and die secure in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.
John Newton, the great minister who wrote the hymn Amazing Grace was certain of this truth. He wrote to close friends who had lost a young child: "I hope you are both well reconciled to the death of your child. I cannot be sorry for the death of infants. How many storms do they escape! Nor can I doubt, in my private judgment, that they are included in the election of grace."(6) The great Princeton theologians Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield held the same position.
One of the most eloquent and powerful expressions of this understanding of infant salvation came from the heart of Charles Spurgeon. Preaching to his own congregation, Spurgeon consoled grieving parents: "Now, let every mother and father here present know assuredly that it is well with the child, if God hath taken it away from you in its infant days."(7) Spurgeon turned this conviction into an evangelistic call. "Many of you are parents who have children in heaven. Is it not a desirable thing that you should go there, too? He continued: "Mother, unconverted mother, from the battlements of heaven your child beckons you to Paradise. Father, ungodly, impenitent father, the little eyes that once looked joyously on you, look down upon you now, and the lips which scarcely learned to call you father, ere they were sealed by the silence of death, may be heard as with a still small voice, saying to you this morning, 'Father, must we be forever divided by the great gulf which no man can pass?' Doth not nature itself put a sort of longing in your soul that you may be bound in the bundle of life with your own children?"
Jesus instructed his disciples that they should "Permit the children to come to Me; do not hinder them; for the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these."(8) We believe that our Lord graciously and freely received all those who die in infancy - not on the basis of their innocence or worthiness - but by his grace, made theirs through the atonement He purchased on the cross.
When we look into the grave of one of these little ones, we do not place our hope and trust in the false promises of an unbiblical theology, in the instability of sentimentalism, in the cold analysis of human logic, nor in the cowardly refuge of ambiguity.
We place our faith in Christ, and trust Him to be faithful to his Word. We claim the promises of the Scriptures and the assurance of the grace of our Lord. We know that heaven will be filled with those who never grew to maturity on earth, but in heaven will greet us completed in Christ. Let us resolve by grace to meet them there.
- Psalm 51:5. All biblical citations are from the New American Standard Bible.
- 2 Corinthians 5:10
- Deuteronomy 1:35
- Deuteronomy 1:39
- John Newton, "Letter IX," The Works of John Newton (London, 1820), p. 182.
- Charles H. Spurgeon, "Infant Salvation" A sermon preached September 29, 1861. Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit (London, 1861), p. 505.
8. Mark 10:14
In the Shadow of Death--The Little Ones Are Safe With Jesus
By Dr. Al Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
The photographs and images are now seared into our consciousness. One of the most troubling aspects of the disaster in Southeast Asia is the death of infants and young children. Moving at the speed of a jetliner, the walls of water fell on the young and the old alike--and so many of the youngest were simply swept away.
The death of the little ones poses anguished questions that reach to the depth of Christian faith. What happened to these young victims after death? Did they go to Heaven or to Hell?
That question is too pastorally loaded to be left hanging, only to be found at the end of this article. I am convinced that those who die in infancy and early childhood--along with the severely cognitively impaired--go to Heaven when they die. That is quite a claim, but it stands within the mainstream of orthodox Christian theology throughout the centuries, and I believe it is biblically and theologically sustainable.
In fact, I am hard pressed to imagine how any other answer can be given.
This is a question of emotional urgency for grieving parents, and it is a stone of stumbling for some who jump to hasty theological conclusions. The scope of the problem is huge, for untold millions of human beings have died at the earliest ages. Infant mortality still stands at several million babies a year. In the developing world, disease, famine, and abandonment take a heavy toll. Even in the most highly developed nations, armed with the latest medical technologies, thousands of infants die each year.
The best estimates out of Indonesia and Sri Lanka indicate that young children make up a disproportionate number of the victims of the tsunamis. Like Rachel in the Old Testament, anguished mothers weep for their children.
What is our answer to the question of the eternal destiny awaiting those children? My argument that these children are safe in the presence of Jesus Christ is based upon biblical evidence and theological reasoning. I cannot accept the glib and superficial assertions put forth by those who would simply offer assurance without adequate argument.
These infants are in Heaven, but not because they were not sinners. The Bible teaches that we are all conceived in sin and born in sin, and each of us is a sinner from the moment we draw our first breath. The doctrines of original sin and total depravity do not spring from some speculative theological imagination, but from the clear teaching of Scripture. There is no state of innocence, and these babies cannot enter Heaven unless the penalty for their sin is provided by the atonement of Jesus Christ.
These infants are in Heaven, but not because everyone is in Heaven. The Bible presents us with a stark picture of two destinies for humankind. Those who are in Christ, who have been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb, will be in Heaven. Those who are apart from Christ will be in Hell. Hell may be a despised concept--rejected by the theological modernizers--but it will not disappear, and its horrors await those who die without Christ. Jesus warned sinners to fear Hell, and the Bible warns that we must flee the wrath that is to come. Universalism is just not an option for any Christian who believes the Bible. Those who deny Hell deny the authority of Christ.
These infants are in heaven, but not because any of them were baptized. The practice of infant baptism has led to multiple theological confusions, and the death of infants is often one of the points of greatest bewilderment. Most of the early church fathers simply assumed that baptized infants who die in infancy go to Heaven, while unbaptized infants do not. These significant Christian leaders and thinkers, including figures such as Ambrose of Milan and Augustine of Hippo, taught the doctrine of baptismal regeneration--a belief still held by the Roman Catholic Church and most Eastern Orthodox churches. Among Protestants, Lutherans hold to a form of baptismal regeneration and some sacramentalists in other denominations also lean in that direction. According to this logic, infants are saved because they have been baptized and have thus received the gift of salvation. There is simply not a shred of biblical support for this argument. What these churches call infant baptism cannot help us in framing our argument. There is no biblical foundation for arguing for the salvation of infants from baptism, or for positing the existence of "Limbo" as a place of eternal suspension for unbaptized infants.
So, how can we frame an argument that is true to Scripture and consistent with the Gospel? Before turning to Heaven, perhaps we should take a closer look at Hell. According to the Bible, Hell is a place of punishment for sins consciously committed during our earthly lives. We are told that we will be judged according to our deeds committed "in the body." [2 Corinthians 5:10] Adam's sin and guilt, imputed to every single human being, explains why we are born as sinners and why we cannot not sin, but the Bible clearly teaches that every person will be judged for his or her own sins, not for Adam's sin. The judgment of sinners that will take place at the great white throne [Revelation 20:11-12] will be "according to their deeds." Have those who died in infancy committed such deeds? I believe not, for they have not yet developed the capacity to know good from evil. No biblical text refers to the presence of small children or infants in Hell--not one.
Theologians have long debated an "age of accountability." The Bible does not reveal an "age" at which moral accountability arrives, but we do know by observation and experience that maturing human beings do develop a capacity for moral reasoning at some point. Dismissing the idea of an "age" of accountability, John MacArthur refers to a "condition" of accountability. I most often speak of a point or capacity of moral accountability. At this point of moral development, the maturing child knows the difference between good and evil--and willingly chooses to sin.
The Bible offers a fascinating portrait of this truth in the first chapter of Deuteronomy. In response to Israel's sin and rebellion, God condemns that generation of adults to death in the wilderness, never to see the land of promise. "Not one of these men, this evil generation, shall see the good land which I swore to give to your fathers." [Deuteronomy 1:35]. But God specifically exempted young children and infants from this condemnation--and He even explained why He did so: "Moreover, your little ones who you said would become prey, and your sons, who this day have no knowledge of good and evil, shall enter there, and I will give it to them and they shall possess it." [Deuteronomy 1:39] These little ones were not punished for their parents' sins, but were accepted by God into the Promised Land. I believe that this offers a sound basis for our confidence that God deals with young children differently than He deals with those who are capable of deliberate and conscious sin.
Based on these arguments, I believe that we can have confidence that God receives all infants into Heaven.
Salvation is all of grace, and God remains forever sovereign in the entire process of our salvation. The Bible clearly teaches the doctrine of election, but it nowhere suggests that all those who die in infancy are not among the elect. Even the Westminster Confession, the most authoritative Reformed confession, states the matter only in the positive sense, affirming that all elect infants are received into Heaven. It does not require belief in the existence of any non-elect infants. Those who insist that all we can say is that elect infants are saved while non-elect infants are not, confuse the issue by assuming or presuming the existence of non-elect infants and leaving the matter there.
We must remember that God is both omnipotent and omniscient. He gave these little ones life, knowing before the creation of the world that they would die before reaching moral maturity and thus the ability to sin by intention and choice. Did He bring these infants--who would never consciously sin--into the world merely as the objects of His wrath?
The great Princeton theologians Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield certainly did not think so. These defenders of Reformed orthodoxy taught that those who die in infancy die in Christ. Hodge pointed to the example of Jesus: "The conduct and language of our Lord in reference to children are not to be regarded as matters of sentiment, or simply expressive of kindly feeling. He evidently looked upon them as lambs of the flock for which, as the Good Shepherd, He laid down his life, and of whom He said they shall never perish, and no man could pluck them out of his hands. Of such He tells us is the kingdom of Heaven, as though Heaven was, in good measure, composed of the souls of redeemed infants."
Charles Spurgeon, the great evangelical preacher of Victorian England, and John Newton, the author of "Amazing Grace," added pastoral urgency to this affirmation. Spurgeon was frustrated with preachers who claimed to have no answer to this question, and he hurled judgment on anyone who would claim that infants would populate Hell.
In the end, we must affirm the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the full authority of Scripture. We trust the goodness, mercy, justice, and love of God. Whatever He does is right. Salvation is all of grace, and there is no salvation apart from Christ. All are born sinners, and those who reach the point of accountability and consciously sin against God will be judged and punished for their sins in Hell--unless they have come by grace to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
B. B. Warfield may have expressed it best when he beautifully affirmed, "If all that die in infancy are saved, it can only be through the almighty operation of Holy Spirit, who works when, and where, and how He pleases, through whose ineffable grace the Father gathers these little ones to the home He has prepared for them."
Keep those words firmly in mind as you contemplate this great and often troubling question. The little ones are safe with Jesus.