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7. What Happens to Infants When They Die?

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What happens to infants when they die is a question that Scripture doesn’t clearly answer. What can be clearly said is that (1) infants bear Adam’s guilt just like everybody else, which is why they die, even as we do (Rom 5:12, 18-19). (2) They are also born with a sin nature (cf. Ps 51:5, 58:3, Jer 17:9). However, what makes the infant question difficult is that they have never willfully sinned as all other humans have (Rom 3:23, 6:23).

Though Scripture never clearly addresses what happens to infants when they die, there are evidences that seem to indicate that God graciously saves them. The clearest evidence is probably David’s response to the death of his infant. While his child was alive and dying, David sought the Lord for mercy by fasting, praying, and mourning. But, when his child died, he stopped. His servants asked, “Why?” David responded:

While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept because I thought, ‘Perhaps the Lord will show pity and the child will live. But now he is dead. Why should I fast? Am I able to bring him back? I will go to him, but he cannot return to me!’

2 Samuel 12:22-23

When David says, “I will go to him,” he doesn’t seem to be simply talking about his future death, but of the reality that he would see his son again. David had a strong belief in heaven. In Psalm 17:15, he declared that after his death he would behold God’s face. And in Psalm 23:6, after declaring that God was his shepherd, David also declared how he would dwell in the house of the Lord forever. It seems that David believed he would see his son again in heaven.

In addition, another potential evidence for God graciously saving infants is the fact that Scripture indicates that people will be eternally judged based on their sins, which infants have never consciously committed. For example, in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, Paul describes how people are judged for their sins when he says,

Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! The sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, passive homosexual partners, practicing homosexuals, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, the verbally abusive, and swindlers will not inherit the kingdom of God.

Likewise, Revelation 20:12 says,

And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne. Then books were opened, and another book was opened—the book of life. So the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to their deeds.

Also, people are judged for their rejection of God in general. In Romans 1:20, Paul said because of the witness of creation all people are “without excuse” for believing in God. However, infants, and those with severe developmental needs, do have an excuse. Can those who have never sinned consciously by rejecting God and breaking his commands be justly condemned?

Furthermore, some have seen evidence for God graciously saving infants in Christ’s words to the disciples about young children. In Matthew 19:14, Christ said, “Let the little children come to me and do not try to stop them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” This word for “children” was used of young children, from infant to toddler age1 —an age at which they could not exercise saving faith because of mental ability. In the Luke 18:15 parallel passage, it says, “people were even bringing their babies” to Christ. When Christ says, “the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these,” some commentators see this as only referring to how people with childlike faith enter the kingdom. Others believe it also refers to how the kingdom is filled with many young children. John MacArthur said this about the kingdom of heaven belonging “to such as these”:

The implication of such as these is that for those who, because of young age or mental deficiency, are incapable of exercising saving faith, God grants them, in the event of death, entrance into the kingdom by the sovereign operation of His grace. When children die before they reach the age of decision, they go into the presence of Jesus Christ, because they are under the special protection of the sovereign King.2

Finally, a logical evidence for God saving infants is simply understanding God’s character. Not only is God holy and just, but also good, loving, and merciful, with a special care for the weak (Ps 68:5). Infants certainly inherit Adam’s guilt and corruption; however, if they were punished in hell, they would have no understanding of why they were being punished. R.A. Webb stated it this way:

[If a deceased infant] were sent to hell on no other account than that of original sin, there would be a good reason to the divine mind for the judgment, but the child’s mind would be a perfect blank as to the reason of its suffering. Under such circumstances, it would know suffering, but it would have no understanding of the reason for its suffering. It could not tell its neighbor—it could not tell itself—why it was so awfully smitten; and consequently the whole meaning and significance of its sufferings, being to it a conscious enigma, the very essence of penalty would be absent, and justice would be disappointed of its vindication. Such an infant could feel that it was in hell, but it could not explain, to its own conscience, why it was there.3

Because of these realities, many conclude that infants, and those with severe developmental needs who are incapable of responding to the gospel, go to heaven when they die. They don’t go to heaven based on any merit of their own, but because God graciously imparts his Son’s righteousness to their account (2 Cor 5:21).

With that said, since Scripture never clearly addresses it, we should not be overly dogmatic about the eternal destination of infants, either way. But, certainly, there is enough in Scripture to give us a hopeful expectation that infants, young children, and others unable to respond to the gospel because of mental incapability will be with us in heaven.

Reflection

  1. What stood out most in the reading and why?
  2. What happens to infants when they die and what are biblical supports for your view?
  3. How should we handle this doctrine when ministering to someone who has suffered the death of a young child?
  4. What other questions or applications did you take from the reading?

Copyright © 2020 Gregory Brown

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1 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (Vol. 3, p. 179). Chicago: Moody Press.

2 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (Vol. 3, p. 181). Chicago: Moody Press.

3 Accessed 8/11/20 from https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/do-all-infants-go-to-heaven/

Related Topics: Christian Life, Hamartiology (Sin)

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