Monday, February 3, 2014

Do Infants Who Die Go to Heaven?

Few theological questions have more practical importance for pastoral ministry. Virtually every person has a friend or family member who has lost a child through miscarriage, illness, accident, or abortion. Can we be assured that these children are safe in the arms of Christ, or is it possible that infants who die may be eternally separated from God? 

Unfortunately, Christians are often told that the Bible gives no clear answer to this question. They are told that, for all we know, the children who are lost to us in this life may in fact be confined forever to Hell. Not only does this teaching cause much grief and anxiety, but perhaps more importantly, it misrepresents the character of God. 

The idea of a child in Hell is found nowhere in Scripture; it is a concept sourced solely in theological speculation. Furthermore, the Bible teaches three doctrines which are together incompatible with the view that infants who die go to Hell. These doctrines concern (1) the judgment of Hell, (2) the work of Christ, and (3) the will of God. 

1) The Judgment of Hell 

The final judgment is described numerous times throughout the Bible. While the details of this judgment may remain somewhat mysterious, at least one fact is crystal clear: the final judgment will be based on one's actions. Here are just two of the many passages in which this judgment is described: 
But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who will render to each person according to his deeds: to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation. There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek, but glory and honor and peace to everyone who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. (Rom. 2:5-10) 
And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. (Rev. 20:12) 
The Bible, however, never describes infants as culpable moral agents. On the contrary, Paul speaks of Jacob and Esau when they “were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad” (Rom. 9:11). 

Here one may object that there is no clear “age of accountability” at which people finally become culpable moral agents. Anyone who has been through junior high knows that even youngsters can be quite cruel, and the “young lads” of 2 Kings 2:23 were certainly held accountable for their actions. We can locate no precise, definitive point between conception and adulthood at which persons become culpable moral agents. 

However, this poses no problem for Christians believing in an omniscient God who knows all of his creatures individually and intimately. While we may not be able to distinguish the point at which a certain person crosses this threshold of accountability, God surely knows. 

Nevertheless, despite the Bible’s clear teaching that the final judgment is based on moral actions, how can God be united with the sons and daughters of Adam? Clearly all humans are, in some sense, affected by the Fall. While they may not be culpable moral agents, even toddlers exhibit an innate selfishness. Jacob and Esau, after all, struggled with each other in the womb! Will not our sinful and depraved nature prevent us from entering into the presence of a holy God? Put another way, is it even possible for infants to go to heaven? 

It certainly is, but only because of Jesus. 

2) The Work of Christ 

While the Bible does not seem to teach universalism, the Bible does teach that Christ’s death has universal implications. 
He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world. (1 John 2:2) 
Christ death was sufficient to cover the sins of all humanity; because of the cross, anyone can be saved. 

Some may object at this point that, while God can save anyone he chooses to save, he might not (ultimately) want to save everyone. It may indeed be possible for any infant to be saved, but how do we know that God desires every infant to be saved? 

Quite simply, because Jesus told us so. 

3) The Will of God 

The notion that the Bible is silent on the eternal destiny of children is puzzling, given the clear statement Jesus made in Matthew 18:14: 
Then Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them, and said…“It is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.” (Matt. 18:2,14)
Here, one may object that God is “not willing that any should perish” (2 Pet. 3:9), yet surely some do. However, the reason is clearly stated: 
[God] is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.
Some people do indeed perish, but they perish because they do not “come to repentance.” Such a scenario is irrelevant for those who have not "done anything good or bad" (Rom 9:11). God wills everyone to be saved; those those who are damned are damned only because they obstinately set their wills in opposition to God’s. Infants, of course, are not capable of such an action. 

Conclusion

I have noticed that some Christians seem almost afraid to proclaim God's love. In a time when sin is minimized, the exclusive claims of Christianity are mocked, and the gospel is watered down, perhaps evangelicals sometimes feel that they must preach a vengeful and angry God. However, when Christians insist that God may in fact send infants to Hell, they are not being more "conservative." They are instead teaching a doctrine which is contrary to the Scriptures. 

5 comments:

Cherise L. C. said...

Thank you for tackling such a touchy subject.

Out of curiosity, how would you address the doctrine of original sin? If we are sinful from conception because we are born into Adam, it seems unlikely that even children are truly "incapable" of doing or being evil.

Murray Vasser said...

Hi Cherise,

Thanks for your comment! I raised the objection of original sin in this paragraph:

"Nevertheless, despite the Bible’s clear teaching that the final judgment is based on moral actions, how can God be united with the sons and daughters of Adam? Clearly all humans are, in some sense, affected by the Fall. While they may not be culpable moral agents, even toddlers exhibit an innate selfishness. Jacob and Esau, after all, struggled with each other in the womb! Will not our sinful and depraved nature prevent us from entering into the presence of a holy God? Put another way, is it even possible for infants to go to heaven?"

Did you not find my answer to this objection satisfying? If so, what specifically did you find inadequate?

Lacy said...

Can you explain this Murray? "Nevertheless, despite the Bible’s clear teaching that the final judgment is based on moral actions.." It sounds like you are saying our eternal destination is based on our behavior, but I think I'm misunderstanding your point.

Murray Vasser said...

Hi Lacy!

John MacArthur says we are saved by grace but damned by works. That, I believe, sums it up quite well.

Consider this example: A man is on death row, when the president offers him a free pardon. In this scenario, it would be accurate to say that the man's final judgement is based on works, but it would be equally accurate to say that his eternal destiny is based on whether or not he accepts the grace offered to him.

Lacy said...

K. I guess I wouldn't say it is actually a work that condemns us, tho I guess you could call it that. Nobody goes to Hell because of something they did, for it is all forgivable, rather they go to Hell because of unbelief.