Why We Believe Children Who Die Go To Heaven

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Every couple of years, we republish this important article. This article addresses one of the questions we are most frequently asked by students, laypeople, and persons in need of spiritual counsel. For that reason, it seems beneficial to once again make this resource available. It is longer than our average post, but we think it should be published in its entirety. It is our prayer that this article will help you come to biblical convinctions about this very important issue.

WHY WE BELIEVE CHILDREN WHO DIE GO TO HEAVEN

By R. Albert Mohler Jr. and Daniel L. Akin

Few things in life are more tragic and heartbreaking than the death of a baby or small child. For parents, the grief can be overwhelming. For the minister, to stand over a small, white casket and provide comfort and support seems to ask for more than he can deliver.

Many console themselves with the thought that at least the child is now in a better place. Some believe small children who die become angels. They are certain these precious little ones are in heaven with God.

However, it is important for us both to ask and answer some important questions if we can. Do those who die in infancy go to heaven? How do we know? What evidence is there to support such a conclusion? Sentimentalism and emotional hopes and wants are not sufficient for those who live under the authority of the Word of God. We must, if possible, find out what God has said.

It is interesting to discover that the Church has not been of one mind on this issue. In fact, the early and medieval Church was anything but united. Some Church Fathers remained silent on the issue. Ambrose said unbaptized infants were not admitted to heaven, but have immunity from the pains of hell. Augustine basically affirmed the damnation of all unbaptized infants, but taught they would receive the mildest punishment of all. Gregory of Nyssa offered that infants who die immediately mature and are given the opportunity to trust Christ. Calvin affirmed the certain election of some infants to salvation and was open to the possibility that all infants who die are saved. He said, “Christ receives not only those who, moved by holy desire and faith, freely approach unto Him, but those who are not yet of age to know how much they need His grace.” Zwingli, B.B. Warfield and Charles Hodge all taught that God saves all who die in infancy. This perspective has basically become the dominant view of the Church in the 20th century.

Yet, a popular evangelical theologian chided Billy Graham when at the Oklahoma City memorial service he said, “Someday there will be a glorious reunion with those who have died and gone to heaven before us, and that includes all those innocent children that are lost. They’re not lost from God because any child that young is automatically in heaven and in God’s arms.” The theologian scolded Dr. Graham for offering what he called “. . . a new gospel: justification by youth alone.”

It is our conviction that there are good reasons biblically and theologically for believing that God saves all who die who do not reach a stage of moral understanding and accountability. It is readily admitted that Scripture does not speak to this issue directly, yet there is evidence that can be gleaned that would lead us to affirm on biblical grounds that God receives into heaven all who have died in infancy. Some evidence is stronger than others, but cumulatively they marshall strong support for infant salvation. We will note six of them.

First, the grace, goodness and mercy of God would support the position that God saves all infants who die. This is the strongest argument and perhaps the decisive one. God is love (1 John 4:8) and desires that all be saved (1 Timothy 2:4). God is love and His concern for children is evident in Matthew 18:14 where Jesus says, “Your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost.” People go to hell because they choose in willful rebellion and unbelief to reject God and His grace. Children are incapable of this kind of conscious rejection of God. Where such rebellion and willful disobedience is absent, God is gracious to receive.

Second, when the baby boy who was born to David and Bathsheba died (2 Samuel 12:15-18), David did two significant things: 1) He confessed his confidence that he would see the child again and, 2) he comforted his wife Bathsheba (vs. 23-24). David could have done those two things only if he was confident that his little son was with God. Any other explanation does not do justice to the text.

Third, in James 4:17, the Bible says, “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.” The Bible is clear that we are all born with a sin nature as a result of being in Adam (Roman 5:12). This is what is called the doctrine of original sin. However, the Scriptures make a distinction between original sin and actual sins. While all are guilty of original sin, moral responsibility and understanding is necessary for our being accountable for actual sins (Deuteronomy 1:30; Isaiah 7:16). It is to the one who knows to do right and does not do it that sin is reckoned. Infants are incapable of such decisions.

Fourth, Jesus affirmed that the kingdom of God belonged to little children (Luke 18:15-17). In the passage he is stating that saving faith is a childlike faith, but He also seems to be affirming the reality of children populating heaven.

Fifth, Scripture affirms that the number of saved souls is very great (Revelation 7:9). Since most of the world has been and is still non-Christian, might it be the untold multitude who have died prematurely or in infancy comprise a majority of those in heaven? Such a possibility ought not to be dismissed too quickly. In this context Charles Spurgeon said, “I rejoice to know that the souls of all infants, as soon as they die, speed their way to paradise. Think what a multitude there is of them.”

Sixth, some in Scripture are said to be chosen or sanctified from the womb (1 Samuel 1:8-2:21; Jeremiah 1:5; Luke 1:15). This certainly affirms the salvation of some infants and repudiates the view that only baptized babies are assured of heaven. Neither Samuel, Jeremiah or John the Baptist was baptized.

After surveying these arguments, it is important for us to remember that anyone who is saved is saved because of the grace of God, the saving work of Jesus Christ and the undeserved and unmerited regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. Like all who have ever lived, except for Jesus, infants need to be saved. Only Jesus can take away their sin, and if they are saved it is because of His sovereign grace and abounding mercy. Abraham said, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25). We can confidently say, “Yes, He will.” When it comes to those incapable of volitional, willful acts of sin, we can rest assured God will, indeed, do right. Precious little ones are the objects of His saving mercy and grace.

CONCLUSION

On September 29, 1861, the great Baptist pastor, Charles Spurgeon, preached a message entitled “Infant Salvation.” In that message he chastened some critics who had “. . . wickedly, lyingly, and slanderously said of Calvinists that we believe that some little children perish.” Similar rumblings have been heard in some Baptist circles of late. Spurgeon affirmed that God saved little ones without limitation and without exception. He, then, as was his manner, turned to conclude the message with an evangelistic appeal to parents who might be lost. Listen to his plea:

Many of you are parents who have children in heaven. Is it not a desirable thing that you should go there too? And yet, have I not in these galleries and in this area some, perhaps many, who have no hope hereafter? . . . . 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 had 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?” If you wilt, think of these matters, perhaps the heart will begin to move, and the eyes may begin to flow and then may the Holy Spirit put before thine eyes the cross of the Savior . . . if thou wilt turn thine eye to Him, thou shalt live . . .

Little ones are precious in God’s sight. If they die, they go to heaven. Parents, who have trusted Jesus, who have lost a little one, if they have trusted Jesus, can be confident of a wonderful reunion someday. Are you hopeful of seeing again that little treasure God entrusted to you for such a short time? Jesus has made a way. Come to Him now and someday you will see them again.

[Note: This article and hundreds of other resources are available at http://www.danielakin.com.]

  8Comments

  1. Steve Martin   •  

    Children are sinners(“conceived in sin”) and need a Savior, too. But they have one in Christ Jesus.

    None of us can say for sure the destiny of any person. But what kind of a God do we have? He’s a gracious one. And we pray that all children would go to heaven upon their death. Grace before faith. That’s the proper order. That is how we can dare to baptize infants.

    Thanks.

  2. Bekah   •  

    Thank you for posting this thought-provoking article that speaks to one of the most gut-wrenching questions the Church faces. I would like to interact with this a bit and I welcome feedback. This is a topic I have wrestled through for a few years and something that I have begun to question even more since coming to SEBTS.

    I affirm the truth that is salvation by grace through faith. This grace is God-initiated, this faith is Spirit-enabled, and this salvation is the Lord’s alone. There is nothing we can do to ensure it OR to explain it further than that. We are but chosen and humble recipients of the greatest gift of all. It is because of these truths that I also believe that God could decide to save infants and small children at His will and while there is Scripture to support this claim, I believe that there is also Scripture that speaks to God’s character in such a way that would make it dangerous and possibly illogical for us to make a blanket statement such as this. God is holy and just, but He is also loving and merciful. His will is perfect and it is this perfect will that we are trying to understand at the intersection of justice and grace in regard to small children.

    I just have a lot of questions, as you can probably conclude from my above paragraph. Here are some of the things that I am still thinking through:

    -Part of me wants to say that children who are elect are certainly saved because the Bible tells us that God who started this good work will carry it out to completion and that nothing can thwart that will. Though even those who He has predestined still have a responsibility to repent and confess, if NOTHING can thwart His will, even early death cannot change His will; elect children will be saved. But what about those He has not called before the foundation of the world? Certainly there are some children who comprise this group. This, to me, speaks to justification by youth alone.

    -Scripture speaks of God’s love and mercy, but those traits do not trump his traits of justice and holiness. These traits must work together, somehow. How can we decide to focus so much on His love and grace for CHILDREN, but negate it from the rest of the world? Who are we to draw that distinctive line? I feel like this is so “gray” and I almost feel like it is dangerous to make this claim and to draw the line between childhood and accountability.

    -We know of King David’s words, but the King was chosen and favored; Was his son, also? Is his son saved because he was young, or because he was predestined? Can we know this? (and maybe the Bible tells us whether or not he was chosen and it’s just not coming to mind at the moment– I’m totally open to admitting that)

    -James 4:17–anyone who knows that he ought to do good… So where do we draw the line, here? This article argues for salvation of young children on the basis of moral development. With a background in education (including studies in cognitive and moral development) and with the research I have done here at SEBTS on this very topic in Dr. Ashford’s theology II class, research would say that some children as young as two, and possibly younger, indeed have the capability of understanding right and wrong and are able to willfully choose to disobey. Are THESE children then guilty of committing sin? I hear your argument regarding original sin and actual sin, but the authors conclude that paragraph with saying “infants” are spared due to this inability to commit actual sin. So then, should the argument be changed for the salvation of babies and not “children” in general? And though this is a different subject altogether, how do we apply this logic to the mentally handicapped or to the criminally insane? Brain research shows us that people’s brains can truly be malformed or formed differently than “normal”, “healthy” brains. Obviously, this is the mark of the fallen world we live in that we are genetically altered beyond “normal” mental capacity, but I was wondering how far you’d be willing to take this stance (I also understand that you may not be willing to think this through, given your position and this public forum. It’s just a point of curiosity for me). Finally, when having this conversation with others, it has been argued that children, though they willfully disobey, are not guilty of “committing sins” because they do not know their sins offend God and His holiness. We believe that people in UPGs die and are condemned to Hell even when they haven’t heard the gospel and they haven’t had the opportunity to repent. What makes those people any different than our young children, who have also not had the opportunity to hear, understand, and believe? Do those UPGs also not have a similar type of understanding (or “non-understanding”) that their willful disobedience offends God, just like the children for whom we are arguing? Or are the UPGs condemned because they’re “old enough” (developmentally) to understand? As gut-wrenching as it is to condemn a child who is too young to know, it’s is just as gut-wrenching to condemn billions of people who are old enough but who do not have the opportunity to know. Both situations are horrible and I just am so uncomfortable to draw such a certain line that saves some and condemns others. They’re all Imago, regardless of age or opportunity.

    -Luke 18: do children so populate Heaven simply because they’re children, or because their faith was simple and uncomplicated? (justification by youth, or justification by faith– faith that is simple enough to act on that even a child could do it)

    I certainly am not an advocate for condemning children. It is our Father’s will that none would perish. I believe that this applies to children as well as adults. He is our loving Creator who desires a relationship with all of His children. We know that the cross is suffecient for all, but we also know it’s only effecient for some. But just because He wants us all doesn’t mean we will all be called. He is just to condemn the entire population of the world and He is most, most gracious to have mercy on and to save those He does. I think this is another one of those weird places where His character and His will intersect in such a delicate and gray way that it is dangerous for us to make such a definite call. Can you tell that I definitely struggle here?

    Of course I don’t want it to be true that babies and children die and are eternally separated from God. Of course I want to firmly and confidently believe that He gathers them all to Himself and covers them with His grace and mercy. I just have a hard time thinking that the proof in this article is adequate to definitively say all of that with certainty. Is this still such a major question for the Church BECAUSE we truly cannot say one way or the other? Or am I just unable to see it? I don’t want to believe something because I “want” to believe it or because someone I respect says it’s so. I do not want to believe or teach something about our Lord that simply isn’t true. I want to be careful to handle Him and His Word well (and I am in NO WAY meaning to apply improper care of His Word by Drs Mohler and Akin; I just don’t know if I can confidently say the same) In the same thread, I want to remain humble and teachable. I know I’ve totally set myself up to be ripped to shreads posting so much in a forum like this, but these are real questions and points of concern for me. Finally, this, if anything, motivates me to share the gospel, share the gospel, share the gospel. What we DO KNOW for CERTAIN is that the gospel is true and that it desperately needs to go forth for all people of all ages and I think it’s this certainty/uncertainty that should motivate parents, pastors, and Sunday School teachers to start the gospel early!!

    It is my sincere hope that this comment is read with the understanding that all of my questions and interactions are written out of a place of a humble desire to know more. As a student here, I have the highest respect for you, Dr. Akin, and I appreciate that you and the rest of the wonderful staff here at SEBTS welcome questioning. Thank you for yet another learning opportunity!

  3. Shawn C. Madden   •  

    My wife and I have experienced the loss of our two sons, Michael (aged 14) and Nathan (aged 18). Both were severely handicapped and would by most folks be considered children. My praying on this subject leads me to trust the God of Heaven who has shown himself to be merciful and loving to an extent not able to be grasped by us. I expect fully to see them one day standing right behind my savior!

  4. Louis Breytenbach   •  

    “For the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth; it was said unto her, The elder shall serve the younger. As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Essau have I hated. What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid.” (Romans 9.11-14)

  5. Curtis Erskine   •  

    Luke records the words of the angel concerning John the Baptist, “He will be filled with the Holy Spirit while still in his mother’s womb.” (Luke 1:15 HCSB)

    Luke also quotes Elizabeth as saying, “How could this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For you see, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped for joy inside me!” (Luke 1:43-44, HCSB).

    From these passages we can discern that John both positively responded to the Gospel and received the Holy Spirit while still in the womb.

    If God could do that with John, He can do it with any small child. Can I explain how He did it? No. But the Bible is clear that He did it and that He can do it again as many times as He wants to.

    This of course raises the question of inclusivism. If God can lead an unborn or small child to salvation without the “normal” presentation of the Gospel, could He not also do so to all the unreached peoples of the Earth?

    No, for two reasons. 1) No place on the Earth is unreachable to God. God can call a missionary and transport him to any place on the Earth at any time. There is no need for God to reach them in any other fashion. (Acts 8:26-40)

    2) A child only needs the faith of a child to be saved. The faith of a child can be seen in a newborn who stops crying in its mother’s arms. A lost adult must revert back to the faith of a child to be saved. The Gospel is the facilitator and conduit by which they place child like faith in Christ. (Matthew 18:2-5)

  6. c.Paul Andrews   •  

    I would like to read a reply to”Bekah’s Post”10-2-12 by Dr. Akin or your staff.To those of us who have young grand kids this is an important question.
    Thank You and God Bless,
    C.Paul

  7. David benjamin   •  

    I guess I am wrong for being Pro-life. I should be Pro-Abortion since all aborted babies go to Heaven.

    Your conclusion is not supported by Scripture in any definiive way but by the traditions of men; something that Jesus chided the Pharisees for.

    Jacob I have loved but Esau I hated is what God Himself said so lets leave mercy up to Him and do our job by witnessing to our children from the beginning of their lives. Then, when they accept Jesus, there will be no guessing on our part.

  8. Steven   •  

    I am in close agreement with ‘Bekah’. I would like to add to the third point, the verses that speak of all people being in sin (Isa 64:6; Rom 3:23; Rom 3:10). These verses that say all do not exclude children (at least not without a poor hermeneutical approach).
    I have read a bit about this subject, including John McArthur’s book Safe in the Arms of God, and most of the arguments can be summed up in the 6 presented here. I too would very much appreciate a response to ‘Bekah’s post. I don’t like my view on this issue, but can not see a strong reason not to hold it.

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