At one time or another our former youth pastor, current youth pastor, and I have all been accused of teaching that infants and toddlers who die go to hell. None of us believe that. But I understand why people get confused by what we say–and don’t say–and jump to conclusions.
I’m teaching a class on childhood conversions and last Sunday we discussed this topic again. We were enjoying a healthy and lively discussion about the spiritual state of a child; say, a 2 month-old boy. Most agreed he has a sin nature even if he doesn’t actually “sin”. What the class divided down the middle on was if he was in some fashion spiritually “lost” or in some fashion “safe” or “secured” by God. I’m guessing that even those who raised their hands to vote for “lost”, didn’t mean to say that if he died, he’d go to hell.
I’d certainly never say that. But what I said–and maybe what I didn’t say–once again got me in trouble. The reason that I and other pastors are sometimes misrepresented on this is that we are reluctant “go beyond what is written” (1 Corinthians 4:6). What I mean is that we don’t want to say, “Thus saith the Lord” when we’re not sure He did. Frankly, on this topic there’s not much Scripture to work with. The only verse in the Bible that might hint that infants who die all go to heaven is 2 Samuel 12:23. David’s infant son had just died and David said, I will go to him, but he will not return to me. At best, it’s vague and David’s remark may mean nothing more than that like his little boy, he too will one day die. Or could it be that David’s confident that his baby—from a God-fearing family–is especially safe (which some Christians believe) whereas another child might not be? Personally, I think the statement is too wobbly to build such an important belief on it.
Certainly no infant or toddler (or a mentally handicapped person regardless of age) can grasp the gospel with its concepts of sin, grace, repentance, and faith. Which leads most people–including me, to assume that the beginning years of a child’s life he/she is not accountable to God in the way that older children and adults are. And if they die, they immediately go to heaven. Why? Because the child is not old enough to reject the wrong and choose the right (Isaiah 7:16). This is where the notion of a so-called “age of accountability” comes from. Or as Dr. John MacArthur has suggested, might be better called a “condition of accountability” since the age will vary from child to child.
Knowing that children up to a certain stage can’t respond to the gospel, and knowing God’s good and gracious nature…, yes, I ASSUME that all children who die go to heaven. John Calvin declared, “I do not doubt that the infants whom the Lord gathers together from this life are regenerated by a secret operation of the Holy Spirit.” (OK, so maybe I’m not as confident as he is, but I’m close!)
But I know I end up using cautious language that probably makes people wonder if I really do believe the same thing they do. Keith, why are you so tentative? Because the Bible repeatedly insists that God saves people who respond to his grace by faith. Verses like Without faith it is impossible to please God… and …we have been justified through faith…, and …this righteousness comes by faith in Jesus Christ… haunt me.
[When Jesus scolded his disciples for stopping little children from being brought to Him for blessing (Matthew 19:13-15), it gives us confidence that both Father and Son love kids as much as we do. More, actually. Jesus even used their natural humility and trust to point out to listening adults, what should mark their faith. But because the children he held were very young (Luke 18:15 uses the word “babies”), we realize he was describing their nature, not their faith.]
I’m also cautious because I wonder if believing God saves a child through some special arrangement apart from faith, might lead to believing He’d do the same for teens and adults who’ve never heard the gospel. Maybe also save them in some unique and special way apart from faith? If so, then clearly our mission strategy should change to keeping as many people in the dark about the gospel as possible. Otherwise if they learn of Jesus and reject Him, they would then be accountable to God in a way they weren’t before.
Bottom line, Keith: do you really think that all babies/toddlers who die go to heaven? Yes, but my language is not always so…, declarative. Because I’m a biblicist. Like our statement of faith says: the Bible… is the complete revelation of His [God’s] will for salvation, and the ultimate authority by which every realm of human knowledge and endeavor should be judged. I believe what’s in the Bible; I teach what’s in the Bible; I’m confident about what’s in the Bible. I hedge on what’s not.