Note: This was a tough blog post to write. I try to maintain a wry, witty, playful voice when I create these blogs, but I found that hard to do with such a delicate, heart-twisting topic. It doesn’t help that I’m recently married, and that many theoretical issues about babies and family are closer to home than ever before in my life. So thank you for bearing with the uneven tone below.
What happens to the souls of those who die in infancy?
It's a profoundly unsettling question, one that’s especially horrible for those who have experienced the loss of a baby.
The issue triggers default responses among those of us who are believers. She's with God now. She was too precious for this world. She's in heaven waiting for you. We'll be with her again one day, when the rest of us go to her.
In fact, it's a discussion so heartrending that it seems cold and unfeeling to try to accommodate it to our Christian doctrines and theologies. If you were to ask anyone who’s experienced such a loss whether they think their baby went to heaven or hell, you’d likely get the most furious of stares in response.
But the question isn't a settled one. The statement "All babies go to heaven" is surprisingly modern and liberal. You see, the Protestant Reformation gave us a precise equation for salvation, pushing to the vanguard of our doctrines the Bible's assertions that humans are born in depravity and sin, and that only faith in the sacrifice of Christ can lead to saving grace. For those able to experience faith, that equation is a blessing beyond words. For those too young to have faith, it is a cold equation indeed.
It doesn't help, either, that centuries of scholars, commentators, and teachers of our faith have failed to reach a consensus on the matter. To view them as a whole, it seems our spiritual forefathers can only agree that there is no clear Biblical direction on the fate of babies' souls.
What the Scriptures Say
Chances are, you’re the sort of person who is appalled by the idea that God would allow a baby to suffer eternally in the fires of hell simply because the infant never aged to a point when she could make a declaration of faith. It would mean that God created that soul knowing she would die in her first year of life, knowing she would suffer eternal damnation as just payment for having been born a child of Adam and not being given enough time to get herself saved through faith and grace. For most, such a God is unthinkable.
However, the Bible is oddly silent about the topic. This seems particularly unusual when you consider that it covers eras in which up to 25% of babies died in their first year, 50% before they were 10. Why is the Bible so disturbingly vague about something so dear to the hearts of parents? Even today, when infant mortality rates worldwide have dipped below 1% for the first time in recorded history, we are driven to ask, What became of those ninety-five million souls who died this year before seeing their first birthdays? What does Scripture tell us?
Sadly, not much.
Some commentators, hoping to bolster their belief in infant salvation, grasp for 2 Samuel 12 in which David mourns the death of his infant son. David declares he must cease his fasting and praying for the child, for “I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me” (v. 23). Doesn't this clearly show that David believed he'd go to heaven with the child? However, other commentators point out that this verse does not clearly say the baby has gone to heaven; it simply says he died in the flesh, just as David will one day die in the flesh. "I will go to him" simply means "I, too, will die." To extrapolate from that verse a theology of universal infant salvation would be, according to those commentators, an act of imposing our own desires on the literal words of the Scripture.
A second passage of Scripture used to advance universal infant salvation is Matthew 19 (and its parallel in Luke 18): “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not, for of such is the Kingdom of heaven.” After all, commentators reason, if the Kingdom of heaven is made up of little children, how could babies not go right to heaven if they die before coming into the faith? But this passage, too, falls quickly to the scrutinizing gaze of other commentators. The children in this passage were clearly old enough to “come to Jesus” on their own, and in the previous chapter of Matthew are explicitly called “little ones who believe in me” (18:6). They are, say some commentators, obviously old enough to be believers. They are paidia (children) with saving faith, and not unaware brephoi (infants, toddlers, babes as in Luke 1 and 2).
Solutions from Our Spiritual Forebears
In a previous blog post, I mentioned that the late 1800s biblical scholar Henry Van Dyke raised conservative eyebrows by proposing that humans who die before reaching an age of moral accountability were automatically accepted into heaven. Had Van Dyke made his declaration today, he’d be representing the majority view. In his own time, however, the bold suggestion caused schism and contributed to a break that persists to this day between modern and conservative Biblical scholars.
Historically, the Christian faith has taken multiple approaches to resolving the question. As you might already guess, the “resolving” has never fully hit home for 100% of the Body of Christ. Some less-than-satisfying solutions have included the following:
- Inventing Limbo: Roman Catholics struggled with the disposition of infant souls as much as any other part of Christendom. Their populist solution (technically, it was never an explicit church doctrine) was to declare that unbaptized babies wound up in Limbo, an afterlife realm of Eden-like joy and peace. Limbo was outside the presence of God (and thus did not violate the cold equation of salvation by faith and baptism), but it was a realm of as much eternal bliss as one could imagine outside the knowledge of God.
- The Friends and Family Plan: Acts 10, 11, 16, and other passages of Scripture offer up a tantalizing idea of salvation with the words “you shall be saved and your entire household,” hinting that the faith of the home’s head person leads to salvation for everyone in the house. This idea is particularly comforting for those who suffer the loss of an infant: We believed, they reason, therefore our child was covered by the faith lived through us. I love this idea, but it is not without its gaping holes ... it implies that everyone in the household being discussed gets access to salvation through the faith of another, not through their own faith. Prominent households had servants and adult children, extended family, cousins, countrymen from afar taking long-term shelter. Are those members of the household automatically covered by the faith of the head of household? Would their own rejection of Christ be overridden? And when father turns against son, mother against daughter, does the salvation act of faith of the household’s head get severed somehow? Clearly, this solution causes more theological problems than it solves.
- Forget the Friends, Just Save the Family: Other commentators narrow the scope of household salvation through an appeal to 1 Corinthians 7:14 – “For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now they are holy.” Right there seems to be definite affirmation that children are saved by the faith of a mother or father, and the matter seems closed. "We Christian families go to heaven," says this line of reasoning. "The babies of unbelievers go to hell." As cold as that might sound, it was the driving conviction of many Reformed, Calvinist, and Presbyterian believers for centuries.
- Maybe Some Other Smart People Know: The 1 Corinthians 7:14 verse has sent ages of commentators into contortions. Some examples (and pardon my rapid name dropping): Benson suggests that it means that by being born to even one Christian parent, an infant is “federally holy,” deserving of baptism and thus salvation. Barnes counters that there is no Scriptural support for such an idea, and that the verse is meant to prevent believing parents from divorcing and thus making their children illegitimate in this world. Meyers interprets the “sanctification” mentioned in the verse as permission for the believing partner to keep having sex with the unbelieving spouse. Bengel’s Gnomen interprets the holiness of the children as a state of being “more open” to the faith once they’re old enough to accept it—location, location, location, a distinct advantage over the children of unbelievers but not salvation itself. Jamieson-Fausset-Brown rather cavalierly declare the verse to mean that the believer shouldn't worry about being made impure by the unbelievers in his family, and that he gets to be holy despite the sinful, unbelieving state of the others in his house.
So, What’s The Answer?
Do all babies go to hell due to being born in Adam’s sin and separated from God, as we learn from the Reformers?
Do they go to heaven because they had no chance to choose the Lord, as we learn from modern preachers?
If they go to heaven without accepting Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior, does that mean the Protestant Reformation was wrong, and that there are alternate paths to the Father?
If the children of believers -- but not of unbelievers -- go to heaven, then what happens when the unbelieving parents come to the Lord after the death of the child? Is that child punished eternally for having parents who believed too late? Are the offspring of unbelievers punished simply for not having been born into the right family?
If all the billions of infants and unborn miscarriages are souls who go to heaven, do they represent by sheer number the vast, vast, vast majority of the saved? Is heaven staffed by babies? Is the way to salvation that Paul considers primary – coming to Christ through faith in his death and resurrection – actually a minority, secondary path?
If dying before coming to an age of accountability is a surefire way to eternal fellowship with God, then what benefit is there to surviving and risking rejecting the Lord, as the Scripture says a majority of adults will do?
Questions, questions, questions, and here’s my answer: I don’t know.
But here’s something I do know: A friend of mine, a Methodist minister, discussed this issue with me at length. He reached an “I don’t know” conclusion as well, but his final declaration hit home with me. He avowed, quite simply, that he couldn't even imagine a God who sends babies to hell. He said, “ I have no solid Biblical reason for thinking that, but in my heart, I can’t imagine a universe working that way.”
And that’s where I am, currently. Scripture passages aside ... there are so incredibly few of them for such a vital issue, and the ones we do have are maddeningly unhelpful ... the idea settles right into the “Yes, but ...” area of my heart. Yes, the Bible says little on the topic, much of it less than hopeful. But the Spirit within my heart speaks volumes.
Sometimes you just have to embrace the still-speaking voice of God.
Cosmic Parx / YoYo Rez