Friday, February 07, 2014

What happens when infants die?

firefighter carrying the dying baby
Firefighter carrying a dying baby (Wikipedia)
(Part of a series on death and the hereafter)

It is hard to think of anything more tragic than the death of an infant or a young child. For parents, the grief can be overwhelming. They say that one never gets over the death of a child, but one only learns to live with the pain. They console themselves that their precious little one is in a better place. Some believe their child has become an angel, “God must have needed another angel in heaven.” Surely their little one is in heaven with God. Are those consolations true?

For those who live under the authority of the Word of God, sentimentalism and emotional hopes are not enough. We must know if God’s Word has said anything about this. Do those who die in infancy or as children go to heaven? How do we know? What evidence is there to support such a conclusion?  If we are sinners from birth (Psalm 51:5), then how can infants who die in infancy be saved?
Al Mohler, president of Southern Seminary and Daniel Akin, president of Southeastern Seminary wrote about this issue several years ago, and I have included their thoughts here.[1]
What the Church has taught It might be surprising to know that the Church has not always agreed about what happens to infants when they die. The early Church was cautious and because of high infant mortality, began the practice of infant baptism to assure parents and console them in loss, inventing a doctrine that infant baptism removes the stain of original sin so that an infant will go immediately to heaven.

The medieval Church was divided. Ambrose said that unbaptized infants were not allowed in heaven but were spared the torments of hell, leading to the Catholic doctrine of limbo, being caught between heaven and hell. It is found nowhere in the Bible. Augustine of Hippo (4th C) said all infants were damned but would receive only the mildest form of punishment. Gregory of Nyssa wrote that when infants die they immediately become adults and are given the opportunity to trust Christ.
John Calvin (16th C) believed some infants were elected to salvation and was open to the possibility that all might be saved, saying, “Christ receives . . . those who are not yet of age to know how much they need His grace.” Calvinist/Reformed theologians today easily answer that question by saying that infants are automatically elect. Zwingli, B.B. Warfield, and Charles Hodge all believed God saves every infant who dies. Belief that God saves all who die in infancy or as small children has become the majority position.
At the memorial service for the Oklahoma City bombing, Billy Graham comforted the audience by saying, “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.”
But not everyone is agreed. Bible scholar R.C. Sproul at Reformed Theological Seminary scolded Mr. Graham in a 1995 World magazine article, saying he was promoting “a new gospel: justification by youth alone.”[2] Sproul quoted Jesus who said, “Those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no!” (Luke 13:4). Sproul then adds, “Do you think that those scores who died horribly in Oklahoma City were more guilty than you or me? Jesus’ answer is still no. Do you think that you or I are more guilty than those children who died there?” 
The problem with Sproul’s question is that he is comparing the deaths of adults in Luke 13 with those of children in Oklahoma City. Even though Scripture does not speak directly to the issue, the Bible provides good reasons for believing that God saves all who die before they reach an age of moral accountability.
First, and the strongest argument: God’s character. God’s grace and mercy supports the belief that God saves all infants and young children who die. God is love (1 John 4:8) and desires that all be saved (1 Tim. 2:4). Also, Jesus says in Matt.18:14 that “Your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost.” People end up in hell because they choose to reject God’s grace in willful rebellion and unbelief. Children cannot consciously reject God. Where that willful disobedience and rebellion is absent, God receives graciously.
This is called the age of accountability which says that while we are born sinners (Psalm 51:5) because of Adam (Rom. 5:12-13), our own sin ratifies our condemnation. When we reach an age at which it is possible to recognize our own sinfulness and ratify it, we have reached the age of accountability (Rom. 7:9). Therefore, while we are born mortal because of Adam’s sin, we become spiritually dead and guilty before God when we recognize a moral law and disobey it, confirming our corrupt nature.
Second, David’s baby boy who died. When the infant son of David and Bathsheba died (2 Sam. 12:14-22), David did two things. He expressed his confidence that he would see the child again and he comforted Bathsheba (2 Sam 12:23-24). David could only do those things if he believed his baby son was with the Lord.
Third, James 4:17. James 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 since we come from Adam (Rom. 5:12) – the doctrine of original sin. But the Scripture makes a distinction between original sin and actual sins. Everyone is guilty of original sin, but moral responsibility and understanding of rebellion is necessary to be accountable for actual sins (Deut. 1:30; Isaiah 7:16). God saves infants who die in infancy because physical mortality is the result of original sin, but eternal judgment is based on one’s own sins committed in the body (2 Cor. 5:10) which infants cannot commit. They are incapable.
Fourth, Luke 18:15-17. Jesus said that the Kingdom of God belonged to little children and that saving faith is like childlike faith. He seems also to be affirming the reality of children in heaven.
Fifth, a great multitude. Revelation 7:9 says that the number of saved souls is very great. Since most of the world has been and still is non-Christian, might the great multitude be increased by those who died prematurely, were aborted, were miscarried, or died as young children?
Sixth, chosen or sanctified from the womb. Scripture says that some are chosen or sanctified from the womb (1 Samuel 1:8-2:21; Jeremiah 1:5; Luke 1:15). This refutes the view that only baptized babies are assured of heaven.
Anyone who is saved is saved because of God’s grace through Jesus Christ alone through the unmerited regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. Everyone, needs to be saved, including infants. Only Jesus can take away their sin, and if He decides out of His Sovereign Grace and abounding mercy to save them, then that is the only way they will be saved. Abraham asked, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 18:25). Yes. Yes He will.
Parents, if you have trusted Jesus and lost a little one, can be confident of a wonderful reunion one day. If you have not trusted Christ as Lord and Savior, Charles Haddon Spurgeon said something[3] you need to hear:
““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 . . .”

[2] R.C. Sproul Jr., “Comfort ye my people:  Justification by youth alone: When does comfort become confusion?” WORLD magazine, May, 6, 1995. Not only did it quickly set the WORLD magazine record for letters to the editor, but at the point it set that record not one favorable response had been received.
[3] Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Infant Salvation, Sept. 29, 1861.