What happens to babies that die?

It’s perhaps the most emotionally heart-tugging issue in all of biblical and theological debate: What happens to that child, born or unborn, that dies? What happens to the person who might be severely mentally handicapped from birth and not be able to process truth? The responses to these questions go to some of the core doctrines of the Bible.

Can parents find solace in the fact that their child is in the presence of the Lord? Is their child in the presence of the Lord? Or must parents live out the remainder of their days not knowing what happened to their dead child?

Like any good debate there are multiple views on this question. Very godly men disagree on what the right answer is. Some men a lot smarter than I am who love Jesus Christ have thrown their hands up and determined that we can’t know the answer. I don’t believe that’s the case.

I never remember not believing that all babies that die go to heaven. It is what I remember being the position of pastors and teachers I grew up listening to. I never really gave it a second thought growing up and just assumed it to be the case. But several years ago as God did a work in me to draw me closer to Himself, to a deeper appreciation for His word and a deeper hunger for truth and a deeper appreciation for how He has revealed Himself and how He is sovereign… deeper appreciations than I had had before, I began for the first time in my life to read some authors teaching good solid truth, but then espousing views that disagreed with my own when it came to our subject matter tonight.

Even as I was drawn to the truth that God is utterly sovereign in salvation I could not bring myself to concur with other views that did not believe all babies go to heaven. I don’t really recall if that was merely an emotional reaction or not.

But ultimately I had to force myself to really study this issue and defend my position from Scripture, or either change my position. I forced myself to do this because on February 22, 2007, as I was listening to Dr. Albert Mohler preach “You Shall Not Commit Adultery” in the chapel of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, my phone kept buzzing and my caller ID told me it was my wife calling.

My wife Liz knew I was in chapel and couldn’t answer the phone, so I assumed she would leave a message. But then she kept calling and kept calling and my heart started racing because I knew something was very wrong. She was at the OB’s office for her 12-week checkup. I was already sprinting to my car on a chilly, drizzly Thursday morning when I redialed her to ask what was wrong, almost knowing what I was going to here, “We might have lost the baby.”

Ten minutes later a nurse had the door open for me as I pulled up to the office and she directed me back to the OB’s office where I saw my wife and knew the verdict was in. We’ve never seen our second child. We don’t even know if it was a boy or a girl. The baby was gone, miscarried, the victim of sin’s corruption of the flesh due to what the OB would two days later, after a “D and C,” call a chromosomal abnormality.

Weeks later after the raw emotion of our loss had begun to heal, I was determined to come to a conclusion about the eternal destiny of the one we call “#2,” and an English assignment to write a research paper afforded me the opportunity to do just that. Call it scholastic therapy, but really it was needing to be washed in the word of God, knowing that God is always good even if I don’t like the answers sometimes. I needed to know for myself, and so my research for that paper is the backbone of my position I want to share with you, but I believe my position today is grounded in Scripture it didn’t use to be grounded in.

And my position is the same today as it has always been. There are good arguments by godly men that don’t agree in total with me here, but I believe the best answer we have from Scripture is that all babies who die go to be with the Lord. I believe #2 is in the likeness of Christ even as I speak.

Misguided Paths to the Right Conclusion

There are many who believe all infants go to be with Christ, but if we are going to draw that conclusion we need to make sure we are doing so for the right reasons. For some, their justification for infant salvation arises from a misunderstanding or at the very least a lack of appreciation for the significance and consequences of original sin. Original sin is, of course, the idea that we are born in a state of guilt, not in a state of innocence or neutrality.

This is not a new debate. Augustine was debating the issue of original sin when he was refuting Pelagianism in the fourth century. Pelagius was teaching that man, from his beginning, was a tabula rasa, a blank sheet of paper, morally neutral. So any sins that were committed, were acted out by men, not something that came from within men. That’s an important distinction to make. It’s a distinction that says we are sinners because we sin, not born sinners who sin.

So someone who follows Pelagius’s line of thinking, and there are a great many people who do so today, that person has no problem with babies going to heaven because they are incapable of actively committing sins.

The problem with that view is a text we’ve looked at on recent Wednesday nights, Romans 5:12-19, where Paul says that through one man, Adam, sin entered the world, and death through sin, and all die because all have sinned. Pelagius didn’t believe we were born with the guilt of Adam’s sin. He thought Adam’s sin was merely a bad example for the rest of humanity, so since babies are incapable of following Adam’s bad example they are off the hook and go to heaven.

Except that the Bible is pretty clear on the fact we are all conceived as sinners in a state of moral corruption, bent toward evil.

  • 1 Kings 8:46: “There is no one who does not sin.”
  • Romans 3:10-12: “There is none righteous, no not one. There is no one who does good, there is not even one.”
  • Ephesians 2:3: We are “by nature children of wrath.”

John MacArthur argues that, “If infants were not sinfully or morally corrupt, they would not die at all!” And I believe he’s right. Without sin, corruption, depravity there would be no reason for their death. Adam and Eve only died after their flesh and all creation was corrupted by the fall.

There is a mountain of biblical evidence that refutes the idea of neutrality when a baby is born. But there is physical evidence as well. Who needs to teach a child how to disobey? Who needs to teach them how to commit sins? Nobody. Sin comes naturally for a sinner. The late Ronald Nash called this “the phenomenon of human guilt.” No man, after honest self-examination, finds himself innocent. So Pelagius’s views just do not stand up, and Christians today wanting to justify a belief in infant salvation shouldn’t depend of them, but look elsewhere.

Another view of the salvation of all babies arises not from a misunderstanding of original sin, but from a view of the character of God, that He would never damn a baby to hell. I call this the sentimental view of the Fatherhood of God. It’s basically the idea that God wants the best for His children, especially babies, and never confines them to hell.

First John 4:8 says that “God is love” and there is also a temptation to take a text like that in isolation and make it what one author calls an “exact, all-inclusive and an all-exclusive definition of the divine character.” In short, this view doesn’t take God’s holiness and justice into account. It takes the idea that all humans are children of God until they declare otherwise, and since babies and mentally handicapped individuals can’t make that declaration they remain eternally in God’s care. It would not be fatherly for Him to do anything but take them to heaven.

Certainly this is an acceptable view of God to some. This God is less oppressive in the minds of men than some of the traditional doctrines describe Him. But this view throws the character of God into question. R.A. Webb wrote a book about this over 100 years ago now and he points to four conclusions that are accepted when this view of God is affirmed:

  1. God’s profound concern for the welfare of humans apparently binds his happiness in those He has created. So the creation basically controls the Creator at that point.
  2. Divine election has to be redefined in the light of this new understanding of God’s universal love being extended to the entire race. So it takes away God’s ability to differentiate between people He has created, and we know that’s not biblically sound.
  3. It is inferred that God is no longer in need of propitiation or appeasement by the sacrifice of the innocent for the guilty. So the cross of Christ is no effect in the case of babies, and there’s a big problem there.
  4. The opportunity to be saved is not restricted to earthly life, because a God who loves persons in their earthly life would not suddenly turn around and have such hatred for them once that earthly life had ended.

It comforts many to think of God primarily in terms of love, but there is a danger in that approach when it forsakes His holiness, His righteousness, His justice, His wrath. The God of the Bible is a loving God, but that love does not extend to every human being to every degree. Psalm 5:5 says God hates those who do iniquity.

All men are born into sinful guilt and “amen” that guilt with their own sinful actions. Psalm 58:3: “The wicked are estranged from the womb; These who speak lies go astray from birth.” So while God is love, that does does not extend to all human beings by default. Since the sin of Adam the wrath of God is the default setting and it stays that way if there is no new birth.

So since all babies are still born under God’s wrath, and God is not inconsistent with Himself, the sentimental view that overemphasizes God’s love at the expense of His other attributes is an inadequate defense of the view that all babies who die go to heaven. So we are left to find another defense.

My Defense of Infant Salvation

If any of us is to be able to stand in the belief that babies who die go to the Lord, then we have to do so with a view not grounded in sentimentality and a view that does not negate the reality and effects of original sin. Thankfully, I believe we can still find our answers in the word of God, so at this point I want to ask you to turn back to where we were last week in Romans 1:16-20:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.  17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “BUT THE RIGHTEOUS man SHALL LIVE BY FAITH.”

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness,  19 because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them.  20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.

What Paul is saying here is that all know God and they are without excuse. But why are they without excuse? Because they know things. And what do they know? They know God’s invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, because God had made it evident to them. Through creation He has made it so that His invisible attributes are clearly seen. People are without excuse because these things about God are clearly seen, clearly evident.

There is an implication in Paul’s argument that people would have an excuse if they weren’t able to see clearly in nature what God is like. Little babies, unborn babies, and I would argue severely mentally handicapped individuals can’t process nature, they can’t process creation, and come to conclusions about God’s grace, His glory, His justice. Accountability is based in part  on access to necessary knowledge. So they have an excuse. They don’t have access to the knowledge they would be held accountable for.

Their accountability before God is not the same as those who can process creation in terms of God, so God has ordained that all babies who die are covered by the blood of Jesus, and thus God does not condemn that.

I recognize that I don’t have all of the answers. I believe there is a sense in which we have to rest in the truth Deuteronomy 29:29, that the secret things belong to the Lord and what is revealed belongs to men. I’m not sure exactly how the blood of Christ covers a baby conceived in iniquity but cannot express faith, but I’m sure it does.

What I do kno, is that babies seem to have an excuse. Psalm 5:5, referenced earlier, God hates those who do iniquity. Babies, very young children, the unborn, the handicapped, they don’t do iniquity with any thought about the glory of God and the eternal consequences of sin. Plus, there are at least a couple of unique examples in Scripture of babies being regenerated in the womb. So there is at least precedent for God doing this unique work.

Jeremiah was set apart and known by God from the womb, consecrated and appointed to be His prophet to the nations before he took his first breath. Jeremiah 1:5:

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, And before you were born I consecrated you; I have appointed you a prophet to the nations.

And the best known example of this is, of course, John the Baptist. He was filled with the Holy Spirit in his mother’s womb in Luke 1:15:

For he will be great in the sight of the Lord; and he will drink no wine or liquor, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother’s womb.

So if these children in the Bible could be regenerated and sanctified before they were even born, it is certainly possible that children not mentioned in Scripture could be the beneficiaries of similar grace. Nevertheless, much of this evidence it could be argued is anecdotal. Not concrete in and of itself. So let’s look at the one passage in Scripture I believe clearly demonstrates my view here tonight, that babies who die go to be with the Lord.

David the King had committed adultery with Bathsheba and gotten her pregnant. He’d had her husband, Uriah the Hittite, positioned in battle as to guarantee his death. And the prophet Nathan came and rebuked David for his sin. And this is what we read in 2 Samuel 12:13-20:

Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.” And Nathan said to David, “The LORD also has taken away your sin; you shall not die.  14 “However, because by this deed you have given occasion to the enemies of the LORD to blaspheme, the child also that is born to you shall surely die.”  15 So Nathan went to his house.

Then the LORD struck the child that Uriah’s widow bore to David, so that he was very sick.  16 David therefore inquired of God for the child; and David fasted and went and lay all night on the ground.  17 The elders of his household stood beside him in order to raise him up from the ground, but he was unwilling and would not eat food with them.  18 Then it happened on the seventh day that the child died. And the servants of David were afraid to tell him that the child was dead, for they said, “Behold, while the child was still alive, we spoke to him and he did not listen to our voice. How then can we tell him that the child is dead, since he might do himself harm!”  19 But when David saw that his servants were whispering together, David perceived that the child was dead; so David said to his servants, “Is the child dead?” And they said, “He is dead.”  20 So David arose from the ground, washed, anointed himself, and changed his clothes; and he came into the house of the LORD and worshiped. Then he came to his own house, and when he requested, they set food before him and he ate.

So a number of things are going on here. David has repented of his sins but the consequences of his sins remain. His child of adultery is going to die, and I think the fact that the baby didn’t die immediately is for the purpose of God showing us something in the way David reacted. David wept. He fasted over the child for the duration of his life. But when the baby died, notice what David did. He picked himself up. He washed up. He changed clothes. And he went into the house of the LORD and worshipped. Then he came back to his house and ate. And his servants didn’t understand it. Consider the next verse, 2 Samuel 12:21:

Then his servants said to him, “What is this thing that you have done? While the child was alive, you fasted and wept; but when the child died, you arose and ate food.”

And I think we would’ve probably had much the same response they did. But notice how David responds to them in 2 Samuel 12:22-23:

He said, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, ‘Who knows, the LORD may be gracious to me, that the child may live.’  23 “But now he has died; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me.”

What David did was put his theology into practice. He ceased mourning because his sorrow had been replaced by hope. True, he was praying that God might relent and allow his child to live, but now that the child had died, as God said he would, David’s mourning turned to hope.

David, clearly a believer, a man the Scriptures tell us was after God’s own heart, the man with whom God had made a covenant promising that one of his descendants would reign forever… David clearly wasn’t referring to hell when he said he would go to be with his son.

Certainly, if David believed his son was condemned for eternity he would not have ceased mourning. But David was able to rise up and be confident in what he said because he knew that someday he would be with his son where he was. Here, a man who was confident that he would dwell with the Lord forever, and Psalm 17:15 points us to David’s hope of one day being in the Lord’s likeness… he also KNEW that was where his son already was. There is not a hint of hopeful speculation here from David, but the hope of knowledge, of certainty.

Contrast how David responded to this child dying with how he sobbed and wept uncontrollably when his wicked and rebellious son Absalom was killed in 2 Samuel 18 and 19. Even in David’s victory over the rebellion he mourned knowing that he would not be reunited with that son. With his dead infant, David had the confidence to know his child, never having had the opportunity to respond in faith, was in heaven. He was clearly sure of how God viewed the salvation of infants. Not privy to the divine knowledge of who was chosen before the foundation of the world, the man after God’s own heart had the utmost confidence that his child was beholding the face of God in righteousness and being satisfied with His likeness, just as David knew he would eventually.

Of course, in the end we have to consider how these babies escape damnation. John records the revelation of the Great White Throne judgment, writing that the unbelieving dead “were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds” (Rev 20:12).  John MacArthur writes, “Nowhere in the Bible is anyone ever threatened with hell merely for the guilt inherited from Adam.  Instead, whenever Scripture describes the inhabitants of hell, the stress is on their willful acts of sin and rebellion.” The implication is that the Bible always connects condemnation with works of unrighteousness.  Since infants and the unborn are incapable of these willful acts, they are not condemned.

These individuals are also not able to express unbelief, which throughout the history of the church has been recognized as the primary sin of damnation. Jesus said, “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (John 3:36).  Unbelief will always result in evil works, which are what will be revealed at the Great White Throne. Babies and the unborn have no basis on which to believe or not believe. Therefore, there is no basis for denying them eternity with God.

It is worth noting that when God condemned an entire generation of Israelites for their unbelief in the wilderness, He spared the children among them (Deut 1:35, 39). “God had great compassion on those incapable of understanding truth,” writes MacArthur.  Little children might not believe, but the fact of the matter is they cannot believe.

Even small children are capable of sin. Any father of a toddler can understand that their child is self-centered and selfish.  Children throw temper tantrums, deliberately make messes of their dinner, take cookies from the jar without asking, and punch or bite other children on the playground. They tell their parents “No” when they should be obeying and saying “Yes.”  These are all sinful actions and it just proves original sin, but one must ask whether or not the child is able to consider in his own heart the fact that his actions violate God and His holy law.  Children might know that they are being disobedient to their parents, but do they understand that they are simultaneously committing an action of eternal consequence?  Babies may act sinfully, but they don’t commit conscious acts against God.

R.A. Webb notes,

If a dead infant were sent to hell on no other account than that of original sin, there would be a good reason to the Divine Mind for the judgment, because sin is a reality.  But the child’s mind would be a perfect blank as to the reason of its suffering. Under such circumstances, it would know suffering but it would have understanding of the reason for its suffering.  It could not tell itself why it was so awfully smitten, and consequently, the whole meaning and significance of its sufferings, being to it a conscious enigma, the very essence of the penalty would be absent and justice would be disappointed, cheated of its validation.

Because the small or unborn child cannot comprehend the consequence, any punishment God would mete out would have no significance. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense for God to punish in these cases. The Bible says that all humans are in need of salvation because of the sin of Adam, but nowhere does it indicate that humans are held accountable for the sin of Adam. Instead, all persons will answer for the sins that they do. Those who die in infancy cannot be judged on such a basis because there are no such sins to speak of.  Whenever Scripture describes the inhabitants of hell, it always does so with lists of sins and abominations they have deliberately committed.  The biblical evidence points to the damnation of those who have consciously transgressed the law of God. Infants and the unborn are excluded from that group.

Conclusion

So this is my conclusion: That unborn children, infants and small children, people who mentally handicapped to a severe degree… when they die they go to heaven. What I’ve done is tried to make a case from Scripture that isn’t based in emotions. That said, I do comfort myself with what I believe Scripture to say about this issue. I believe that #2 cannot come to me, but I will go to #2 because I have faith in Jesus Christ and will be satisfied in His likeness in His time. I know that there are some smart godly, theologically sound men who disagree with me, but I believe that when we weigh the biblical evidence, when asked what the eternal destiny of one of these who die is, one can answer with biblical confidence that they instantly find themselves in the presence of God.

Author: Matt Privett

Christian. Husband. Father. Pastor.

2 thoughts on “What happens to babies that die?”

  1. Solid bro. I hold the same position. I had used the texts from Jeremiah and 2 Samuel to get there and just held that it was the pattern of God to save the children of believing parents but I like what MaCarthur says about the orignial sin not being the basis for condemnation rather humanity being condemned for their committed sin. We do sin out of our nature but a child does not understand that. I like it. I would like to use this article for reference if I may.
    JT

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