Editor’s Note: The author has attempted to address a difficult subject. It is hoped that the article will bring comfort and encouragement to those who face this experience—and give us all the opportunity to think through the Scriptures on the issue.
Perhaps nothing is more devastating and grief producing to parents than the death of their infant or young child. Someone has described the experience as the cruelest blow life can bring. Tragically some couples even go their separate ways after losing a little one. Perhaps some readers are facing the possibility or reality of this loss right now. Or maybe a neighbor, relative, or friend is.
Throughout history and among Christian perspectives, there has been a consensus concerning the spiritual safety of the very young, including the unborn. Those who offer comfort to grieving families would be at a loss if there were no words of peace to give.
Nevertheless, some disagreement exists. There are two main views among believers regarding the destiny of a child who dies before the “age of accountability.” Adherents of the first view deny that such a thing as an age of accountability exists. They argue that since God knows who would have trusted Jesus as Savior had they lived longer, those who would have done so will go to Heaven, and those who would not have trusted Him as Savior will go to Hell.
The other view holds that such a thing as the age of accountability does indeed exist and that all children before that age will go to Heaven upon death. In other words, God views these children as a part of His elect. Such children would include those who have mental impairments.
The latter view, to which I ascribe, is not a position arrived at by a single decisive proof text in the Bible, but rather is an inductive conclusion of bringing together pieces of the puzzle from their places throughout the Scriptures. I would like to share my journey to this conviction.
The theological basis
First Corinthians 15:45 teaches that Christ came as “the last Adam,” providing what theologians view as a new headship of the human race. Thus they argue for a universal benefit in the death of Christ. Second Corinthians 5:19 states, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation.” Second Peter 1:1 mentions “those who have obtained like precious faith with us by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ.” And 1 John 2:2 speaks of the fact that Jesus “is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.”
These verses address the sin nature, and John 1:29 and 2 Corinthians 5:21 address Christ’s payment for sin. An infant is born with a sin nature (we all come into this world spiritually dead), but God’s grace through Christ’s work on the cross transcends guilt from Adam’s sin. (See this principle in Ezekiel 18:20.) The grace of God allows the truly innocent one to enter Heaven, God’s presence, whereas the guilty through unbelief cannot enter.
Deuteronomy 1:39 similarly says, “Moreover your little ones and your children, who you say will be victims, who today have no knowledge of good and evil, they shall go in there; to them I will give it, and they shall possess it.” This verse refers to the time when God’s Chosen People rebelled and consequently did not get to enter the Promised Land. Those who were twenty years old and older died in the wilderness; however, God considered those younger than that age as not participating in the older ones’ sin and thus unaccountable (Numbers 14:29). God permitted the young ones to enter the land. The older ones had used the excuse that they were concerned about the safety of their young. But God, Who knew their minds and hearts, knew they were really implying that He didn’t care about their children. So God showed that He did care for the young ones: He gave them the privilege of entering the land. Thus, in Deuteronomy 1:39 we see that God recognizes such a thing as an age of accountability and an age of innocence.
The judgment of God is based upon sins, not merely upon nature (“according to their works”; Revelation 20:12, as well as similar texts). James 4:17 tells us that knowing to do good and then not doing it is sin. Therefore, a sheltering innocence exists for young ones who know neither good nor evil, those who thus cannot be held accountable (Genesis 2:16, 17; Isaiah 7:16). They are covered. God, in effect, applies the atonement of Christ to these precious souls. Lostness is always in the context of unbelief and evil deeds (Revelation 21:8). Scripture teaches that the ability to believe is the spiritual watershed that determines salvation (John 16:8, 9). The young child and the babe are not yet in a state that makes participation (faith) possible. Growth, however, brings moral awareness and changes their state before God. Romans 1:19 and 20, for example, teach that those who are aware of the witness of creation are “without excuse.” Before infants and children can be held accountable, they have “excuse.” Here then is the theological basis for the position that a grace period exists for those younger than the age of accountability. Of course, only God knows the varying times among children when they reach that divide between being unaccountable and accountable.
The textual reinforcements
1. Second Samuel 12:23. “I shall go to him,” said David of his and Bathsheba’s newborn and newly dead son. David expected to dwell in “the house of the Lord” (Psalm 23:6) when he died, not the grave. It is interesting that men such as Job and Jeremiah (Job 3; Jeremiah 20) wished at times that they had died at birth, certainly with no fear of spiritual liability had it been so.
2. Ezekiel 16:21. God refers to infants of Ezekiel’s time (with unbelieving parents, please note) as “My children”!
3. Matthew 18:3. Here we read Jesus’ words to His disciples: “Unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” After Jesus told His disciples not to forbid the children, He said, “For of such is the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:14; see also Luke 18:16). Young children have, for a while, an undefiled condition of trust, dependence, and innocence. In Mark 10:16 Jesus “took [the children] in His arms, laid His hands on them, and blessed them.” If an infant had died in His arms, would that child have been safe? If so, the same may be argued of any infant in the world at any time.
4. Matthew 18:10. The little ones have influential angel representation in Heaven. Hebrews 1:14 relates that privilege to safety.
5. Matthew 18:11. When speaking of the little children, Jesus said, “The Son of Man has come to save that which was lost” (emphasis added). In Luke 19:10, however, when Jesus was talking with Zacchaeus, He said, “The Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost” (emphasis added). For the young ones, a time of pursuit appears unnecessary.
6. Matthew 21:16. “Perfected praise” is said to come from children (Psalm 8:2). It appears that God’s grace and compassion for children accepts them before transgressions make them morally and spiritually accountable (Jonah 4:11), defiling innocence.
In spite of these textual reinforcements, a handful of Bible students sense that something is missing. Perhaps something is. Perhaps the missing element is for us to focus upon our compassionate Shepherd Himself, the One Who commanded Peter in John 21:15, “Feed My lambs.” (The use of “lambs” implies “babes,” as opposed to grown-up sheep.) Perhaps it is for us to rest assured in the words of Abraham: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25).
Pastors I’ve known who believe in the truth of Genesis 18:25 will pledge this fact to grieving parents: “One day you will stand before God. Your questions will be fully answered, and you will be perfectly satisfied.” That is unquestionably and absolutely true, regardless of what view we with finite minds take.
Theodore W. Ertle is a longtime GARBC pastor. Since retirement, he has served as an interim pastor in six churches.