Tonight’s question is “What is the fate of infants who die?” The questioner also asks if there is a biblical age of accountability.
Let me start with the idea of an age of accountability. The Bible speaks of moral understanding being necessary before a child is able to form sound judgments. Isaiah 7:16 speaks of a boy not being old enough “to reject the wrong and choose the right.” Likewise, Deuteronomy 1:39 speaks of children not yet knowing good from bad. That does not mean they are not sinners, as any parent or nursery worker can tell you. Proverbs 20:11 says, “Even a child is known by his actions, by whether his conduct is pure and right.”
The Bible does not specify the age at which a child is accountable for his or her actions. My experience is that children are able to believe practically as soon as they are able to speak. But at what age does moral and spiritual understanding hold them accountable to do so? I would say that this varies from child to child. God knows when this transition has taken place, and in the case of an unbelieving child he knows when immaturity has advanced to real and willful rejection. The only biblical example we have—and it is an example, not an assertion—is that of our Lord Jesus. Luke 2 shows that when Jesus was 12 years old he entered into the synagogue community with intelligence and conscious faith. It is on this example that many people—mistakenly in my view—insist on an absolute transition at that age. I would say that most children transition from childhood to adulthood around the age of adolescence, but barring a clearer biblical mandate I think we should resist drawing an absolute line.
With that said, our remaining discussion deals with children who have not yet reached moral and spiritual maturity, whenever that is. Among them, does the Bible makes a distinction between children of believers and children of non-believers? Many deny that there is any difference in terms of the children who die, arguing that since they are not accountable they cannot be condemned. Others argue this sentimentally from the Bible’s generally positive view of children. “Since Jesus loved the little children, surely all them are going to heaven,” etc. Still more argue that because God forbade the Israelites to sacrifice their children on the altars of Molech, he obviously would not sacrifice them in hell. That, however, confuses the issue, since God forbade child-sacrifice because of an evil intrinsic to such idolatry, an evil that does not pertain to his judgment of sinners.
There are two reasons why we should understand that children of Christians are viewed differently by God than children of unbelieving parents. The first is God’s covenant relationship to his people. To his own people—and to only them—God says, “I will be your God and the God of your children” (see Gen. 17:7; Acts 2:39). God is not in a saving covenant relationship with unbelievers and therefore their children do not have a claim on any saving promises. That is why Paul says, in 1 Corinthians 7:14, and this explicit statement of Scripture is my second reason for this, that the children of believers are “holy,” while others are “unclean.” Children of unbelieving parents may and often do come to saving faith. But until then they are not sanctified to God but are aliens to his saving covenants.
Some people argue that all children will be saved because they are not born needing salvation, having never sinned. But David says in Psalm 51:5, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” Psalm 58:3 adds, “Even from birth the wicked go astray; from the womb they are wayward and speak lies.” All humans born in Adam are condemned by his curse, whether they understand it or not, with his guilt imputed to all his descendants. Romans 5:19 says, “Through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners.” Therefore, Paul says in Ephesians 2:3, that all are “by nature objects of wrath.”
Does that mean that infant children of unbelievers who die are certain to be condemned and sent to hell? I never want to make a sweeping statement of damnation, not being able to know the particulars of how God may be working in individual cases. But in light of all we have seen, I have little comfort to give regarding the death of children of unbelieving parents. The Old Testament shows that God’s wrath does not stop at any age barriers when it comes to sin. My counsel to such unbelieving parents who have lost children is to put their faith in Christ and cast themselves on God’s tender mercy. With that in mind we should be all the more dedicated to pray and share the gospel with those around us who are not saved.
Finally, what about the infant children of believers? Here, we have strong biblical warrant that believers’ children await them in heaven. First, this follows from God’s covenant promises to us and to our children. Second, I am greatly comforted by the episode that occurs in 2 Samuel, chapter 12. David’s adulterous affair with Bathsheba produced a child and God took the child’s life as a punishment to David. Before the child died, David lamented with tears and prayed to God for mercy. But when the child died, David got up, ate, and went away in joy. In verse 23, he explained, “Now that he is dead, why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me.”
David’s joy indicates that he expects to see his child in paradise, the Old Testament term for the place of God’s favor in death. Some people argue that this proves the salvation of all infants. But David hardly represents those outside of God’s covenant. His precedent, speaking as a prophet of God, ought to give grieving Christians a confident expectation that they, like him, may look forward to seeing their children in heaven because of the grace of our promise-keeping, covenant God.
On a final note, some accounts of Christians on their death-beds include references to lost children they are seeing again. I am especially moved by the death-bed statement of the evangelist Dwight Moody. With his living children beside him, Moody began to fail. Suddenly, he exclaimed, “Earth is receding; heaven is opening; God is calling.” He son tried to comfort him, saying, “You are dreaming, Father.” But Moody replied, “No, Will, this is no dream. I have been within the gates. I have seen the children’s faces.” I have no doubt at all that for many of you whose hearts were broken by the loss of little children, second only to the bliss of seeing the face of God in all his beauty will be the joy of reunion with little boys and little girls, now perfected in glory, with whom you will spend eternity in ever-increasing joy.
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