-- Matthew 18:10
It is a common question, because it is unfortunately a common occurrence: losing a baby. I think we all tend to believe that God receives departed infants into heaven, but perhaps we're not sure why we believe (other than that the alternative seems unconscionable). Many times grieving families seek assurance. This post is my imperfect attempt at offering cause for hope.
The question "What happens to babies who die?" (and for this line of argument, I'm going to include the mentally handicapped) is fairly complex and has been debated for quite some time. One thing is Scripturally sure: all persons are sinful from conception and therefore deserving of hell. Nobody, no matter their state or age or experience, deserves heaven, and this includes babies, toddlers, the mentally handicapped, the comatose, etc.
Now, that everyone deserves hell is a matter of Scriptural clarity, BUT, whether God in his mercy extends grace to those unable to act out on their sinful nature is another matter entirely, and trust in God’s love certainly lends itself to the idea that God will not eternally punish those who are not able to express the sin that is in their hearts either physically or mentally. For this reason, then, there is good reason to believe that infants and the mentally handicapped who die are saved. This does not mean that all babies are saved. It means that all babies who die as babies will be saved.
Isn't This Just "Age of Accountability"?
I think there is good reason to believe that infants who die are elect. At this point someone usually asks if this isn't just warmed over "age of accountability" talk. But this view is somewhat different from the "age of accountability" idea for a couple of reasons:
a) Customary age of accountability belief appears to argue that we are somehow born with a blank slate, innocent spiritually, and our sinful nature kicks in at some point in time that is different for each person. The view I'm representing tracks with the Reformed view of election and argues that we are all born with sinful natures and deserving eternal separation from God.
b) Age of accountability belief tracks with a more free will decisional regeneration theology. The idea is that children are innocent until they're not, at which point they become responsible. This view is necessary because the adherents typically believe that salvation is contingent upon making a decision for Jesus (whether that is praying the sinner's prayer, walking the aisle, or what-have-you). This view of infant salvation insists instead that infants who die are elect, saved by God in his goodness and by Christ's effectual work applied to them by the Spirit. If salvation is contingent on a free will decision, then babies are out of luck. Which is why "age of accountability" was invented despite a lack of biblical evidence for that and a wealth of biblical complications (like original sin). This view, rather, says that if salvation is God's work and contingent upon a born again heart regenerated by the Spirit, we can continue affirming the doctrine of original sin and yet still believe God elects infants who die unto salvation.
What Does the Bible Say?
It is probably wise not to claim certainty on this matter, but it is not out of bounds to believe Scripture indicates this view is true. Some Scriptural reasoning for the election of deceased infants may be found in two primary places.
In 2 Samuel 12, David assumes he will go to where his departed baby has gone.
David noticed that his servants were whispering among themselves and he realized the child was dead. "Is the child dead?" he asked.
"Yes," they replied, "he is dead."
Then David got up from the ground. After he had washed, put on lotions and changed his clothes, he went into the house of the LORD and worshiped. Then he went to his own house, and at his request they served him food, and he ate.
His servants asked him, "Why are you acting this way? While the child was alive, you fasted and wept, but now that the child is dead, you get up and eat!"
He answered, "While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept. I thought, 'Who knows? The LORD may be gracious to me and let the child live.' But 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 takes for granted that he will be reunited with his child. Skeptics may point out that David could just mean "the grave," but this avoids the belief the Israelites had about the afterlife, in which faithful children of Israel entered a place of repose in paradise (sometimes called Abraham's Bosom).
Jesus’ teaching on children having a purer faith also indicates a special dispensation for those unable to exercise the natural inclinations of their sinful nature. "The kingdom of God is for such as these." This is not Jesus just telling the grown-ups to have a "childlike faith." This is Jesus declaring a connection with children (who were largely avoided/ignored by Jewish men) that says something particular about children.
Ronald Nash's Arguments
In his excellent book When a Baby Dies: Answers to Comfort Grieving Parents, Ronald Nash lays out the case for believing “that all children who die in infancy and all mentally handicapped persons whose intellectual and moral judgment cannot surpass that of children are saved” with the following points:
1. Infants are incapable of moral good and evil. (Deut. 1:39; Jer. 19:4). Nash affirms that all infants possess the stain of original sin that deserves eternal punishment, but argues that infants are innocent in the sense that their status as infants make it impossible for them to know or understand the things necessary for them to perform good or evil acts.
2. Divine judgment is administered on the basis of sins committed in the body. (2 Cor. 5:10; 1 Cor. 6:9-10; Rev. 20:11-12). Nash’s point is that although our sinful nature deserves for us a place in eternal judgment, the final judgment “is based on sins committed during our earthly existence.”
3. Cases in Scripture of infant salvation. For example, God’s choosing Jeremiah in the womb (Jer. 1:5); John the Baptist being filled with the Spirit in his mother’s womb (Luke 1:15); and David’s hope for his departed baby.
4. Jesus’ special treatment of the little children. Nash argues that Jesus’ saying that the kingdom is for “such as these” cannot be merely figurative about a “childlike faith” for adults, but rather that they are, because they are children, relying more fully on God (even if they do not realize it) than those who are more mentally aware. Nash cites John Calvin as a historical supporter of this view.
5. The work of God in salvation. This support may or may not appeal to all, but Nash is a Calvinist, and he argues that if a free will decision is necessary for salvation, infants and mentally handicapped can never be known for sure to be saved because they are incapable of making a decision. Rather, he says that because God does the work of saving, God predestines babies and the mentally handicapped to salvation. They are “elect,” in other words. Again, this doesn’t mean he’s saying all babies are elect. He’s saying all babies who die as babies are elect.
A Theologically Consistent Cause for Hope
To sum up this view:
1. All persons are sinful from conception, fallen as Adam and deserving of separation from God for all eternity.
2. The work of salvation is God's, applied by the Spirit in the regeneration of the hearts of the elect whom God has foreknown.
3. Infants and mentally handicapped persons who die before they are able to physically and mentally exercise the sinfulness of their hearts are elect, because they have not committed any sinful deeds or thoughts by which to be judged at the end of days.