In my ongoing thinking through the issue of infants (and the mentally handicapped) who die, and their eternal destiny, I have thus far sought to set forth the overriding argument as I understanding it, and to deal with some objections and other issues relating to the matter.
What I have not yet done is to actually wrestle with the text of Scripture. If Scripture is sufficient for all matters of faith and practice (and it is), then it must surely address the issue of the eternal destiny of those who die in infancy. While there is no text in Scripture that explicitly states the destiny of those who die in infancy, there are numerous passages that seem to deal with the matter at least by implication. I will try to divide these into categories.
I have argued throughout that, as far as the revealed text of Scripture tells us, God’s final judgement of humankind is based on “works” or sins committed “in the body,” as opposed to the sin nature passed down to all humans by virtue of Adam’s sin. I have further argued that those who lack the ability to discern between right and wrong are not guilty of actual sin, and so, by God’s grace, will not be condemned.
The question is, can the assertion that infants do not understand the difference between right and wrong be defended biblically? I think it can.
In Deuteronomy 1:39, God speaks of Israel’s “little ones … who today have no knowledge of good or evil,” and promises that they will be granted access to the Promised Land. We cannot push this too far, since we know that those who entered Canaan were those under the age of twenty when God spoke in Deuteronomy 1 (see Numbers 12:10–12). Nevertheless, the principle is still that there were some whom God chose not to judge because they had “no knowledge of good and evil.”
Another text is found in the closing verses of the book of Jonah. When Jonah angrily insisted that he was right in expecting God’s judgement on Nineveh, the Lord replied, “Should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” Most interpreters understand the “more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left” to be a reference to children. God was concerned about the pagan children in Nineveh, and evidently deemed them to be unworthy of the judgement for which Jonah was calling. He made no reference to the adults in the city who had openly and knowingly defied God. In fact, God had warned those who could understand of judgement (3:4), but was compassionate toward the children.
Isaiah 7:16 similarly speaks of an age before which a child does not know how to choose evil and refuse good. Jeremiah 19:4 calls infants sacrificed to pagan gods “innocents.” These texts, of course, refer to covenant children, but the text in Jonah is clearly a reference to non-covenant children.
One of the most frequent arguments in favour of infant safety is Jesus’ invitation for children to come to him, and his reference to the kingdom of heaven belonging to such children (Matthew 19:13–15). Of course, the context was that of children being denied physical access to Jesus by the disciples, and Jesus inviting the children physically to come to him, but there is at least a principle of care for them.
God’s special interest in children is seen elsewhere in Scripture. Ezekiel 16:21, for example, speaks of infants offered in sacrifice to pagan gods as “my children.”
Some would also point to 1 Kings 14, where Jeroboam’s entire household is condemned to an ignoble death and burial except his son Abijah, “because in him there is found something pleasing to the LORD” (v. 13). It should be noted, however, that the word “child” in this context can refer to a child anywhere from infancy to adolescence. We cannot necessarily conclude that Abijah was an infant.
One other text that may apply here, though only by implication and reasoning, is Revelation 5:9, which speaks of the fact that every people group will one day be represented before the throne of God in heaven. This means one of two things.
First, it may mean that God has through the gospel reached some in every people group that has ever died out. A second possibility is that those people groups who have died out without ever being reached will be represented in heaven by their infants who have died. Both possibilities are very real.
Another passage cited frequently in this debate is 2 Samuel 12. Having committed adultery and murder, and having had his sin uncovered, David had wholeheartedly repented. As a murderer, David’s just punishment would have been execution, but God told him that he would not die. Instead, God would take the life of the son with whom Bathsheba was pregnant.
For the brief time that the child lived, David fasted and prayed. When the child died, however, David was comforted and worshipped God. When his servants wondered about his newfound peace, David replied, “Now he is dead; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me” (2 Samuel 12:23). He seems to have been assured that he would one day go to where his son was.
It seems unlikely that David was simply talking about the common destiny of the grave. Why would the certainty of his own death comfort David about the death of his son? And why did it not similarly comfort him about the later death of Absalom (2 Samuel 19:1-8)?
A final text is found in Job 3. After suffering greatly, Job cursed the day of his birth. He asked,
Why did I not die at birth, come out from the womb and expire? Why did the knees receive me? Or why the breasts, that I should nurse? For then I would have lain down and been quiet; I would have slept; then I would have been at rest, with kings and counsellors of the earth who rebuilt ruins for themselves, or with princes who had gold, who filled their houses with silver. Or why was I not as a hidden stillborn child, as infants who never see the light? There the wicked cease from troubling, and there the weary are at rest. There the prisoners are at ease together; they hear not the voice of the taskmaster. The small and the great are there, and the slave is free from his master.
Suffering Job felt that if he had died “at birth” he would have “been at rest.” Had he been a “stillborn child” he would have been “at ease.” It is possible, of course, that he is simply saying, in poetic fashion, that had he never been born he would never have suffered (in life) as he was suffering at that point. However, if those who die outside of Christ—including infants—are destined to face God’s wrath, it is difficult to see how Job could have assumed that he would have been “at rest” and “at ease” if he had died in infancy.
It is my conviction that the overwhelming evidence of Scripture is in favour if infant safety. With the exception of Jonah 4:11, the texts that seem to highlight infant safety in the context of covenant children, but the one exception is nonetheless significant. Further, if the judgement is based on personal sin rather than imputed sin, I remain convinced that the infants of unbelievers are no more capable of personal sin than the infants of believers.
This is a matter that has been debated for a long time. I don’t pretend to have all the answers with which others far wiser and better equipped have wrestled. Scripture simply does not give a straight answer one way or another. It is my contention, however, that Scripture, at the very least, teaches the safety of covenant children; but very likely the safety of all those who die without the ability to understand their personal sin.