Previously, I outlined my basic assertion that those who die in infancy, or who are too severely handicapped to wrestle intellectually with the implications of the gospel, experience God’s salvific grace. It appears to me that, by his own decree, God’s judgement is based on actual rather than imputed sin. Infants and the mentally handicapped are incapable of committing actual sin, and there is no good reason to think that God will hold them accountable for imputed sin.
But there are several objections and other considerations that must be answered and made before we seek to examine actual Scriptural texts that point, at least by implication, to the safe eternal destiny of infants and the mentally handicapped who die.
One objection that might be raised to my supposition is that it supposes that infants who die are somehow more deserving of salvation than those who reach an age of accountability, simply by virtue of their age.
While I can see how this conclusion can be reached, it is simply not what I am suggesting. I am suggesting that God saves those who die in infancy by his free grace. No one deserves God’s favour. We all deserve God’s wrath. But just as God has graciously chosen to save those who believe on the Lord Jesus Christ as their Saviour, I am convinced that he has graciously chosen to save those who die in infancy.
The Bible teaches that, before the foundation of the earth, God unconditionally elected those whom he would save. There was nothing that God found admirable or attractive in the elect—nothing on which he conditioned his election; he simply chose some to salvation and passed over others. But if all those who die in infancy are saved, does this not imply that their election was conditioned on their infancy?
Again, I can see how some would reach this conclusion, but it is not what I am saying. God gives and takes life. It is not that he elected some based on his knowledge that they would die in infancy. Instead, he unconditionally elected them and then, in his sovereign wisdom, decreed that they would be ushered into his presence by means of infant death.
A universal rule?
While conceding the underlying assumptions laid out in our previous post, some might ask whether we are justified in concluding that all who die in infancy are saved. Would it not be more biblically reasonable to conclude that children of believers who die are saved, while infants born into unbelieving families who die are not saved?
An appeal in this regard would perhaps be made to 1 Corinthians 7:14: “For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.” Does this text not teach that children (and, consequently, infants) who have at least one believing parent are somehow secure during infancy? If so, it should be noted that no similar promise is made of children who have two unbelieving parents.
What precisely does it mean that children of believing parents (or a believing parent) are “holy”?
It must mean, at the very least, that the children of believers are in a privileged position because they have a parent or parents adorning the gospel before them. Does the designation of such children as “holy” imply anything more than that? Does this text suggest that children with believing parents are secure until such a time as they become personally accountable before God, while children with unbelieving parents are not so?
This is a possible interpretation of this text, though I am not convinced that it is correct. If it is, then we can say with some certainty that believers who experience the death of an infant have biblical hope that their children are eternally secure. Unbelievers do not share the same hope.
However, I am persuaded that the judgement is universally on the basis of actual, and not imputed, sin, and that the infants of unbelievers are no more capable of committed actual sin than the infants of believers.
The example of Esau
Another objection I have encountered is taken from Romans 9:9–13, which speaks of election using the example of Jacob and Esau. Paul, quoting Malachi 1:2–3, writes, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”
Malachi speaks in terms of Israel’s election by God over Edom. The covenantal blessings and messianic promise were given to Israel, not to Edom. Malachi does not make a judgement on the personal destinies of historical Jacob and Esau, but on the covenantal states of their national offspring. Paul infers personal election from this national election, but he also does not make any direct judgement regarding the eternal destiny of Jacob or Esau.
I am not convinced that Scripture affords us sufficient information to speak about Esau’s spiritual state at death. The picture painted in Genesis of Esau’s later life is one of a very different man who sought to take murderous revenge on his brother for stealing the blessing.
There are those, however, who interpret Malachi 1 and Romans 9 as a reference to the respective eternal destinies of Jacob and Esau. God elected Jacob to salvation, and passed over Esau. Esau, then, was not of the elect and consequently died an unbeliever.
We should perhaps also note that, even assuming a personal election in Romans 9, Esau did not die in infancy. My assertion is not that all infants are elect—only those who die in infancy.
Age of accountability?
Some might object simply on the ground that the term “age of accountability” is not used anywhere in Scripture. This is true, but the concept of personal accountability to a holy Creator God is certainly all over the pages of Scripture. And if the basis of the final judgement is works, or deeds done “in the body,” then it certainly seems to imply that the sins for which we will be accountable are those sins that we commit with full understanding.
Loss of salvation?
If my case is biblically sound, what does that mean about the state of those in infancy who will eventually reach this point of accountability? Are all babies born saved but, when they reach their individual age of accountability, they lose their salvation?
Obviously, this is not the case. No one who is genuinely saved can ever lose their salvation. Hypothetical questions about what would happen if a child who died in infancy actually lived to adulthood and then rejected the gospel are pointless. Ultimately, we know that Jesus will not lose any of those whom the Father gave to him.
A rejection of the gospel?
Another issue to be addressed is whether the determining factor in accountability is actually an understanding of sin or a rejection of the gospel. Is a person “safe” only until he first understands the full implications of sin, or is he “safe” until the first time he knowingly rejects the gospel.
The question is not a simple one, because there are texts in Scripture (e.g. John 3:18) that suggest that it is unbelief that condemns a person. At the same time, the testimony of Romans 1–2 is that even those who have never heard the gospel are guilty by virtue of God’s testimony in creation and conscience. Even if they have not expressly rejected the gospel, they are guilty before God.
Once again, however, the implication is that they must have some understanding of the witness of creation and conscience before they are guilty before God. Infants cannot process God’s creation or a guilty conscience and are therefore all safe in infancy until the point of accountability.
One final consideration is a rather bizarre one, but because of its recent exposure is probably worthy of mention.
In the recent hit Left Behind series of novels, a rather strange interpretation of infant safety is portrayed. In the first book, titled simply Left Behind, the authors, dispensational in theology, paint a picture of what the dispensational rapture might look like. In the story, a woman is in labour and about to go into the delivery room, when suddenly her infant is raptured from right inside her. The pregnant woman’s stomach simply deflates as the child is taken to glory.
That may make for interesting fiction, but it is not a serious consideration since the Bible doesn’t actually teach a secret rapture. Even if we granted the validity of a secret rapture, it would be a question with which we shouldn’t be too much concerned, since it is one that the Bible does not directly address.
We have now considered what I perceive to be the overriding argument regarding the fate of those who die in infancy (as well as those who are severely mentally handicapped), and have sought to wrestle with some of the related issues and objections to this theology. I will take some time in my next post to consider some of the actual texts of Scripture that relate to this issue.