What happens to children when they die?
This question was asked in this summer’s People’s Choice summer series and because of space in that series and also because it may be more clearly delivered in type, I address it in this blog.
This is not a question unique to today (though emotionalism and universalism perhaps make it more difficult to address). Infants died in Bible times, pre-modern Britain, and indeed still today. Although infant mortality has decreased, still children die, particularly the unborn (miscarriage, abortion, the disposal of embryos in fertility treatments, etc). So long as there are children and so long as there is sin and death this question will be relevant.
Before I begin to give a basic and introductory response, I want to emphasise that I do not embark on seeking to answer this question as if from a distance. My wife and I lost a child through miscarriage and we have had close friends and family members suffer the loss of both unborn and newborn children. Something else that I must stress before I proceed is that this question is often approached through emotionalism. While our affections have a role to play we must submit ourselves to Scripture, conceding that our ways are not God’s ways (Isa 55:8–9). Generally when we are uncomfortable about something in the Bible God is correct and we are wrong. If you proceed in reading this blog please pause, pray and be open to reason [or reasoning] (James 3:17). Christianity is like a train and the order of that train is important. First must come the train, then the car and finally the caboose. Put another way, first must come fact (or the promises and truths of God), then faith (or belief in those) and then feeling. Get the order wrong and the train soon runs off the track. Get the order right and it runs smoothly along.
The question centres around salvation and namely, if the Bible teaches human depravity and the need of salvation (which it clearly does), what about children? It also touches upon our beliefs about what the character of God should be in relation to this question, either leaning toward His love (how could a loving God allow…) or His justice (God is soft on sin if…).
Numerous passages and verses in the Bible teach human depravity, but three are perhaps most pertinent to this subject.
The first is Psalm 51:5 where the Spirit says through David: Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. This verse teaches that not only from birth but from conception we are sinners.
The second is Ro 5:12, which addresses why we are born sinners. Here the Spirit says through Paul: Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned. This means that because the head of the human race—Adam—sinned, all humans are born sinners (original sin). Not only are we born guilty sinners by nature but we also co-opt into sin through sinful choices throughout our lives.
Thirdly, and perhaps the most challenging, come passages like Deut 20:16–18 and 1 Sam 15:2–3 where the Spirit says the following about the destruction of the Canaanites:
2 Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘I have noted what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way when they came up out of Egypt. 3 Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’”
We must remember that these last passages speak of judgement because of societal sin of a great magnitude (with simply a different means than say Sodom and Gomorrah) and not genocide. Traditionally this total judgment has been understood by Christians as a real event backed up by archaeology, but also as a picture of hell.
If children had no sin, children wouldn’t die. As death is a result of sin generally, children as well as adults tragically die.
In light of these three passages, we return to the question.
There have been at least 7 ways that Christendom has sought to answer this question.
- All children go to heaven (universalism: that God ultimately accepts everyone because He is “love”).
- This has been the death knell of ‘liberal Christianity.’ The basic teaching of the Bible is that sinners are saved through faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ (John 3:16). Jesus’ death did not save everyone but only made that salvation possible. Jesus died to save those who would believe in Him, He died to save His own (Jn 10:14). The Bible clearly teaches that no all humans are saved.
- No children go to heaven.
- Based on the above passages and that children cannot believe some do not think any children go to heaven.
- Christened children go to heaven (Roman Catholicism).
- Roman Catholics believe one is saved by faith+sacraments+works. One of the sacraments is to christen children. In a sacrament the church is seen as having the authority to dispense God’s grace on earth. As such those children who are baptised are saved, hence why Roman Catholics are so quick to want to baptise their children. The clear teaching of the Bible that we are saved by faith and not by works (whether personal or ecclesial [by the church]) discounts this view.
- Children who die before the “age of accountability” go to heaven.
- Another popular view that seeks to balance accountability for sin and the need for faith in salvation is this one: that children are only subject to the penalty of hell if they reject Christ after some arbitrary or subjective “age of accountability.” If they haven’t reached that age they go to heaven. But what is this age? Is it 4, 6, 8, 12, 20, 40, 80? The Bible doesn’t say, because it doesn’t exist. Anyone who has worked with children knows that children wilfully choose sin from a very early age and should be held accountable much earlier than 18!
- In His mercy God applies the meritorious work of Christ to children because He is a God of grace.
- In this view children do not exercise normal faith in Christ that is needed by those who can choose, but rather He has mercy upon whom I have mercy (Ro 9:15). While it is true that God has mercy upon whomever He will (in this passage as it relates to election), the consistent teaching of Scripture associates receiving this mercy in faith. The strength of this view is it fights universalism by appealing to the need for the work of Christ. The downside is that nowhere in the Bible is this clearly stated.
- Only elect children go to heaven (or children of the elect are saved).
- This was the view held by the founders of our chapel. Article 10.3 of our founding confession said this: “Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated, and saved by Christ, through the Spirit, who works when, and where, and how He pleases: so also are all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word.” (The Scriptural proofs for some of these show that even the most robust theologians need to bend Scripture to address this question). In this view infants who are elect are saved without faith shown on earth according to the mercy of God. A similar view believes children of believing (elect) parents are saved on account of the faith of their parents. This view would account for why not all children (like those of the Amalekites) are saved and why some possibly are, but no one could know who an elect child was or was not, because the elect are normally only justified through faith on earth.
- This is a mystery best left to the Lord (my personal view).
- I do not stay awake at night wondering about the eternal state of my unborn child. Why? Because I entrust its soul to an all wise, good and sovereign God and accept His will, whatever it may be. While point 6 comes closest to sounding reasonable, I believe that because the Bible does not even remotely touch upon this subject clearly, it therefore must not be a subject God wants us to concern ourselves with, otherwise He would have told us.
There are two things, however, that the Bible does clearly teach: 1) personal comfort grounded in the promises of God (vs. speculation) for those who mourn the loss of a child, and 2) the personal need to respond to the Gospel.
- For those who have suffered the loss of a child comfort is available in the face of such loss but it does not come from speculating about your child’s salvation but hoping in the promises of God such as, Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted (Matt 5:4).
- The Lord commands all people everywhere to repent… (Acts 17:30).
The Lord’s Sweetest Blessings,
 In 2015 there were 185,824 in England and Wales (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/may/17/abortion-rate-england-and-wales-five-year-high).
 I believe it is possible to differentiate between the immorality of abortion for instance and issues of infant salvation.
 Jesus saying, “let the little come to me” has as little to do with salvation as it does baptism, rather Jesus is breaking down barriers in the apostles hearts, because the Gospel was not meant for “us” (the disciples or the Jews) but for them (Jews and Gentiles and all who believe).
 This is very similar to forms of universalism where it is believed people will get a second chance before entering heaven to believe (but see Heb 9:27).