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What Happens to Infants and Young Children Who Die?

Although the concept of “the age of accountability” had its beginnings early in the history of the Christian church, the Scriptures do not use this terminology. Neither does the Bible contain substantial allusions to the eternal state of babies or young children who die before they are old enough to make a conscious decision for or against Christ.

People have always been concerned about the salvation of children who die before they are old enough to clearly understand the gospel. Unfortunately, the conclusion reached by many in the early church was that infants who die without the sacrament of baptism are destined for hell—or limbo. This belief was based upon a mistaken view of baptism.

This view persisted into the Reformation. Catholics, Lutherans, and others continued to believe that infants who weren’t baptized would be condemned to hell. 1This is a tragic distortion of biblical teaching. It is a credit to the clear thinking of John Calvin that he found such a doctrine reprehensible:

“I do not doubt that the infants whom the Lord gathers together from this life are regenerated by a secret operation of the Holy Spirit.” (Amsterdam edition of Calvin’s works, 8:522).

“I everywhere teach that no one can be justly condemned and perish except on account of actual sin; and to say that the countless mortals taken from life while yet infants are precipitated from their mothers’ arms into eternal death is a blasphemy to be universally detested.” (Institutes, Book 4, p.335).

Although infants are not capable of conscious sin in the same way as someone older ( Isaiah 7:15-16; Matthew 18:3-4 ), they have inherited natures that are contaminated by sin and in need of transformation and salvation ( Psalm 51:5; Ephesians 2:3 ). Yet, because of their dependency, trust, and innocence, Jesus not only offers young children as models for the manner in which adult sinners need to be converted, He views them in a unique way:

“Take heed that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that in heaven their angels always see the face of My Father who is in heaven.”( Matthew 18:10 ).

“Even so it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.”( Matthew 18:14 ).

Further, the Scriptures clearly indicate that God does not punish children for the offenses of their fathers ( Deuteronomy 24:16; Ezekiel 18:20 ).

Therefore, we believe that those who die as infants or young children are given the gift of salvation. They aren’t given this gift because they are without sin; they, too, have inherited Adam’s curse. They are given salvation based solely on God’s grace, through the sacrificial atonement of Christ on their behalf.

“Therefore, as through one man’s offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man’s righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous.” ( Romans 5:18-19 ).

Infants had nothing to do with the fact that they were heirs of Adam’s sinful nature. Therefore, it stands to reason that they can be given the gift of salvation without having consciously accepted it. Only rejection of Christ’s love on their behalf—something that cannot occur until they reach the age that conscious sin is possible—can result in their loss of Christ’s gift.

  1. Norman Fox, The Unfolding of Baptist Doctrine, 24 “Not only the Roman Catholics believed in the damnation of infants. The Lutherans, in the Augsburg Confession, condemn the Baptists for affirming that children are saved without baptism; damnant Anabaptistas qui . . . affirmant pueros sine baptismo salvos fieri” [“they damn the Anabaptists who . . . affirm that children are saved without baptism”] and the favorite poet of Presbyterian Scotland [Robert Burns], in his Tam O Shanter, names among objects from hell, Twa spanlang, wee, unchristened bairns. The Westminster Confession, in declaring that elect infants dying in infancy are saved, implies that non elect infants dying in infancy are lost. This was certainly taught by some of the framers of that creed. (Christian Theology, Augustus Strong) Back To Article
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