What happens to infants, and children, who die before they are capable of understanding and accepting the Gospel? And what about the infants and children who died before the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ? Heaven, hell, 'limbo', non-existence; what/where is their eternal destiny?
When one turns to the Bible for an answer to this important question, the paucity of definitive/explicit references becomes all too apparent. In fact, some Biblical scholars admit that there are no explicit references to the question at hand. With that said, there are a number of verses from the Bible which I (and others) believe are germane, and offer some insights into our question. By use of the inductive method, multiple categories of Scripture will be examined, and then combined to obtain a cohesive conclusion.
One category of verses pertains to the issue of accountability as it relates to the individual:
The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers: every man shall be put to death for his own sin. (Deut. 24:16)
But the children of the murderers he slew not: according unto that which is written in the book of the law of Moses, wherein the LORD commanded, saying, The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, nor the children be put to death for the fathers; but every man shall be put to death for his own sin. (2 Kings 14:6)
But he slew not their children, but did as it is written in the law in the book of Moses, where the LORD commanded, saying, The fathers shall not die for the children, neither shall the children die for the fathers, but every man shall die for his own sin. (2 Chr. 25:3)
Give them according to their deeds, and according to the wickedness of their endeavours: give them after the work of their hands; render to them their desert. (Ps. 28:4)
Also unto thee, O Lord, belongeth mercy: for thou renderest to every man according to his work. (Ps. 62:12)
If thou sayest, Behold, we knew it not; doth not he that pondereth the heart consider it? and he that keepeth thy soul, doth not he know it? and shall not he render to every man according to his works? (Prov. 24:12)
Say ye to the righteous, that it shall be well with him: for they shall eat the fruit of their doings. Woe unto the wicked! it shall be ill with him: for the reward of his hands shall be given him. (Isaiah 3:10, 11)
I the LORD search the heart, I try the reins, even to give every man according to his ways, and according to the fruit of his doings. (Jer. 17:10)
Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sinneth, it shall die. (Jer. 18:4)
But every one shall die for his own iniquity: (Jer. 31:30a)
The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him. (Ezek. 18:20)
For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works. (Matt. 16:27)
But after thy hardness and impenitent heart treasurest up unto thyself wrath against the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God; Who will render to every man according to his deeds: to them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, eternal life: But unto them that are contentious, and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath, Tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that doeth evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Gentile; But glory, honour, and peace, to every man that worketh good, to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile: For there is no respect of persons with God. (Rom. 2:5-11)
Every man's work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man's work of what sort it is. (1 Cor. 3:13)
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad. (2 Cor. 5:10)
But he that doeth wrong shall receive for the wrong which he hath done: and there is no respect of persons. (Col. 3:25)
And if ye call on the Father, who without respect of persons judgeth according to every man's work, pass the time of your sojourning here in fear: (1 Peter 1:17)
Yet if any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf. For the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God: and if it first begin at us, what shall the end be of them that obey not the gospel of God? And if the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear? (1 Peter 4:16-18)
And unto the angel of the church in Thyatira write; These things saith the Son of God, who hath his eyes like unto a flame of fire, and his feet are like fine brass; I know thy works, and charity, and service, and faith, and thy patience, and thy works; and the last to be more than the first. Notwithstanding I have a few things against thee, because thou sufferest that woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols. And I gave her space to repent of her fornication; and she repented not. Behold, I will cast her into a bed, and them that commit adultery with her into great tribulation, except they repent of their deeds. And I will kill her children* with death; and all the churches shall know that I am he which searcheth the reins and hearts: and I will give unto every one of you according to your works. (Rev. 2: 18-23)
And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. (Rev. 20:12)
And, behold, I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to give every man according as his work shall be. (Rev. 22:12)
[*The term "children" (Gr. tekna/teknon) in this context pertains to affiliation and not chronological age; see John 8:39 for a parallel usage of tekna/teknon.]
The above verses clearly demonstrate the truism that the accountability of mankind is based on what the individual has done. Adam's sin, and Jesus Christ atoning death on the Cross, do not invalidate this truism.
Though the accountability of the individual before God is clearly established, the Bible seems to suggest that there exists a 'mitigating factor' as to the WHEN the individual becomes accountable. This 'mitigating factor' is whether or not one has the capacity to understand the contrast between "the knowledge of good and evil"; note the following:
Moreover your little ones, which ye said should be a prey, and your children, which in that day had no knowledge between good and evil, they shall go in thither, and unto them will I give it, and they shall possess it. (Deut. 1:39)
Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. Butter and honey shall he eat, that he may know to refuse the evil, and choose the good. For before the child shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good, the land that thou abhorrest shall be forsaken of both her kings. (Isaiah 7:14-16)
Because they have forsaken me, and have estranged this place, and have burned incense in it unto other gods, whom neither they nor their fathers have known, nor the kings of Judah, and have filled this place with the blood of innocents; (Jer. 19:4)
And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle? (Jonah 4:11)
We also have those verses from the lips of Jesus Christ which strongly imply that children have a unique relationship/standing with him:
Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 18:3, 4)
Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you, That in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven. (Matt. 18:10)
Then were there brought unto him little children, that he should put his hands on them, and pray: and the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 19:13, 14)
But when Jesus saw it, he was much displeased, and said unto them, Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God. Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein. (Mark 10:14, 15)
And they brought unto him also infants, that he would touch them: but when his disciples saw it, they rebuked them. But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God. Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter therein. (Luke 18:15-17)
An inductive assessment of the verses listed above strongly suggests to me that the ultimate destiny of infants—and children who have yet to obtain "knowledge between good and evil"—is with Jesus Christ in heaven.
Now, with that said, one cannot overlook those verses which seem to imply that all mankind—even infants and children—are in some sense accountable before God, and are not 'innocent':
The LORD looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, and seek God. They are all gone aside, they are all together become filthy: there is none that doeth good, no, not one. (Psalm 14:2, 3)
Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me. (Psalm 51:5)
God looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, that did seek God. Every one of them is gone back: they are altogether become filthy; there is none that doeth good, no, not one. (Psalm 53:2, 3)
The wicked are estranged from the womb: they go astray as soon as they be born, speaking lies. (Psalm 58:3)
As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one. (Rom. 3:10-12)
Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience: Among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others. (Eph. 2:2, 3)
Quite a bleak contrast. It could be argued (and has been), that this last list of passages contradicts a number of those from the prior lists. But, I am a firm believer in the inerrancy of the Scriptures; as such, the apparent contrast for me does not entail an actual contradiction. Instead, what we have are a number of compatible concepts/truths that can be reconciled.
The following verses from Paul's epistle to the Romans lays the foundation for a cohesive understanding of concepts/truths that have emerged from extensive lists of quotations provided above:
For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die. But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him. For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life. And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement. Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned: (For until the law sin was in the world: but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over them that had not sinned after the similitude of Adam's transgression, who is the figure of him that was to come. But not as the offence, so also is the free gift. For if through the offence of one many be dead, much more the grace of God, and the gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many. And not as it was by one that sinned, so is the gift: for the judgment was by one to condemnation, but the free gift is of many offences unto justification. For if by one man's offence death reigned by one; much more they which receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness shall reign in life by one, Jesus Christ.) Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. (Rom. 5:6-18; see also 1 John 2:2)
I would like to suggest that there are universal aspects to "Adam's transgression"; and that there are universal aspects to Jesus Christ's "free gift". I am inclined to deduce that one of the universal aspects of Jesus Christ's "free gift"—his death on the cross—is that of atonement/propitiation; and that his atonement/propitiation removes any accountability/condemnation from those who have yet to acquire a "knowledge between good and evil." As such, my current doctrine of infant salvation is that of universalism—i.e. the destiny of all infants is that they shall be with Jesus Christ in heaven.
In upcoming posts, I hope to examine the teachings of some of the various soteriological systems on this issue of infant salvation, and whether or not they are internally consistent.
Grace and peace,