Does the Bible teach that all babies go to heaven; and if not, why should we believe that our children who die in infancy are saved?
Most Baptists, and even many Calvinistic Baptists such as John Piper1, John MacArthur2 and Charles Spurgeon3, teach that all children that die in infancy go to heaven, where infancy is extended to anyone under the “age of accountability”.4
In other words, they teach a universal salvation for children.
This doctrine certainly appeals to all of us, for by nature we especially pity little children. It is only human to wish that this doctrine were indeed true. However, it is our conviction that, though it may be hard for us to accept (as are many other things in Scripture), this doctrine is not according to Scripture. Exegesis cannot be based on emotions or personal wishes, but must be based solely on God’s Word.
Much could be said about this doctrine. We will restrict ourselves to (a) why this doctrine is unbiblical, (b) what the biblical doctrine concerning children who die in infancy is, and (c) why, in our opinion, most Reformed Baptists hold to this error.
Why this doctrine is unbiblical
The doctrine of universal infant salvation as taught by conservative and Reformed Baptists can be summarised thus:
All babies are born in original sin, and therefore do not go to heaven “by default”.
Babies are unable to exercise faith.
Because of (2), it would be incompatible with God’s justice, love and mercy to condemn babies.
Therefore, all children who die below the “age of accountability” are elect and covered by the blood of Christ.
Our answer to this is as follows. With (1) we certainly agree, according to Scripture. With (2) we do not agree (e.g. Ps. 22:9; Luke 1:41), but for the sake of argument we will accept it. Therefore, all hangs upon (3), for if (3) is true, then (4) is certainly true also.
(3) is unbiblical for the following reasons:
It implicitly denies (1), that babies are born in original sin. Original sin is simply the doctrine that all who descend from Adam, apart from Christ, have Adam’s sin imputed to them, and are therefore guilty in God’s sight of Adam’s sin and deserve the only possible punishment for sin, which is eternal damnation (Rom. 5:12-19; in Ps. 51:5 this is specifically applied to babies). Therefore, it is most emphatically not “unfitting” or “unfair” for God to punish such accordingly. That original sin is denied is shown also by the idea of the “age of accountability”5 which, as the phrase indicates, is the false teaching that children under a certain undefined age are not accounted guilty in God’s sight because they are “too young” to be held accountable. This is disproven by the simple fact that infants die, which death is punishment for sin–the sin of Adam which God imputes to them.
The Gallican (French) Confession, as well as the Belgic Confession, specifically address this:
We believe, also, that [original sin] is truly sin, sufficient for the condemnation of the whole human race, even of little children in the mother's womb, and that God considers it as such, even after baptism it is still of the nature of sin, but the condemnation of it is abolished for the children of God, out of his mere free grace and love. And further, that it is a perversity always producing fruits of malice and of rebellion, so that the most holy men, although they resist it, are still stained with many weaknesses and imperfections while they are in this life.6
We believe that, through the disobedience of Adam, original sin is extended to all mankind; which is a corruption of the whole nature and an hereditary disease, wherewith infants themselves are infected even in their mother’s womb, and which produceth in man all sorts of sin, being in him as a root thereof, and therefore is so vile and abominable in the sight of God that it is sufficient to condemn all mankind.7
It would actually make God unjust, unloving and unmerciful, because God inflicts the terrible punishment of total depravity on all human beings while they are yet babies (e.g. Ps. 58:3), and inflicts the terrible punishment of physical death on some of them also. If God’s justice, love and mercy prevent Him from condemning little infants on the basis of Adam’s sin, then this same justice, love and mercy would prevent God from inflicting physical death on some, and spiritual depravity on all, little children.
The Scriptures clearly show that God’s wrath abides not merely on those outside the church who have reached the “age of accountability”, but also on their children. The examples of this are so many, that we will name but a few. Even children who have been taught Bible history will understand these simple examples. And they truly are terrifying examples. How many babies did God drown in the flood at Noah’s time (the population at the time of the flood was probably several billion)? Upon how many babies in Sodom and Gomorrah did God rain fire and brimstone? Were all the Egyptian firstborn that God killed in the 10th plague above the “age of accountability”? When God commanded the Israelites to destroy all the inhabitants of Canaan, did God command them to spare all the children? When God, in a vision to Ezekiel, commanded all the wicked Israelites in apostate Jerusalem to be killed, did not God specifically include the “little children” (Eze. 9:6)?
The Scriptures explicitly teach that the children of unbelievers are “unclean” (I Cor. 7:14). If all children were “holy” (at least until the “age of accountability”), the Apostle Paul would not have made a distinction between the children of unbelievers and those of believers.
What the biblical doctrine is
As was implied in (c) above, the general picture of Scripture is that outside the church there is only the wrath of God. To put it differently, outside of Christ there is only the wrath of God. And as was shown specifically in (c), children of unbelievers are exposed to God’s wrath. There is therefore no reason to believe or have assurance or hope that the children of unbelievers who die in infancy are saved. Note carefully that we did not say that they are all certainly damned, but rather that we have no reason to believe otherwise.
However, let us look again at some of the examples given in (c) and (d): Whose children did God place in Noah’s ark? And whose children (granted, perhaps none of them in this case were infants, though the point remains) did God take out of Sodom along with Lot before destroying it? Were any Hebrew children among the firstborn slain by God in the 10th plague? And whose children are exempt from being “unclean” and are instead “holy” according to I Corinthians 7:14?
Many more examples of this could be given from all of Scripture (e.g. Matt. 19:13-15, Mark 10:13-15).8
Therefore we conclude that the picture in Scripture is that the children of believers are different from the children of the wicked, not by nature (by which they are the same in original sin) but by the grace of God, by which they are “holy” (1. Cor. 7:14), “included in the covenant and church of God” (see Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 749 and Scripture references therein).
God promises not only to save believers, but also their children (e.g. Gen. 17:7; Acts 2:39; 16:31), although not every one of them (e.g. Rom. 9:6-13). It is as a sign of this, in obedience to God’s command to apply the sign of the covenant to believers and their children (e.g. Gen. 17:10-11), that we baptise the children of believers, baptism being the fulfilment of circumcision as the sign of the covenant (e.g. Col. 2:11-12).
So the biblical answer to the question of children who die in infancy or below the “age of accountability” is that, though it might be possible that God has elected some children of unbelievers who die in infancy, we have no reason to believe this in any particular case.
Conversely, though we know that God’s promise to save the children of believers does not always include all the children, in any particular case of a believer’s child dying in infancy we ought not to doubt his or her salvation. In exactly the same way, although we know that not every single adult member of every true church is saved, in any particular case of an adult member in good standing dying, we ought not to doubt his or her salvation.
This is the exact position of the Canons of Dordt (the original “Five Points of Calvinism”), I:17 concerning the children of believers who die in infancy:
Since we are to judge of the will of God from His Word which testifies that the children of believers are holy, not by nature, but in virtue of the covenant of grace, in which they, together with the parents, are comprehended, godly10 parents have no reason to doubt of the election and salvation of their children whom it pleaseth God to call out of this life in their infancy.
Why, in our opinion, many Reformed Baptists believe this doctrine
We are here not concerned with the question why nearly all Arminians believe this doctrine. They do so mainly because, due to their Arminianism, they think it “unfair” that God would condemn infants who had “no chance to believe”.
Rather we are here concerned with those Baptists (by which term we mean Christians who reject infant baptism) who claim to believe in the “doctrines of grace”, total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace and perseverance of the saints.
It is our opinion that, at the very least partially, they compromise the clear Scriptural teaching of original guilt because they do not have the heart to carry their Baptistic view of children to its logical conclusion.
The following is the “Calvinistic” Baptist John Gill’s main argument against infant baptism, and also a description of his view of the children of believers. This we will take as representative of the best of Baptistic views, Gill being, in our opinion, one of the most biblical and faithful of Baptists:
[The children of believers] are not members [of the church] by birth; for that which is born of the flesh, is flesh, carnal and corrupt, and unfit for church-fellowship: nor do they become such by the faith of their parents; for even their faith does not make them themselves church-members, without a profession of it, and giving up themselves to a church, and received by it into it: men must be believers before they are baptized; and they must be baptized before they become members; and they cannot be members till they make application to a church, and are admitted into it. Infants, as they are born, are not meet for membership, being unregenerate, unholy and impure by their first birth, and must be born again ere they are fit for the kingdom of God, or a gospel-church-state.11[emphasis added]
Notice that according to Baptists, little children are not, indeed cannot be, members of God’s church because they are “unregenerate, unholy and impure”.
And yet absolutely all children who die in infancy, who thus die, according to the Baptists, “unregenerate, unholy and impure”, go to heaven? Are they all of a sudden regenerated, made holy and pure, just as they die? If so, why cannot they be regenerated, made holy and pure without dying?
Clearly the simple conclusion of the Baptists’ view of children must be the following. Since all little children are “unregenerate, unholy and impure”, since they are not allowed into the membership of the visible church by baptism, they must all perish if they die before the “age of accountability”.
However, it is our opinion as well as personal experience, that this logical conclusion is too much for most Baptists to stomach. They refuse to work out their view of little children to its logical conclusion.
Instead, they compromise the doctrine of original sin.
They should repent of this, and reject their unbiblical and horrible view of the children of believers as being heathen outside Christ’s kingdom (contrary to Matt. 19:14, Mark 10:14, etc.). Then, they should baptise the children of believers as a sign of joyfully embracing the merciful, gracious promise of God to save their children – according to election.
There are some more minor points brought to support the doctrine of universal infant salvation, which are as follows:
Scriptural examples of little children being saved
Such as II Kings 4:26, II Samuel 12:23, Isaiah 40:11, Ezekiel 16:20,21, Matthew 19:13-15 and 21:16 (though it is questionable whether the first 2 are really examples of this).
The refutation is most simple: All these examples refer exclusively to the children of believers.
The “age of accountability”
The only place in all of Scripture which can be (falsely) appealed to in support of this idea is Deuteronomy 1:39 and Numbers 14:29 (parallel passages), of which the latter reads:
Your carcases shall fall in this wilderness; and all that were numbered of you, according to your whole number, from twenty years old and upward, which have murmured against me,
Before giving the simple refutation, it ought to be pointed out that this would make 20 the “age of accountability”, which, however (at least in our experience) no Baptist actually does – usually it is around 10 years of age or even less.
The refutation is once again most simple: According to the verse itself, those under the age of 20 were spared physical death because they were not the ones who “murmured against God”. The passage is not discussing original sin or its consequences, but the sin of “murmuring against God” and its consequences.
Hell is only for those who personally sin
In support of this position, Baptists appeal to passages such as Matthew 25:31,46,41 (those who do not “do” are condemned – babies cannot “do” or “not do” anything) and Ezekiel 18:20.
The idea that only those who personally sin can be punished for their sins is directly contradicted by Romans 5:12, the classical passage on original sin:
by one man [Adam] sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men.
Notice: all men were punished with death because of Adam’s sin – not because of their own. In fact, all men are born spiritually dead – and if they are born this way, then it clearly is not punishment for sin personally committed.
In short, this idea is again nothing but a denial of original sin.
And Matthew 25 does not say that hell is exclusively for those who personally sin, while Ezekiel 18 is clearly not discussing original sin – unless it contradicts Romans 5:12. Furthermore, to say that Matthew 25 means babies cannot be condemned because they were unable to “refuse” to feed the poor, etc., would also mean babies cannot go to heaven – because according to this passage only those who did feed the poor, etc., went to heaven.
It is pertinent to quote John Calvin’s response to the Baptist’s peculiar habit of wrongly applying to children what is clearly referring to adults:
But I will make their fallacies palpable even to the blind, by a very plain similitude. Should any one insist that infants are to be deprived of food, on the pretence that the apostle permits none to eat but those who labour, (II Thess. 3: 10,) would he not deserve to be [laughed at] by all? Why so? Because that which was said of a certain class of men, and a certain age, he wrests and applies to all indifferently. The dexterity of these men in the present instance is no greater. That which every one sees to be intended for adult age merely, they apply to infants, subjecting them to a rule which was laid down only for those of riper years.12
This is a rather unique proof used by John Piper13. The verse reads:
Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed [it] unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, [even] his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse.
The "therefore"[translated “so that” in the King James] at the end says that mankind would seem to have an excuse if they had not seen clearly in nature what God is like. And so, because I don't think little babies can process nature and make conclusions about God's grace, glory or justice, it seems they would fall into the category of still having an excuse.
Notice even Piper says that without the witness of nature man would merely “seem” to have an excuse. This “seems” is already the refutation. For whether they “seem” guilty or not – all men and children are guilty.
Guilty in Adam.
Confusing original sin with original pollution
Because of the prevalent poor understanding of the doctrine of original sin, many confuse original sin with original pollution (or, depending on terminology, limit original sin to merely original pollution). Here is an example of this from a Baptist minister’s sermon entitled “Do Babies Go to Heaven”.14 Speaking of “original sin”, this minister says:
Though children inherit a sinful nature from Adam, I do not believe that children will be judged for Adam’s sin… [original sin] is not God’s work, but it comes through our parents’ loins.
Original pollution refers to the fact that all humans are born with a depraved nature because they are in Adam. All children are born spiritually dead, that is, separated from God.
This is a punishment for sin. But if we are punished this way before we even personally sin, for whose sin are we then punished? Adam’s sin. And how can we be punished for Adam’s sin? Because Adam’s sin is imputed to us–in other words, because of original sin (or, depending on terminology, “original guilt”).
Original sin, then, is the legal basis for original pollution. God inflicts total depravity on all infants (and physical death on some) because they are guilty in His sight – guilty of Adam’s sin.
Therefore, God does, indeed, “judge children for Adam’s sin”.
By one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so [that is, because of this original sin] death [including original pollution] passed upon all men [including infants in the womb]. (Rom. 5:12)
4 We are aware that some Reformed theologians such as Charles Hodge, W. G. T. Shedd, and B. B. Warfield held similar positions and will perhaps address this in a future article.
5 See appendix for a specific treatment of the “proof-texts” of this idea
6 Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, Vol. 3, (Grand Rapids, Mi.: Baker, reprinted 2007), p. 336. See also http://cfcreforme.blogspot.com/2007/11/gallican-confession-of-faith-1559.html,
7 Belgic Confession of Faith, Article 15.
8 Note that many Baptists use Scriptural examples of the children of believers being saved at a young age to prove universal infant salvation. However, these examples of course only prove the salvation of the children of believers.
10 The qualification of “godly” before “parents” is very important, since God threatens, among other punishments, to reject the children of those believers who walk in terrible sin, e.g. Ex. 20:5; Hos. 4:6
11 John Gill, A Complete Body of Doctrinal and Practical Divinity (Paris, Ark.: The Baptist Standard Bearer, 1995), 856, as quoted in Herman Hoeksema, Reformed Dogmatics (Grandville, Mi.: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 2005), 353.
12 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, (transl. Henry Beveridge, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), IV, 16, 29.
14 http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=18102217348, PDF Text accessed 11th February 2012.