July 24, 2012

What happens to infants who die? The need for an answer

by Jesse Johnson

Safe in armsMy wife and I were camping when we got a phone call that a friend’s infant child was in a hospital nearby, and was not likely to live. We came out of the mountains and rushed to the hospital, where we ran into John and Pat MacArthur. They had driven the 200 miles because the child’s grandparents were part of our church in Los Angeles.

Entering the NICU, we found the child on life support, and the doctors were not optimistic. Pastor John called the family around him, and he opened his Bible. In that setting, John gave a devotional about what happens to infants who die. As he talked, it was obvious that the family was being comforted by the truths of Scripture. But in the background, something unusual was happening.

Nurses had gathered, and some had gone and alerted others. Soon a dozen or so of the nurses and doctors on the floor had huddled around the entrance to the baby’s room, all of them leaning in, trying to listen to Pastor John’s devotional. Afterwards I talked to a group of them, and they were stunned. Most of them had worked in the NICU for nearly a decade, and they told me they had never heard a biblical explanation for what happens to babies who die. These workers saw this kind of death on a semi-regular basis, but they just assumed the Bible was silent on the eternal fate of these little ones.

John gave them copies of Safe in the Arms of God, a book he wrote to encourage parents who find themselves in this almost unbearable trial. Reading that book impacted me deeply. I have never gone through that kind of trial, but my mind flashed to a time years earlier, before seminary. A friend who had lost his child asked me what the Bible said about his fate. I was on my way to seminary, and he went to a church where he didn’t know any of the pastors. So for some reason, he turned to me.

I squandered the opportunity to give him hope in the Lord. I equivocated, and talked about sin nature, the secret things of the Lord, and how God would be glorified if the child was in heaven or hell. I used the mystery of election to muddle a truth that is also mysterious, but also well attested to; namely that infants who die will go to heaven. I remember the look on my friend’s face. Far from being comforted, my words to him left him confused. It was probably the low point of my pastoral counseling.

Every pastor will have to answer the question, “What happens to infants who die?” Sadly, many pastors respond with varying degrees of ambiguity. By relegating it to an area that the Scripture is unclear about, pastors dispense doubt and cause anguish rather than comfort and solace. This forced ambiguity actually causes people to question the character of God, and in many cases leads grieving parents to question God’s care for them.

This is sad because the Bible is clear about the fate of infants who die. When I say “clear” I don’t mean that there is one particular verse that says “infants go to heaven” (well, I think there are a few, but that is for tomorrow). By “clear” I mean that a compelling systematic case can be developed through Scripture that should give even a novice theologian confidence in addressing this issue.

We will look at that case over the next two days. Tomorrow we will look at what the OT teaches about the issue, and Thursday we will look at what the NT has to say. If you want to help steer this conversation, let me know if there are particular verses you want me to deal with, or any questions in particular you want me to answer. Come back tomorrow and we will start our look at 26 verses in the Bible that teach that infants who die are safe in the arms of God.

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
  • Christo Beetge

    Hi Jesse
    Please deal with John 3:5-7, and the burning question of what defines an ‘infant’ and when a baby ceases to be youn enough to be an infant and the bearer of the guilt of Adam.

    • As brought out in John MacArthur’s two-part lesson on this topic — and
      elsewhere such as a sermon from Spurgeon (and Jesse Johnson will certainly follow up with this in subsequent posts) — no one here is saying that
      babies are innocent and without sin.  We all have Adam’s original sin from
      conception.  Rather, we understand that God in His sovereign mercy
      elects and saves all infants who die, those who are under the age of
      accountability. 

      Scripture is silent concerning what that “age of
      accountability” is, so it depends on the child (I’ve heard MacArthur
      allow it to be as high as age 8, though I tend to think it’s much
      younger than that), but it certainly applies to those before the age of
      conscious awareness (about age 3).

  • It is wonderful to see how God would work through Pastor Macarthur at the hospital, and the gathering in of nurses and doctors who heard him teach directly from the word.

  • Melinda

    I am looking forward to reading the rest of your posts on this topic. This question has been on my mind since having a miscarriage seven months ago.

  • Daniel J. Phillips

    Even if a strong cumulative case can be made (which I don’t deny), I think the relative lack of clarity is due to the fact that the Bible is not written to be read by people who die in infancy. The Bible is above all a “Here’s what you need to know” book. More here, if I may: http://bit.ly/MFtkbw.

    • You always may Dan. You have standing permission at any time. 

  • Agree!  That’s something I realized recently while in an online discussion with a few others about this point, and they kept pointing to various scriptures that tell of how we are to be saved, etc., and the general silence concerning infants that die.  As I observed in response, certainly the Bible speaks to how people — those with conscious awareness and able to understand — come to salvation, through faith, which comes from hearing the word of God. The case of infants and those very young is a different situation, of which we have very little in the scripture, since the word of God in the Bible, in its purpose, was written to those capable of understanding. God’s word was not written for the edification of those who die before being capable of understanding.
     

  • elainebitt

    If that’s ok, I’d like to post links to J. MacArthur’s teachings on this issue, just in case anyone would like to listen/read to him. As a side note, as far as I know Mohler, Piper, RC Sproul also hold to the same view.

    The Salvation of Babies who die – part 1:
    http://www.gty.org/resources/sermons/80-242

    The Salvation of Babies who die – part 2:
    http://www.gty.org/resources/sermons/80-243

  • Etienne Grobler

    Will appreciate if you touch on 
    Deuteronomy 1:39

    By His Grace
    Etienne

  • Karl Heitman

    “Sadly,
    many pastors respond with varying degrees of ambiguity.” I wholeheartedly
    can attest to this sad truth. In talking with guys about this issue, I’m surprised
    to see so many who are uncertain and unwilling to investigate sooner than
    later. When a guy says, “The Bible isn’t clear” about this issue, I
    respond, “Thanks a lot for being honest with me. I’m glad we had this
    discussion so I know not to send anyone who needs counseling to you.”

    1 Sam 12:23
    is what I always point to. I don’t see how that could mean anything other than
    David would see his son in heaven. If not, then wouldn’t David see his son in
    hell or someplace else?

    • Karl Heitman

      Ooops… I meant 2 Sam 2:23.

  • kevin

    This is a very interesting topic and one that is relevant to me in a somewhat different context. I have a 27 year old son who was born with brain damage. I would like to see whatever teaching that is brought out over the next couple of days include a biblical account of what eternity holds for people like my son. As medical technology advances, more children like Paul are surviving that would not have before. Please help.

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  • Quintin

    Hi there, John MacArthur’s sermons on this issue gave me great joy in understanding salvation properly. I did two blogs based on his sermons. I really appreciate the manner in which he looked at the positive elements in scripture, the lack of negative elements in scripture (by looking at who actually goes to hell, showing that babies can never fall into those categories), and then the logic of babies going to heaven, not because they are worthy, but because God is so very gracious!

    http://gthruf.blogspot.com/2012/05/salvation-of-infants-who-die-now-with.html

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  • ATC

    Hello Jesse –

    An honest article and one that touched me. Thank you so much for writing it. This should be a truth the Church of Jesus is known for!

    In Christ,

    ATC, Bristol, UK. 

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