July 26, 2012

What happens to infants who die? The NT answers

by Jesse Johnson

QuestionGuyYesterday we saw 16 verses in the OT that address the issue of what happens to little children who die. I hope you saw that the OT lays the groundwork for a category distinction: there are two kinds of sinners who die. There are those who die because of their sin nature, namely infants. And there are those who die because they love sin, and actively embrace it; namely, adults. This distinction is important to grasp because the NT does not reestablish it from the ground up but rather Jesus and Paul both teach in such a way that the distinction is reinforced.

Again, if any of these verses trouble you, simply skip them, and let the weight of the full list be enough to convince you. The numbering picks up where yesterday left off.

17) Jesus blessed little children. There are no examples of Jesus blessing anyone who was in open rebellion to God. Again, much like Jonah 4, Jeremiah 19, 1 Kings 11, this (at the very least) creates a category distinction between sinful adults in rebellion against God, and the childlike innocence of children (Matt 18:3-5).

18) In Matthew 18, Jesus not only blesses the children, but uses them as an earthly analogy of childlike faith. He says that “unless you are converted and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child– this one is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Everyone is free to debate what exactly Jesus means here, and there are Christian answers all over the spectrum. But at the very least, Jesus has to be implying that children in their current state would go to heaven if they died. Consider this statement: “my car is as fast as a cheetah, and unless your car is like a cheetah too, it can never be fast.” Everyone can debate what it means to be fast, or how fast my car really is, or if your car even should be fast. But the entire analogy would break down if cheetahs were not indeed fast to begin with. That is the assumption that makes the analogy make sense. Whatever Jesus is saying Matthew 18, it only makes sense if the destination of children who die is an enviable one.

19) Romans 5:13-14 makes the category distinction between those who sin like Adam (adults) and those who sin because of the imputation of Adam’s sin (infants). In making this distinction, Paul is carefully showing how death can reign even over those who don’t sin like Adam. He is repeating the theological distinctions made in Duet 1:39, 24:16, Jer 19:4 and Jonah 4:11, and lending theological support to the understanding that infants will not be punished in hell for their sins. (John Piper explains why it is best to understand Romans 5:13-14 as reference to infant death in Counted Righteous in Christ, 95-100).

20) That category distinction (between those who sin willingly and those who are born with a sin nature) is further strengthened by Paul’s introduction of those who sin by searing their conscience, and how that sin is seen in idolatry and sexual immorality—both sins that infants are incapable of. Because that passage sets the stage for understanding the soteriology of Romans, it is significant for this discussion that out of the gate, Paul frames the conversation in terms that exclude infants, and then seals that exclusion explicitly in Romans 5:13-14.

21) Jesus also validates this category distinction when he declares that there are people who die “in their sins” (John 8:24). Everyone who dies, dies because they are sinners by nature. If infants weren’t sinners by nature, they wouldn’t die! But there is a particular class of sinners—namely cognizant adults—that actively reject God. Those ones not only die, but they “die in their sins” because of their unbelief.

22) John 3 furthers this category distinction by teaching that “Everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed” (John 3:20). This simply does not describe infants who die, and the proximity to judgment passages (vv 18-19) validates this distinction.

23) Jesus lays claim in a particular way to the concept that children have a unique relationship to the Father. He declares that we should watch out for “children” in the faith, and it is best to see that admonition as applying to immature believers, rather than to actual children. But the analogy only works if actual immature children are to be the recipients of special care from people and God both. As MacArthur wrote, “No parent with six children is going to discover one of them missing and callously say ‘oh well, we still have five more’.” The analogy makes sense only if children are under God’s care in a special way.

24) People from every tribe, language, nation and ethnicity will be in heaven (Rev 5:10). Because so many languages and tribes have died out, this is only feasible through the salvation of infants. By the way, this is certainly given as a powerful claim to the glory of God’s saving nature.

25) All judgment passages in the Bible make clear that people go to hell for their active sin. This is especially clear in the description of hell in Revelation 21:8. People go to hell for what they have done, and this truth would be incomprehensible if infants were sent there.

26) The lists that are found in judgment passages are sins that infants lack the ability to commit. Jesus gives his list in Matt 15:19-20: “evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, sexual immoralities, thefts, false testimonies, blasphemies. These are the things that defile a man, but eating with unwashed hands does not defile a man.” Let me ask this question: which category of sins best describe the way infants sin? Do they murder and lust, or do they eat with unwashed hands?

At the end of this list, two things should be crystal clear. First, the Bible makes a category distinction between those who sin willingly (adults) and those who sin by their nature (infants). Adults can discern between right and wrong, and they love the wrong. They rebel against God despite natural revelation, and they will be judged for their works. Infants have a sin nature (that is why some of them die), but they do not sin IN THE SAME WAY as adults.

Second: with the exception of Job 3, there are not any passages that say “infants go to heaven when they die.” However, given the category distinction just made, it is obvious that every single time the Bible mentions infants who die, there is some indication that they receive mercy. It is not like there are six verses that talk about them going to heaven, and six that imply hell, and we are left to wrestle through. Every single verse that mentions this offers hope of heaven, and the cumulative weight should be overwhelming. There are other theological truths we agree to that are developed from way fewer references than this. Thus, the case for infant salvation is unassailable, as there are literally no verses that teach the contrary.

Today, the deal for the comment thread is this: in order to comment, you have to have read all three posts (part 1, part 2).

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.
  • Kevin

    I have enjoyed reading the posts at The Cripplegate now for several months. I have found them typically well-done and often helpful to me spiritually. Yes, I have read all three posts in this series. As I noted in a comment after the first post, I am the father of a brain damaged child, so this is no academic subject for me. Sadly, none of what has been written here gives me any hope. Let me focus on the Job 3 passage, the only one, according to you that says “infants go to heaven when they die.” I read that passage as the incredible anguish of one who has suffered unimaginably; as his expression of an anguish that clouded his knowledge and understanding and temporarily interrupted his relationship with God. I have read multiple commentaries and the MacArthur Study Bible comments on this passage. None of them even mentions the connection between infants and eternity. Since coming to faith, the Spirit has made many previously-difficult parts of Scripture much more clear (and, thankfully, useful) to me. Sadly, I just don’t see this.

    • Kevin, I’d encourage you to get the book Safe in the Arms of God that was linked on this first page. There John has an extended section looking at that passage, as well as a section where he talks about those whose mental capacities don’t grow as their bodies do. Also, I think (regardless of what the MSB says) that the Job 3 passage is fairly clear: Job says that infants who die go to place of rest, where they are free from their torment and are with kings and rulers at rest. I don’t know how the Scriptures could be more clear than that. Send me a FB message, and I’ll send you a copy of that book, or you can order it from the link on the first page. Thanks Kevin.

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  • Tom Chantry


    Have you considered Romans 1:20?  It seems to go to your argument regarding knowledge of good and evil.  Those who are judged are “without excuse” because the things of God are known, or “made plain” in verse 19.  Because they “know God” in verse 21 they are consequently judged.

    This was the first passage which gave me a sense of clear direction on this issue.  Romans clearly acknowledges (teaches!) that infants inherit an imputed sin nature, and that this is why they die.  But the judgement of God is expressed against those who are “without excuse.”  I have understood it in this way:  Would God be justified to damn the infant for Adam’s sin?  Perhaps, because the guilt of that sin has been imputed to him.  But will He do so?  Romans 1 seems to argue that He will not, because those infants would arguably have an excuse – never having known the truth of God.  The dignity of God’s name matters; he will not have his reputation for justice trampled.  He judges not only those who carry imputed sin, but who are further without excuse, having rejected the knowledge of God which is in the world.

    I think this argument is parallel to the one you are making.

  • Mpumelelo Kunene

    Thank you, thank you, thank you Jesse!!  Absolutely fantastic! These three posts have taught me more than just the fact that infants who die proceed to be with the Lord.

    But all this begs the question, what “state” will they be in, when they have proceeded to glory? Will they join the church and be with us in the first resurrection of “those whose names were written in the Book of Life before the foundation of the world”? Will they have the same affection for Christ as the Church will (I ask this because in Rev verses the church refers to Christ as the Lamb with whom’s blood they’ve been made clean — will the infants feel the same way?) Or perhaps the will have great affections for Him because He took away their imputed sin? All these questions have no practical implications however, its just for feeding curiosity. Thanks again.

    • I think the intermediate state is mysterious for the church, and much more mysterious for infants. I don’t have a good answer for that. Sorry Mpumelelo

  • Austin Davies

    Way to go. I always particularly enjoy your posts, and this one was a stunner! Very well presented. The questions that remain in my mind are now, around what age does it change? And, what about people who are disabled and are like a child in their thinking? I have a 21 year old sister who functions mentally like a 4 year old child. Also, you seem to be talking mostly about “infants” but you also mention “children”… does this apply to both?

    • I’d encourage you to check out John’s book, Safe in the Arms of God. John has a section where he addresses the implications for those whose minds stay in a condition of ignorance. But it seems to me that the same principles laid out above would apply in that scenario as well. 

      My points above do apply to children, and I’m always careful not to give an age. Scripture speaks of a condition of accountability, not an age, and I don’t want to try and pin that down. Thanks Austin. 

  • Richard

    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.  Romans 5:12

    It certainly seems that this presents death as the result of sin for all, infants and adults alike (unless we somehow understand “men” to be only adult, willing sinners).   If we apply the dichotomy you’re presenting, that there is willing sin (adults) and unwilling sin (infants), then it seems we have to say that the death indicated here is physical death only, and not spiritual.  Does that make sense? 

    • I understand what you are saying, but disagree. The death that is talked about in Rom 5:12 is spiritual. Even infants are spiritually dead. They don’t die at a later phase. The debate then is do you sin because of your death, or die because of your sin? Which is Paul describing? Did you go to the grocery store because you were hungry, or did you get hungry because you were in the grocery store? Epho plus a noun in the accusitive case is what makes this verse tricky. 
      But the point that Piper makes in Counted Righteous in Christ is that this necessitates Paul to clarify that infants–who die, but do not sin like adults do–are still victims of physical death despite this category distinction. That is why Paul says that death reigned over all, even those who didn’t’ sin like Adam (namely, infants). I am persuaded by the case Piper makes on that verse. 

  • Rjoey24

    What do you say then to someone who says, “Well we beat the system. Abort all babies and they’ll be in heaven.”

    • Check out today’s post (Friday), where Mike answers that question in detail. Thanks Joey.

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