July 25, 2012

What happens to infants who die? The OT answers

by Jesse Johnson

question-mark3aThere is a tendency to think that the Bible is silent about the issue of what happens to infants who die. However, there are at least 26 different passages that address this issue. In all of them, the implication is that infants who die are returned to the Lord.

Yesterday I talked about the need for confidence in dealing with this issue. So as you go through this list, don’t get caught up on one or two particular ones if you disagree. Simply skip those, and let the weight of the others give you confidence. Today we will look at the OT, and tomorrow the NT:

1) Infants belong to God in a special and particular way. In Ezekiel, God describes the slaughter of children born into pagan families as a slaughter of “my children” (Ezek 16:21). This expression of ownership by God over children born into idol worshiping families is stark, and implies God’s care for those children in a personal way.

2) God describes children as “having no knowledge of good and evil” (Deut 1:39). They have a sin nature, but they sin in the way that gravity works: they are pulled down. They do not sin in the way that adults do: adults love sin. Children default to sin, while adults run there.

3) God refers to Gentile children as unable to discern the difference between right and wrong (Jonah 4:11). Children are born with a sin nature, and even babies love to sin. But they do so without appreciating why they are doing it. Adults sin because they discern what truth is, and have a disdain for it. Infants sin because they are unable to discern. There is a difference.

4) God refers to children in pagan families who are murdered as “innocents” (Jer 19:4). Obviously this does not mean that they were born without a sin nature, but simply that they had a certain degree of moral innocence. God does not throw around the term “innocent” loosely (nor does he send “innocent” people to hell).

5) God regards infants as victims of the fallen world. This is the example in Ezek 16:4, which is clearly an allegory, but an allegory that only makes sense if children are innocent victims.

6) When God punished the entire nation of Israel for their disobedience in the wilderness, he only took the lives of those who were of fighting age or older (Deut 1:39). This shows that the culpability of those under fighting age is different than the adults, and that accordingly they should not be punished as adults are. If they didn’t deserve to die in the wilderness, they certainly didn’t deserve to go to hell.

7) Babies will not be punished in hell for the sins of their parents—even of Adam. Deuteronomy 24:16 explains that God will not punish children for what their parents did. That does not mean that there are no consequences for sin—a parent who lives a sin filled life will reap the consequences of that life, and one of those consequences is that the children will be raised apart from the knowledge of God. But that is the consequence of sin, and is manifestly different than God judicially punishing someone for sins they did not commit. The consequence of Adam’s sin is that we all are born with a sin nature, but not that God will send us all to hell irrespective of our own actions (more on this one tomorrow when we look at NT judgment passages).

8) This same truth is repeated in Ezekiel 18:20. There, God expressly says that while death is the consequence of a sin nature, God does not execute a second death a person because of his parent’s sin.

9) When God’s prophet told King Jeroboam that his entire family line would be killed, he expanded on this category distinction. He said that all of Jeroboam’s relatives would be punished by a humiliating burial (or lack thereof), but that there was an exception for Jeroboam’s infant son. He would be buried, and people would mourn, “because in him there is found something good toward Yahweh, God of Israel” (1 Kings 14:13). It is not that the infant was crawling around chewing down the high places, but rather that his sin was by his nature, not by his willful rebellion. He was an “innocent” infant, to borrow Jeremiah’s language, and so he will still die, but will be spared the judicial punishment reserved for those who willingly revolted against God. Again, notice that in both this passage and in Jeremiah 19, God uses positive moral terms to apply to infants who die—“innocent” and “good.” Those are moral terms that God does not use willy-nilly.

10) God created all people personally, and designed them to glorify him forever—either by justly suffering in hell, or by giving glory to them in heaven (Ps 139:13-15; Rom 9:224). If infants who died were sent to hell, they would not be suffering justly, as they did not sin in a willful way. In other words, the very justification for hell (namely, and expression of God’s justice) is thwarted if infants go there.

11) Job was a righteous man (Job 2:9), but he suffered tremendously. Job knew what the afterlife was like—after all, it was Job who wrote:

I know my redeemer lives, and in the end he will stand on the earth. Even after my skin is destroyed, I will see God in my flesh. I will look at him myself, my eyes will look at him, and not as I look at a stranger. How my heart yearns within me! (Job 19:25-27)

Yet Job also wished that he would have been still-born. He says in Job 3:11-15 that he honestly thought that his life would be easier had he died in the womb. He is not some gothic poet, but is a godly man, who understand the afterlife, the reality of hell, and the need for a redeemer.

12) Job 3:16-19 is the most explicit passage in the Bible concerning the fate of infants who die. Job declares that dead infants go to a place where “There the wicked cease to make trouble, and there the weary find rest. The captives are completely at ease; they do not hear the voice of their oppressor. Both the small and the great are there, and the slave is set free from his master.”

Obviously Job is not describing hell, and his generic use of “infants” as well as “a stillborn child” implies that this is a statement with universal application. All infants who die or who are stillborn go to a place of rest, where there are kings, rich, poor, and the afflicted, and they are all free from torment. This is obviously not a description of hell.

13) Solomon makes a similar and explicit proclamation about the fate of dead infants. He expressly contrasts the fate of the wicked who labor in vain with a dead infant fathered by that wicked person. He concludes that it would be better to be the dead child, because he at least will go to a place of “rest” (Ecc 6:5). Solomon goes on to say that both the child and the father will die, but only the dead child will experience rest.

14) When David’s infant son was sick, David fasted and prayed frantically. When he died, David was at peace and worshiped. His attendants were shocked by this act of worship, and asked what could possibly provoke a loving father to worship at his child’s death. David’s response is well-known: “I’ll go to him, but he will never return to me” (2 Sam 12:23). This is not the despondent response of a mourning parent. It is the confident response of a man after God’s own heart.

By the way, the idea that David was worshiping because he too was one day going to die is so twisted and out of touch with reality that it is difficult to understand. Have you ever seen a parent respond to a child’s death with joy because, hey–after all–that parent is going to one day die too? Moreover, that kind of anti-supernaturalism requires us to believe that David (David!) did not understand the afterlife. Hardly.

David mourning Absalom

David mourning Absalom

15) Moreover, contrast his response to his infant son’s death—for which David was primarily responsible—with his response to his other sons’ death. When Absalom died, there was no death-bed conversion, and there was no mystery about his relationship with the Yahweh. David, who had done everything possible to spare Absalom’s life, was so despondent that Joab had to warn him that unless he changed his attitude, he risked a coup by the troops. Meanwhile, David was shrieking, “My son, Absalom! Absalom, my son, my son!” If David’s response to his infant’s death was simply “I’ll die too one day” then his response to Absalom’s death is incomprehensible.

16) Isaiah refers to an age where children learn “the difference between good and evil” (Isa 7:16). In other words, there is an age where children still sin, but not because of their knowledge of sin. At the very least, this lets us know that God views the sins of infants as coming from a form of innocence, rather than from a discernment of good and evil.

Tomorrow we will continue this list with a look at what the NT teaches about those who die in infancy.

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.
  • Kip’ Chelashaw

    Hello Jesse,

    Lots of this is helpful. I have questions about the Ezekiel references though – could they be applied to pagans when the context is of God’s covenant people (even though apostatising). In other words the Ezekiel passages do not give a carte blanche to say all children are included as God’s children – Ezekiel 16 and 18 is being addressed to God’s covenant people and hence is focussing covenant children.

    Second question is where do you draw the line? Infants are safe but what about a 1 & 1/2 year old, what about a 2 year old, where do you think the line stops? This is important because when some people hear God welcomes infants to glory, that therefore means any children who die will be welcomed to glory. So roughly where do we draw the line. Where can a pastor say this is someone who knows the difference between good and evil and how would one go about establishing which side of the fence a child was on when a pastor is called in to a family grieving the sudden death of a young child?


    • Good question Kip. I’m using the word “pagan” here under the definition of “idol-worshiping.” Clearly these people, offering their children in the fire to idols, were not monotheistic, despite being born in Israel. 

      • Kip’ Chelashaw

        Then isn’t it better/more Scripturally faithful to say that children who die in infancy – provided that they are God’s covenant people – will be received into glory. To say that all infants are glory bound we would need Scripture to show us of pagan infants (contra e.g. King David’s infant) who were treated as destined for glory/innocent. I don’t think any of your references do that. What they do give us assurance for though is if your child is one of the covenant people/part of the church family then yes you can rest assured that your child is in glory.


        • I’m not tracking with you Kip. Did any of those verses above limit themselves to “covenant members”? I mean in most of them, the scope is universal. God does not punish children for the sins of their parents…except in non-covenant families? Or: the people in Jonah were partakers of the covenant b/c they had repented? Or the people who were sacrificing their children to pagan gods were somehow Yahweh worshipers? Romans 9 has a lot to say about that. Namely, not all Israel was Israel. I mean if that is what you are arguing, I’ll claim that as reasons #7-9 why covenantalism is weird. Above I list16 reasons infants who die go to heaven. Which are you saying would apply only to participants in the covenant? 

          • Kip’ Chelashaw

            Ok, let’s try and work through your 16 examples
            1) Ezekiel 16 is addressed to Israel (even though apostatising, they are still YHWH’s people by Covenant hence the Covenant name and Covenant language, bride etc)
            2) Deuteronomy is spoken to Israel
            3) Jonah doesn’t specifically mention children and even if it did the issue is how the whole Nation not just the children are so engulfed in sin they cannot tell how mired their world has become
            4) Jeremiah 19 is spoken to Israel
            5) See 1) above
            6) See 2) above + this example would prove too much – what about those just under fighting age?
            7) See 2) above
            8) See 1) above
            9) Jeroboam’s infant son was one of the God’s covenant people
            10) Not sure I see how Psalm 139, Romans 9 makes your point. It doesn’t say God’s purpose for humanity = glorifying him in the new creation or in hell merely that a covenant member (David in Psalm 139) recognises that God created him both physically and spiritually and Romans 9 says those whom God will condemn to hell are sent there to a) display God’s power and b) make those who receive his mercy marvel at his kindness.
            11) From Job 1 (esp v8) it is clear that he is in covenant with the LORD so his wish to be stillborn must be read as desiring this outcome in the context of being a covenant child
            12) Verse 17 is key – this place that Job talks about has both the wicked and the weary so it looks that this passage is not telling us that all who are there escape hell but rather telling us that post death we escape the pains of this life – this is Job expressing a longing for the afterlife rather than describing what precisely it is like.
            13) Solomon writes as a covenant king to his covenant people
            14) David’s son was a covenant child
            15) This makes sense of how being in covenant works – you’re in until you take yourself out and Absalom had done just that by opposing/attacking God’s anointed one hence David’s grief
            16) Isaiah is sent to speak to the covenant people (cf. e.g. ch 1-6) and their hearing of the Isaiah 7 prophecy would not have made them think that this was a description of any odd child but rather a description of a child from among their own people (NB. esp 7:13). It is not surprising therefore that the one Gospel which picks up on this part of Scripture is Matthew which was addressed to the then Covenant people – the Jews.
            See what I mean?

          • Kip, I think you are seeing distinctions where there are none. For example, in Job 3, or in Ecc., I don’t think the points that are made there are limited to the covenant members. Plus Jonah. Plus, in Jer 19 they are literally sacrificing to idols. At that point the covenant membership sort of breaks down–or, to quote Rom 9, not all Israel is Israel, but only the children of the promise.

            Plus, you sort of spiked my OT guns. If you say that verses in books written to Israel don’t count for this question, well then what would count? The whole OT was written to Israel? I mean you even bounced two of the wisdom books. Anyway, tomorrow we will look at the NT. But if you say Jesus was only talking to covenant members, I’m going to say you are starting to sound more like a hyper dispinsationalist than a card carrying covenentalist. 

    • As for the age question, the Bible obviously doesn’t give an age, but a condition. I’m not sure where you would draw the line, or that it is even helpful to draw a line. The passage in Duet 1 uses the term fighting age. Tomorrow we will see Jesus blessing children that appear to be walking around, so I might try and push the line past 2 or 3. But ultimately I don’t think its helpful to speak in terms of “age” but rather to speak in terms of a condition of accountability. 

      • Kip’ Chelashaw

        I think it’s massively important. In the parish where I work I’ve been asked about the fate of a child (aged 8-9) who’d died but whose parents were not Christian and the child had no church connections. How does a pastor comfort/counsel in this situation?


        • Larry

           Kip, I think it reasonable to conclude, an 8-9 yr old has the cognitive ability to determine right from wrong and has the “sense” of sin and righteousness and the need for a savior, barring mental retardation.

          Any of us could “spin” a situation 1,000 ways, expecting a “man of God” to give a concise opinionated answer, where we may in the end, agree or disagree.

          It seems to me the issue is infants and toddlers, particularly scripturally, as an 8-9 yr old has a command of language where they can make decisions of what to say and how, they can discern right from wrong and their conscience is in full bloom. Again barring mental retardation.

          Lastly, although the child is not responsible for the sins of the parent, as stated earlier, a consequence of generational sin can cause the offspring to live lives apart from the knowledge of God.

  • Carriefors

    Thanks so much, Jesse!  My husband has struggled with understanding this issue, and even though I’ve always believed that young children who die go to heaven, I was never able to give him a good biblical defense of why I believed it.


  • Jesse, thank you for the helpful reminders on this issue. You’ve listed some passages which I have not considered in light of infant deaths. Also, I’m glad you’re taking the Scriptural road on this, instead of towing the typical party line of “age of accountability”, which even MacArthur admits is not Scriptural:

    • Yah, thanks Michael. The concept of “age” is obviously not biblical, and thus not helpful. But the concept of a condition of accountability is what these passages argue for. Thanks for commenting. 

  • Mpumelelo Kunene

    Hi Jesse. Thanks a lot for this exhaustive study, its gonna be really helpful for the future.  You had me convinced on point no 1& 2. However, how can you possibly point to Jonah 4:11 (your point no. 3)? I have no knowledge of the original Hebrew, but the fact that the ESV, NAS & KJV use the word “persons” and the 1984 NIV uses “people”, I fail to understand how that could be in reference to infants. Please shed some light. Thanks again! Looking forward to the NT verses.

    • The simple fact that adults know the difference between their left and right. 

      Commentaries are generally split on if this verse is a reference to the population of Nineveh, or a way of saying “infants only.” The description fits with infants only, but some question weather Nineveh was large enough to have that many infants. I see merit on both sides, and wouldn’t die on this one. 

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  • Tom M


    Thank you for addressing this important and delicate subject.

    First: how do you reconcile the passages you referenced in nos. 1, 2, 4, and 7 with a passage like 1 Sam 15?  That is: if children/infants are God’s “children”, if they are “innocent”, if they cannot discern between good and evil, if they are not willfully sinning… why did God command the Israelites to kill the Amalekite children and infants?

    Second: what do you mean by children “did not sin in a willful way” (no. 10)?  I have five kids — and I can see at a very young age they sin (in the form of disobeying a direct, understood command from their parents) willfully.  Can you please clarify?


  • Excellent summary, Jesse.  The last three references are especially good, concerning David’s two sons and Isaiah 7.  Ezekiel 16 is a great one, which I first learned of from a great Spurgeon sermon on the topic: one of the crumbs to be sure, as Spurgeon said, but nonetheless a great crumb.

    I’ve not heard the text about Jeroboam’s son before, though, in support of the salvation of infants that die. Since the text doesn’t say how old that child was, I never thought of him being an infant, though probably still a young child, a boy not yet hardened in the sins of his father and that society. In any case God elected and saved that child, whatever his age.

  • Michael Roe

    Jesse, great post. Thanks for your detailed study on this. It is particularly comforting to parents how have lost young children after birth or by miscarriage. 

    • Thanks for the comment Michael. Nice to hear from you. 

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  • Chris

    thanks for this Jesse. I guess I see an elephant in the room with this conclusion though. If we truly believe that all infants who die are with the Lord, and at the same time we believe that at a certain age all will become accountable and that those who don’t know the Lord are condemned to hell, then wouldn’t the most loving response be to kill all infants so that all are saved and none perish? Clearly I could never believe this, but wouldn’t it be the logical outcome if we really, truly believed what you are saying?

    • Chris, I think Mike might do a whole post on this tomorrow. Suffice it to say though: if you think Christians go to heaven when they die, should it be ok for us to kill them, just to guard against future apostasy? Probably not. There are explicit commands in the Bible not to murder. But you raise a good question, and I think Mike might address it tomorrow.  

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