I doubt whether there is a question I would like to answer less, and that for at least three reasons: First, I know for a fact that more than one of you has lost a child. I know that some of you have lost a nephew or a niece. I know that many of you have lost children to miscarriage. I know that some of you have lost children to abortion. And while these realities, perhaps, should provide an impulse for me to answer this question (and, to a certain extent they do), it also makes me tremble with hesitancy because I would be presuming to speak about something incredibly personal and painful that I have not personally experienced.
Second, no one can answer this question with certainty. In God’s good and faithful providence, he did not make this a topic that is ever clearly addressed in his Word. What we have in Scripture are only hints and pointers. More on that below.
Third, for those of you who have experienced the death of a child: I have not cried and held and prayed with many of you. Some of you I have. But many of you I have not. And I am extremely hesitant to say biblical, theological and philosophical things to people about such agonizing experiences without first having said tender, comforting and strengthening things mingled with hugs and tears and broken silence.
That hesitance will translate into at least three things in this post: First, I have disabled the comments section for this post. If you would like to respond, you are welcome to e-mail me personally at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is not something I desire to have public debate and discussion on. Perhaps I’ll post a follow-up with excerpts from e-mails I receive if it seems appropriate. (You can let me know if you don’t want your e-mails quoted.) Second, I will do my best to speak very pastorally and not in cold, academic tones, as though this topic were like any other theological issue. Third, I will not say anything with more certainty than I think the statement warrants. No hurting person I’ve ever spoken to is interested in false assurances.
Father, I urgently pray for your wisdom and guidance as I write. I pray for people who have had to walk through the pain of the death of a child. Please continue to bring them comfort, strength, trust in you, healing grief, and the sustaining nourishment and truth of your word. Give us all an unshakable faith in your goodness, wisdom, and mercy. Make me helpful, now, and consistent with your Word, which is entirely sufficient for our knowledge, faith, and joy. Amen.
I feel like I’m making a lot of lists here, but here’s one more—three precursory comments: First, I feel no impulse or obligation, in answering this question, to exonerate God. God is not on trial. He is the one and only entirely good, just, innocent and faithful being in the universe. In other words, I am not answering this question in an attempt to demonstrate that God is just and good. He is just and good no matter how he deals with the death of children—even if I’m wrong in how I answer this. Whatever he does defines what is right. But, with that given in mind, it is worth asking how he does deal with the death of children.
Second, and related to the first, I feel no impulse or obligation to try to find a way to justify a belief that all (or even many) children go to heaven and not to hell. I believe that the doctrine of original sin is entirely biblical, and that on the basis of Rom. 5:12-21, etc., sin and death reign in all people and condemn them to hell from conception unless God in Christ intervenes to rescue them from their guilt in Adam. So, if God were to send all children who die to hell (though I do not think he does), I believe he would be entirely just, right, and good in doing so.
Third, as I mentioned above, in God’s providence he has deemed it wise not to answer this question clearly and comprehensively, as he did others. What is more: He knew that many, many people would ask it, and in his wisdom he thought it best not to give a clear and unambiguous answer. I don’t know why. I have some guesses, but I don’t know for sure. So, within that reality, we have to be careful only to say what his word does seem to say, and preserve a degree of uncertainty that God apparently intended.
Okay. I think I’ve said everything I need to say by way of introduction. Here’s my thesis, and if you aren’t interesting in my reasoning, then now you’ll have my answer and you can stop reading:
I believe that there is sufficient evidence in Scripture to warrant confidence that God saves the children of believers who die before they have the mental and physical ability to express saving faith in Jesus in ways that we can observe. Let me explain.
There are one or two pieces of my argument that I am convinced are biblically indisputable. First, I take it to be biblically indisputable that God can regenerate (that is, make a “new creation,” or “cause to be born again”) people even within the womb if he so chooses. I’m not yet arguing that he does do it with any regularity. I’m simply arguing that God can and has done so. I believe this on the basis of such texts as Ps. 22:9-10, Ps. 71:6, Jer. 1:5, Luke 1:15, Luke 1:39-45, among others.
Regeneration is a sovereign and unilateral act of God that comes before, or is prior, to faith (Eph. 2:4-5; Col. 2:13). Faith is a result of God making us new (=regeneration). Regeneration is not a result of faith, which means that God can certainly regenerate a person before they are able to express faith in ways that we would be able to perceive.
Therefore, I believe that infants or even unborn children can be “new creations”; that they can be “regenerate” or “born again.” And the way that they express their saving faith, which flows from God’s regeneration of them, will probably be imperceptable to us because they cannot form complex thoughts and express them in speech. In that way, I believe that infants can express faith in ways similar to an adult who is severely mentally handicapped. God may cause a severely mentally handicapped person to be born again as a new creation, even if the manifestation or expression of this faith that flows from their regeneration is very simple and imperceptible to us. A severely mentally handicapped person may not be able to “confess with [her] mouth that Jesus is Lord” (Rom. 10:9), but they will express regenerate faith in whatever way they are capable.
So, the question is not whether God can save infants, but whether he does. And if so, which ones or how many does he save?
I can’t think of any biblical evidence that would lead me to believe that God saves all infants who die before they can understand the gospel. Here is where I do not think it is wise to give false assurances. As far as I can tell, there is nothing in Scripture that suggests that this is the case. So, on that issue we need to be content with God’s silence and trust that whatever he does, it is good and just. But I do think that there are several pointers to the fact that he does save some.
First, there is the text in 2 Samuel 12 in which David is grieving the death of his firstborn child who came as a result of his adultery with Bathsheba. In this midst of his grief, David laments: “Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.” This is, no doubt, a much-disputed text. Some argue that all that David is saying is that his son has gone “to the grave,” which is where David also will go eventually. But I find this reading very unlikely for at least two reasons:
(1) David says that he will go to him. He does not say he will go to the same place as him. He says, “I will go to him,” which leads me to believe that David thinks that there will be personal interaction between he and his son one day—presumably in heaven. (2) David seems to take comfort from what he’s saying. This doesn’t sound like a cold, objective statement about the ultimate destiny of every human being; a mere observation along the lines of, “Hey, we all gotta go sometime….” Rather, David seems to be comforting himself in the knowledge that he will see his son again, confident as he is that God will bring both he (Ps. 23:6) and his son into his presence.
Second, there is 1 Corinthians 7:13-14: “If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.”
This is a notoriously difficult text and is acutely subject to abusive interpretations, but I am inclined to read the phrase de hagia estin (“…but they are holy”) much in the way that John Calvin read it: “The passage…teaches that the children of the pious are set apart from others by a sort of exclusive priviledge, so as to be reckoned holy in the Church. …This flows from the blessing of the covenant….” (First Epistle to the Corinthians, 243). I do not take this to the same conclusion that Calvin does, claiming that these covenant blessings for the children of believers include a removal of the curse. But I do agree with him that this passage makes some distinction between the children of believers and the children of unbelievers. I think it probable that this distinction includes the saving election and regeneration of infants whom God ordained would not live until they could understand the gospel and respond in perceptible faith.
In the end, I don’t think I can improve on Wayne Grudem’s hopeful but careful conclusion on the matter:
“We should recognize that it is God’s frequent pattern throughout Scripture to save the children of those who believe in him (see Gen. 7:1; cf. Heb. 11:7; Josh. 2:18; Ps. 103:17; John 4:53; Acts 2:39; 16:31; 18:8; 1 Cor. 1:16; 7:14; Titus 1:6; cf. Matt. 18:10, 14). These passages do not show that God automatically saves the children of all believers…, but they do indicate that God’s ordinary pattern, the ‘normal’ or expected way in which he acts, is to bring the children of believers to himself. With regard to believers’ children who die very young, we have no reason to think that it would be otherwise” (ST, 500).