A very sensitive and often pondered question is, “Do babies who die go to heaven?” Along the same lines, an additional question could be, “Do special needs individuals who do not possess the mental capacity to understand the gospel or profess faith in Christ go to heaven?” Beyond those, someone may ask, “Could this include a young child who was too young to grasp a genuine understanding of salvation?”
These are important questions and every Christian parent deserves an answer. Of course, there are many parents who experience the pain of losing a young child who had professed faith in Jesus Christ, but for many others, the question of eternal security looms.
Thankfully, Scripture is not all-together silent on where children go when they die. We need to ask several diagnostic questions to fully grasp a clear answer.
Question #1: What Does the Bible Say About God’s View of Children and Judgement?
Here are several passages that showcase God’s affection and thoughts towards children, along with passages about how God holds people responsible for sin. I believe these passages make a case for God’s mercy and calling of children to Himself, should they die before ever making a profession of faith or understanding their need for a Savior. These passages identify a specific view towards children and the logic of God in judging sinners.
- Deuteronomy 1:39 describes “children do not yet know good from bad” and God’s mercy towards them in allowing them to enter the land and take possession of it, despite the rebellion of their parents. God sees children not as willfully hell-bound rebels. But rather, as those who have not yet willfully hardened their hearts in rebellion. This doesn’t change their nature as sinners (Ephesians 2:1-4), but it does show that God understands their state of helplessness.
- 2 Samuel 12:23 could certainly imply that babies who die go to heaven. Regarding his child who died, King David declared, “But now that he is dead, why should I go on fasting? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me.” Being that David wrote special revelation (Scripture), it would not be a stretch to surmise that babies who die are destined for heaven, where David himself knew he was going.
- Matthew 18:1-6, and Matthew 19:13-15 convey a deep love that Jesus has for children, so much so that the disciples were rebuked when they tried to keep them from coming to Him. In both of these passages, Jesus uses children as an illustration of the kind of childlike faith that all must have to enter the kingdom of heaven. The way Jesus viewed children is hardly general mercy toward the wicked (Matthew 5:45) or a shallow type of love. He cares for them deeply.
- Romans 1:18-20 is one of the strongest examples of how all people should be measured when it comes to their culpability for sin and suppressing the truth (along with Romans 3:23). Paul writes,
This passage is tied into a doctrinal concept called, General Revelation. It means that God has revealed Himself through general means like creation. In other words, people look at this world and know that something far beyond them created it, and eternity has been set in their hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11), yet they choose their ideas and choose to worship their idols (Romans 1:-21-23). They are without excuse. But the same cannot be said for babies and those who do not have the mental or physical capacity to grasp general revelation.
5. Revelation 20:11-12 makes it clear that all will be judged based on “what they had done.” This is conscious, willful, mindful sin. This is sinful living that was aware of general revelation (see point #4 above), yet went on suppressing the truth. This does not mean that babies are not considered born into sin because of Adam and Eve (Psalm 51:5; Romans 5:12), but babies do not actively suppress the truth about God and actively sin against God in rebellion.
Question #2: What About the Children Killed by God’s Armies in the Bible?
Some stories in the Bible make us uncomfortable. Instances in which God commands Israel to wipe out entire cities would certainly be on the menu of “uncomfortable” stories in the Bible. Isaiah 13:16 makes an especially frightening statement regarding children being “dashed to pieces” right before the eyes of their parents. What do we do with these? How can God have a deep affection for children, yet order them to be killed? Why would God allow such horrors? There’s no getting around these questions. We have to tackle them head-on. In some cases, the answer I don’t know is a healthy and humble one when it comes to things we can’t understand in the Bible. That is not the case with this.
When we think about children being killed by God’s armies, we can be pulled towards viewing it through the lens of emotions, pain, fear, tragedy, injustice, and the unknown. For most human beings, life on earth is everything. We may think through our American lens, that poor child didn’t even get to experience their 16th birthday or high school graduation. But God’s ways and thoughts are higher than ours (Isaiah 55:8-9). He isn’t making decisions based on human milestones in our American context. He is unfolding a divine purpose far beyond anything we can imagine. In cases where God’s love for children seems contradicted by His decree of Israel to kill certain children, we can conclude that God is being merciful to those children and ushering them into eternity faster than otherwise. Through their death, several blessings are occurring including:
- Judgment upon their wicked parents and vindication for God’s people
- Their eternal healing as they enter a life of perfection with God
- Eternal joy as they go from earthly pagan homes to a heavenly one
- They do not grow into adulthood under wickedness but enjoy eternity under holiness
To the natural mind, this sort of thinking is crazy. To those who understand what has been revealed about God in Scripture, these truths are a great comfort. Like Job described in Job 3:16-17, death is where there is no more trouble, and where “the weary are at rest.”
Question #3: What About the Doctrine of Election?
My friend, Phil Johnson, who serves as an elder at his church who tells this story:
I met one fellow whose own child died in infancy, and he seemed to think there was something meritorious about believing his own child had gone to hell. Every chance he got, he brought up the issue and boasted about how he and his wife had come to grips with the fact that their child was simply not the elect. I told him I thought he and his wife were in for a pleasant surprise when they get to glory. I recall that he said he was absolutely certain that if God elected that infant to salvation, He would have kept him alive long enough to bring him to faith. my reply was that he would have had just as much biblical warrant to conclude that if God had decided not to elect that child, He would have kept him on earth long enough for the child’s heart to be hardened by sin, and for his rebellion against God to be manifest through deliberate actions. Because whenever Scripture describes the inhabitants of hell, it always does so with lists of sins and abominations they have deliberately committed. We might look at the biblical data and conclude that when God takes the life of a little one, it is actually an act of mercy keeping that child from being hardened by a life of exposure to evil and a life of deliberate rebellion against God. One’s position on this issue says a lot about one’s view of God and His grace.
There is no reason to think that God’s election of His people cannot include infants and special needs persons without the mental capacity to possess an informed understanding of general revelation. These people could most certainly have been “known before the foundations of the earth” (Ephesians 1:4).
While we cannot dogmatically say what age a child must be to be held eternally responsible for their rebellion and rejection of general revelation, we can most certainly come to well thought out conclusions about this subject matter. Based on the evidence from Scripture about God, His judgments, His view of children, and His heart towards those who cannot discern their left hand from their right hand(Jonah 4:11), I believe that children who die, along with special needs persons who do not have the current capacity to understand were chosen before the foundation of the earth.
Recommended resources on this subject and childhood conversion:
Safe in the Arms of God by John MacArthur
The Theology of Infant Salvation by R.A. Webb
 Phil Johnson, “What About Infants Who Die?” from unpublished sermon notes, 1999. This excerpt can be found in John MacArthur’s book, Safe in the Arms of God.