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The Fate of Infants and Unborn Children Who Die - Part 1

(Apparently) Restrictive Passages

Posted Thursday, January 19, 2006 by Sam Yeiter

This paper was originally researched and written in December of 2000.  This was about 5 months after the birth of our first (and only surviving) daughter.  Later, in 2002, and again in 2003, my wife had bizarre miscarriages which endangered her life and obviously took the lives of our two other children. 

I begin this way for two reasons.  The first is that this is a painful issue for many, myself included, and I am hoping that all who might leave comments or questions will realize the grace and sensitivity the topic merits.  The second reason is that I want to be honest about my theology.  I have always attempted to disconnect my experience from the construction of my theology.  I know that this is partially impossible, but I believe we must let the text guide us, not our feelings or experiences (though they might help us ask the right questions of the text).  

Reality of the Problem

Every day, probably every hour, perhaps every minute children die; from abortions, miscarriages, sickness, accidents, abuse and neglect.  This is an awful thought.  If for just one moment we think of the heartbreak connected with these statistics, we must be horrified at this evil.  To be mortified at this reality is right, but there is a more grave issue, a question the answer to which can be even more disturbing.  What is the eternal state of these children?  These are fetuses and babies that never had an opportunity (from what we can tell) to choose or reject Christ.  In America alone there are probably millions of parents who have experienced this loss and many millions more who will.  What are we to tell them?  Do we have comfort for them?  What should we say?  What can we say?  What does the Bible say about the state of such children?         

Throughout this paper we will attempt to answer these questions.  Our study will focus on children (born and unborn) who are too young to understand salvation or express faith, though probably much of our study will apply to the mentally handicapped as well.  This study will begin with suggested statements concerning the destiny of deceased children, then focus on Biblical data.  We will look at passages and concepts that seem to extend salvation to infants, those that seem to limit it and those that are “too close to call.”  We will then try to draw some conclusions and I will offer some thoughts on how to deal with such painful and delicate situations.

Suggested Statements

            In my reading and thinking there are five statements that can be made about the destiny of unborn and deceased babies.  They are listed below with additional possibilities under most:

1. No babies go to heaven.

Deceased babies do not go to heaven and receive the same punishment as anyone else.

Deceased babies do not go to heaven, but receive less punishment that others.

2. All babies go to heaven.                                                                                   

Deceased babies go to heaven, but receive less reward than others.

Deceased babies go to heaven and receive the same reward as anyone else.

3. All elect babies go to heaven.

Deceased babies go to heaven, but receive less reward than others.

Deceased babies go to heaven and receive the same reward as anyone else.

4. Babies go to either heaven or hell, based on their parents faith.

Deceased babies who are children of believers go to heaven.

Deceased babies who are children of unbelievers do not.

5. Babies go to either heaven or hell, based on baptism.

Deceased babies who are baptized go to heaven.

Deceased babies who are unbaptized do not.

Foundational Statement: There is not any one verse that clearly states what happens to an unborn or very young child that dies.  Because of this we must show grace to one another and tread slowly and carefully.

(Apparently) Restrictive Passages

In order to be as objective as possible we must weigh as much evidence as we can find, even if it is uncomfortable.  Thus we begin with the least comfortable passages.  There are several passages that seem to limit salvation to something that must be believed or done externally.  It has been argued that unborn and young children cannot do what these verses command due to their mental limitations.  Let us look as some representative passages.


John 14:6 “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through me.”


This is a good place to begin.  It seems so clear that this verse says that in order to get to heaven one must place his faith in Jesus.  Let us look at context.  Jesus is at the end of his life and is teaching and comforting his disciples before his death.  At the beginning of chapter 14 he assures them that though they may be temporarily parted they will be together again permanently.  After telling them that he is preparing a place for them he says, “You know the way where I am going” (14:4) Thomas is afraid of being separated from Christ and says what they must all have been thinking, “Lord, we do not know where You are going, how do we know the way?” (Vs 5).  Jesus’ reply is meant to comfort and assure them, “I am the way.”  Surely this was a great comfort, even if they did not understand it fully; this friend they had known for three and a half years is the surety of their entrance into the kingdom.  Certainly this statement was not meant to be a complete doctrinal statement concerning salvation.  This is vitally important; no text that I know of sets out to make any such point concerning infants.  Christ was talking to living adult men concerning themselves and those to whom they would minister: adult, living people.

Concerning this passage Leon Morris stresses that Jesus is the only access to the Father and that this point must be kept clear throughout any study.  If infants go to heaven, it is not because of their innocence, but because of God’s mercy (569, 570).  In his commentary Calvin says that this passage shows that Jesus “stoops low to guide sucking infants...” (835).  This is a terribly interesting and enigmatic statement.  I say enigmatic because nothing surrounding this statement fills out his thought.  While I certainly consider it a difficult passage, Calvin seems to see infant salvation here.  One point that we should take from this passage is that there is only one way to God, through the saving work performed by his Son.


Romans 1:18-20 “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them.  For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.” 


Look at any doctrinal statement or any theological text book and you will find this passage listed somewhere under the heading “General Revelation.”  Typically, there will be a sentence nearby reading something like, “The rejection of what is revealed in general revelation is sufficient to condemn justly.  But this does not imply that the acceptance of general revelation is sufficient to effect eternal salvation” (Ryrie, 34).  At first glance this seems to condemn all persons who have never heard the salvation message.  If general revelation condemns those who reject it, even if they never hear the gospel, this might seem to include babies. 

However this ignores context and Paul’s purpose for the first three chapters of Romans.  Brendan Byrne correctly notes (for these particular verses) that “the verdict Paul wants to elicit, however, is global, a view of the entire Gentile world encompassed in an alienation from God that contains a strong measure of delusion” (72).  He goes on to clarify his statement by noting that not every Gentile falls into the specific categories given by Paul, but that over all they have refused God and deluded themselves.  Notice how they are being judged for what they do, not who they are.  So then, it seems that Paul is condemning those who have rejected God, having seen creation’s theistic statement.  This passage works in conjunction with the next, so we will move to it quickly and make our final comments there.


Romans 3:9-18 “What then?  Are we better than they?  Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin; as it is written, ‘There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; All have turned aside, together they have become useless; There is none who does good, there is not even one.  Their throat is an open grave, with their tongues they keep deceiving, the poison of asps is under their lips; whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness; their feet are swift to shed blood, destruction and misery are in their paths, and the path of peace have they not known.  There is no fear of God before their eyes’.”


This passage is working in concert with the one above and serves to condemn all man, both Jew and Gentile of being unrighteous and unable to come to God on his terms.  In Romans 1-3 Paul is establishing the unrighteousness of mankind based on his actions, not position.  This is clear from the sin list of 1:28-32 and the charges of hypocrisy leveled in 2:17-25.  So then, though I do not reject the concept of original sin, these passages may not be used to condemn the unborn or infants, but rather Paul makes very clear that he condemns those who have rejected whatever revelation God has allowed them to see, whether that be creation or the Law.


Romans 10:9, 13-14 “...If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved...for ‘Whoever will call upon the name of the Lord will be saved.’  How then shall they call upon Him in whom they have not believed?  And how shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard?  And how shall they hear without a preacher?”


When I was in college I was a strong advocate of the condemnation of infants and the unborn, not because I wanted to be (who wants to be?) but because of this verse.  I would bring up this verse and challenge anyone to explain how this left any room for salvation of those who have not heard the Gospel.  I received much anger but never heard a sound refutation of my position.  However, again context will help us understand what is going on in this passage, as well as logic.

I believe we must say that no one believes a literalistic reading of verse 9.  If this were the case then those who are mute would be unable to be saved.  I would further suggest that this salvation is something other than individual Christian salvation.  This passage is in a context of the salvation of Israel.  Romans 10:16-21 is an amalgamation of prophetic literature showing that God wants to save Israel, but that they will not turn to him, thus they are not saved, even though the one bringing glad tidings of the Messiah’s arrival has come.  The end of this passage is interesting, “I was found by those who sought Me not, I became manifest to those who did not ask for Me.”  But as for Israel He says, “All the day long I have stretched out My hands to a disobedient and obstinate people” (10:20-21).  Within this context, now the comment, “with the heart man believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation,” makes sense.  The resulting salvation may not be personal Christian salvation, but the salvation promised by Yahweh in 2 Chronicles 7:14,  “And [if] My people who are called by My name humble themselves and pray, and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.” 

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