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The Fate of Infants and Unborn Children Who Die - Part 2

(Apparently) Inclusive Passages

Posted Sunday, January 22, 2006 by Sam Yeiter

This installment deals with passages that seem to favor the idea of all (or at least most) infants going to heaven should they pass away.

(Apparently) Inclusive Passages

There are several passages which seem to extend the offer of salvation (if not insure it) to the unborn and infants.  Some of these are more direct, some merely contribute to the concept.  Some are dealt with that are commonly used, but ought to be rejected.  We begin with one such passage.


2 Samuel 12:23 “...While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, ‘Who knows, the LORD may be gracious to me, that the child may live.’ But now he has died; why should I fast?  Can I bring him back again?  I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.”


This is one of the most used verses to prove the salvation of infants.  Unfortunately, it is also probably one of the most abused.  Many have said that David was comforted by the fact that he would go to his son in heaven.  However, this is probably not how Sheol should be taken.  Robert Gordon says, “All that verse 23 is saying is that David would one day go to the same shadowy world that the child had entered, and that there was no hope of the child returning to this life; ‘but how far this falls short of the Christian hope of the Resurrection of the Body, and the Life Everlasting!’” (259).  Peter Ackroyd says, “The absoluteness of death is thus accepted.  David will join his son in Sheol, the realm of the dead; but none can return from there” (114).  Anderson echos this saying, “Sheol is a place of no return” (164).  The Interpreter’s Bible is perhaps best:

This saying of David’s has been thought to refer to a continued existence in Sheol, which is also suggested by the common expression “he was gathered to his fathers.”  But it is plain from all the descriptions of Sheol that it was regarded not as a place of life but rather as a universal graveyard (I Sam. 2:6; 28:15).  David is therefore not consoling himself “with the thought that the child lives” and that “by and by he will rejoin his child” (Kennedy, Samuel, p. 248).  He is simply declaring the irreversible nature of death; it is the born from which no traveler returns, and therefore there is no further place for prayer.  The real importance of the passage lies in its evidence for an early belief in the power of intercessory prayer (1106). 

            Both the Expositor’s Bible Commentary and Keil and Delitzsch’s commentary agree that the statement about Sheol speaks to mortality and the finality of death.  Of the seven commentators relevant to this passage, only Robert Bergen saw any hope in this passage, “There is to be heard a note of consolation in David’s words ‘I will go to him’” (376).  Overwhelmingly Sheol is not considered to be heaven, or some paradise, but simply a place of death.  Why then does David seem comforted by the death of his son?  This is a leading question…the text does not say he was comforted by it at all.  He does get up, wash himself and cease his mourning, but after this he goes to the House of the Lord to worship.  The cessation of his mourning is not rejoicing or taking comfort in the fact that his child is dead, but rather is the understanding that God has made his decision and there is nothing more that fasting can do to help his son.  Though many would like to use this verse, it would be at the cost of a proper understanding of the text. 


Acts 16:30, 31 “And after he brought them out, he said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’  And they said, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved, you and your household’.”


This is a verse commonly used to support infant baptism (which for many assures infant salvation).  As the story progresses the Jailor and all his household believe and get baptized.  At this point those in the Lutheran and other paedobaptist denominations say that he must have had children of such an age that could not understand the Gospel, thus infants should be baptized for the purpose of bringing them into a right relationship with God.  Representing the Catholic view is Luke Timothy Johnson with his translation of the passage, “They said, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and both you and your household will be saved.’ He himself was at once baptized and so was all his family. With his entire household he rejoiced because he had come to believe in God” (299).  This translation is contrived to meet his theological conclusions.  While it may be nearly allowable from the Greek, it is in no way the most natural translation.  His conclusion must be rejected due to the fact that no infants are mentioned.      

More to the point of this passage is Ajith Fernando’s comment, “He wanted to know what he had to ‘do’ to be saved, but actually there was nothing that he needed to do, for everything had already been done for him by Christ.  All he was required was to believe” (445).  Though this passage does not establish what it is commonly used to prove, it does focus on the fact that there is nothing he must do to be saved but believe.  This was the perfect time to say, “Yes, you have to be baptized to be saved.”  But Luke does not do this, rather makes belief the issue.  For now this appears to weigh against the unborn, but we will return to this concept in the section, Concepts Which Include.


Jonah 4:11 “And should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand?”


There are some who take this 120,000 as a reference to children who do not yet have the mental capacity to understand basic concepts like left and right.  Most think this to be a reference to the moral capacity of the adults who constituted the city.  Douglas Stuart suggests that the description indicates their lostness, “Yahweh offered this choice out of pure grace, to a people who had known no other course than sin, and who could be rescued from their present difficulties only by divine fiat” (508).

Whoever constitutes the 120,000 there seems to be a common principle that results.  God does not desire to judge those who lack capacity to come to him.  If the passage refers to children, we see God staying execution of the city for the sake of the physically incapable children.  If it refers to adults then the judgement is prevented because of their spiritual incapacity.   I do not think we can say that this attitude from God proves that infants go to heaven, but I do think that we see the overwhelming compassion of our God who certainly does not delight in the destruction of his creation.  For now we will leave this topic, but will discuss it again in a following section: Concepts Which Include.


Romans 3:25 “Whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith.  This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed.”


This passage is listed here because of the comment that God apparently passed over some sins (perhaps all sins) committed in the Old Testament era.  This does not mean that they were overlooked forever.  The payment for these sins was paid in full by Jesus Christ; but not every one in the Old Testament went to heaven.  So how does this work?  In our current dispensation, there must be an application of Christ’s righteousness to the believer through faith in his saving work.  So what was required of the Old Testament person to receive salvation?  Paul makes it clear that faith was the key in the Old Testament as well, “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Rom 4:3).  This passage is listed under the “inclusion” heading because it shows that God seemingly makes exceptions.  In the Old Testament there were many people who did not receive punishment for their sins, and there were many people who were believers that did not believe in the person Jesus Christ.  Due to their faith in God they were counted as righteous.  This thought will be continued with the next passage.


2 Samuel 12:13 “Then David said to Nathan, ‘I have sinned against the LORD.’  And Nathan said to David, ‘The LORD also has taken away your sin; you shall not die’.”


This passage is key (in my mind) to the possibility of infant salvation.  According to the Law and the Noaic Covenant, David must die.  He not only committed adultery, he also took the life of Uriah.  However, God graciously does something we could not have predicted and spares David’s life.  There is punishment for his actions, but not death, which God seems very clear about in Genesis 9:6, “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man."  If we did not have the New Testament information about the imputed righteousness of Christ we could say that God was not just to spare David.  However, with more information we see that God was not unjust.  We may suggest from these two passages that something that looks unjust to us may have been cared for by God in a way we do not understand. 


Matthew 18:1-6, 10 “At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, ‘Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’  And He called a child to Himself and set him before them, and said, ‘Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  And whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me; but whoever causes one of the little ones who believe in Me to stumble it is better for him that a heavy millstone be hung around his neck, and that he be drowned in the depth of the sea.  See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you, that their angels in heaven continually behold the face of My Father who is in heaven.”


This is a rather strong supporting passage for those who believe children who die go to heaven.  In both this passage and the next we see Jesus saying that the disciples need to become like children in order to get into the kingdom of heaven.  There are some problems with this passage.  What is meant by ‘the kingdom of heaven?’  What is meant by ‘as this child’ and by ‘one such child?’  If Jesus is talking about the Messianic Kingdom, how does this change the interpretation?  Does he mean they are to become like these particular children or like children in general, and what characteristic is he after? 

I believe Jesus probably was talking about his Messianic Kingdom, but that this does not fundamentally alter our use of this passage.  Entrance into the Messianic Kingdom was gained by the same means we enter heaven, by grace through faith in Christ.  Some take the “little ones” to be disciples of Jesus who have become like children.  This is difficult due to the fact that Jesus is there handling a real live child and talking about him.  From this passage some would say that children will go to heaven if they die.  I’m not sure we can quite make that leap yet.  First, we must determine what is it that commends children to the kingdom.  Heinrich Meyer says, “Above all must you acquire, through humble self abasement, the unassuming character of this child, in order to be greater than others in the Messiah’s kingdom” (324).  He goes on to say, quoting Chrysostom in a footnote, “…For a child of this sort is free from foolishness, love of fame, envy, contentiousness, and all such passions, and possessing many excellences, simplicity, humility, quietness, is elated by none of these” (324).  Is it the many excellences of a child we must attain?  I would argue that children do not have many excellences at all, but that they are foolish and immature.  So what are we to emulate?  I think Craig Keener is good here:

Ancient moralists regularly trotted forth models of heroes and statesmen for their students to imitate; Jesus instead points to a child.  More so then than today, children were powerless, without status and utterly dependent on their parents...Yet we must imitate such people of no status, people who recognize their dependence... (284).

It seems that to Jesus the virtue of children was their complete lack of worth in that society, and their recognition of their status.  This passage is too difficult to use as a proof text, but it may certainly be used as a supporting passage.

If the little ones are children then verse 10 suggests that every child has his own angel, perhaps along the line of a guardian angel.  If this is true than it certainly lends weight to the concept that children belong to God, thus if they should die they would go to heaven.  However, this is shaky ground, and I would not venture to build my house here.


Mark 10:13-16 “And they were bringing children to Him so that He might touch them; and the disciples rebuked them.  But when Jesus saw this, He was indignant and said to them, ‘Permit the children to come to Me; do not hinder them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.  Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it at all.’  And He took them in His arms and began blessing them, laying His hands upon them.”


Much of what I said about the last passage applies here, but here we must add that Jesus was indignant at his disciples for rebuking the children.  Also, the statement is very strong that the kingdom belongs to ones like these.  David Garland almost echos Keener, but takes a slightly different approach saying:

This childlikeness does not refer to any supposedly inherent qualities that children are said to possess...Children can demanding, short-tempered, sulky, stubborn, thankless, and selfish.  We call it childish behavior...In the ancient world, children had no status.  They were easily ignored and barred access because no one would take the trouble to complain and fight for them.  These children, who must be brought to Jesus by others, have nothing to commend an audience with him and cannot defend themselves against bullies...Their littleness contrasts sharply with the overbearing disciples, who want to assert their power and influence.  The disciples need to learn not only to minister to the little ones but also to adopt the attitude of littleness.  When one is appropriately little, like a child, or poor in spirit (Matt 5:3), one is more open to receiving the reign of God (381, 382). 

If we agree with Garland, then it leaves the door open to say that the unborn and young children are the poor in spirit, and thus inherit the kingdom of heaven.

After his statements we see that he takes them into his arms.  My college Greek and Theology professor, Dr. Robert Gromacki, said on one occasion, “What would happen to that child if it died in Jesus’ arms?”  He suggested that while the passage is not explicit, the “wind” of the passage blows Godward.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006 10:35 AM

Josh wrote: 


With respect to the 2 Samuel passage, in Genesis Jacob uses similar language when he concludes that Joseph has been slain.  In Genesis 37:35 we read, "all his sons and daughters came to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted. 'No,' he said, 'in mourning will I go down to the grave to my son.'"  Here, a similar expression evidences no hope of consolation, but instead seems to speak of a unrelieved finality.

This may, as elucidated by the commentators quotes, add more weight to the idea that David's language should be taken more as a statement of unavoidable and final nature of death, rather than a description of infant destiny.


Tuesday, January 31, 2006 11:05 AM

Sam wrote: Good Observation Thanks for that.  I wish we could use it otherwise...but i guess intellectual honesty is better...

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