Do babies go to heaven? I cannot think of a theological question I am asked more often.

Although infant mortality rates in the West have decreased over the past few centuries, the eternal destiny of deceased babies remains a point of concern for many Christians. The question is easy to ask, but difficult to answer. And it has significant implications for the way we think about God, let alone children.

The emotional urgency of the question demands a response. Few pastors or friends want to say, “I don’t know.” As a result, many of us are tempted to proof-text—to use isolated, out-of-context quotations from Scripture to establish a position. So we come up with answers like:

Yes. Jesus let the little children come to him (Luke 18:15–16).

No. All humans are sinners in Adam until they believe in Christ (Rom. 5:12–21).

Yes. David knew that he would see his son in the afterlife (2 Sam. 12:15–23).

No. Not unless they have been baptized: “No one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5).

Yes. If their parents are believers: A child is sanctified by a Christian parent (1 Cor. 7:14).

And so on. Even if none of these passages, when read in context, actually tells us whether babies go to heaven, our desire for a solid answer drives us to find one.

A number of theologians have tried to answer the question in a broader way. The Westminster Confession of Faith affirms that some infants are elect, but it does not tell how to discriminate an elect baby from a non-elect one. The Catholic Catechism says infants might be saved without baptism, but stops short of affirming that all will be—though John Paul II, in his EvangeliumVitae, implies that unborn children would be.

Several leading evangelicals, like Albert Mohler and John Piper, believe that all infants will be saved. Infants, they claim, cannot mentally understand the nature of God and therefore are not “without excuse” like the rest of humanity (Rom. 1:20). Meanwhile, Orthodox theologians shake their heads in disdain, believing that if it weren’t for Augustine’s influence on Western Christianity, we wouldn’t even be asking such a question. (The Eastern Church as a whole has rejected Augustine’s view that Adam’s sin is imputed to all humans, babies included.)

For years I wondered why the Bible was silent on this issue. Theologically, I found the “yes” argument—especially when considering the mental ability of children, and therefore their accountability before God—persuasive. I still do. Personally, I never worried that my children would go to hell if they suddenly died. I still don’t. Pastorally, I was happy to reassure people in my congregation that their deceased infants were with Jesus. I still am happy to reassure them.

There are some subjects on which Scripture is unclear—for our good.

Yet it still bothered me that Scripture was not clear on the matter. I have two children with special needs who may not be able to fully understand the gospel. If the Bible was given to make us wise concerning salvation (2 Tim. 3:15), I wondered, why is it so open-ended on this?

Then, a few years ago, I was on a conference panel with two friends, fielding questions from teenagers. Someone asked this question, and one of my friends suggested a thought experiment. “Imagine,” he said, “that one passage in Scripture gave a clear answer. Let’s say this text undoubtedly affirmed that all infants who died before age, say, 5 would be saved. If that were the case, some sick cult would have emerged that killed children before they reached age 5, in order to send them to heaven. Cults have been founded on much less.”

Suddenly, I saw that there are some subjects on which Scripture is unclear—for our good. Some questions are better answered with tentativeness rather than certainty. Clarity can bring security, but it can also breed presumption. Some guarantees can lead to joy, but in the wrong hands, they can lead to genocide.

So I have come to believe that it is enough to know and, when asked about such matters, to say: We can trust the character of God—the one who loves us so much that he came and gave himself for us. We can be confident that his judgments are always right, his nature is always good, his mercy is always wide, and his desire for people to be saved is greater still than ours.

Andrew Wilson is an elder at Kings Church in Eastbourne, England, and author most recently of The Life You Never Expected. Follow him on Twitter @AJWTheology.

[ This article is also available in español. ]

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Spirited Life
Spirited Life is a collision between biblical reflection and charismatic practice, aiming to make people happier in God.
Andrew Wilson
Andrew Wilson is teaching pastor at King's Church London and author most recently of Spirit and Sacrament: An Invitation to Eucharismatic Worship (Zondervan). Follow him on Twitter @AJWTheology.
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