NSR: What Happens To Babies When They Die?
This is such a difficult question emotionally and theologically, so it’s important for believers to look to Scripture for our understanding on this topic. Will babies go to hell if they don’t have the ability to understand the gospel yet? Do only the children of believers go to Heaven? This is wrong theology because it doesn’t line up with the character and grace of God.
So what can we say to the mother who is grieving the loss of her child? There is hope even in that overwhelming grief. This hope is rooted in Scripture; it isn’t authored by our emotions to make us feel better. We can have hope even in loss because God is a God of grace.
- 2 Samuel
- John 9
- Romans 1
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There are several conversations that I find myself having often. Questions that people asking… And if you’re in a ministry for any period of time, any length of time, these questions are gonna come up. And one of those questions is, “What happens to babies who die?” It might be posed or presented as something like this, “If a baby dies, does that baby go to Heaven?” Or it might be just simply, what happens to babies when they die?
And typically, we’re talking about infants, small, small children… And I wanna work through this and hopefully in this episode, give a strong understanding of what happens to babies when they die. And I want that strong understanding to be rooted in scripture. So theologically, biblically, doctrinally how do we answer this question. Not what makes me feel good, or not what ideas or emotions of myself do I impose on to God to make him act in accordance with my plans and purposes. But how do I submit to the authority of scripture and find hope and peace when it comes to this idea that I can rest in the assurance that children go to Heaven… Small children, infants, babies go to Heaven. So let’s talk about it. Let’s just unpack this a little bit.
Now, when I was growing up, people would talk about something that was called the age of accountability. And I wanna switch around the terminology on that. Let me define it first and then I’m gonna change that terminology. So the age of accountability when I was growing up was described as the age when a child was old enough to be responsible for their own salvation decision. And so the belief was that until a certain age, a kid sort of gets grace applied to them, and so if that child dies then they get to go to Heaven. So an infant or a one or two-year-old, is gonna go to Heaven.
But… The idea is that there’s a point where this child becomes responsible for his or her own eternal… I don’t know how to word it. Like they’re responsible for what they do with the gospel. So it’s referred to as the age of accountability. And so some people would say that age is 12 or 13. And they’ll base that off of the Jewish system of Bar Mitzvah, and when a boy becomes a man. And others would say, “Well, it depends on the child.” Some kids are more mature at age eight than others might be at age 10 or whatever.
And some people will say, “Well, I became a Christian when I was four or five,” which that by the way, is crazy to me to think about. But I know two people in our ministry here at Snowbird that say, “Yup, my earliest memories of wanting to follow Jesus was about four or five years old.”
So how do we nail this down? What is the age of accountability? Well, I think it’s helpful instead of using the age of accountability, let’s use the word level. So level of accountability. Let’s use level of accountability. Now, when we’re talking about level of accountability, we’re talking about each individual person, when they come to a place where they are accountable for their own action or they’re accountable for their own response to the gospel.
Now, does that mean a two year old shouldn’t be held accountable for his own action? No, not at all. A two year old should be disciplined and talked taught to do what’s right and taught to obey. But when it comes to the complexity of the gospel, that two year old is not gonna be able to grasp the gospel. So at what point in that child’s life is he or she gonna be held responsible, and that’s what we’d call the level of accountability.
For instance, with my own children, I’ve had a couple of kids that… A couple of my children that I think really grasped the gospel at an extremely young age. I wanna say six years old. It was like we were having legitimate gospel conversation. And then another one, it was around age seven, and another one, it was around, between eight and nine. I wanna say closer to nine. And then there’s one that I’m still waiting on.
We’ll see. Like we’ll have a conversation, and as soon as the… And there’s good questions asked, sometimes random questions… Seemingly random times, good questions will be asked about God, about Heaven, about Jesus, about sin, but as soon as we start to unpack the gospel, it’s like something shiny off in the distance distracts and off we go. And so what is the level of accountability?
The level of accountability is the ability to understand the simplest presentation of the gospel and my need of a savior. And so what happens to a child who is not at that level of accountability? In other words, that child is not old enough or is not capable, intellectually, to grasp and understand the Gospel. What happens to him? Some people would say that child goes to purgatory. Let me give you three options. Some would say that child goes to purgatory.
Purgatory is a place that was… It’s a figment of imagination fabricated by the early Catholic Church to control people in their pocket books. That’s the bottom line. The way purgatory works is you say, “Okay, your loved ones are in this place.”… It’s considered what’s called limbo. They’re not in Heaven, they’re not in hell, but it’s a really crappy, miserable place. It’s kinda like if you had to live in a suburb of Miami or something like that.
For my South Florida friends, no offense. But being a mountain boy on this beautiful September fall… It’s not even fall yet, it’s technically still summer, but it’s 54 degrees this morning. The sun’s hitting, and warming things up. And I just love the seasons here. And I think, “Man, if you made me go live in a suburb, a subdivision… ” I’ve never lived in a subdivision, but if you made me go live in a subdivision where it’s hot all the time, and you don’t get four seasons and… Like, “What is purgatory?”
Purgatory is not Heaven, and it’s not hell, it’s somewhere in between. It’s a place where you don’t get… Where you can’t drink coffee in the morning. And where you’re a little bit hungry, a little bit hot, a little bit grouchy, and you’re never rested. I don’t know. I don’t know what purgatory is. It’s crazy. You gotta go study it. Go do your own homework and research on that. But it was created to say, “Okay, your loved ones are in this place called purgatory, so if you give the church some money, then you can get them out of purgatory and get them into Heaven.” So it was just a way to profit and a way to control people, so… We reject that.
Okay, the next thing is that your child goes to hell. Now, why would we say that? Well, because… Here’s where someone might support that. The scripture teaches very clearly that we are born sinful. Everyone is born sinful. In fact, David in Psalm 51 says, we’re from conception, we are sinful. And where we get that, we get that biblically. Where you find that is in passages like Psalm 51, Romans Chapter 3. And we get a little more insight into it in Romans Chapter 5, and 1 Corinthians 15, where the scripture teaches us that when Adam and Eve… That specifically when Adam sinned, what we would call the doctrine of original sin, that that was the first sin, but he was the representative head of the entire human race.
So every human that will ever be born is born in the line of Adam and is born sinful. That we were literally when Adam sinned, we were in Adam sinning. That the DNA chain… That all the descendants… The descendants of Adam, which would be all of humanity, that we sinned in Adam. When he sinned, we were there with him sinning. He’s our representative head, but we were there with him sinning, so we’re guilty both by birth and inheritance. And that we’re also guilty by our own actions. And so that’s what the scripture would support, which by the way, is why the virgin birth is so important.
Understanding the critical nature of the virgin birth is that Jesus was not born in the lineage of Adam, he was born conceived of the Holy Spirit, but fully human in the womb of a woman. So we’re born sinful. The Bible then says in Romans Chapter 3, nobody’s good, and nobody’s righteous, and we have this from birth, desire for that which is evil. And you think about the non-compliance of a small child, this… We see this played out… All you gotta… Just be around a small child and you see this. It’s not hard to see this.
So that being the case, if a child is born sinful and they are depraved and born in iniquity and brought forth in sin and they die, then they go to hell. That’s what the argument would be. Well… That’s wrong. Let me just… And we’re gonna… I can’t just answer it point blank here, I gotta unpack the third option and explain support for that option from the scripture so that it makes sense.
So the third option is that an infant or a small child or a mentally retarded person… Let’s put mentally retarded people into this same category. People who cannot comprehend the gospel. That person dies, we believe that person goes to Heaven. Goes to be with the Lord. And it’s important, however, that we have biblical grounds for that. And the warning needs to be… Let’s don’t say that we believe that simply because we don’t think God… Because it makes us feel good. It makes us feel warm and fuzzy.
Well, this child is with the Lord, and it makes me feel warm and fuzzy. That… Like, “Why do we believe it biblically?” Now, let me give you some why we do and why we don’t. We don’t believe that… Here’s, I guess, a fourth category. So we said purgatory, hell or Heaven. A fourth category that kind of flows into this point that we’re talking about right now, which is what the scripture teach would be… Some people would say that the children of believers go to Heaven, the children of unbelievers go to hell. That’s terrible theology. That’s saying that you get to Heaven on the merit of your parents’ salvation or on their decision to follow Christ, that somehow… That I don’t have to make up my own… Like, I don’t have to submit my own will to the Lord.
There are people that teach that as well. And that’s a really bad, bad, bad theology. That’s not biblical. And so I can’t… Like I can’t say, “Well, my two… ” Little, my wife lost two children, miscarriages. I can’t say, “Well, I know they’re in Heaven because I’m a Christian.” Well that’s ludicrous. That doesn’t make sense. What about… Here’s an example where that would be like devastating to my view of God and to an understanding of grace.
What happens to a child that’s aborted by a drug addict, who has rejected the gospel. Like somebody who has… Or not a drug addict… A crazy liberal, atheistic, humanistic, secularist, feminist who gets herself pregnant and then decides to abort the baby as… Like to make a statement. So in other words, she gets pregnant on purpose. She get herself pregnant on purpose to have an abortion, ’cause I heard about a woman that did this. I heard her testimony… Not testimony… But she was saying… She’s celebrating the abortions that she’s had and can’t wait for her next one.
Okay, so what happens to those babies? Oh, well they go to hell because their mom is crazy and hates Jesus. No, that doesn’t make any sense. It doesn’t line up with what scripture teachers. So what does the scripture teach? Let me lay down a biblical ground work and framework for why we believe that infants and small children and mentally retarded people who die go to Heaven. Let me down a biblical context for that, and then close with a story.
So in the story of David… In the life of David… Which David, by the way, there are more chapters written about David than any other person in scripture. In the middle of that story, David commits adultery and gets a woman pregnant, and that child dies. And David grieves in the process of that child slowly dying. That child becomes sick, that child’s really sick… And then when the child dies, David gets up, cleans himself up goes and has something to eat, and he says, “I’m not grieving anymore, because now I know I’ll go be with this child.” Well, he’s talking about Heaven, he’s not talking about in the grave.
So he recognizes that he’s gonna see this child in Heaven. Well, this is where some people would say, “Well, that’s because David’s a Christian, and so because he’s a Christian he knows he’ll see his child again because the children of Christians go to Heaven.” Well, that… Let’s jump to the next point in scripture, which would be the book of Jonah. At the end of the book of Jonah, the scripture says that although… That God shows grace to this city, because there are so many people in that city, several hundred thousand people in that city that don’t know their right hand from their left.
Which would be a reference to infants, small children and mentally retarded people. So God shows grace to that city on behalf of all those children. And then the other one would be John’s vision of Heaven. There are people from every tribe, every nation, every tongue, around the throne of God. And so someone… And so that means there are people from every people group in history around the throne of God. And so someone might say, “Well… ” And this… What I’ve always thought was… When John sees that, I’ve always thought, “Oh, that means that in the future, every nation, every tribe, every tongue, all 16,000 plus people groups in the world are going to receive the gospel.”
And so then there will be people from every people group that are in Heaven, because they’ll be those who received the gospel. But what’s tricky is there are people groups who no longer exist. The Philistines, the Ammonites… Some of those Canaanites, that don’t exist. And other people groups. Like I read recently about a tribe, a people group that no longer is registered. They don’t exist. They’re extinct as a people. They inter-married and dispersed among other ethnicities, and so… And they never received the gospel, they were pagans. So who from that people group is gonna be around the throne.
Well, there seems to be a strong indication there that those who died in infancy would represent that people group. And then lastly, Jesus, in John’s Gospel was having this interaction, in John 9, with a guy that’s born blind. He heals him, he gives him sight, and there’s an exchange between Jesus and the religious leaders, where he says, “If you can see, then you have no excuse.” And he’s not talking about physical sight he’s talking about a comprehension and an understanding of the gospel. So in Romans Chapter 1… The last thing… Romans Chapter 1, he says, “Those who suppress the truth in unrighteousness are without an excuse.”
So to receive the truth, to have a revelation of God and then to suppress that, you don’t have an excuse. And so a child, a small child, an infant doesn’t… They don’t have… They don’t suppress the truth… And so there’s some grace extended there, and scripture seems to really support that. Lastly, I would say… And I don’t wanna do anything that’s based on a feel good. Like, “Oh, this makes me feel better about God.” But the reality is, the character of God and the character of grace, it would be… It would fly so in the face of the God of the scripture… The way God has revealed himself to us through the Bible, and the way grace is revealed to us through the scripture, this just doesn’t make sense.
The idea that that God would take small infants and mentally handicapped people and condemn them to hell. It doesn’t line up with a character of God and the character of grace. Lastly, let me tell you a story that’s overwhelming, even when I think about it… Many of our supporters and listeners will know this story. It’s a story of a family that lost a daughter on the mission field. And she was born in infancy… I’m sorry… Of course, she was born in infancy. She died in infancy, but she was born prematurely, is what I meant to say.
And the real… The hard reality is, there are questions of if they had not been in a third world situation, would this child have first been born premature and second would she have died. And this is a family that’s very dear… I did the wedding about a decade ago, and we’ve supported them from day one. They met here at Snowbird, sort of trained up and commissioned for the mission field. And so it was very difficult. And I remember walking through the process ’cause the baby… Ava was her name. She was sick and hanging on for life for about six weeks.
And I remember working to get grandparents flown over to spend time with their granddaughter. And just… It was a heavy, heavy six weeks where we were constantly in prayer as a church and as a ministry. And many of our extended friends and family were in prayer. And in the end, Ava died. She went to be with the Lord. And I remember they flew her little body home.
And I remember going to… We flew out to Texas. Little and I flew to Texas to do the memorial service… For me to preach the funeral of this precious little baby girl who had, I believe, given her life for the advancement of the gospel to an unreached people group. That’s why her parents were there. That’s why they’re serving in Africa and in a Muslim context and Islamic culture. And she died. And I remember flying out and wrestling with, “What am I gonna say?” What do I say? We talked in the last episode about suicide. And one of the most difficult things to do is to stand in the pulpit… To stand in front of people and preach the funeral of someone who’s murdered themselves… That murdered their self… Committed suicide.
It’s also very difficult to stand and preach the funeral of an unbeliever. But then I think the most difficult funeral context, for me… This is for me personally, is to preach the funeral of an infant because of the weight of grief that this family is feeling. And I remember flying out there, and I kept asking myself this question, “What do you tell this mama?” Who I loved dearly. She’s… Little and I have known this mama since she was a baby… Or since… Not a baby but since she was a small, small child. We’ve been close friends with the family. We watched her grow up. She spent a lot of time in our home.
What am I gonna tell her when I see her face-to-face? I had long conversations over the phone. What am I gonna tell her when I see her face-to-face? What do you tell a mama who is burying her infant child? And it was in that moment that I pressed so deeply into scripture because I wanted to give her biblical truth. I wanted to give that daddy biblical truth. I wanted to give those grandparents and great grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins and family members and friends and loved ones that had gathered, hope that was rooted in scripture. Hope that is rooted in the gospel. Hope that we can rest on. Even in the midst of grieving that we can know, this is not the end. There is hope.
And I remember one of the most intense things I’ve ever seen was the granddad, who’s a close personal friend of mine and a mentor of mine, and watching him carry this teeny tiny little coffin… This little casket. And he carried his granddaughter, his first grandchild down the aisle and laid her in front of the church. And then he picked her up and he carried her to the grave side, weeping… Tears dripping down on this coffin on this casket.
And I’m so thankful to know that I could stand before those people that day and give them hope that was not authored by me. Hope that is not driven by emotion and a desire to feel good, but hope that is rooted in scripture. That the character and nature of God, the character of grace, is that God has applied grace to this little baby girl, and there’s hope that his family will see her again and we will be re-united with the Lord. And it’ll be wonderful to spend eternity together with a perfect knowledge and understanding of why God does what he does. Or why God allows what he allows.
And so I can’t imagine what it was… What it would be like to not be able to give that message of hope to that mama. What do you tell a mama? What do you do? What do you say to a daddy in that moment? There’s hope for the child that is aborted, there’s hope for the daughter of a faithful missionary family who has counted the cost and given everything to advance the gospel, there’s hope. And none of that hope rests in sentimentality or feel good theology. It rests in the rock solid, biblically grounded reality, that God is a God of grace, and salvation is always a gift of grace. And it’s never a gift of works or status, and we can rest assured in that.
I hope that encourages you. Thanks for listening, and I hope you’ll join in the next time for the next episode of No Sanity Required.
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