…when babies die…
It’s a question that comes up over and over again, a topic for theological debate that students have pondered over for years, a source of doubt in God for some, and a source of anger towards God for others. It’s a question that the Bible never asks, and, if there is a place in Scripture where God answers it, He only does so indirectly. It’s a question that many Christians (and non-Christians) find troubling because it strikes an emotional chord in such a way that very few other theological debates are capable of. It is a question that has afflicted many parents, grandparents, pastors, teachers, siblings, friends, spouses, old people, young people, and just about everyone else in between.
Where do babies go when they die?
Answering this question is extremely difficult because it strikes right at the heart of the paradox of God. God’s holiness means that all flesh is guilty before Him, but doesn’t His justice mean that He is totally fair? God will not accept those who do not trust in Christ for their salvation, but what about those who are incapable of accepting or rejecting Him? God predestines some to eternal life without there being any way for us to understand whom He chooses or why, but are there any groups of people that we can confidently say that He always chooses for eternal life, regardless of any other circumstances?
All of these questions are difficult and none is explicitly answered in Scripture. Yet, your position on the eternal destination of babies that die is in large part informed by which direction you lean with these paradoxes (and others).
So where do we begin when trying to answer this seemingly morbid question? To start, as a Christian, there must be three possible answers to where babies go when they die: heaven, hell, or nowhere. And before we go any deeper into this question, it is important to note that that last option – nowhere – has no scriptural support. Throughout Scripture the afterlife is viewed as a time of judgment resulting in eternal life for some and eternal damnation for others – there is no third option. There is no in-between state.
Now a person may argue that a baby’s soul, like his/her body, has not fully developed, resulting in there being no eternal state for them. But if we are going to look at this scripturally, then we must point out that there are several passages in Scripture that indicate that God views a baby (even an unborn one) as much more than just an undeveloped child. In fact, there are verses in both the OT and NT that go so far as to say that God calls unborn children to salvation and sanctification (Isa 49:1; Jer 1:5; Gal 1:15), and there is never any indication in Scripture that God views a baby any differently than He does an adult when it comes to process of salvation.
So here we are again – back at square one. When babies die, do they go to heaven or hell? It’s incredibly important at this point for me to once again reiterate that the Bible does not answer this question directly. However, there are theological conclusions that we can draw that can inform what we believe on this subject – conclusions that can be derived from biblical and systematic theology.
So what are some of these conclusions? (Note: I fully recognize that I am pulling these conclusions from my own, generally reformed theological frame of reference. Also note that this list is representative, not exhaustive.)
- Original sin – Adam, as the head of the human race, committed the one sin that renders man guilty of hell (Rom 5:12).
- God’s sovereignty over salvation – God is not passive in the salvation process. He is the one who draws people to Himself (Eph 1:3-10).
- Man’s free will in salvation – Although God is sovereign, man still bears the responsibility to accept or reject Christ (John 3:18).
- Faith in Christ – The only way to be saved from sin is through faith in Christ (Eph 2:8-9).
- Justification – Salvation isn’t just about cleansing from sin (although that is clearly part of it); it is also about completely obeying God’s Law. Even if a person were to never commit a sin, s/he would also have to fully obey God’s Law in order to be accepted in God’s presence for eternity. Sinlessness alone isn’t enough. Sinless righteousness is what is required, and this only comes through faith in Christ, who lived the sinless, righteous life on man’s behalf (Rom 10:1-17).
- Age of accountability – The way this doctrine is typically taught is more manmade than biblical. However, the Bible does indicate that there is an age at which a child has not yet learned how to choose between good and evil (Isa 7:16a).
- God’s mercy – God desires all to be saved. He is not happy about people going to hell (2 Pet 3:9b; 1 Tim 2:3-4).
You can see by this list that some theological presuppositions would seem to indicate that God would send all babies to heaven, and others seem to indicate that this is unlikely. There are many different angles to look at, and ultimately, none of them gives us a complete answer to the question of where deceased babies go. The Bible simply isn’t clear on this subject, and anyone who says that it is clear is either naive or willfully deceptive.
That said, there is one major part of this discussion that I have intentionally overlooked up to this point – the narrative in 2 Sam 12:15ff on the death of David’s son. This story has taken center stage in the discussion of babies’ deaths, with many using it to “prove” that babies must go to heaven. The logic behind this argument is as follows:
- David found comfort in his child’s death. This only makes sense if the child went to heaven.
- David says about the child, “I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.” This only makes sense if the child went to heaven, since David was clearly not planning to go to hell himself.
- We do not know the precise age of the child when he died. It is quite common in the OT narratives for many years to pass in between verses without any indication of the time lapse. So to assume that the child is a baby and not 6 or 7 years old is just that – an assumption that is unprovable scripturally.
- David’s concept of the afterlife would have been quite rudimentary, at best. His “Bible” would have been the Pentateuch, which hardly mentions the afterlife, and the precise doctrines of heaven and hell don’t appear in Scripture until Jesus’ teaching in the NT. It is very hard to know for sure what David thought would happen when he (or anyone else) died.
- The most common way of referring to the afterlife in the OT was the word sheol, which usually has the loose meaning of “the grave.” It may very well be that this is what David is thinking when he says, “I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.” In other words, “I cannot bring him back from the grave. I can only join him in the grave.”
- In connection to the previous point, a very similar verse is Genesis 37:35, where Jacob, mourning the alleged death of Joseph, says, “I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.” I see two reasons why this cross-reference is important: a) because sheol has a very negative connotation here (which is inappropriate if Jacob were referring to heaven), and b) because Jacob is not comforted by the idea of being united with Joseph in sheol. Similarly, David’s statement of “I shall go to him, but he will not return to me” may not be so much a statement of comfort as it is one of resignation to the reality that sheol was now the only way for him to be united with his son.
As you can see, it is quite difficult to use the 2 Samuel 12 narrative to prove or disprove anything in this argument. God did not place that story in Scripture for the purpose of telling us what happens to a baby’s soul when s/he dies, and so it’s best that we not do this either.
So what now? How do we answer this question of what happens when babies die? Where do we turn for comfort in such a tragedy as a miscarriage or SID?
The answer is actually quite simple.
We tend to look at a baby’s death as something different than an adult’s death, and in many ways it is different. In this discussion, the key difference is that a baby is incapable of making a conscious choice of faith in Jesus Christ; so it is hard for us to rationalize how God could punish such an “innocent” child.
But there is one important similarity between a baby’s death and an adult’s death. That similarity comes when the child or adult closes his eyes for the final time on earth and passes into eternity. Both must stand before God. Both must give an account. And both will receive their eternal judgment from God – He who is totally holy, just, loving, and merciful. He who punishes the guilty but rewards the righteous. He who does all things right and operates on a level of wisdom that none of us will ever be able to comprehend. Yes, the person who dies, be it an adult or child, must stand before his Creator, and then it is up to God to decide what to do.
Jesus, seemed to be recognizing this reality as He died on the cross and uttered these words of faith: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” God, here I come. My soul is Yours. I have no power over what is coming next, but into Your hands I commit it all, and I trust You to do what is best.
We often forget that we must do this every time a person dies. As Christians we tend to think that once a person gets saved it’s a “done deal.” Salvation is like a ticket to a baseball game – you either have it or you don’t, and if you do, you’ve got nothing to worry about because you’ll get in without any problem.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not suggesting that Christians should be concerned or scared about entering the afterlife. What I’m saying is that the faith that we have in Christ for salvation comes to a climax at death because of how unknown the afterlife is to us. None of us has seen God. None of us has experienced heaven or hell. None of us knows what happens on the other side. Eternity is entirely unknowable and uncontrollable to us.
This is why it takes so much faith to see a loved one leave earth. We have so many questions that are left unanswered. What are they doing right now? What do they look like? How do they feel? These are questions that we have no choice but to commit to God because, ultimately, we really don’t know what happens when a person passes into eternity. We are 100% reliant on God to fulfill the promises of His Word and to do it in a way that is loving and gracious to us and our loved ones. We, like Jesus on the cross, must commit their souls to God. He is the One to whom they are accountable. He is the One who knows everything that they did and did not do in their lives. He is the One who gave His Son to save them from sin and hell. And only He has the power to choose the final destiny of their soul.
So when a baby passes into eternity? Really, the end result is the same. God in His omniscience and wisdom must make a decision on what to do with his/her soul. Although He hasn’t chosen to tell us what that decision is, we know that it is totally just, loving, gracious, holy, wise, and right. How could it be otherwise – He is God! And because He is God, we can cry out, Father, into your hands I commit this child’s spirit. I trust in You to do what is right with his soul. You give and You take away according to Your great wisdom. Blessed be Your Name.