The Bible does not directly address the issue of what happens to babies who die before being able to make a decision for or against Christ. People have thus had to arrive at conclusions about this matter on the basis of other beliefs they hold to be true.
The majority of evangelicals today assume that children who die before “the age of accountability” automatically go to heaven. (The same holds true for severely mentally incapacitated adults, though historically this topic has rarely been addressed). What drives this view is the conviction that babies are not guilty of any explicit sin, and therefore, it would be unjust for God not to save them. The view is so self-evident to some today that they are surprised to learn that few church spokespersons throughout history have shared this assumption.
The prevailing opinion from Augustine through the medieval period was that all babies who had received Christian baptism went to heaven, while all others went to hell. This view was driven by a particular understanding of inherited original sin and the belief that baptism washed away this sin. The difficulty of accepting this conclusion led to the qualification that the level of hell babies go to (limbo) was devoid of pain. Some evangelicals within liturgical traditions continue to hold to a form of this belief
Some Christians in the late Middle Ages and Reformation period, focusing on the importance of family covenants in Scripture, maintained that the fate of babies was directly connected to the faith or unbelief of their parents. This view is embraced by some evangelicals today. Children of Christian parents who die go to heaven, while others go to hell.
Yet another view has traditionally been espoused by Reformed theologians. Rooted in a particular understanding of divine election, this view maintains that the fate of babies is decided in the same way as the fate of adults. As spelled out in the Westminster Confession of Faith, elect babies are predestined to salvation; non-elect babies are not. Often this view is combined with the above mentioned covenantal theology, assuring Christian parents that their deceased babies are indeed elect.
Finally, many evangelicals who are convinced that love must be freely chosen hold to the belief that perhaps babies who die are somehow allowed to mature in the afterlife, at which point they, like the rest of us, decide for themselves whether they want to submit to Christ. I find in the New Testament, especially in the teachings of Jesus, a recurring theme that all processes that are incomplete in this age will be completed in the next. On this basis, along with my belief that love must be chosen, I’m inclined toward the view that all people who have not solidified a decision for or against Christ, including infants, are somehow allowed to do so in the next age.
- Boors, L. The Mystery of Death. Trans. G. Bainbridge. New York: Herder & Herder, 1965.
- Buswell, J. O. A Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1962.
- Dyer, G. J. “The Unbaptized Infant in Eternity,” Chicago Studies 2 (1963): 147.
- Gumpel, P. “Unbaptized Infants: May They Be Saved?” Downside Review 72 (1954): 342–458.
- Hastings, Adrian. “The Salvation of Unbaptized Infants.” Downside Review 77 (1958–59): 172–78.
- Sanders, J. No Other Name: An Investigation into the Destiny of the Unevangelized. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992.
- Warfield, B. “The Development of the Doctrine of Infant Salvation.” In Studies in Theology, ed. E. D. Warfield, 411–44. New York: Oxford University Press, 1932.