What happens to infants who die?
This is a difficult and sensitive issue. Any answer must take into account that all of us are born sinful and thus worthy of judgment. The consistent New Testament emphasis upon the need for a second birth indicates that our natural state is that of sin, not innocence (John 3:1-12; Ephesians 2:1-5; cf. Psalm 51:5). We are "by nature children of wrath" (Ephesians 2:3).
In addition to having sinful natures, we also come into the world with Adam's sin imputed to us. Because of our union with Adam, we are born guilty of his first sin (Romans 5:12-21). We go into this doctrine in detail elsewhere, but for now it is enough to point out that, according to Paul, the fact that all die physically (even those who, like infants, did not have the opportunity to knowingly transgress a law of God-Romans 5:13-14) is a demonstration that we are connected with the guilt of Adam's sin.
If we are all born under sin, and salvation is by faith in Christ (which infants do not seem to have the mental capacity to exercise), then it might at first seem that no infants can be saved. We are not, however, aware of anyone who actually takes this position. We are convinced that it would be a premature, unbiblical conclusion.
One reason is that there are apparent examples in Scripture of infants who were saved. We are told that John the Baptist was filled with the Spirit while yet in his mother's womb (Luke 1:15). In Luke's theology, being filled with the Spirit is consistently seen as an aspect of the Spirit's work among those who are regenerate (Luke 1:41, 67; Acts 2:4; 4:8, 31; 6:3, 5; 9:17; 11:24).
Hundreds of years before John the Baptist, David wrote: "Yet you are he who took me from the womb; you made me trust you at my mother's breasts. On you was I cast from my birth, and from my mother's womb you have been my God." (Psalm 22:9-10). Because of David's apparent mention of having faith in God while still an infant, some have concluded that God saves infants by giving them a "primitive" form of faith. That conclusion, however, is not necessary to our point; the main thing to see in this passage is that David evidently was in a saving relationship with God from his mother's womb.
These verses make it very unlikely that all infants who die are lost. If God saved John the Baptist and David in infancy, surely we are warranted in concluding that he has saved others in infancy that were not given the opportunity to grow up. Yet, it would also be unwarranted to conclude from these texts that all who die in infancy are saved. The regeneration of infants does not seem to be God's usual way of working; we must keep in mind that "the wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray from birth, speaking lies" (Psalm 58:3).
In light of these things, some have held that God saves some infants who die and not others. They point that this is seems most consistent with the doctrines of election and original sin.
John Piper and many others, however, believe that there is one more biblical strand of evidence which must be considered. This evidence leads us to conclude that God saves all infants who die.
In a funeral sermon several years ago for an infant, Dr. Piper summarized the basis for his conclusion:
Jesus says in John 9:41 to those who were offended at his teaching and asked if he thought they were blind-he said, "If you were blind, you would not have had sin; but since you say, 'We see,' your sin remains."
In other words, if a person lacks the natural capacity to see the revelation of God's will or God's glory then that person's sin would not remain-God would not bring the person into final judgment for not believing what he had no natural capacity to see.
The other text is Romans 1:20 where Paul is dealing with persons who have not heard the gospel and have no access to it, but who do have access to the revelation of God's glory in nature:
Romans 1:20 "Since the creation of the world God's invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse."
In other words: if a person did not have access to the revelation of God's glory - did not have the natural capacity to see it and understand it, then Paul implies they would have an excuse at the judgment.
The point for us is that even though we human beings are under the penalty of everlasting judgment and death because of the fall of our race into sin and the sinful nature that we all have, nevertheless God only executes this judgment on those who have the natural capacity to see his glory and understand his will, and refuse to embrace it as their treasure.
Infants, I believe, do not yet have that capacity; and therefore, in God's inscrutable way, he brings them under the forgiving blood of his Son.
In another sermon, he adds:
God in his justice will find a way to absolve infants who die of their depravity. It will surely be through Christ. But beyond that we would be guessing. It seems to me that the most natural guess would be that babies will grow up in the kingdom (either immediately, or over time) and will by God's grace come to faith so that their justification is by faith alone just like ours.
It is important to emphasize that, in our view, God is not saving infants because they are innocent. They are not innocent, but guilty. He is saving them because, although they are sinful, in his mercy he desires that compassion be exercised upon those who are sinful and yet lack the capacity to grasp the truth revealed about Him in nature and to the human heart.
It should also be emphasized that the salvation of all who die in infancy is not inconsistent with unconditional election (the view that God chooses whom to save of His own will, apart from anything in the individual). As Spurgeon pointed out, it is not that God chooses someone to salvation because they are going to die in infancy. Rather, He has ordained that only those who have been chosen for salvation will be allowed to die in infancy. God's justice in condemnation will be most clearly seen by allowing those who will not be saved to demonstrate their inherent sinfulness through willful, knowing transgression.
Finally, for those who have struggled with this issue through personal loss, we would want to say that knowing what happens to infants who die is a good place to rest your soul. But it is only the second best place for resting your soul. As John Piper has said in another funeral sermon for a young infant:
The first best place is simply this: Psalm 119:68—"Thou art good and doest good."
This was George Mueller's funeral text when his wife Mary died of rheumatic fever in 1860. His three points were:
The Lord was good, and did good, in giving her to me.
The Lord was good and did good, in so long leaving her to me.
The Lord was good and did good, in taking her from me.
He did not start from Mary and move to God's goodness. He started with the unshakable confidence in the goodness of God rooted in Jesus Christ, and he interpreted his life and his loss in view of that goodness.
That is the bottom line is the goodness of God—that is the hope for us all, and the only hope.
Our final song is a plea for God's Spirit to wean us away from everything in the earth that would tempt us not to believe that.