What Happens to Babies When They Die?
by Paul Hazelden


Public Health Warning
This article is not written for instruction in pastoral care. It addresses some of the theological issues raised by this area. But if someone's baby has died, they will probably appreciate an arm around the shoulder rather more than a theological dissertation.

Contents

•   Introduction
    Stating the Problem
    Our Purpose
•   Possible Answers
    The Cop-Out
    Hell is Justified
    Limbo for the 'Innocent'
    Infant Baptism
    Faith of the Parents
    Admit Our Mistake
•   The Nature of Salvation
    Following the Rules
    Grace
    Developing a Relationship
    Damaging the Relationship
•   Back to the Issue
•   Links

Introduction

The starting point of this article was the question posed in the title: what happens to babies when they die? What is their eternal destiny? On what basis does God decide on their fate?

However, it soon became clear that this is one aspect of a much wider question: what is the fate of those who cannot choose to follow Jesus? There seems to be two main groups of people to whom this applies:

In the first group, we have both babies and some mentally handicapped people (or whatever the politically correct term happens to be this week...); in the second group, we have many atheists, agnostics, and a large number of those who follow other religions.

Strangely, the second group has been the subject of a fair amount of discussion (along the lines of "What about the unevangelised?"), while the first group has been almost totally neglected.

The issue in general raises some interesting questions (such as, precisely what is the gospel message, and how much of it do you need to understand in order to be saved?), but applying the issue to the first group adds some further twists. Exacty how old do you need to be before you can choose to follow Jesus? How well do you need to understand the gospel message before you can make this decision?

You can describe the process of salvation in a number of different ways, but the problem exists whichever set of words you choose. For example, you can talk about 'exercising saving faith' rather than 'choosing to follow Jesus,' but the key issue remains unchanged. Some people can do it, whatever the 'it' is, and some people can't.

  Stating the Problem

Before we go any further, let's be clear about the problem we are seeking to address.

Standard evangelical theology says that only people who have chosen to follow Jesus will get to Heaven. This means that all those who cannot choose to follow Jesus will be consigned to Hell, which appears to be both unfair and unjust.

We should note that the standard approach makes perfect sense in the context of an evangelistic address - if people can follow what you are saying, they can choose to follow Jesus. However, it does open to door to some tricky apologetic questions. And it creates serious pastoral problems further down the line.

As I see it, the problem presented to us by this issue falls into two parts: theodicy and consistency.

  Our Purpose

What are we really attempting to do in this article? The temptation is to search for a way of interpreting the standard evangelical position which does not offend either our emotions or our moral principles.

However, aiming to change our theology until we reach a point where God no longer offends my personal sensibilities does not sound like a terribly useful direction to explore. I must accept that I may well not like some of the things He says and does. If He needs to conform to my standards and expectations, presumably He also needs to conform to those of everyone else in the world. This would leave us with very little we could say about Him.

However, if God wants us to be involved in evangelism which engages the mind, it would seem very strange for Him to leave us without some reasonable answer to give when people ask us about this area. The purpose of this article is to discover what answer He expects us to give. This answer may not be totally satisfying, it may not provide all the answers we would like, but it must work at some basic level.

If part of the gospel message is something the unregenerate do not like and do not wish to hear, well, that is sad, but there's not a lot we can do about it. We dare not compromise the message to make it more acceptable. But this is a very big 'if.' We have no right to place any hindrance in the path of someone who is interested in finding God - and that must surely include dubious theological issues as well as the obvious social and personal stumbling blocks.

Possible Answers

People have advanced various suggestions and positions. I attempt to summarise the main ones below.

  The Cop-Out

You can phrase this in various ways: "We are not told what happens," "We don't need to know what happens," or "We can safely leave that question with God" for example.

This approach is not very helpful. On the pastoral front, people do need some form of answer to the question, and on the theological front it touches on issues which are central to our faith. If we can't answer some straight questions in this area, a great deal of the Christian faith starts to look very unclear and uncertain.

  Hell is Justified

Some people give the blunt but logically obvious reply that babies and the unevangelised go to Hell when they die. It hardly needs to be said that this response produces serious problems - emotional, pastoral and apologetic.

People who adopt this position generally go on to say that if God does this, He must be right to do it, so there is no moral problem. If we don't like it, then the problem is ours.

If we leave the answer at this point, it is essentially a simple refusal to address the problem: unless you can explain why this is morally correct behaviour for God, you are driven to the conclusion that God's goodness is so different to ours that the term is effectively meaningless when applied to Him - which conclusion would lead to massive problems in every aspect of theology.

However, people who go down this route generally go further: not only (they say) is God right to send babies to Hell, but we know why He is right to do this. Babies are born 'in sin'. They are not innocent: they are born sinful, sharing the guilt of Adam's rebellion.

This may be sound theology, but it sounds like pretty dubious ethics. Not only is God refusing babies entry to Heaven because they have not done something they could not do, but He is also actively sending them to Hell for something they have not done and an event they had no control over.

Okay - the Bible does teach us about corporate (or communal) responsibility. There are various examples of people being punished for something they did not do because they were members of a group that was corporately responsible. Families die because one member sinned. The implication is that people punished in this way are supposed to simply 'take it on the chin like a man'.

BUT...

  Limbo for the 'Innocent'

Another approach splits the two groups. People who cannot respond to the gospel, for whatever reason, cannot be treated as full human beings, and hence cannot be punished in the same way as those who are fully morally responsible. However, those who can respond but do not, for whatever reason, must accept responsibility for their fate.

I use the term 'limbo' here in its most general sense: depending on who you speak to, people who adopt this position describe the eternal destiny of babies in all kinds of ways. As none of it can be demonstrated from scripture, people are free to describe anything they like.

The people to whom is is supposed to apply are described in a number of ways: they are sometimes called 'innocent' (which largely pre-judges the issue); they are sometimes described as 'not responsible for their actions' or 'not morally responsible' Whatever terms are used, the basic idea is that only the morally responsible are full human and hence subject to the instructions and requirements laid down in scripture.

This answer clearly raises numerous other difficulties: justifying some intermediate fate for the not-fully-human from scripture; justifying the existence of such a group in the first place; and so on.

On a personal note, one of my difficulties with this approach is that it tends to suggest the most morally responsible course of action concerning babies who are born into predominantly non-Christian lands would be to kill as many possible - to ensure they go to limbo, rather than Hell. This is a position I, and most Christians I know, would be very reluctant to adopt.

  Infant Baptism

Sadly, this is possibly the commonest answer given to this problem in the Christian world. It may well be the most cruel. One of the main reasons why people have their babies baptised is so that they will be sure, if the baby dies, that it will go to Heaven. Emergency baptisms are performed in Hospitals if it is feared that the baby will not survive.

I still have difficulty coping emotionally with this belief. It means that there is no hope for the dead children of any non-Christian family. Many Christians do not baptise babies: all of their children who die in infancy are consigned to Hell as well. Place two babies next to each other. If they both die, one will go to Heaven because it has gone through a certain ritual, and the other will go to Hell because it has not.

As I say, I have difficulty coping with this one. It seems to me that anyone who believes this is true must believe they are serving and worshipping a monster. I have been talking with people about this subject for years, and nobody has yet shown me how I could believe in a good and loving God who behaves in such a way.

  Faith of the Parents

A slightly watered down (and therefore, to me slightly more acceptable!) version of the infant baptism position, is one which teaches that children are covered by the faith of their parents. Precisely what this means and how it operates is generally unclear. There seems to be one passage of scripture which can be interpreted in this way ('hence are your children clean') but very little to suggest how this can be integrated into everything else evangelicals believe.

It should be noted that both this position and that of the infant baptist are implicit but absolute denials of the traditional evangelical position. Acording to these positions, you can get to Heaven either through choosing to follow Jesus or through having the fortune to have parents who baptised you or who exercised faith on your behalf.

In any case, it does not solve the difficulty: instead of there being some people who cannot do what is required to be saved, we have some people who cannot have done to them what is required. It doesn't really help.

  Admit Our Mistake

None of these attempted solutions work. None of them can work: if our salvation depends on us doing something, there will always be some people who cannot be saved because they cannot do that which is required.

The only possible answer is to re-examine our starting point. I believe we have profoundly mis-understood both the nature and the dynamics of salvation, and it is this mis-understanding which causes the problems we have been looking at.

The Nature of Salvation

  Following the Rules

We talk about salvation as if it were something that works on a set of rules. We argue about the rules: Is baptism necessary? Is baptism sufficient? Is speaking in tongues essential? But all these arguments are about the details of the rules.

When we want to know if someone is saved, we apply the rules to that person and see what the outcome is. Of course, some of the rules are a matter of judgement (for example, does this person seek to live a holy life?), but that is okay - in the end, it is not down to us to decide, and we can be sure that God's judgement is perfect.

Of course, there are all kinds of rules in the Bible: laws, instructions, principles, warnings and so on. And of course, these rules are important. The rules are given to help us understand how God wants us to live. But no set of rules, no matter how perfect, can offer us eternal life.

  Grace

We even preach grace as though it comes to us through the operation of certain rules. We tell people: if you pray the sinners' prayer, then you will experience God's grace.

Most Christians are very aware that we are saved by God's grace, not by our own works. For many of us, that was the key turning point in our lives: when we stopped trying to work for God's blessing or earn our salvation, and instead received salvation as a free gift.

But when someone wants to know how they, too, can receive the free gift of salvation, we start to explain the rules. You must believe in Jesus. Or we take them through the Four Spiritual Laws. Or we lay hands on them and get them speaking in tongues. Or we invite them to an Alpha course.

Now, I have nothing against any of these tools. But salvation is not a matter of following a set of rules, whether they are described by the Four Spiritual Laws, or in any other way.

  Developing a Relationship

We naturally turn the Bible's teaching into a set of rules. We like it that way. We are comfortable with rules. But salvation is not about rules; it is about relationship. Let me say that again.

Salvation is not about rules; it is about relationship.

Salvation is about a relationship with the living God. The rules are important and useful in so far as they help us understand Him and our relationship with Him. But you cannot gain or sustain a relationship through following rules. Rules can help prevent you from messing up a relationship, but they cannot create a relationship in the first place.

You develop a relationship not by following a set of rules, but by giving yourself to the other person.

(I am talking about real relationships here: the 'I-Thou' relationships in which we encounter another person as a significant individual. The word can be used to describe social interactions where we use other people in certain ways, responding to their role or function in a given situation, but that is not what I mean here.)

Being born again means (among other things) being born into God's family. Family is all about relationships. Following Jesus - being His disciple - is all about the relationship you have with Jesus. Eternal life is all about knowing God - having a relationship with Him. However you look at it, we are talking about relationship, not rules.

  Damaging the Relationship

Why do we need to be saved? Because of sin. Sin is what broke the relationship in the first place. So restablishing the relationship again must be linked with the forgiveness of sins.

I have talked about this at more length elsewhere (PT022) - but in summary, I believe that God dealt with the issue of sin through Jesus' death on the cross - end of story. Jesus died for the sins of the world, so the sins of the world have been forgiven. All of them.

When there is a crime, there needs to be a punishment, so that justice can be maintained. This is what has been done. But sin is not just a legal problem: it is also a personal problem. When offence has been given, in order to restore the relationship you need apology and repentance.

So people people do not go to Hell because of their sins. They go to Hell because they refuse to accept God's invitation to a new life with Him. They refuse to live in a relationship with God, and after death they will not go to live at His place. So there is only one fate left for them, only one place left for them to go. Heaven is the place where God is, and they don't want to be with Him.

In this way of looking at things, salvation is not the point at which your sins are forgiven: it is the point at which you accept the invitation to a new life made possible by the forgiveness of your sins. It is when you choose to take up the opportunities made possible by Jesus' death.

In passing, this is also the answer to the challenge of universalism: the doors of Heaven have been thrown open to everyone, but not everyone wants to go through them.

Back to the Issue

Looking at salvation this way makes very little difference to our evangelistic preaching. Our sins have been forgiven by God's sovereign act; He opens His arms wide to welcome us home, but we choose whether to turn around and come home, or keep on heading off in our own direction. But it makes a massive difference for those who cannot respond.

In the traditional formulation, the default is that everyone goes to Hell unless they choose to believe in and follow Jesus. The alternative formulation reverses this:

Because Jesus has paid the price for our sins, everyone goes to Heaven unless they choose to reject God and the salvation He offers.

In practice, this understanding of salvation makes very little difference to most of the things we do, the way we do them, or our motivation for doing them. Most people choose to reject God and go their own way. It is still our duty to reach out to these people and invite them to come back to God.

The Buddhist, Hindu or Moslem will not go to Hell because of their religion, but because they reject God - because they reject the light they have received. Most people turn away from God, either to atheism or to (sometimes fervent but always empty) religious ritual. I believe that very occasionally, someone who has not been told about Jesus and the way of salvation may sincerely desire to serve and follow God. I believe such people will get to Heaven. But this is speculation: the Bible is silent on this subject. What we can be sure is that the vast majority will perish unless we show them the way. The responsibility to reach those who have not heard still rests on our shoulders.

But to answer the original question - what happens to babies when they die? - I believe the answer is very clear: they go to Heaven. Not because they believe, not because they have been baptised, not because they are innocent, and not because everyone goes there; but because God loves them, and Jesus died for them, and because they have not chosen to reject His life and His love.

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Copyright © 1999 Paul Hazelden
 
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