As a theologian with a bent for philosophy and apologetics, I do not merely possess theological views, but rather, I strive for systematic theology. That means that my Christian worldview is not only logically coherent on its own, but I also endeavor to make logical sense of all the relevant data in all fields — from what the Bible says, to what science says, to what the historical evidence says, and so forth. In fact, Christianity is the only worldview that makes sense of all data and it seems to be the inference to the best explanation. That is just a fancy way of saying that Christianity is a “Reasonable Faith!”
Years ago I began a mission to put all of the puzzle pieces together and see what eventually was revealed as ultimate reality. Do I have the puzzle entirely completed? No, not yet, but enough of it has been finished that I can see glimpses of the completed picture. It has revealed Christian theism to be true and God is ultimate reality!
With that said, there are a few peripheral pieces of the puzzle that seem to be missing. It drives me crazy when I am nearly completed with a puzzle and I cannot find one or two pieces. As far as the puzzle of Christianity goes, there has been one puzzle piece that has bothered me for a while. I thought I had the right piece in place for a long time, but I realized it did not quite fit and I was forcing it into a place it did not belong (so-to-speak). So, now I am looking for this missing piece of the puzzle. This puzzle piece answers the following question: What happens to the pre-born, infants, toddlers, and the mentally handicapped when they die?
I have attempted to force several pieces into this spot and other theologians have offered to help complete this puzzle picture for me too. Consider our failed attempts:
Piece 1: All infants who die go to heaven.
Some argue that since God is perfectly good, that all babies who die will go to heaven. They offer Bible verses such as 2 Sam 12:15-23 (David knew he would see his son in the afterlife) and Luke 18:15-16 (“Let the little children come to me”), as support for this view. I think it is a stretch to conclude from these scriptures that all babies who die go to heaven.
Those supporting this popular view say that since these little ones are not even responsible for any of their thoughts or actions, then they would not be eternally punished by a good God for any moral sins. I agree that they should not be punished, but the problem is this: If that is the case, then wouldn’t it be good for God to keep all humans in a mental state in which they could not make free and informed decisions to morally sin here on earth? If God did that, then He could have his desire of universal salvation (1 Tim 2:4; 2 Pet 3:9)!
Moreover, these infants would be forced into a state of affairs against their will (or lack of will). That is to say, they had no choice in the matter. If that is the case, it seems that these little ones would never be able to say “yes” to God’s eternal marriage proposal. It seems they are missing out on a vital piece of maximal love.
Paul stated in 2 Corinthians 4:17, a world full of suffering is actually good for humans as it “prepares us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” Thus, the babies who died, say in the first trimester in the womb, did not experience much (if any?) affliction to prepare them for eternal heaven.
Finally, this view of universal infant salvation is incompatible with another commonly held Christian belief of once-saved-always-saved unless one also affirmed universal salvation for all people. Consider the words of my fellow Reasonable Faith chapter director, Jon Cantey: “Each individual would go from the saved state (as a child) to the default unsaved state (as an adult), before freely choosing to accept salvation.”
Although this has been the view I have held for decades, I now find this hypothesis untenable, and thus, I reluctantly reject it.
Piece 2: All infants who die go to hell.
Here is a quick summary on how this position became enunciated:
The strict Roman Catholic dogma, first clearly enunciated by St. Augustin, though with reluctant heart and in the mildest form, assigns all unbaptized infants to hell on the round of Adam’s sin and the absolute necessity of baptism for salvation. A dogma horrible, but falsum. Christ, who is the truth, blessed unbaptized infants, and declared: “To such belongs again kingdom of heaven.”
The Augsburg Confession (Art. IX.) still teaches against the Anabaptists: quod baptismus sit necessarius ad salutem,” but the leading Lutheran divines reduce the absolute necessity of baptism to a relative or ordinary necessity; and the Reformed churches, under the influence of Calvin’s teaching went further by making salvation depend upon divine election, not upon the sacrament, and now generally hold to the salvation of all infants dying in infancy. The Second Scotch Confession (A.D.1580) was the first to declare its abhorrence of “the cruel [popish] judgment against infants departing without the sacrament,” and the doctrine of “the absolute necessity of baptism.”
A minority today do hold the view that all (unbaptized) babies who die go to hell. This is absurd! Why would God send anyone to suffer the eternal holocaust of hell for a choice they could not make — a choice they were not even aware of? A good God would not send anyone to suffer into the infinite future for a choice they were powerless to make.
I reject this hypothesis!
Piece 3: Babies are not persons.
Now, based on biology, we know that at the moment of conception we have a complete, unique, living human being in the mother’s womb. Consider the following:
Complete. From the moment of fertilization the pre-born child is complete. All the information that needs to be there is there. It simply needs time to grow.
Unique. The scientific evidence of DNA proves that the pre-born child is unique and genetically distinct from his or her mother. The pre-born child is not a part of the mother (like an appendix), but a unique entity inside his or her mother.
Living. The laws of biology tell us that the pre-born child is alive because it is growing, developing, and undergoing metabolism and responding to stimuli.
Human. The scientific law of biogenesis states that living things reproduce after their own kind. So, dogs beget dogs, cats beget cats, goldfish beget goldfish and humans beget humans. Not parasites or blobs of cells, but humans—complete and unique living human beings.
Therefore, it is clear that a human exists; however, the question is raised: is this human a person with a soul in the image of God or not?
I personally find the view that a baby is not a person to be untenable. I have argued extensively for substance dualism which is the view that a person is an immaterial soul in the image of God who has a body. This soul/person can exist apart from the body too.
As a substance dualist, there are several views to consider as to how the soul becomes integrated with the physical body. I am persuaded that the soul is passed along from the parents just as physical DNA is. This is a view known as “traducianism.” Thus, if I am right, then the soul begins to exist at the moment of conception.
Ultimately, if we are not sure if something is a person or not, it is better to be safe than sorry and treat anything that might be a person as a person! Moreover, if a farmer was pitching hay bales and he thought there was a chance — even a one percent chance — that a kid was hiding in a pile of hay straw, then the farmer should NOT jab the hay straw with his pitchfork. Just as the farmer ought to assume that a person might be in the pile of hay, we ought to assume that the human baby is a person.
Therefore, for these reasons, I reject this hypothesis.
Piece 4: Depends on if the baby was one of the elect or not.
This hypothesis was offered to me by a “hyper-Calvinist.” I have written extensively as to why this brand of Calvinism is logically incoherent (here, here, and here). Be that as it may, consider the words of John Calvin:
“…individuals are born, who are doomed from the womb to certain death, and are to glorify him by their destruction.” (John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, Book 3, Chapter 23, Paragraph 6)
So, if Calvin believed that certain humans are “doomed from the womb,” then it follows that some babies who die in the womb or after birth are doomed to hell. Ultimately, this view runs into the same problems as “puzzle piece 2.” A good God would not send anyone to suffer the eternal holocaust of hell for a choice they were powerless to make. Thank God that Calvin was wrong and this view of Calvinism is false! God does not need babies burning in the eternal fires of hell to receive glory. The Cross was enough!
Thus, I reject this hypothesis.
Piece 5: Eternal limbo.
One theologian personally offered me the view that infants who die do not go to hell, but they do not go to heaven either. By God’s grace, he said, perhaps they go to a state of “limbo” where they exist in an eternal “baby state” and they are happy babies into the infinite future.
This eternal nursery seems quite bizarre. I understand doctrines being begotten from other doctrines, such as due to God’s grace, He will give them the chance to gain epistemic access to the Gospel/Incarnation, but this strange solution is against the character of God. Think about it, God is keeping creatures from becoming rational agents that could not even have the knowledge that they are loved by God. Weird!
Thus, I reject this hypothesis.
Piece 6: God knows who would have chosen and rejected Him if given the opportunity.
Of all the puzzle pieces I have tried out so far, this one seems like it might fit; however, I still feel as if it is not a perfect fit. Here is why:
With 2 Corinthians 4:17 in mind, I have argued that this world filled with evil, pain, suffering, and affliction prepares us for eternity in heaven (click here). However, if this hypothesis is correct, then this would be a defeater to my thought experiment I offered and possibly a defeater to the Apostle Paul’s view as well.
Moreover, if our eternal destiny can be judged based upon what God knew each one of us would do given a fair chance, then why does God not just forgo our current affliction-filled world and send each person directly to heaven or hell in the first place? In fact, there would be no need to even create those who would freely choose to be damned and those who would have freely chosen God could avoid all of the pain and suffering that comes along with our current state of affairs.
Steve Williams offered this caveat:
“… there are other things going on in this “passion play,” including learning to persevere in faith (not sight) through pain and suffering. Just speculating, but maybe the infants who went to Heaven early were of the inclination that they didn’t have certain character issues to work out. Of course we’re saved by faith, not works, but maybe some of us need more time to struggle with sanctification.”
If this is the case, then perhaps God, given His middle knowledge, has so orchestrated the world in such a manner that the infants who die happen to be like the two thirds of the angels who did not fall. Unlike you and I, they did not need to experience “light momentary afflictions” to “prepare them for eternity.” If push comes to shove, I think I could live with this option. However, this is like one of those puzzle pieces that seems like it fits, but it just does not snap into place like the rest of the puzzle pieces.
I do not reject this hypothesis, but I am still looking for a better one.
So what do we do?
Many times when scientists are trying to make sense of the physical universe, they postulate ideas or the existence of other things that they do not have direct access to, in order to make sense of everything they do have access to. Sometimes these postulations are confirmed in the future, and sometimes they are not (at least not yet). Sometimes these postulations are either falsified or come to be dismissed for other reasons. Examples are postulating things like the multiverse, dark matter, the “God particle,” a static block universe where temporal becoming is an illusion, the aether, and even evolution from a single-celled common ancestor.
With that in mind, since the Bible is not clear as to what happens to infants when they die, I am going to make a speculative theological move and postulate an extra-biblical idea that is not anti-biblical. To be clear, I am uncomfortable with speculative theology and I think we should only resort to this maneuver if all other options seem to have been exhausted. At this point, I see no other option if we are going to have a logically consistent systematic theology. That is to say, the Bible reveals that God is perfectly just, righteous, loving, and good. With that in mind, how do we make sense of the fact that we know many babies die (over 50 million have been legally murdered in America just in my lifetime).
Since I am convinced that the objective purpose of human existence is to love God (Matthew 22:36-38), and that true and maximal love requires the ability to make a free and informed decision, and a true love relationship (marriage) with God *is* heaven, then, since the Bible is not clear on the issue, I postulate the following:
It could be the case that not all babies who die *will* necessarily go to heaven. However, it could be that all babies who die will get to eventually make a free choice if they want to be with God for eternity or not. This might be similar to the “limbo view” offered above, except the baby gets to be in a state of affairs where they get to learn and eventually make a free and informed decision if they want to love God in return. At the time of this free and informed decision, the baby would no longer be a baby, but rather, a “spiritual” adult who is genuinely responsible and accountable for his or her decision. Thus, the baby does does not experience *irresistible* grace, but does receive AMAZING grace to eventually make a free and informed decision (perhaps at an epistemic “arm’s length” as William Lane Craig described the angelic state of affairs) to love God for eternity or not.
I recently discussed this hypothesis with Dr. Kirk MacGregor while attending the Evangelical Philosophy Society in San Antonio. MacGregor found my case compelling and offered his thoughts:
It could be that, at Jesus’ second coming, all children who previously died without the opportunity to embrace Jesus are resurrected from the dead as children. During the Millennium, they would grow up and thus gain the opportunity to accept or reject Jesus as their Lord. If they accept Jesus, they will proceed into the new heaven-earth. If they reject Jesus, they will be consigned to hell at the Great White Throne judgment.
Two lines of evidence converge to make this, in my mind, probable. First, we know that there will be no marriage, and thus no sexual reproduction, after the general resurrection of believers that occurs at Christ’s second coming (if you believe in the rapture, then before the second coming). Second, the Old Testament descriptions of what I take to be the Millennium feature children. For instance, Isaiah 65:20 reports: “Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days.” Isaiah 11:8 further states: “The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.”
So my question is, where do these children come from? They can’t come from sexual reproduction. Thus I speculate (and I stress speculate) that these children are the children who perish without salvific opportunity during the present age.
In the end, I believe that no one goes to heaven or hell by accident and that all people get exactly what they want for all eternity: a true love marriage into the infinite future with their creator — or an eternal divorce from Him. To those who have lost a little one, I am confident that God will grant your son or daughter every opportunity to know and love Him as they would have received growing up in your home — if not more! We can take comfort because of God’s goodness and His amazing grace.
I admit that this is purely speculative and that this hypothesis could be wrong. With that said, I am willing to be wrong here, and will continue to test this postulation via debate with other theologians and philosophers. If I find reason to reject this view and change my mind, I will gladly do so and write an article explaining exactly why.
In the meantime…
Stay reasonable (Isaiah 1:18),
A special thanks to Shannon Eugene Byrd for doing some research on this topic and some of the possible views for me. Shannon also contributed some text to this article. I appreciate you, brother!
Philip Schaff and David Schley Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. 2 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910), 255.
 It is interesting to note that if this is a possibility for toddlers who die unaware of the existence of God and the Gospel message, it also seems that the same speculative move could be applied to animals who seem to be in similar cognitive states as human toddlers. If this is the case, then we have a potential theodicy which can be applied when dealing with the problem of animal pain. Not only do I see this as a legitimate possibility, as an animal lover, I sure hope it is true.