It is very sad on a human level. But what is the answer biblically? Is there hope?
When children have saving faith, the issue of where they go after they die disappears. They go to heaven.
Instead, we are talking about infants and older children whose saving faith is unclear or nonexistent. What will happen to them?
Here’s the biblical evidence.
What the Bible Says
Let’s take the verses one by one, beginning in the Old Testament.
1.. In Deut. 1:39, Moses says that little children who do not know good from bad will enter the promised land. The one truth (among others) we can take from that verse is that even if children are born with original sin, they still are not held accountable for good or bad, because they are not old enough to distinguish between the two. God will not judge them unfavorably after they die. Let’s build on this thought.
2.. Deut. 24:16 says that in punishment in law courts, children are not to be put to death for their fathers’ sins (see 2 Chron. 25:4). Each one bears his own guilt of his crime. If it is possible to transfer this justice on earth to a heavenly courtroom (and I believe it is), then innocent children—innocent of doing good or evil (see Deut. 1:39)—will not be judged by the same standards as adults will be judged. Therefore, it is reasonable to infer that deceased younger children and infants are in heaven right now, with Jesus, because he judged them favorably as innocent of doing evil and even of doing good with full knowledge of what goodness and evil are.
3.. Deut. 31:13 teaches that children don’t know the law of Moses. Therefore, in light of Deut. 1:39, we can infer that they will not be held accountable for knowing the law when they die. In support of this principle, Rom. 3:20 says that we become conscious of sin through the law, and Rom. 4:15 says that where there is no law, there is no transgression. If infants do not or cannot know the law, then it is not held against them. So from these texts in this point and the previous two, we can believe in an age of accountability, and children who die before that age will not be judged by the righteous law. Mercy will prevail.
4.. 2 Sam.12:17 teaches that when David’s first child by Bathsheba died as an infant, he said the child will not return, but David will go to him, when he dies too, after he lived his full life. Wherever Old Testament believers went after they died, and David believed he would have a blissful afterlife (Ps. 16:9-10); he would be with his child. So it reasonable to infer that both David and his child will enjoy a blissful afterlife.
5.. Is. 7:15-16 says that children don’t know enough to accept the right and reject the wrong. So the inference is that they will not be judged by moral law and the law of Moses, for these children do not have the full capacity to understand them. It is even possible to say that they cannot even know them fully. Therefore, God will show them mercy at judgment, which differs from the judgment imposed on adults who reject moral law and the law of Moses.
6.. Jer. 4:24 calls children “senseless” in the context of good and evil. As we saw with Deut. 1:39 and 31:13, we can draw the conclusion that they will not be held accountable for their ignorance by the law’s standards at the final judgment as adults will. Children will not be closed off from the presence of Jesus.
7.. Ezek. 16:21 says that the people of Jerusalem slaughtered “my children” and sacrificed them to idols. God so identified with these poor children that he said they were his while they were being killed. Surely this identification gets carried forward into the afterlife. It is easy to see how this applies to aborted and miscarried babies inside the womb, as the aborted ones die for the idols of convenience and sex-selection.
8.. Ezek. 18:1-13 teaches that God will no longer hate the children of fathers and the children of these children, as the law of Moses commands (Exod. 20:4). So now offspring and parents have to take hold of the law for themselves and walk righteously. And as we have seen above, younger children and infants do not know how to take hold of it and walk righteously in the adult sense of the term; therefore, their final judgment will be different from that of adults.
9.. In Matt. 18:2-5 // Mark 9:33-37 // Luke 9:46-48, Jesus teaches that the kingdom of God also belongs to children, and it is reasonable to infer that the eternal kingdom belongs to them, too.
2 He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. 3 And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. (Matt. 18:2-5, NIV)
We have to change and become like little children in order to enter the kingdom of God. Therefore heaven belongs to them since they are models of entrance into the kingdom.
10.. Matt. 18:10 says, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven” (NIV). This verse supports the idea that children have such a high status before God that they have guardian angels, a common belief in Judaism at the time. It’s impossible to believe that God would withdraw his love and watchful care after one of these little ones were to die.
(Some interpreters say that the “little ones” refer to weak disciples because the phrase “little ones” appears in other passages as seeming to mean “weak disciples” [Matt. 10:42; Mark 9:42]. However, that interpretation depends on the widespread belief among scholars that whenever and wherever a phrase or even a statement by Jesus may appear, it can only mean one thing, in this case “weak disciples.” In truth, in my own study Jesus had more flexibility than the modern scholars grant him. And in my opinion, the little ones in Matt. 18:10 means children. The context decides. But if one is inclined to still interpret it as “weak disciples,” then consider all the other verses in this section)
11.. Rom. 1:20 teaches that God’s creation reveals two of God’s attributes, which can be understood by people, so they are without excuse. Paul is writing to adult Romans who can understand his epistle. Infants and younger children cannot understand creation (or his epistle) in an adult way, so the reasonable implication is that they do have an excuse (cf. Deut. 1:39, above).
12.. 2 Cor. 5:10 says we are judged by our works done in the body. Paul is talking to adult Corinthians who can understand his letters. Everyone will be judged by the works done in their bodies. How much less will infants and small children who do not and cannot commit such bad deeds as adults do in their body not be judged negatively. But what about the belief in imputed sin, even to children? Even if one insists on imputed original sin, then the above verses in this list indicates that different criteria of judgment are applied to children (see no. 2 in the Objections and Replies section, below).
One summary comment: For adults, their acceptance or rejection of the Lordship of Christ or their faith in him or their unbelief is the main criterion for heaven or hell. But the whole point of this post is to provide biblical evidence for children and infants whose saving faith is clear enough to reassure their parents that their child is in heaven. God judges them on different criteria. They are therefore in heaven.
Why the Bible Says What It Says
Let’s draw some conclusions from all the biblical data.
The reason the Bible puts children in a separate category from that of adults is that children’s consciences are not fully developed, and they are not capable of clearly foreseeing and weighing the consequences of their actions (cf. Deut. 1:39, above). Their far-ranging moral reasoning is deficient.
In those passages in the previous section, nothing is said of original sin closing heaven’s door, predestination, adult-level saving faith, or water baptism. None of those things or the absence of some of those things closes the door to heaven.
Our moral reasoning and wisdom have led us to set up juvenile courts. I believe our moral reasoning and wisdom come, if only dimly and partly, from God and ancient, inspired texts like Deut. 31:31. Underage children are not yet capable of sorting out the complex variables that contribute to their behavior. Even if their parents were to be near-perfect in their personal lives, do both work twelve hours a day, so they benignly neglect their thirteen- or fourteen-year-old? Is that why he’s bratty?
What about dysfunctional households? Do one or both of the parents do drugs or are alcoholics? Have they abandoned their child? Is the ten-year-old being secretly abused, so he is simply acting out? The same goes for a fifteen-year old. Smaller children are even less capable of sorting things out.
Therefore, God sets children apart for their own final judgment, and, as noted, mercy will prevail, even for confused, misbehaving older children.
Four Objections and Replies
1.. Gen. 8:21 says that “every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood” (NIV). And Prov. 20:10 reads: “Even small children are known by their actions, so is their conduct really pure and upright?” (NIV). The rhetorical question must be answered no.
In reply, as noted in the previous section, no one denies that children don’t sometimes behave as downright brats (and they can be angelic too). Instead, the issue is eternity. How will God judge them after they die? We don’t know the detailed criteria of how final judgment will look like, even for adults. God may give an extra-bratty child a mild rebuke and a gentle swat (so to speak) and then welcome him into his presence. Or he may simply give him a hug and welcome him in. All will be forgiven and forgotten.
2.. Children are not born sinless, but in sin (Pss. 51:5; 58:3). Therefore, their sin nature precludes them from heaven.
In reply, this is similar to the first objection. All the verses in the first section (What the Bible Says) indicates that God accepts them because their moral knowledge and reasoning is deficient due their inability to weigh the consequences fully and adequately and due to their undeveloped consciences. There are other criteria of evaluation than just their sin nature.
3.. Heb. 9:27 says that everyone is appointed to die, and after that they face judgment. And John 14:6 teaches that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and no one comes to the Father but by him. So, infants will receive unfavorable judgment, for salvation is too late for them because they never knew Christ.
In reply, that inference is the exact opposite of what those verses teach. John 14:6 is not talking about final judgment; rather, in Jewish culture, people came to God through the law of Moses. Now they come to God through Christ, a much better way (John 1:16-18) Further, 14:6 is a repetition of a theme in John. “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. I am in the Father, and the Father is in me” (14:9-10). Jesus “can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son does also” (John 5:19). “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). The same theme is expressed in different words in 14:6.
However, let’s say that 14:6 is about final judgment. Infants are being judged favorably through Christ. They are being judged by different standards than adults. Salvation always and only comes through Christ. Infants and younger children are coming to the Father through him.
4.. The children of believers are more likely to enter heaven because God favors families and households who surrender to Christ, and God offers them a greater chance for their children to get saved (Gen. 7:1 and Heb. 11:7; Josh. 2:18; Ps. 103:17; John 4:53; Acts 2:39; 11:14; 16:31; 18:8; 1 Cor. 1:16; 7:14; Tit. 1:6). Fair enough. However, children of unbelievers are at risk. The best we can say about them is that we don’t know what will happen to them after they die.
In reply, all the verses in the major section titled What the Bible Says offer information about what happens to any child who is not old enough to understand the law of Moses or moral law (apart from the law of Moses). Infants and children are being judged by a different standard, and God’s “default setting” is love and mercy and salvation. So we can conclude that children of unbelieving parents are with Jesus as well, for he judged them favorably, because of their incapacity to fully know good or evil in an adult way or do good or evil in an adult way. If they died when their parents were unbelievers, then they are in heaven.
The Age of Accountability
In light of all of the preceding, we are better equipped to discuss the age of accountability.
Recall that Deut. 31:13 says children don’t know the law. It is not clear when a child reaches the age of accountability or the age of belief, that is, when he is capable of understanding enough to believe in Christ as adults do and to develop a full conscience and the capacity to clearly foresee and weigh the consequences.
Surely based on Deut. 31:13, today various Jewish communities celebrate the bar-mitzvah and bat-mitzvah for children at around twelve or thirteen, at the onset of puberty, and various Christian churches graduate students from catechism around the same age. (In biblical times, life expectancy was shorter than today, so the age of accountability may have been young because children had to grow up fast.) But let’s not see this age as set in concrete and definitive. God surely has a different standard that suit each individual child. He can read every fiber of their souls and make assessments that we cannot. I am not able to precisely draw the line at this or that age, and neither are you. Let’s leave it all in the hands of God.
Therefore, if your child seems to have passed the (human-decided) age of accountability, but did not appear to have saving faith, then let’s trust that God will have mercy on him. God is very keen to show even older children mercy because his “default setting” is love and salvation (John 3:16; Rom. 5:5). God wants to save them; he is eager to do this and looks for ways to bring them into his arms after they die.
A Brief Word to Teachers and Pastors
It is sad that some theologians teach that it is not clear what happens to some children after they die. Every teacher and pastor with a redeemed and Christ-like heart beating in his chest is (or should be) eager to find biblical evidence for God’s love for children on earth and equally in heaven. Church leaders who tell bereft parents their children’s fate is unknown need to grow in mercy. Any theologian, even a seminary president, who starts his online post with a swipe at sentimentality is showing his true colors—a cold, hard, rationalistic interpretation of Scripture. What’s wrong with some emotion in these eternal matters? (Nothing.) Why is disdainful intellectualism superior to the hopeful heart? (It’s not.)
To paraphrase a biblical verse: I desire compassion, not your theological system that excludes children from heaven (cf. Matt. 12:7).
Dear teachers in the body of Christ, look for mercy “because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment” (Jas. 2:13).
So how does this post help me grow closer to Jesus?
You can have comfort after your child died.
If he died while you were a believer, he is in heaven.
If he died while you were an unbeliever, he is in heaven.
If you aborted your child, he is in heaven. And he forgives you. See my post Spiritual Sonograms: God Loves You and Your Baby
If your child miscarried, he is in heaven.
Now let’s look at the eternal picture.
You did not lose your child, because you lose something only when you do not know where it is, like your keys. But you now know where your child is. He is with the Lord. He simply stepped out of his earth suit and put on his heavenly one. Therefore, he is not lost. He is just temporarily absent from your eyes, but not from your spirit and memory. While living on earth, he was never absent from the Lord’s eyes or heart, and now he is with him face to face. Now he is in the Father’s presence, and when it is your turn to depart, you will see him again, and the reunion will be wonderful. Your child will tell you, “Welcome home! I love it here!” And so will you.
Finally and most importantly, please be ready also to meet your loving Father. Don’t get bitter at him. Just the opposite. Lean in to him. He is now your only comfort, your only hope. Put saving faith in him by grace and through Jesus Christ. You do that by asking God to fill your heart by his Spirit in order to be born again, and you profess that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead. Simply ask him out loud in faith. He will save you, and then you can reunite with your child in heaven when it is your time to go.