The Salvation of Infants – Part 1

By: Dr. Norman Geisler; ©2000
Do infants who die automatically go to heaven? This question has confounded believers throughout the history of the Church. Dr. Geisler explains the many views that have been held by Christians, and give the strengths and weakness of each view.


The Salvation of Infants—Part One

(From the Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker, 1999)

Many critics have impugned the justice of God because of the status of the unborn. Belief is considered a necessary condition for salvation (John 3:18-19; Acts 16:31), and yet innocent young children have not yet reached the age at which they can believe. But it seems eminently unjust to condemn innocent infants who have not yet committed a sin nor are even old enough to believe and be saved.

Christians have struggled with the issue of the eternal status of infants. Yet nowhere does the Bible directly treat the issue. Hence, we are left to arguments based on general principle and inference from Scripture.

Baptized Infants Only

This view is held by sacramentalists, who believe that baptism is necessary for salva­tion. Some Roman Catholics, some Lutherans, and Anglicans espouse the position.

Statement of the View

Ambrose set forth this position: “no one ascends into the kingdom of heaven, except by means of the sacrament of baptism. … Moreover to this there is no exception, not the infant, nor he who is unavoidably prevented.” He adds mercifully, “They have however immunity from pains” (cited by Sanders, 291). In Ambrose’s notion that babies sent into damnation would at least be immune from pain is found the beginnings of a doctrine of “limbo.”

Augustine was less charitable. Born within the fall, infants inherit real depravity, so the wrath of God abides on unbaptized babies (Augustine, 1.28, 33-35). He did allow, however, that unbaptized infants must not suffer as severely as those who lived to adulthood and committed actual sins (ibid., 1.21). The argument for this position is straightforward: Bap­tism is essential for salvation. No unbaptized person—including infants—can be saved.

Augustine’s nemesis Pelagius reacted against this harsh view on unbaptized infant damnation, saying, “where they are not, I know; where they are, I know not” (cited in Sand­ers, 292). Pelagius was certain infants were not in hell, although he was not certain where they were. Eventually he conceived of a middle place between heaven and hell later called limbo. Thomas Aquinas held Augustine’s view but softened it by claiming that unbaptized infants do not experience the pain of hell.

Other theologians have used the Catholic idea of “baptism of desire” to solve the prob­lem—that is, that some can be saved who desired baptism but were prevented from obtaining it. Since it is difficult to see how infants could desire baptism, some posited that their parents’ or the church’s desire was sufficient. This idea goes back at least to Hincmar Rheims (A.D. 860; ibid., 293). But how can the desire of someone else be effective for infants?

Critique of the View

This entire scenario depends on a sacramental theology which demands infant bap­tism as a condition for salvation. The Reformed and most Anabaptists (except those in the Campbellite theological tradition) reject this in favor of the biblical exhortation that personal faith is the only condition for salvation (John 3:16, 36; 5:24; Acts 16:31; Rom. 1:17; 4:5). After all, baptism is a “work of righteousness” (Matt. 3:15), and the Bible makes it clear that we are not saved by works of righteousness (Rom. 4:5; Eph. 2:8-9; Titus 3:5-7). Those in the Campbellite theological tradition, for example, Disciples of Christ, are sacramentalists regarding adult baptism, but they do not accept infant baptism or regard it as needed for salvation.

The sacramental view of infant salvation seems harsh and cruel, whereas the Bible reveals a God of infinite mercy and grace. Some have asked how a child innocent of any personal fault can be banned from heaven? Are not people held responsible only for their personal sins and not those of others? Did not Ezekiel write: “The soul who sins is the one who will die. The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous man will be credited to him, and the wicked­ness of the wicked will be charged against him” (Ezek. 18:20). While such passages are about personal righteousness, not inherited depravity from the fall, nonetheless, many hold that the principle seems to apply.

“Elect Infants” Only

Another view asserts that among infants only “elect” babies go to heaven. Since Prot­estants believe in only two possible destinies, this implies that all nonelect infants go to hell. Many who hold this view are agnostic about whether some or all infants are “elect.” They state the issue thus because the Bible is silent on the issue. Christians who take this view are in the covenant theology tradition.

Statement of the View

In his interaction with the Augustinian doctrine of salvation, John Calvin rejected the idea that only baptized infants are saved. He included in his soteriology a provision that elect infants go to heaven (Calvin, 4.16.17). He contended that while salvation is ordinarily obtained through hearing the Word of God, nonetheless, God is not limited to that means. Infants who are saved are not saved because they are innocent. They are radically de­praved in Adam (Rom. 5:12). Some elect die in infancy and others grow to become adults. Thus, Calvin implied that nonelect infants go to hell.

Except among the Puritans, most Reformed writers have avoided the issue of what happens to the nonelect infants and have stressed God’s ability to save infants as he elects to do so in his wisdom and mercy. The Canons of Dort reassure that “godly parents ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom it pleased God to call out of this life in their infancy” (art. 17). The Westminster Confession of 1646 affirms that “elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated and saved by Christ” (10.3). The Westminster divines had no consensus about what extent of infants might be “elect.” Some have argued that elect infants are those born to parents who are themselves inside the covenant community.

The rationale for only elect infants being saved is that since God chose the elect be­fore they were born, even before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4; cf. Rom. 8:29), it is reasonable to infer that he chose at least some infants to be saved, though perhaps not all. Ultimately, salvation does not come from the will of man (Rom. 9:16). Indeed, God has to give faith to the elect (Eph. 2:8-9; Phil. 1:29). So, it is possible that, through the blood of Christ, he can impute righteousness to elect infants who are not old enough to believe for themselves.

As for the justice of God according to this view, it is argued that God justly condemns the whole human race because of Adam’s sin (Rom. 5:12-21). We are all sinners by nature (Eph. 2:3), from the moment of conception (Ps. 51:5), who deserve eternal hell. God has no obligation to save anyone. Only by his grace and Christ’s sacrifice can he give some the righteousness necessary to stand in his presence. Christ’s death was sufficient to atone for all human beings, although it efficiently applies only to those the Holy Spirit draws to him. Among these, God is at least able and is surely willing to include infants. But just as with adults, only those who are justified can go to heaven.

Critique of the View

The elect infant view has not found a home outside of very strong Calvinistic circles. It denies universally accessible salvation. The Bible affirms that Christ did not just die for the elect but for all. And salvation is not offered only to the elect; it is offered to all. The Bible clearly affirms that Christ died for all, not just for some. John wrote that Christ “is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for [the sins of] the whole world” (1 John 2:2). In the same context he adds that “world” means the entire unbelieving, fallen world (vss. 15-17). Peter spoke of the apostate as being “bought” by Christ’s blood (2 Peter 2:1). But if salvation is for all, then why limit its availability only to elect infants?

These passages must be taken in light of Scripture at large so as not to advance universal salvation. For adults at least, Christ’s atonement saves only those who accept him as Savior and Lord.

The Bible states that God desires to save everyone. Peter wrote: God “is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). Paul speaks of God “who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4). But if God really desires all to be saved, and it is possible to save some infants apart from their personal faith, then why does he not elect all of them to salvation? In other words, if there can be universal salvation for the children of the elect apart from their per­sonal faith, then why not a universal salvation for the children of nonelect parents?

It is of no comfort to know that elect infants are saved. Limiting salvation to only infants of believing parents, as some do, would offer no hope for the heathen. This problem is especially acute in view of the fact that the heathen have not heard the Gospel. It is reas­suring to believe that God could still be calling out a people for his sake from every tribe, kindred and nation” (Rev. 7:9), from among infants in nations that have not heard the Gospel.

The elect-infant-only view entails a very severe concept of God’s justice. While all orthodox theologians accept that humans are born in sin, not all see this as sufficient grounds for excluding God’s mercy from anyone. That is, while there is nothing in fallen humans that merits salvation, there is something in an all-loving God that prompts him to try to save all, namely, his infinite love (John 3:16; Rom. 5:6-8; 1 Tim. 2:4).

This view fails to distinguish between an inherited sin nature (on which all orthodox Christians agree) and a personal rebellion against God which only those old enough to sin can do consciously (John 9:41). That is, the natural bent toward sin is one thing but per­sonal rebellion against God is another. Since infants have not exercised the latter, they are not in the same category as rebellious adults.

Admittedly, it is difficult to reconcile the infant election view with the seemingly universal demand that one believe in order to be saved (John 3:36; Acts 16:31; Rom. 10:17). Yet there seems to be no way a tiny infant can express conscious explicit faith in God. So-called implicit faith will sooner or later have to become explicit and conscious in heaven— otherwise they would be in eternal limbo. Further, the verses that seem to say faith is a gift of God are rejected as support of this view on two grounds. First, none of them clearly teach that faith is a gift which God gives only to some. For example, in Ephesians 2:8-9 it is not faith that is the gift but salvation. For the “it” in the phrase “It is the gift of God” is neuter in form as opposed to “faith” which is feminine. Further, it would contradict the rest of Scrip­ture to say faith is a gift given only to some, since the Bible everywhere calls on people to believe (Rom. 10:13-14) and condemns them for not believing (John 3:18-19). This presumes they have the ability to believe.

(to be continued)


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