What Happens To Infants When They Die?
This past Sunday in our weekly gathering, we considered the diagnosis of Ephesians 2:1-3. Apart from Christ, all mankind is spiritually dead, enslaved to passions and desires of the flesh, and "by nature children of wrath." One of the common questions that rises out of this understanding of man's innate and devastating depravity is how this doctrine applies to infants (and those with certain developmental disabilities). In particular, does this mean that infants who die are condemned? What happens to infants when they die?
This question is difficult enough when writing a seminary paper, how much more when attempting to respond to the devastated cry of the mother or father searching for hope as their world unravels? Such questions aren't merely neat and abstract and academic, but real and sensitive and difficult. What in the world do you say as life, dreams, and plans seem to crumble all around the person sitting in front of you?
The question hits you like a ton of bricks. What assurances can you give, should you give, and will you give in this moment when grief and despair are palpable?
What has happened to MY baby?
Granted, sometimes the best answer is no answer at all. Sometimes wisdom beckons to simply listen, weep, and pray. But what if the question lingers through the night? As the hours turn to days and weeks to months, when the initial mourning has settled, if only a little—what shall we say then when the same question is asked?
Some are convinced that silence is the only proper response to such gravity—afraid of speaking out of turn or saying something that does more harm than good. But this gravity should cause us to be cautious and careful, not forever fearful. As there is a time for silence, so there is another for speech (Ecc 3:7). If we really believe that God’s Word is good and sufficient, at some point we must counsel and comfort from it and trust the Spirit to minister through it. It is certainly right and good to remain silent in sympathetic sorrow for an indefinite season, but not for an infinite one. We have to say something at some time and surely there are things that we can say.
Most have never lost a child, never bent nor broken under the weight of consuming sorrow or felt the absolute upheaval of our world. We have seen wind and rain, but never the tempest of this tribulation, and thus have no experiences to allow us to truly empathize. We have nothing but the Scriptures and the Spirit, and at least one of them seems pretty silent.
We clumsily fiddle about with the Scriptures, grasping for shadows that leave us a bit unsatisfied. And so we improvise and begin to search frantically for any text to apply. We read texts like 2 Samuel 12:23 and Matthew 19:13-15, but neither are really relevant or explicit. We tread water in hopes that anything at all will keep us afloat, but such texts are ultimately unconvincing. Such passages reveal answers to questions, but not the one originally posed.
So, some appeal to an age of accountability or imagine that children are not inherently guilty, but such appeals are forced to ignore a wealth of biblical evidence. Ephesians 2 says that we are "by nature children of wrath" and Romans 5 speaks of inheriting disobedience, condemnation and death. We read that folly is bound up in the heart of a child (Proverbs 22:15) and that even David claims that he was born into sin and iniquity (Psalm 51:5). If children are saved, it must be only because God is gracious, not because they are good.
If children have any hope of salvation, such simple answers simply don't help. Though well-meaning and good intentioned, how much comfort can opinion and assumption actually offer? What good is a shelter in the storm when that shelter is founded on sand? When we are parched, we need an oasis, not a mirage, so platitudes and clichés simply cannot suffice. In these moments, we need to know what is true—for only truth is anchored to stone.
Looking for comfort, we are instead confronted by a haunting silence. And in the echoes of this deep quiet, we realize that some things, even some undoubtedly important and meaningful things, are not revealed for now. God has not overlooked our pain, but neither has He answered our question. For some good and wise reason (and oh how we must fight to believe that it is good and wise) our Father has chosen to not answer this particular question—at least not explicitly.
The truth is, we don’t really know what happens to infants who die. Some say all are saved, some say none are saved, some say some are saved. I guess that about covers it. Though the spectrum of evangelical answers is comprehensive, it is perhaps anything but heartening.
We have opinions, perhaps even strong ones, but at the end of the day we cannot stand upon the authority of God’s Word and declare, “thus says the Lord.” Why not? Why hasn't God answered our plea for answers in the midst of such sorrow? Again, Scripture is quiet. Perhaps to force us to rest only in what we do know of Him. Perhaps because the sinful heart would twist the truth to somehow make the death of infants virtuous rather than something to lament and mourn. Regardless, such silence can be deafening unless we have ears to hear what Scripture screams.
Saying Something More
Along with myself, most of the pastor-theologians I trust believe that infants who die are saved. God certainly can save them, for He is sovereign. After all, the example of John the Baptist leaping in the womb serves as a potential depiction of the possibility of even an unborn child having experienced regeneration. But I think that, not only can He save infants who die, but that He does. I do not think so because the Bible is explicitly clear on this or because a passage or two definitely leads in this direction, but rather because of what is explicitly clear and central from Genesis to Revelation. I do not know that all infants who die are saved, but I think so because of what I do know. What we do know of the nature and character of God is a far stronger sanctuary than a couple of ambiguous texts here and there.
Perhaps no storms of life rage as strongly as the loss of a child. And yet, even in this despair, there are words of hope. Even in the howling winds we hear the whispered reminders of One who stills storms and shelters the broken and contrite.
Right now, your world is deluged. Tormented by torrents of tears, you struggle to find some tether to hope, some stars to guide you safely to presently unseen shorelines of grace.
And though the sky is darkened and light seems scarce, you have a compass. That compass is the word of God. Like any compass, it doesn’t have turn-by-turn directions, but it does faithfully and truly orient us towards home.
Despair festers in forgetfulness, but hope flourishes in remembering. Our compass reminds us of the beauty and glory of our home—a great Kingdom ruled by a kind King.
What shall we say of this King?
Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. Revelation 21:3–4
This King will surely do what is just (Genesis 18:25). This King is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness (Exodus 34:6-7). This King is good and always and only does good (Psalm 119:68). And this King has suffered and sympathizes with your sorrows (Hebrews 2:18; 4:16).
The King is good and His kingdom is one of life, joy, and peace. It is a kingdom which has begun and will surely be consummated when He returns. There is coming a day free from death, despair, sickness, sorrow, and sin. A day when all that is wrong will surely and truly be made right. Soon and very soon it is coming. It might be hard to find an anchor right now, but truth is a lighthouse beckoning to life. God is good and loving. Here is hope revealed—for truth itself is never trite.
Will the rains immediately cease and the floods recede the moment you hear the familiar refrains of this sweet song? No, they probably won’t. But there’s always tomorrow; so, today you sing the song again. And as you do, though the trying tides still ebb and flow, day by day and little by little, the waters slowly retreat, even if the questions linger.
For more good counsel on this question, I would highly recommend reading the following helpful resources from wise pastor-theologians:
What Happens to Infants Who Die? by John Piper
Are Those Who Die in Infancy Saved? by Sam Storms