26th November 2020
This is the last week where Andrew Wilson, our Teaching Pastor, will be posting the last in a series of guest posts on this page while Steve takes a short break from blogging.
Do babies go to heaven? It’s hard to think of a theological question I am asked more often. Despite the fact that infant mortality in the West is as low as it has ever been, the eternal destiny of babies remains a huge question for people in church, online, at conferences, and pretty much everywhere. It is easy to ask, difficult to answer, and for many, it has significant implications for the way we think about God, let alone our children.
The emotional urgency of the question demands a response. Few pastors or friends want to say simply, “I don’t know.” As a result, we can be drawn into prooftexting in a way which is hasty, even glib. Yes: Jesus let the little children come to him (Luke 18:15-16). No: all humans are sinners in Adam until they believe in Christ (Romans 5:12-21). Yes: David, a believer, knew that he would see his son again in the afterlife (2 Samuel 12:15-23). No, unless they have been baptised: you must be born of water and of the Spirit (John 3:5). Yes, if their parents are believers: Christian parents sanctify a child (1 Corinthians 7:14). And so on. Even if none of these passages, when read in context, actually tell us whether babies go to heaven, our desire for a solid answer forces us to find one.
A number of theologians have tried to answer the question in a broader way. The Westminster Confession affirms that some infants are elect, but does not say that all are, and gives no way of telling which ones are or are not. The Catholic Catechism allows for hope that infants may be saved without baptism but stops short of affirming that all will be (although Pope John Paul II clearly implied that unborn children would be in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae). A surprising number of leading Calvinist evangelicals, including Al Mohler and John Piper, believe that all infants will be saved, on the basis that they cannot mentally understand the nature of God, and as such are not “without excuse” like the rest of humanity. Meanwhile, most Eastern Orthodox theologians have shaken their heads in disbelief, muttering that if it wasn’t for Augustine’s wrong turn on original sin – the Eastern church have generally rejected Augustine’s view that Adam’s sin is imputed to all humans, babies included - we wouldn’t even be asking the question.
The puzzle for me, for many years, was why the Bible did not address the question. Theologically, I found the “yes” argument about mental ability and accountability very persuasive (and I still do). Personally, I never worried that, if my children died suddenly, they would go to hell (and I still don’t). Pastorally, I was happy to reassure people in my church that their infants were with Jesus (and I still am). Yet it still bothered me that, on a question with such widespread relevance and pastoral implications, Scripture was silent. I have two children with special needs, who may never reach the point where they can understand the gospel. So if the Bible is given to make us wise concerning salvation, I kept wondering, why is it so open-ended on this?
Then, a few years ago, I was on a conference panel with two friends, fielding questions from teenagers. Someone asked this question, as they usually do, and my friend took the microphone and suggested a thought-experiment. Imagine, he said, that there was a passage in Scripture that made it clear. Let’s say there was a text that affirmed, without any doubt, that all infants who died before the age of (say) five years old would be eternally saved. If that were the case, you just know that at some point, given our desperation for answers and the track record of the church, some sick cult would have emerged that practised the killing of children before they reached five. Cults have been founded on much less.
Suddenly I saw it. There are some subjects on which, for our good, Scripture is not clear. Some questions are better answered with tentativeness than certainty. Clarity can bring security, but it can also breed presumption; some guarantees can lead to joy, but in the wrong hands, they could also lead to genocide. So I’ve come to believe that it is enough to know and, when asked about such matters, to say: We can trust the character of God – the one who loves us so much that he came and gave himself for us – and be confident that his judgments are always right, his nature is always good, his mercy is always wide, and his desire for people to be saved is greater still than ours.
If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this blog and would like to talk or pray with someone, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Andrew Wilson is the Teaching Pastor at King's and is responsible for much of the preaching and teaching. Andrew has a PhD in theology, has written numerous books and regularly blogs at thinktheology.co.uk.
Steve Tibbert is taking a short break from blogging and will be back in a a couple of weeks.
Posted by Andrew Wilson
Steve Tibbert leads King’s Church London, with sites in Catford, Downham, Lee and Beckenham. The church has seen continued growth since the mid-1990s, both in terms of size and diversity.
As well as leading King’s, Steve hosts and leads Newfrontiers, a fellowship of apostolic leaders with hundreds of churches around the world.
Steve is married to Deb. They have three grown up sons and one grandson.