The nature of salvation is quite clear in Scripture, yet the eternal rest in Heaven given to those whom Christ saves can sometimes be an issue packed with tricky nuances. One frequent question asked by new believers, and sometimes skeptics, is whether or not babies who die before reaching an "age of accountability" for sin automatically are welcomed into Heaven. Let's address a few points from Scripture to get some clarity on this delicate issue.
We are born into sin
To start with, let's address the very need for salvation in the first place. Apart from salvation by God's grace, we are truly dead in sin, Ephesians 2:1 says. The Bible doesn't give any indication that we are born pure and become sinners later on in life. Psalm 51:5 describes literally being conceived in sin and iniquity. In fact, the very reality of infant death, and death itself, is a direct result of The Fall and the permeation of sin throughout humanity.
Got Questions, an online apologetics ministry, explains that "even if an infant or child has not committed personal sin, all people, including infants and children, are guilty before God because of inherited and imputed sin. Inherited sin is that which is passed on from our parents.
One soteriological viewpoint asserts that all people will be saved, including children of any age. Universalism teaches that no one will suffer eternal condemnation and that God’s saving grace effectually extends to all of humanity. However, as Crosswalk's Sam Storms notes, countless areas in Scripture disprove this stance, among them Matthew 7:13-14, 21-23; 8:11-12; 10:28; 13:37-42; Luke 16:23-28; 2 Thessalonians 1:9; Jude 6; Revelation 14:10-11; 20:11-15.
Not to be confused with Protestant paedobaptism, the Roman Catholic catechism teaches that baptism of an infant (or adult) "purifies from all sins, but also makes the neophyte ‘a new creature,’ an adopted son of God, who has become a ‘partaker of the divine nature,’ member of Christ and co-heir with him, and a temple of the Holy Spirit” (Catechism, 1265).
However, even the teachings of the Catholic Church acknowledge that children are born with a fallen human nature and are tainted by "original sin" and must be baptized shortly after birth "to be freed from the power of darkness and brought into the realm of the freedom of the children of God..."
As for young children who die without being baptized, “the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus’ tenderness toward children which caused him to say: ‘Let the children come to me, do not hinder them,’ allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism” (Catechism, 1261).
Some look to Scripture (such as 2 Corinthians 5:10; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; Revelation 20:11-12) and find that people are judged on the basis of sins voluntary and consciously committed. In other words, as Sam Storms explains, "eternal judgment is always based on conscious rejection of divine revelation (whether in creation, conscience, or Christ) and willful disobedience."
Are infants capable of conscious rejection or willful disobedience to God? It can be argued that those who die in infancy are automatically saved because they do not and cannot incur divine judgment on these terms.
Can we really know?
Ultimately, none of us have the capacity to determine with dogmatic certainty which particular individuals God welcomes into His kingdom in life or death. "Although it is possible that God applies Christ’s payment for sin to those who cannot believe," Got Questions concludes, "the Bible does not specifically say that He does this."
While applying Christ’s death to those who cannot believe (babies, as well as mentally handicapped people) would seem consistent with God's love and mercy. It makes sense that since these individuals are not mentally capable of understanding their sinful state and need of the Savior, but again we cannot state this with authority as though Scripture teaches it plainly.
We can, however, rest in what the Bible does clearly teach: the Judge of all the earth will do right. He is gracious, loving, and holy, and the fullness of the earth and all its inhabitants are under His sovereign rule. And, as for our children, His capacity to love them is far greater than our own.