The bible teaches the idea of original sin. This does not refer to the first sin ever committed by man in the Garden of Eden, but rather refers to the idea that all people are born sinful by nature. From birth, there is a natural inclination of the heart to do that which is contrary to God. According to the bible, this natural disposition was inherited by Adam, the first human being.
The bible teaches that Adam represented all mankind (Romans 5:12), and so in virtue of this representation, we all were affected by his disobedience to God. Hence, the bible can say of all people that we are “by nature, children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3). King David in the Psalms expressed “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5). This biblical truth explicitly denies the idea that man is by nature, good. We are by nature sinners according to the bible. As the popular phraseology goes, “We are not sinners merely because we sin, but rather, we sin because we are sinners” (by nature).
Considering this idea that all people are born in sin, the question then arises: What happens to babies who die before they can place their faith in Christ and receive the forgiveness of their sins? This is a good question and there are a few ways to respond.
When this question is asked, there is a general answer that leans towards a form of agnosticism with respect to the question. A believer can simply say, “I don’t know where they go.” I don’t think there is anything wrong with this answer since the bible does not explicitly explain the details. However, the redeeming element of such an answer is found I think in the rhetorical question that was asked by Abraham in the book of Genesis. When emotionally struggling with the fact that God had communicated to Abraham that he was going to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, he asked rhetorically: “Will the Lord of all the earth do what is right (Genesis 18:25)?” The answer of course, is yes. God always does what is right. Hence, if we opt for the more agnostic answer to the question, we can trust that wherever babies go when they die, the Lord of all the earth will do the right and good thing with regards to them.
I don’t think that this is the only answer available to the believer. However, in seeking to provide a fuller answer to the question, we must do so in a way that is consistent with the teachings of scripture. That is to say, if we are to believe that infants for example go to heaven upon death, we must also affirm that they do not do so on their own merits or given their intrinsic innocence, since no one is intrinsically innocent as sons and daughters of Adam. If infants go to heaven, we must affirm with scripture that the only way this is possible is through the redemptive work of Christ and the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. As the scriptures declare, “There is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5). In other words, no man (Man here refers to mankind: Man, women, and children), can be saved independently of the redeeming work of Jesus. Indeed, as Jesus said, “Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).
If the redemptive work of Christ and the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit is needed in salvation, is it possible for the work of Christ to be applied to infants, such that they can also be regenerated (Born again), by the Spirit’s working? I think this is most certainly possible. There is biblical evidence of the Spirit’s work even in the unborn. The angel Gabriel stated with respect to John the Baptist, prior to his birth, “He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb” (Luke 1:15). David goes on to say, “Since my mother bore me you have been my God” (Psalm 22:10). If an unborn baby is said to have been “filled with the Holy Spirit”, one would be hard pressed to demonstrate that such a person is at the same time unredeemed.
Another interesting biblical data point is the story of David and the son born to him through Bathsheba. When David’s child dies, he says in his sorrow that “I shall go to him, but he will not return to me” (2 Samuel 12:23). This point is relevant because elsewhere in scripture, David affirms with confidence that he will dwell before the Lord “forever” (Psalm 23:6). If you couple this confidence of being with the Lord forever, with David’s affirmation that he “shall go to him”, this is a strong indicator that David believed that he would see his child again as he lives in the presence of the Lord forever.
Ultimately, salvation is of the Lord (Jonah 2:9), and not based on our works (Romans 4:5). In the special case of infants, we must trust that God will do what is right with respect to them. For now, we can take comfort in God’s goodness and mercy as expressed beautifully throughout scripture and trust him to do the right thing.