Having addressed many of the problems with Harwoodâ€™s view of the spiritual condition of infants, I will now present my own view, starting with a disclaimer.
Any view of the spiritual condition of infants must be held somewhat tentatively. The Bible offers no direct teaching on this subject. What biblical support we find is often tangential (Romans 5:12-21) or obscure (Deuteronomy 1:39). Several passages are relevant for the inconclusive yet tantalizing bits they offer (Psalm 22:9, 51:5; Luke 1:15) and others are likely unrelated, despite frequent use in these discussions (2 Samuel 12:23).
It is almost inevitable that views on the spiritual condition of infants will fall into one of three categories: (1) Engage in some degree of speculation, basing conclusions on assumptions and hypotheses rather than Scripture; (2) Presenting infants as basically good, removing the need for salvation; or (3) a position of neutrality, restraining from teaching what the Bible has not clearly revealed. This last position was held by early Anabaptist Balthasar Hubmaier who said, â€śI confess here publicly my ignorance. I am not ashamed not to know what God did not want to reveal to us with a clear and plain word.â€ť1
My view is nothing novel, it shares a lot with other Reformed views of infants. It is not a flawless position, but I am reasonably satisfied that I am on the right track.
At the end of the day, just about every person involved in this discussion will affirm one fundamental truth: we must trust in God who is both love and justice, whose ways are good and right, and who is sovereign over all that he is made. He will do what he will do, and that which he does is truly good. We can trust him with the fate of those who go to be with him, and even if we do not have all the specifics we would like, we are confident that our little ones are in the hands of our Father who is working out his good and perfect will.
One additional note before moving forward. This entire discussion revolves around a very sensitive issue. Children are a precious, precious gift from God. I have five of my own and love them immensely. I cannot imagine the grief of separation if God were to take one from me. It is easy to get emotional when considering the present condition of infants or the eternal fate of children who die. We need to be careful not to let emotionalism dictate our theology. Whatever our personal thoughts and feelings may be, the Bible is our guide. Whenever our feelings on a subject contradict the Bible, it is our feelings that must change.
I will approach my discussion under two main headings: the universal condition of man, and the grace of God to infants.
The Universal Condition of Man
The Corruption of the Fall
One of my foundational assumptions is that when the Bible speaks of humanity, children and infants are included. The Bible never describes our spiritual condition based on a chronological scale. It has one common way of describing all humanity. There is no textual reason to assume that the Bible exempts one or more categories of people from its universal pronouncements. Since I believe personhood begins at conception and continues forever, the Bibleâ€™s universal statements on humanity apply even to those humans who still reside in the womb.
The Bibleâ€™s assessment of humanity is dire at best. We are in a desperate situation. Sin has so thoroughly corrupted all humanity that no one is looking for God (Romans 3:11), no one is able to do anything good (Romans 3:12), no one is able to please God (Romans 8:8). Prior to destroying all flesh in a great flood (save for those safe in the ark), God delivered a stern indictment â€“ Genesis 6:5: The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. Before the flood, mankind was consumed with wickedness, a problem that has its origin in the human heart. Before the flood, every intention of every thought of the heart of man was only evil continually. We might assume that the flood, brought to wipe out wickedness, changed things, but it didnâ€™t. Following the flood, God delivers a very similar verdict. In Genesis 8:21 we read, I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of manâ€™s heart is evil from his youth. Before the flood: every intention of the heart is evil. After the flood: every intention of the heart is evil. We remain what we were, and what we were was thoroughly corrupt by sin. Someone might argue that youth in Genesis 8:21 restricts the application to older children since the passage does not explicitly mention infants or the womb (though some translations have infancy and others childhood). This misses the point. The Hebrew word used here is × Ö°×˘×•ÖĽ×¨Ö´×™×ť and in its various Old Testament uses it refers to an undefined period prior to adulthood, even at times including some who marry and have children while young. The point in Genesis 8:21 is that this condition of wicked thoughts is not simply the product of an adult mind: it stretches all the way back in a personâ€™s life.
The picture in the New Testament is no better. Ephesians 2:1-3 tells us:
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience â€“ among whom we all once lived in the passions of the flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.
Dead in trespasses and sins, sons of disobedience, children of wrath. Those now in Christ were once part of the rest of mankind in our great rebellion against God.
I could continue, but hopefully my point is clear: all humanity (and infants are part of humanity) are radically depraved and so thoroughly corrupted by sin that we can do nothing good. Indeed, those in the flesh cannot please God (Romans 8:8) and without faith it is impossible to please him (Hebrews 11:6).
Apart from Christ, all humanity is fallen. Apart from Christ, every intention of our hearts is sinful. Apart from Christ and faith in him, every move we make is an act of disobedience.
The heading for this section is the corruption of the fall. The corruption we speak of comes as a consequence of the fall of Adam and Eve into sin. The Bible teaches that the entire human race fell in Adam (we will look at this more in the next section). From our fall comes the complete corruption of our natures leading to us being by nature children of wrath (Ephesians 2:3). Every thought of the mind and inclination of the heart is only evil continually (Genesis 6:5). This is the condition of all who are in Adam, all who are descended from the first man.
The Guilt of the Fall
The effect of the fall on humanity is not limited to our complete corruption. In addition to corruption, we receive the guilt of the fall. The key text for this is Romans 5:12-21. Scripture often teaches that death comes as a result of sin: Genesis 2:17, Romans 6:23, 1 Corinthians 15:56. Death comes to human beings as a penalty, a wage, a punishment for sin. It is never presented otherwise. Even when one person dies as a result of someone elseâ€™s sin (ie, the murder of Uriah by David), it is not unjust for God to allow that personâ€™s death since we are all sinners and thus worthy of the penalty of death. An individualâ€™s death may not come as a specific consequence of his own sin, but it remains that his death â€“ whenever and however it may come â€“ does not stain the justice of God because all humans are sinners. Death is a penalty which has no lasting power over believers, but which must still be borne even by those in Christ. Because we sin, even if those sins be forgiven, we will die.
Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinnedâ€¦
â€¦But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one manâ€™s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the result of that one manâ€™s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. For if, because of one manâ€™s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one manâ€™s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one manâ€™s obedience the many will be made righteous.
Look at the picture that emerges when key phrases are pulled together: sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned; many died through one manâ€™s trespass; the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation; because of one manâ€™s trespass, death reigned through that one man; one trespass led to condemnation for all men; by the one manâ€™s disobedience the many were made sinners.
The passage presents us with a contrast between Adam and Christ. There are two options for all humanity: we can be represented by Adam, or we can be represented by Christ. There is no neutral position, no third option. By default, all humanity is found in Adam. He is the representative head of the entire human race and we fall under him by virtue of birth, of descent. We are his biological offspring and as such are found in Adam.
On the other side is Christ. No one is found in Christ by default. We are all in Adam. But just as being in Adam is a matter of birth, of descent, so it is with Christ. We must be born again if we want to be found in Christ. All those born again by the Spirit are united with Christ and are placed under his headship. He is the representative of all who are found in him. We are either born in Adam or we are born again in Christ. We are either represented by Adam or we are represented by Christ.
Going back to Paulâ€™s language about sin and death, he seems to be saying that Adamâ€™s sin â€“ and thus Adamâ€™s guilt and penalty â€“ are passed down to all his descendents. Adamâ€™s one trespass led to condemnation for all of us. Similarly, Adamâ€™s one sin brought death for all of us. We are condemned with Adam â€“ found guilty with him â€“ and with Adam we fall under the penalty of death. We inherit both the corruption and the guilt of Adamâ€™s sin.
Some might protest that God will not punish us for the sin of others. A child may suffer due to his fatherâ€™s sin, but what he suffers is not Godâ€™s judgment against him because of the sin of his father. He may suffer the natural consequences of his fatherâ€™s sin, he may even suffer at the hands of his father, but he does not suffer the judgment of God for what his father did. We each face judgment for our own sins.
If we only face judgment for our own sins, in what sense can we be condemned for the sin of Adam? We need to remember that Adam, like Jesus, is a special case. My father has never been my representative head, but Adam has. My mother has never taken my place before God, Jesus has. With Adam as our representative, there is a very real sense in which what he did, I did. I do not just receive the guilt of Adamâ€™s sin, in Adam I actually sinned. In Adam I was there in the garden and ate the fruit. The guilt I receive from Adam is guilt for the sin I committed in him.
If it seems I am reading too much into the text, keep in mind that a contrast is made between Adam and Christ. In the same way that Christ now represents us, Adam once represented us. This is significant because the Bible often speaks of us being present with and participating in the redemptive work of Christ. I have been crucified with Christ (Galatians 2:20); I was buried and raised with Christ (Romans 6:4); I have been seated with him in the heavenly places (Ephesians 2:6). The list goes on and the point is clear: we were present with Christ in his work and with him as our representative we participated in his redemptive work. We were crucified, we were buried, we were raised, we were seated before the Father. In each of these cases, our presence is not what brought the victory Jesus won the victory over sin and death, but we are united with Jesus so that we might participate with him in his victory.
In Adam we sinned and are guilty and corrupt, but in Christ we have been crucified and are raised to new life.
What is the spiritual condition of all humanity â€“ from babies in the womb to old men in the nursing home? Guilty and corrupt. Radically depraved with every inclination of the heart and every motion of the hand turned against God. The Bible mentions no exceptions in these universal pronouncements against mankind, so unless we engage in speculation we must conclude that babies, along with adults, stand guilty before a just and holy God.
The Grace of God to Infants
I believe infants, young children, and the mentally disabled are included in Godâ€™s universal pronouncements about the condition of humanity. Infants are corrupted by sin and receive Adamâ€™s guilt. Furthermore, children and infants commit sins of their own. Consider what it means to sin: to miss the mark; to fall short of Godâ€™s ways; to cling to attitudes or perform actions contrary to Godâ€™s will and way. Whenever any of us, from infants up, fail to live according to Godâ€™s standards, we sin. He has made his standards known to all people, writing his law on our hearts so that we are without excuse (Romans 1:21, 2:15). Furthermore, we are told that all people have sinned, and we know infants are people (Romans 2:23); those in the flesh cannot please God, and we remain in the flesh until born again (Romans 8:8); a diseased tree (fallen nature) cannot produce good fruit, whether it be found in infants or adults (Matthew 7:17-18) â€“ on and on it goes. We are corrupted by sin, we bear the guilt of Adamâ€™s sin, and we have committed sins of our own, whether infants or adults.
Up to this point, I am comfortable with everything I have said. The Bible is clear on each of these universal pronouncements; no speculation is needed. But at this point I open the door slightly to speculative consideration of certain passages which I think give us hints about the eternal condition of children who die.
The most compelling passage in the Bible that shows a difference in Godâ€™s treatment of children and adults is Deuteronomy 1:39. The book of Deuteronomy is Mosesâ€™ farewell discourse to the people of Israel. The wilderness generation has passed on and Moses is reminding the new generation of all that took place before them. The children are about to do what the parents never did: occupy the land promised to them by God and Moses wants them to learn both Godâ€™s faithfulness and the unfaithfulness of their parents.
The parents never occupied the promised land due to their sinful disbelief. They balked when they saw the size of the problem and did not trust that God could do what he said he could do. They held back and refused to go in as God had commanded. As a result, God said none of them would enter the land. The adults would fall in the wilderness and their children would one day take the land.
In Deuteronomy 1:39, Moses recalls the words of God in response to the disobedience of Israel: And as for your little ones, who you said would become a prey, and your children, who today have no knowledge of good or evil, they shall go in there. And to them I will give it, and they shall possess it.
The key phrase is who today have no knowledge of good or evil. God had brought judgment against all the people of Israel because of their refusal to enter the land. One group was exempted from this judgment: their children. God was not being arbitrary. He did not make an exception because he likes children more than adults. Children were shown mercy because they have no knowledge of good or evil.
This phrase does not mean the children were sinless. Nor does it mean the truth about God was not written on their hearts. God has said of all people that we are sinners (Romans 3:23) and that he has written his truth on us (Romans 1:21, 2: 15). In a sense, God has given us the information necessary to honor him, but there is more to knowledge than just information. In order to walk by what God has written on our hearts, we must have the capacity to understand, to know what to do with that information. A lesser capacity for understanding does not make the actions of children less sinful, but it does appear to make children less culpable. In the case of the children of the wilderness generation, the punishment meted out to all people because of the failure of all to enter the promised land was withheld from children because of their lack of knowledge.
Children and infants are not sinless. In Adam they sinned, and in themselves they sin. God has revealed to them as well as to us the truth of his expectations for all people. His law is written on their hearts. But children, and in some cases, the mentally disabled, do not have the capacity to know right and wrong, good and evil. Their sin and guilt are real, but such guilt is not counted against them because of their inability to know good and evil.
Because God is just, he cannot overlook sin and guilt. Even in the case of children, God must deal with their sin. He does this through Christ. Children and infants must be united with Christ through faith in order to be saved. In this case, it does not matter that children lack the capacity to understand. Scripture speaks of faith as a gift, not as something we generate through our intellect. Jesus lifts up children as examples of how we are to receive the kingdom of God (Luke 18:15-17) and it is no stretch to imagine that the same faith he gives to us he can also give to a child. Uniting them by faith with Christ, their sins are covered, their guilt is paid for, they are raised together with Christ, and they go to be with the Lord.
This is about as far as I am willing to speculate. I do not know when these things happen. Is it the instant before death? Is it early in the womb? I donâ€™t know. We do have definite examples of God filling children with the Spirit even in the womb (Luke 1:15) so we cannot discount that possibility, but we are not told.
At the end of the day, our hope rests with Christ. We trust that the fate of all people – living and dead, young and old – is in Godâ€™s good hands. He will do what is right. Furthermore, the glimpses offered by the Bible give us a good reason for confidence that little ones who die are secure in the arms of Christ. They are united with Christ by faith and are cleaned by his blood. This is the grace of God to infants.