One of the worst experiences that parents can have is the death of a small child. Along with this is that some parents will have children who are mentally handicapped. Both of these place a lot of stress on families with the sad result that some of them will break down and fall apart. My family suffered through the death of my four-year-old brother who had many health issues (both mentally and physically). To add to the stress is the question as to what happens to small children or the mentally ill after death? Do small children and infants go to Heaven? Most Christians, including theologians and ministers, do not know the answer to such a question. However, I do believe that, with some good studying, we can come to a positive answer as to what happens to these people. (Many of the resources I used were about infants or small children, but I believe that the information in this article also applies to those with mental health problems).
Confusion in the Church
Christians have had many different explanations about what happens to infants when they die. One of the most common is the belief that all infants are innocent and do not have a sin nature. However, the teaching can easily be refuted using the Bible. Scripture is clear that all humans have sinned because of Adam (Romans 5:12). Psalm 51:5 even goes as far to say that we are conceived as sinners. Other passages point to this fact as well (Genesis 8:21; Job 15:14-16; Psalms 58:3; and Proverbs 22:15). Thus, infants and the mentally handicapped are sinners according to the Bible. If they were not sinners they would not be suffering, nor would they die since suffering and death are punishments for sin (Romans 6:23; Revelation 21:4). It is also important to understand that Scripture never talks about an “age of accountability.” Scripture is clear that a person can only be saved by Christ and cannot enter heaven unless they are born again (John 3:3).
Figures of Speech for Salvation
A good place to begin looking at whether or not small children are saved is to study the various passages in Scripture that speak of children. Christ taught in Matthew 18:2-4 that we are to be like children to enter the Kingdom of God. Luke 18:15-17 tells us, “People were also bringing babies to Jesus to have him touch them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”
Jesus also said that the angels that are assigned to children “always see the face of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 18:10). Randy Alcorn makes a good point about this verse: “Clearly, this is special treatment, suggesting there may be other acts of special treatment, including salvation apart from the normal process of confession and repentance.”
Outside of the Gospels, God shows concern about children. He expresses his anger in Ezekiel 16:21 at the people who kill “my [God’s] children” by sacrificing them to idols. God also shows his concern for children in Jonah 4:11. Jonah was angry that God would show mercy to a pagan city. God, however, responded by saying, “But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?” One of the major reasons why God wants to spare the city from his wrath is because of animals and those immature enough to understand the difference between their right and left hands (infants and maybe even the mentally handicapped).
All these passages look with favor on small children. Scholar and Pastor Sam Storms, however, notes a problem with Matthew 19:13-15 when he says, “Is Jesus simply saying that if one wishes to be saved, he or she must be as trusting as children, that is, devoid of skepticism or arrogance? In other words, is Jesus merely describing the kind of people who enter the kingdom? Or is he saying that these very children were recipients of saving grace?” My guess is he is talking about the kind of person who will enter heaven, but as we will see below this does not prove that children do not go to heaven when they die.
However, as another scholar, J.P. Moreland, has said, “[children are] universally viewed as figures of speech for salvation. In all texts where children are used in regard to the afterlife, they’re used as pictures of being saved. There’s no case where children are ever used as figures of damnation.” I do not think that the passages I presented above prove that children who die go to heaven. But they do show us how important they are to God. Let’s look at some other passages.
2 Samuel 12
The most common argument from the Bible that is used for infant salvation is the death of King David’s newborn child. This child was born to Bathsheba after David’s adultery with her. As a result of this sin God had the child die. While the child was sick, David begged God to spare him, but when the child died David resumed his normal life and didn’t mourn as he was expected to. Instead he said, “I will go to him, but he will not return to me” (2 Samuel 12:23).
This has been interpreted in two ways. First, David is only saying that he will go to the grave (die) like the child. Second, David believed that the child was going to heaven and that he would join him there someday.
In support of this view, Storms notes a couple of things: 1) if David was referring to just the grave, why would he state the obvious; 2) it appears that David was actually comforted knowing that he will “go to him.” This is why David goes back to normal daily routines when he should have been showing outward signs of grief. How could David be comforted with the idea that he is going to die? This seems to point to the idea that David truly believed that the child went to heaven. However, even if this is true, should we build a doctrine that all infants go to heaven based only on David’s child? I’ll admit that this passage does not, by itself, prove that all infants are saved.
John the Baptist and Jeremiah
Jeremiah 1:5 says, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” God says this about the prophet Jeremiah. A similar circumstance surrounds John the Baptist. Luke 1:15 says that he was a filled with the Holy Spirit from birth. This shows that God does have the power to give a righteous standing to a child while in the womb and even before conception. However, these passages do not prove that all children are saved.
An Argument for Infant Salvation
So far we have seen passages that look favorably on children and even a few that may point to some children being saved. However, none of these prove that all children throughout history have been saved if they died young. I do believe that there is a passage that does teach such a thing: Romans 1.
Romans 1:18-23 teaches us that all people are recipients of God’s general revelation and that they are “without excuse,” and will be condemned for rejecting it. In other words, all people know in their hearts that God exists and that they willingly reject him. This is important to our current study when we ask the question, “can infants and the mentally ill understand this general revelation?” If not, then they do have an excuse and will not be held accountable by God for not accepting Christ.
Throughout the Bible there is a consistent teaching that people will be judged by the sins committed voluntarily and consciously in the body (1 Corinthians 6:9-10; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Revelation 20:11-12). Storms explains this concept well:
“In other words, eternal judgment is always based on conscious rejection of divine revelation (whether in creation, conscious, or Christ) and willful disobedience. Are infants capable of either? … Thus, those dying in infancy are saved because they do not (indeed cannot) satisfy the conditions for divine judgment.”
R.A. Webb also makes a good point:
If a deceased infant “were sent to hell on no other account than that of original sin, there would be a good reason to the divine mind for the judgment, but the child’s mind would be a perfect blank as to the reason of its suffering. Under such circumstances, it would know suffering, but it would have no understanding of the reason for its suffering. It could not tell its neighbor – it could not tell itself – why it was so awfully smitten; and consequently the whole meaning and significance of its sufferings, being to it a conscious enigma, the very essence of penalty would be absent, and justice would be disappointed of its vindication. Such an infant could feel that it was in hell, but it could not explain, to its own conscious, why it was there.”
To add to these comments are Deuteronomy 1:39 and Jonah 4:11 (which we spoke about earlier). Deuteronomy says that children “have no knowledge of good or evil” and Jonah mentions that children do not know their right hand from their left. How can children who are too immature to know their right hand from their left and do not yet know the difference between good and evil be held accountable for rejecting God’s general revelation revealed in Romans 1? Any logical answer should tell us they cannot.
In my honest opinion I believe that Romans 1, taken together with all the other passages that I wrote about, point to the fact that any person who dies without an understanding of general revelation (both small children and the mentally handicapped) will be saved. Before I end this article, I want to make a couple of remarks.
First, those who cannot understand general revelation are not saved because they are innocent; they are saved because of what Christ did on the cross and because of God’s mercy and grace. Second, this does not, in any circumstance, give permission to anyone to kill a child or someone with a mental illness because you want them to go to heaven. Only God has the right to give and take away life. Third, exactly what age a person is when they understand general revelation is probably dependent on each individual. Some may understand by the age of three or four (maybe younger?), some older, and some may never. God is perfect and he knows when each person will begin to willingly reject him as savior. Fourth and lastly, think of all the miscarriages, abortions, and small children who have died throughout history. Think of all the newborn babies who were sacrificed to pagan gods and goddesses over the millennia. If my interpretation of Romans 1 is correct, then the Restored World will be full of people. There are going to be a lot more people in heaven than what most Bible-believing Christians think there will be (see Matthew 7:13-14).
What do you think about this emotional topic? Do you agree with it? Leave a comment below or on our Facebook page to discuss it.
 Randy Alcorn. Heaven (Carol Stream: Tyndall, 2004). 355.
 Sam Storms. Tough Topics (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013), 111.
 Lee Strobel. The Case for Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 179.
 Moreland in Strobel, 179. Alcorn, 355. Robert L. Deffinbaugh. “The Death of David’s Son (2 Samuel 12:14-31).” https://bible.org/seriespage/death-david%E2%80%99s-son-2-samuel-1214-31. Accessed December 30, 2013.
 Storms, 110. See also Deffinbaugh on 2 Samuel.
 Alcorn, 355. Storms, 111.
 Storms, 109. Robert L. Deffinbaugh. “No Excuse for the Heathen (Romans 1:18-32 ).” https://bible.org/seriespage/no-excuse-heathen-romans-118-32. Accessed December 30, 2013.
 Storms, 110-111.
 R.A. Webb. The Theology of Infant Salvation (Harrisonburg: Sprinkle, 1981), 288-289. Quoted in Storms, 111.