When a Child Dies Will They Go to Heaven?
Every so often as a pastor I am asked by someone about the eternal destiny of a child who has died. Do they go to heaven? What about the age of accountability? What about a miscarriages or abortion- is that a child who goes to heaven? I am always perplexed when people share with me some of the inane comments they hear from others on this subject. Some tell me they have heard that children who have not been baptized will go to hell. Others have told me that if the child’s parents are not believers then there is no faith to “cover” the child and the child must pay for the sins of the parents resulting in an eternity in hell. Such ridiculous comments stem from skewed interpretation of Scripture or errant church tradition or both. In addition, it is equally troubling to me when I hear people say, “I don’t know,” in response to the death of a child and their eternal state.
Shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, Larry King had a panel on his show to talk about the issues related to the tragedy. King asked John MacArthur, a well-known pastor and author of many books, “What about a two year-old baby crushed at the bottom of the World Trade Center?” MacArthur’s response- “Instant heaven.” King replied, “The baby wasn’t a sinner?” MacArthur again answered, “Instant heaven.” The pastor is right. It is within our sense of decency and fairness that we want to believe all children who die go to heaven. The good news is that we can go beyond our feelings on this issue. The Scripture clearly teaches that all children who die will go to heaven. So, what does the Scripture say?
To begin, the Scripture affirms that life begins at conception. Psalm 139:13-16 states, “For you formed my inward parts; You knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there were none of them.” The plain sense of this biblical text coupled with the fact that an omniscient, omnipotent God is the personal Creator of all life clearly mandates that life begins at conception. What does this mean for the issue of children and heaven? It means that a human life that is ended because of abortion will be in heaven. The parents who suffer a miscarriage will, if they are followers of Christ, meet their child who they never saw one day in heaven.
In 2 Sam. 12 we read the story of the death of David and Bathsheba’s child. David fasts and mourns while the child is still alive and on the brink of death. He is so distraught, his servants fear he will do something to harm himself. However, when the child dies, David cleans up, worships God, and asks for something to eat. This is strange, as even greater mourning would be expected upon the news of the child’s death. When David is questioned about his behavior, he responds by saying, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept, for I said, ‘Who knows whether the Lord will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’ But now he is dead. Why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me” (1 Sam. 12:22-23). The phrase “I shall go to him” is a telling part of David’s seemingly odd behavior and an important aspect of the issue of a child’s eternity. By saying this, David clearly believes that his child is in heaven. He is in a place of conscious existence and furthermore a place where he will one day be reunited with his son. Some have said David’s expression is a reference to lying in an adjacent grave to his child. But clearly David is not talking about the cemetery- he is talking about heaven. Why does David break his fast and worship after hearing of his son’s death? The grave would not cause that kind of hope. Only heaven would! David breaks his fast because of his confident assurance that his child is in the care of God and that one day he will see him again. The same is true of Abraham when it is said of him in Gen. 25:8 that he breathed his last and was “gathered to his people.” That phrase isn’t talking about the family burial plots. It’s talking about a conscious existence and reunion in the afterlife.
The story of David and Bathsheba’s son dying gives cause to reflect on an errant perspective some have about the death of a child. I have heard it said that, because he was conceived in adultery, David and Bathsheba’s child went to hell. The same is said of children today whose parents are not Christians or have not been baptized. The Scripture they state is usually Exod. 34:6-7, “The Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” A common misperception of this text is that God holds children guilty for the sins of their parents. However, consider the words of Deut. 24:16, “Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin.” This text clearly states that each person will be liable for their own sin and will not be held guilty of their parent’s sin. So, do these two texts contradict each other? No. A child will never bear the guilt of their parents (Deut 24), but the children of a sinful generation are powerfully affected and influenced by the consequences of their parent’s sin (Exod 34).
So, the reason a child who dies will go to heaven is because they will not be held liable to sin. They are innocent. Consider the account of Jonah called to preach repentance to the Ninevites. Jonah hated the people and wanted God to destroy all of them. He certainly didn’t want the Ninevites to have the opportunity to be saved. However, God responded to Jonah’s displeasure by saying, “And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” (Jonah 4:11). The people who do not know their right hand from their left are clearly children and those who are mentally disabled. They are incapable of making the choice to repent. It is clear that such are the objects of God’s mercy, not judgment.
The whole issue of innocence in terms of children and God’s judgment brings up what is commonly called “the age of accountability.” At what age does a person know they are a sinner, have offended the perfect standard of God’s righteousness, and thus are liable for judgment? The key thing we need to realize is not the age of a person but the condition of a person. There is no age at which every person suddenly becomes aware of and accountable for their sin. The Bible is silent on there being a set age. The reason for this is that each child has their own unique development in understanding truth. The key is not age, but rather reaching a condition of moral culpability. Any child who dies before reaching this condition will go to heaven. We must also include here those people who are mentally disabled. God will not hold them accountable for what they did not understand.
Finally, we need to consider the regard that Jesus had for children. In Matt. 18:3-5 Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me.” Jesus saw in children a tremendous example of dependency, trust, and humility- all characteristics we should embody in our relationship with the Lord. A child was Jesus’ best illustration of a redeemed believer. Someone might say that Jesus is only using the children here as an analogy of how adults can be saved. But remember that analogies only work if they are grounded in truth. If children are not readily accepted into heaven, then Jesus’ analogy is a bad one. Becoming a follower of Christ was in many ways like becoming a child. Certainly Jesus’ regard for and teaching about children fits the biblical pattern of their innocence before God.
Mark 10:14-15- “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” I love what the 19th century Presbyterian preacher Charles Hodge said of this verse- “He tells us, ‘Of such is the kingdom of heaven,’ as though heaven was in great measure composed of the souls of redeemed infants.” Scripture clearly affirms that innocent children will be welcomed and embraced by the heavenly Father.