by J. Oliver Jones
How does the atonement of Jesus Christ affect salvation for those of tender age or those who are mentally infirm? What are the possibilities, and can we know the answer for sure? While the Bible does not address the concept of Infant Salvation directly, these possibilities will give you a starting place to come to your own conclusion on this subject.
First, let us clarify of whom we are speaking. The subject of Infant Salvation includes all children up to the “age of accountability” as well as those who are mentally unable to discern right from wrong, good from evil, or the concept of obedience from disobedience. When a person dies in childhood or without full mental capacity, where do they spend eternity? Let us begin by looking at all of the various possibilities.
1) The first possibility is that upon death all infants, children under the age of accountability, and the mentally infirm will be eternally separated from God throughout eternity (hell) as they cannot place personal faith in Christ. While this is in the realm of possibility, it certainly goes against our sense of fairness, and is contrary to what we understand about the grace, love, and mercy of our God. David’s belief as expressed in 2 Samuel 12:23 that he would go upon death to be reunited with his deceased infant son, as well as the words of Jesus concerning coming to Him as small children (for such is the kingdom of heaven), would seem to be sufficient proof that this possibility is neither acceptable nor Scriptural.
2) The second possibility is that all infants, children under the age of accountability, and the mentally infirm will go to heaven or hell based upon whether or not at least one parent is under the New Covenant (a Christian). This is the view of some who hold to a strict view of Covenant Theology. The salvation of one who dies in such a state with a believing parent is under the covenant of salvation, while one dying without a believing parent is outside the covenant of salvation. While this view has some following by conservative theologians, it does not seem to provide the element of fairness or justice that a righteous Judge would demand. It bases the salvation of one person upon the decision of another. For this reason this view is also rejected by this writer.
3) The third possibility is that all infants, children under the age of accountability, and the mentally infirm will go to heaven or hell based upon the omniscience (all knowing) of God. This position correctly teaches that God has perfect knowledge of all things, even those things that could be, but are not. In other words, He knows which infant, child, or one mentally infirm, would have believed had he/she lived to the age of accountability or had not been born with the mental inability to know right from wrong. Those that would have believed go to heaven upon death, while those who would never have believed do not enter heaven. This possibility is held by many Christians, and while it answers the question of fairness and justice, it is somewhat troubling that one be condemned to eternal separation from God based upon a decision he/she never had the chance to make. Knowing, however, the perfect knowledge of God, this must be considered a viable possibility, but this writer chooses to hold out a little longer!
4) The fourth possibility is that all infants, children under the age of accountability, and the mentally infirm will go to heaven or hell based upon the election of God. This possibility is an option only for those who hold to a strict Calvinist doctrine of election. It is mentioned here simply as a possibility, but is rejected for the same reason that Arminians reject all predestination as defined by Calvinistic theology. This view would simply state that those infants, children, and mentally infirm who die would go to heaven or hell based upon the election of God in eternity past. An elect baby would go to heaven while a non-elect baby would go to hell. This writer is not certain how many people admit holding to this, but it is rejected here for obvious Arminian reasons.
5) The fifth possibility is that all infants, children under the age of accountability, and the mentally infirm will go to heaven when they die. Now this is the view that we want to believe in, the view that meets the need of our emotion, and the one that would seem to us to be the most just. But it must be based on more than the fact it makes us feel good. So let us look again at the atonement of Christ. There are two types of guilt – guilt that comes by being a member of Adam’s race (racial guilt), and guilt that comes through willful disobedience or sin (personal guilt). When Jesus took on flesh He identified Himself with the race of man (becoming the “second Adam”) and the guilt of man through that race. His atonement, therefore, paid the debt for our racial sin that comes through Adam. We are now guilty only of personal sin. As the above lack the ability to accept or reject Christ or to exercise a willful act of disobedience toward God, they do not carry personal sin, and can enter the presence of God upon death. This view seems best but for one possible exception.
I speak now as one who holds to the fifth possibility because of its reliance on the completed work of Christ in His atonement for sin on the cross of Calvary. The only problem I see with this possibility is that, from a distorted point of view, it could seem to encourage the practice of infanticide. Please understand that I am not promoting such a despicable practice as the Bible plainly condemns this for the murder that it is. However, if all deceased infants go to heaven, but the same infants who reach the age of accountability and decide against Christ go to hell, in the minds of some it might seem merciful to make sure they go to heaven. Again, of all the five possibilities presented, I believe the fifth is the most plausible. However, the conclusion that could possibly be drawn from this position is somewhat troubling.
This information has been presented as it is a common question with no real Scriptural basis for an answer. The truth is that we simply do not know exactly how God handles those who die in the state of infancy or with mental disorders. What we can know is that our God is a loving God and a fair and just Judge. In the opinion of this writer we can also trust with all confidence that the atonement of Christ, which brings salvation to all who believe, can also bring salvation to those who die without having the capacity to believe.