If you believe the true gospel, you have to have had this thought.
Before we get going on this, please know that if this question is personal for you, you may be offended by my “callous” or “heartless” approach. Know that I feel deeply for you and weep with you. It’s personal for me to. But in this post, I am trying to give the most clear and logical answer that I can from the biblical text, and that may mean saying things that you don’t want to hear.
Here’s the Dilemma
- Everyone is born sinful. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and it’s something all of humanity did, “in Adam” (Romans 1-8 [5:12], 1 Corinthians 15). Everyone, from before the moment of conception, has a sin nature ready to be imparted to them. (Some would argue it is passed down through the man, which is why the immaculate conception is so essential to Christ’s sinlessness, but I digress.)
- All sinners die (and go to hell). The wages of sin is death. Theologically speaking, some would say it’s eternal spiritual death, a continuation of the spiritual death into which we were all born, as sinners. You’ve been dying since before the day you were born. You can’t do anything about it. Revelation 19-20 promises us that if our name is not in the book of life, written before the foundations of the earth, then we will be sent into “the lake of fire,” where we will be tormented forever and ever. (That’s what I’m talking about when I say “hell.”)
- Faith in Jesus is the only way to be saved. He is the way of salvation. By believing that Jesus is the Christ, the son of God, you may have life in his name. Only those drawn toward the father by the son may respond with repentant faith. They must call on the name of the Lord, and how can they call if they haven’t believed? And how can they believe if they haven’t heard? And how can they hear if it hasn’t been preached?
- Babies can’t hear the gospel, which means they can’t believe which means they can’t be saved, which means they’re going to hell because they are sinners.
I didn’t downplay it too much, did I?
It’s definitely a big question. It’s definitely a question that causes people to question their theology (which is good). It’s also a question that causes people despair (which is not good).
I’m going to tackle this question as systematically as I can and then give you my answer to the yes or no question at the end. (spoiler: I say more than “yes” or “no.”) First, I’ll look at some commonly proposed answers, second I’ll double check the theology and logic of the dilemma, and finally I’ll give you my answer and give my reasoning why I think it is the case.
Commonly Proposed Answers
1) Yes. Babies Go to Hell.
Some simply say yes.
I start with this one to get it out of the way, because it is the easiest answer to the question. Do babies go to hell? Yes. The logic holds, the theology holds, and that means that yes, babies go to Hell.
It’s just so hard to believe that.
Something deep inside of humans screams against this conclusion. It seems so unjust that God would send innocent babies to Hell to be tormented forever without giving them an opportunity to trust in Jesus. It’s just not fair.
The Calvinist in me says that this objection is misguided. It’s absolutely fair. (A common by-product of our sinful nature is that we humans say we want fairness, but really we want unfairness in our favor… but again, I digress.)
Humanity sinned against God; God didn’t sin against humanity. God is not responsible for the sin of Adam, Adam is. God doesn’t have ANY obligation to save ANYONE. It is completely fair for God to leave us with our one-way train ticket to Hell that we all purchased “in Adam.” He doesn’t have to get involved. That’s what makes grace so spectacular. He boarded the train willingly, but he didn’t have to.
God is not required by any higher authority (there isn’t one) to spare anyone from eternal torment in Hell. Humanity collectively chose to go to Hell on day eight. It’s his grace that saves us.
So really we’re asking the wrong question. It’s not, “Why didn’t he save all of us?” It’s, “Why did he save any of us?” Those of us who have experienced His grace should respond appropriately with praise and worship and thanks for saving anyone. Ideally, we would not question why he didn’t save everyone.
I know, that’s hard to accept. And I know, it doesn’t satisfy that feeling of injustice, but the question to ask yourself is, “Is it true?” Truth trumps feelings every time.
However, that’s not the only answer out there.
2) No, Babies don’t go to Hell because of the age of accountability.
Some say that it’s not until some specific age that God begins to require faith as the means of salvation. It seems to make sense logically. The bible speaks often of parent’s being responsible for their children until they are grown, and we Americans all know that when a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, then he’s truly a man.
The oft-proposed ages are 13 (because that’s when Jewish children are officially “adults” in Judaism), 18 (because that’s when Americans and most of the world have decided people are legally “adults” in the 20th century), 7 (because that’s a holy number and seven year olds usually have the cognitive abilities to understand the gospel), and 20 (because that’s the age limit God put on the Israelites being allowed to enter Canaan in Num 14:29).
The problems with this are that it doesn’t say that there’s an “age of accountability” anywhere in the Bible.
The apostle didn’t write, “If you are over the age of seven and believe in the Lord Jesus you shall be saved, but if you’re under the age of seven it doesn’t matter, you’re gonna get spared eternal torment either way.”
Again, it’s the Calvinist in me who sits here screaming, “How dare you add so much to God’s written word!” I tend to agree with him.
3) No, Babies don’t go to Hell, because David said he’d see his child again.
Some say there is biblical support to say categorically that babies will be saved because of one and only one specific verse.
2 Samuel 12 is David’s comeuppance for his pride, murder, lust and adultery. You know the story. David gets Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, pregnant and kills Uriah to cover it up then marries her. (I’m paraphrasing. That’s the gist of it.)
After his illegitimate son dies, David stands up and says, “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.”
“See,” they say, “He’s going to go to him, and obviously David’s going to heaven, so that means the baby’s in heaven waiting for him, and that means all babies go to heaven!” As much as I sympathize with the sentiment, (and as much as I dislike the idea that we’re all gonna “go to heaven” because we’ll actually be going to a New Jerusalem, just read the end of your Bible…but yet again I digress.) I have to play devil’s advocate and point out the myriad flaws in logic and language.
- “I shall go to him” is not the same as, “I shall meet him in heaven.” Were it the latter, the argument would be much stronger. However, “go to him” could easily mean only “going to death.” He could be merely speaking of the permanence and eventuality of his own death, thus joining his son.
- Descriptive, not prescriptive. Even if he does mean “I’ll meet him in heaven,” that does not mean David is right in this assertion, it only means he asserted it. The text doesn’t say, “And God spoke to David saying, ‘You’ll meet him in heaven.’” If it did, the argument would be much, much stronger because God doesn’t lie. As it is, David might have his facts wrong.
- More descriptive, not prescriptive. Even if he’s right in his assertion, that doesn’t mean this happens in every case. This is telling a story that occurred, and just because it happened once, doesn’t mean it happens every time. The text doesn’t say, “And God said, ‘You shall meet him in heaven, because all infants go to heaven, every time.’” If it did, the argument would be much, much, much stronger. As it is, David’s baby might have been an exception to the rule.
People also try to throw out Jesus’s words about letting the little children come to him , for to such belong the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 19) but these arguments are weaker than a vegan on a fast. (Sorry, couldn’t pass it up.)
In reality, there is no Bible verse that guarantees that Babies don’t go to hell. That’s why it’s such a big question. If there were a knock out verse, I wouldn’t need to write this post! You all would have found such a verse the first time you had the thought, “Do babies go to hell?” and then you typed it into google to find a Bible verse on the subject!
Double Check the Theology and Logic of the Dilemma
The theology and logic of the four-point dilemma above is pretty darn sound. Pelagianism (the idea that you take on a sin nature only after the first time you commit a sin) was condemned in 431 at the Council of Ephesus. Humans are sinful, inherently (literally, it’s inherited). If you show me a human, I’ll show you a sinner. As Augustine put it in Confessions, “the only innocent feature in babies is the weakness of their frames; the minds of infants are far from innocent.” 
There’s an implicit extra argument at the end of the logical argument. It goes like this:
- But if God were good he wouldn’t send babies to hell.
- Therefore, if babies go to hell, God isn’t good.
This line of argumentation, while it seems good on the surface, is unfounded theologically (because it really doesn’t hold to the doctrine of the sinfulness of man) and unfounded logically (because it presumes to know “good” apart from God). Let’s take them one at a time.
First, the whole “good” thing. “Good” as an objective idea comes only from God. There is no source for good except for Him. Morality is not self-existent; it only exists within the character of God. For us to presume to tell God what’s “good” with our limited experience of it, would be like a child telling a carpenter how to build a table, “because I eat my cereal on one every morning!” We have a very limited grasp of true goodness, and the way to get a better grasp is to get to know the source of good, namely God. We don’t tell him what’s good, he tells us. Don’t believe me? Read Job.
Second, if we have our definition of “good” straight, we would understand that “justice” is wrapped up in it. God is the source and definition of both goodness and justice. If we have justice straight, we would understand that sending babies to hell is exactly just. It’s exactly what babies deserve because they are sinful. If they don’t deserve it, then babies aren’t inherently sinful and you have a beef with 2,000 years of orthodox anthropology.
Unless of course, grace factors in…
My Answer and Reasoning
A curious, glorious, mysterious, and awe-inspiring fact is that God is gracious beyond anything we can imagine. He often treats us detestable humans far better than we deserve. His image in us seems worth redeeming from its disfigured and tarnished state.
But He gets to decide when to dispense that glorious grace.
The following is the carefully worded answer that I give anytime I get the question of “What about so-and-so who can’t believe the gospel?” What about the man in deepest darkest Africa? What about the unborn aborted baby? What my miscarried sibling or my living brother Paul who has down syndrome without the cognitive skill to fully grasp the gospel? Yes, this question is personal for me as well.
Here it is:
“Every person in every age is responsible for responding to the revelation that they have been given with an appropriate faith in the revealer.”
If you have nothing but creation to testify of a creator, you are responsible for worshiping that creator faithfully. This is more applicable to the man in deepest darkest Africa, and less to the infant, but it is still slightly so. Whatever cognitive ability a child has he must use to respond to whatever revelation of God he can perceive in whatever way he is able.
Biblically speaking there is a caveat to clarify this further: Romans 1:18ff. All the unrighteous know God and suppress the truth of God in unrighteousness, exchanging the image of the incorruptible God for other images. The point? No one chooses God when they see creation; they follow their sinful lusts. God has to open their eyes and allow them to believe, so God is still ultimately the one responsible for the saving action. If He weren’t part of the equation, no one could be saved. (This is why Deism is so unbiblical… but I digress again.)
“But Stephen,” you say, “That’s too confusing and convoluted! Gimme a simple yes or no answer!”
Okay, fine, here’s the simplest answer I can give: I don’t know.
I simply don’t know whether babies go to hell when they die.
I don’t have enough clear biblical evidence to say that babies necessarily will be spared from hell. I simply can’t draw that conclusion.
While I have enough biblical evidence to say that babies do go to hell, something still seems wrong, and there is a logical recourse available to me. The character of God is such that he gives grace.
Ultimately I have to sit somewhere in the middle and be comfortable not knowing.
I cannot say that babies will be spared, because God is just and it is just for babies to go to hell. But I cannot say that babies won’t be spared, because God is merciful, and it would be perfectly within His merciful character to spare them.
I believe God is merciful enough to save anyone including babies, however he wants to, but I also trust God enough that if babies do go to hell, He’s still right in the end.
A Final Thought
If babies will be saved, which I think is a perfectly reasonable possibility, why wouldn’t God make it clearer? Why wouldn’t he assuage the tension and tell us all clearly, “Yes. Babies will be spared. Fear not.”
A possibility that my dad pointed out to me (I don’t know where he got it) is that humans would twist it. Humans are capable of all kinds of perversion, wickedness, and twisting. If God made it that clear, I think it likely that humans would start killing their babies in order to save them. If there were a clear age of accountability, no one would reach it, because we humans are so sinful we’d have ceremonial beheadings to make sure all are saved.
The reality is that we are fallen in need of a savior. Thankfully, God provided one. All we must do to be saved is believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. Then and only then can we sinful humans be saved. (See what I did there. “Only then.” Doesn’t my contradiction grind your gears? … but I digress again…)
Augustine, Confessions, I.12.