the Bible is absolutely crystal-clear that all children are sinners from conception–all children. The principle of iniquity is embedded in the human race. Children are born morally corrupt. They are born with an irresistible bent towards evil. And any notion that children are born morally neutral and free from a predisposition to sin is absolutely contrary to Scripture.... All humans are born in sin. If infants were not sinful, if they were not morally corrupt, then they wouldn’t die. If they were born innocent or pure or morally neutral, there would be no basis for their death! The very fact that they die indicates that the disease of sin is there in them, because sin is the killer. It is in their inherited sin nature that the seeds of death are planted.Since infants are sinners and since faith is the means through which one receives forgiveness and salvation, and since infants obviously are not capable of faith, how then can infants be saved? The simple fact is that the Bible does not address this issue. However, since it seems terribly unfair and even hideous to think that infants would be condemned to an eternal hell, evangelicals have sought ways to explain how these infants can be saved.
MacArthur opens his sermon on infant salvation by saying:
Some of you who tuned into the Larry King Show, a week ago Saturday, will remember that Larry fired a question to me on the air–it came out of nowhere–a question that reveals a nagging, troubling issue in the human heart. He asked me, “What about a two-year-old baby crushed at the bottom of the World Trade Center?” I answered, “Instant heaven.” He replied with another question: “Wasn’t a sinner?” I again answered, “Instant heaven.” All kinds of strange answers have been offered in the past. We don’t need to deal with those; we need to know the right answer.MacArthur is right. Not all Christians throughout church history have held that infants automatically go to heaven. Gregory, Bishop of Nazianzus (329-374 CE), held that only baptized infants go to heaven and that unbaptized infants do not. He said unbaptized infants will neither be admitted by the just judge to the glory of Heaven nor condemned to suffer punishment, since, though unsealed [by baptism], they are not wicked (Oration on Baptism, par. 23). Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE) was the first to deal with the issue in any detail. In a chapter entitled: Unbaptized Infants Damned, But Most Lightly, he said: It may therefore be correctly affirmed, that such infants as quit the body without being baptized will be involved in the mildest condemnation of all. That person, therefore, greatly deceives both himself and others, who teaches that they will not be involved in condemnation....
Augustine's reasoning was that baptism removes original sin and therefore baptized infants can go into the presence of God but unbaptized infants cannot. Thus, he came up with the idea of a place which was not quite heaven and not quite hell. Medieval theologians called it Limbo of infants (Latin, limbus infantium). In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI released a report which said: "The conclusion of this study is that there are theological and liturgical reasons to hope that infants who die without baptism may be saved and brought into eternal happiness even if there is not an explicit teaching on this question found in revelation. There are reasons to hope that God will save these infants precisely because it was not possible (to baptise them)." (Some people saw this as a public relations move because Islam teaches that babies go to heaven and the RCC and Islam are in stiff competition in many 3rd world countries where the infant mortality rate is extremely high.)
Most Protestant theologians have held that all infants go to heaven, although the Westminster Confession leaves the possibility open that some infants might not. It says in chapter X, paragraph III: Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit, who worketh when, and where, and how he pleaseth. So also are all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word.(10.3)Some hard-core Calvinists (e.g., Jonathan Edwards ) have implied at least that there may be some infants who are not elect. This is very much a minority view in today's world where most everyone sees it as completely unjust for God to damn infants. In previous times, it might have been acceptable for some religions to teach that not all infants go to heaven but it is a public relations nightmare in today's world.
The simple fact, however, is that the Bible does not really answer this question definitively. Thus, theologians are left with a dilemma. How does one hold that babies are born sinners and condemned before God (i.e., original sin) and yet also hold that if they die before reaching maturity, they go to heaven? I will explore how evangelicals attempt to handle this thorny issue in the next post.