27 June 2013
Do babies go to heaven?
In the latest in our series putting tough questions to theologians, Steve Holmes answers this difficult and emotive one...
The answer is yes, but it is worth thinking about why. There are few events more tragic in life than the loss of a child, whatever the circumstances might be. For Christian parents, questions about the eternal fate of the child are bound to arise, and any doubts can only intensify the grief.
Why might there be doubts? The Bible teaches clearly that all human beings are fallen, implicated somehow in Adam's sin (Romans 5:12-19; 1 Corinthians 15:22). In the Middle Ages, people began to believe that the only cure for this was baptism, and so an unbaptised child could not enter heaven. (Instead, she was left in 'limbo,' from a Latin word meaning 'edge'.) Although widely believed, this was never the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, and now the Church has distanced itself from this sort of idea, instead saying that unbaptised children should be entrusted to the mercy of God.
For evangelicals, of course, the question is not baptism, but faith: we believe we are saved only through faith in Jesus Christ and his atoning death. But a young baby cannot apparently have faith, so how can he be saved? We have always believed not only that a baby can be saved, but that all those who die in infancy will be saved, but we have not always agreed on how that might happen.
Some Calvinists, who stress God's sovereign election, have believed that all who die young are among the elect, and so they are saved by God's grace, even though they never have the opportunity to come to faith. This opens the way, however, to wondering whether others – adults – who die without ever coming to faith might also be saved because God has graciously chosen to save them.
Other evangelicals have proposed that there is a moment when a child comes to an 'age of responsibility', understanding enough about good and evil that she can be held responsible for her choices. Before that time, although somehow damaged by Adam's sin, she bears no guilt of her own, and will be saved by Jesus's death and resurrection if she dies. After becoming responsible, she carries the guilt of her own sin, and must repent and come to Jesus in faith to be saved. It is difficult to find any suggestion of this 'age of responsibility' in scripture, however.
Perhaps we should instead think about what we mean by 'faith'. As an adult (well, student...) convert, I can point to a time and place where I first came to faith and I can remember what I came to believe then that I had not believed before. I hope, however, that none of my three children will be able to tell that story. I hope that they will continue to grow up in the Church, gradually deepening in their understanding of and trust in what God has done in Jesus and at each stage having a faith appropriate to their age and development. My four-year-old's simple belief that Jesus is her friend would not be appropriate for my 12-year-old. Equally, her understanding of the call
of God through Jesus on her life, appropriate though it is for her now, needs to grow and develop further as she grows to maturity. Could we, I wonder, trace this right back? Is there a form of faith appropriate for a newborn, or even for a child in the womb? I can't imagine what this would be like, but God is hardly limited by my imagination! Indeed, we know that John the Baptist was able to recognise and respond to Jesus before he was born (Luke 1:41-44). Was John unusual in that? Was it a part of his unique calling as the one who would prepare the way for Jesus? Or is that something normal for babies, who are saved by a faith appropriate to their age?
All this is speculation; what we do know is that God loves so much that He gave His only Son, that God sent His son to save, not to condemn (John 3:16-17); that as in Adam all die, so in Christ are all made alive (1Corinthians 15:22); that God's gift in Christ is immeasurably greater than our sin (Romans 5:15-19). Knowing all this, we can trust that God who gave up His Son to save will not allow our children to be lost.
Steve Holmes is senior lecturer in theology at the University of St Andrews, an Alliance Board member and chair of the Alliance's Theology and Public Policy Advisory Committee (TAPPAC).