What happens to children when they die?

What happens to children when they die?Baby

This question was asked in this summer’s People’s Choice summer series and because of space in that series and also because it may be more clearly delivered in type, I address it in this blog.

This is not a question unique to today (though emotionalism and universalism perhaps make it more difficult to address). Infants died in Bible times, pre-modern Britain, and indeed still today. Although infant mortality has decreased, still children die, particularly the unborn (miscarriage, abortion[1], the disposal of embryos in fertility treatments, etc).[2] So long as there are children and so long as there is sin and death this question will be relevant.

Before I begin to give a basic and introductory response, I want to emphasise that I do not embark on seeking to answer this question as if from a distance. My wife and I lost a child through miscarriage and we have had close friends and family members suffer the loss of both unborn and newborn children. Something else that I must stress before I proceed is that this question is often approached through emotionalism. While our affections have a role to play we must submit ourselves to Scripture, conceding that our ways are not God’s ways (Isa 55:8–9). Generally when we are uncomfortable about something in the Bible God is correct and we are wrong. If you proceed in reading this blog please pause, pray and be open to reason [or reasoning] (James 3:17). Christianity is like a train and the order of that train is important. First must come the locomotive, then the car and finally the caboose. Put another way, first must come fact (or the promises and truths of God), then faith (or belief in those) and then feeling. Get the order wrong and the train soon runs off the track. Get the order right and it runs smoothly along.

The question centres around salvation and namely, if the Bible teaches human depravity and the need of salvation (which it clearly does), what about children? It also touches upon our beliefs about what the character of God should be in relation to this question, either leaning toward His love (how could a loving God allow…) or His justice (God is soft on sin if…).

Numerous passages and verses in the Bible teach human depravity, but three are perhaps most pertinent to this subject.[3]

The first is Psalm 51:5 where the Spirit says through David: Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. This verse teaches that not only from birth but from conception we are sinners.

The second is Ro 5:12, which addresses why we are born sinners. Here the Spirit says through Paul: Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned. This means that because the head of the human race—Adam—sinned, all humans are born sinners (original sin). Not only are we born guilty sinners by nature but we also co-opt into sin through sinful choices throughout our lives.

Thirdly, and perhaps the most challenging, come passages like Deut 20:16–18 and 1 Sam 15:2–3 where the Spirit says the following about the destruction of the Canaanites:

Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘I have noted what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’”

We must remember that these last passages speak of judgement because of societal sin of a great magnitude (with simply a different means than say Sodom and Gomorrah) and not genocide. Traditionally this total judgment has been understood by Christians as a real event backed up by archaeology, but also as a picture of hell.

If children had no sin, children wouldn’t die. As death is a result of sin generally, children as well as adults tragically die.

In light of these three passages, we return to the question.

There have been at least 7 ways that Christendom has sought to answer this question.

  1. All children go to heaven (universalism: that God ultimately accepts everyone because He is “love”).
    1. This has been the death knell of ‘liberal Christianity.’ The basic teaching of the Bible is that sinners are saved through faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ (John 3:16). Jesus’ death did not save everyone but only made that salvation possible. Jesus died to save those who would believe in Him, He died to save His own (Jn 10:14). The Bible clearly teaches that notall humans are saved.
  2. No children go to heaven.
    1. Based on the above passages and that children cannot believe some do not think any children go to heaven.
  3. Christened children go to heaven (Roman Catholicism).
    1. Roman Catholics believe one is saved by faith+sacraments+works. One of the sacraments is to christen children. In a sacrament the church is seen as having the authority to dispense God’s grace on earth. As such those children who are baptised are saved, hence why Roman Catholics are so quick to want to baptise their children. The clear teaching of the Bible that we are saved by faith and not by works (whether personal or ecclesial [by the church]) discounts this view.
  4. Children who die before the “age of accountability” go to heaven.
    1. Another popular view that seeks to balance accountability for sin and the need for faith in salvation is this one: that children are only subject to the penalty of hell if they reject Christ after some arbitrary or subjective “age of accountability.” If they haven’t reached that age they go to heaven. But what is this age? Is it 4, 6, 8, 12, 20, 40, 80? The Bible doesn’t say, because it doesn’t exist. Anyone who has worked with children knows that children wilfully choose sin from a very early age and should be held accountable much earlier than 18!
  5. In His mercy God applies the meritorious work of Christ to children because He is a God of grace.
    1. In this view children do not exercise normal faith in Christ that is needed by those who can choose, but rather He has mercy upon whom I have mercy (Ro 9:15). While it is true that God has mercy upon whomever He will (in this passage as it relates to election), the consistent teaching of Scripture associates receiving this mercy in faith. The strength of this view is it fights universalism by appealing to the need for the work of Christ. The downside is that nowhere in the Bible is this clearly stated.
  6. Only elect children go to heaven (or children of the elect are saved).
    1. This was the view held by the founders of our chapel. Article 10.3 of our founding confession said this: “Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated, and saved by Christ, through the Spirit,[12] who works when, and where, and how He pleases:[13] so also are all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word.[14]” (The Scriptural proofs for some of these show that even the most robust theologians need to bend Scripture to address this question). In this view infants who are elect are saved without faith shown on earth[4] according to the mercy of God. A similar view believes children of believing (elect) parents are saved on account of the faith of their parents. This view would account for why not all children (like those of the Amalekites) are saved and why some possibly are, but no one could know who an elect child was or was not, because the elect are normally only justified through faith on earth.
  7. This is a mystery best left to the Lord (my personal view).
    1. I do not stay awake at night wondering about the eternal state of my unborn child. Why? Because I entrust its soul to an all wise, good and sovereign God and accept His will, whatever it may be. While point 6 comes closest to sounding reasonable, I believe that because the Bible does not even remotely touch upon this subject clearly, it therefore must not be a subject God wants us to concern ourselves with, otherwise He would have told us.

There are two things, however, that the Bible does clearly teach: 1) personal comfort grounded in the promises of God (vs. speculation) for those who mourn the loss of a child, and 2) the personal need to respond to the Gospel.

  1. For those who have suffered the loss of a child comfort is available in the face of such loss but it does not come from speculating about your child’s salvation but hoping in the promises of God such as, Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted (Matt 5:4).
  2. The Lord commands all people everywhere to repent… (Acts 17:30).

The Lord’s Sweetest Blessings,

Pastor Chris

[1] In 2015 there were 185,824 in England and Wales (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/may/17/abortion-rate-england-and-wales-five-year-high).

[2] I believe it is possible to differentiate between the immorality of abortion for instance and issues of infant salvation.

[3] Jesus saying, “let the little come to me” has as little to do with salvation as it does baptism, rather Jesus is breaking down barriers in the apostles hearts, because the Gospel was not meant for “us” (the disciples or the Jews) but for them (Jews and Gentiles and all who believe).

[4] This is very similar to forms of universalism where it is believed people will get a second chance before entering heaven to believe (but see Heb 9:27).

An Interesting Question

One of the great joys of being a pastor is that people ask you some interesting questions. Sometimes those questions force you to wrestle and pray, other times they are quite straightforward, and still on other occasions the question is so multi-layered it requires a less straightforward answer. The question I was recently asked was this:

When we are united with loved ones in heaven what age would they be?

Let’s break this question down.

Loved Ones

First we need to affirm that not all dogs go to heaven. If someone is a Christian and goes to heaven there are many loved ones that will not be there. Hell is a reality that should cause us to lament sin and urge our loved ones to believe the Gospel so we might spend eternity with them!

Jesus spoke of hell more than anyone in the New Testament. He said, “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matt 25:46; for 10 verses on the eternity of hell click here).

The truth is that no human is naturally good in our fallen world and so NONE are therefore deserving of heaven (Ps 14). That God in His mercy pardon’s some is pure amazing grace! Jesus made it clear that He was “the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (Jn 14:6). That is no one can be counted righteous and able to stand in the presence of God and be counted as His unless Jesus died to pay for that sin. But Jesus did not die for everyone but for those who would believe in Him. When the Lord gives us eyes of faith to behold the light amidst our darkness and we believe in Him, Jesus’ righteousness is imputed to the believer so that when the Father looks upon them He does not see their sin but Christ’s righteousness.

Recalling Jesus famous words from John 3:16-18:

16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

If a loved one is a Christian it should be self-evident. The Bible calls us to not be naive in this matter but to look for fruit (proof, evidence)! Here are three things to look for in a Christian (there are more, for some read 1 John). A Christian will believe in Jesus and profess them as their Lord of life and Saviour from sin. This is important. Many people say “Jesus, Jesus” but the Lord will say to them “I never knew you.” Nominal Christians go to hell. Authentic Christians alone are spared God’s wrath. Upon belief the Lord promises the gift of the Holy Spirit whose job it is to restore us into the likeness of Christ. If He is at work you WILL see progressive growth in holiness and the presence of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23). But Jesus rarely called people to believe in Him. Usually He called them to follow Him. A third sign that someone is a Christian is that they are seeking to follow and obey Christ. Their choices, actions, associations and involvement will add credence to whether their heart has been made right with God.

Heaven

If you, or your loved one, is a Christian then they are blessed to receive the promises of life eternal, which begins the moment they believe and lasts for eternity. But before we get to what age that individual will be in heaven we must first address the concept of “heaven” for it is often grossly misunderstood.

The central hope of the New Testament, outside the Gospel, is the return of Christ, the Ressurection of the dead and the life everlasting in the New Heavens and New Earth (Isa 65:17, 22; 2 Pet 3:13; Rev 21:1-2). This is very different from “heaven” as many people imagine it (i.e. Cloud 9). What people often think of as heaven—while wonderful—falls short of this great hope and is known as “the intermediate state.” This is the presence of the Lord where the soul or spirit (depending on whether you are a dichotomist [human=body+soul] or a trichotomist [human=body+soul (will, mind, emotion)+spirit]. Throughout the New Testament are examples of believer’s souls/spirits that have gone to be with the Lord to await His second coming. To be honest, the Bible tells us very little about what it will be like to exist in this state (though it we could make some inferences). What the Bible is much more interested in telling us about is the final hope. When Jesus returns there will be the Resurrection of the Dead (1 Cor 15), the judgement of the nations and then Christians will join Christ in the New Heavens and the New Earth and the wicked will go away to eternal punishment.

Age

With those points clarified let’s get to the main question about age. What age will our Resurrected, Glorified bodies be (Phil 3:21)? There are many things the Bible tells us (everything we need to know to be saved and to walk in a way that pleases God and have a certain hope). Somethings it only reveals in part and somethings remain a mystery. The closest answer to what age we will be in our resurrected bodies is to consider Jesus’ resurrected body. Jesus is the first fruit of the Resurrection (1 Cor 15:20). His physical and yet glorified body is like what we can expect we will be like after the Resurrection. While the Bible doesn’t say this, many Christians through the centuries have reasoned that because Jesus was 33 when He rose from the dead (He began His three year ministry at 30) then the Christian too will be about that age, but we cannot be certain. C.S Lewis tried to describe it this way in his children’s book entitled the Last Battle (chapter, “Through the stable door.”). The old would look young again while retaining their essential likeness, and so too with the youth, they would appear older and yet full of life and still recognisable:

Seven Kings and Queens stood before him [Tirian]…He stared hard at her face, and then gasped in amazement, for he knew her. It was Jill: but not Jill as he had last seen her, with her face all dirt and tears and an old drill dress half slipping off one shoulder. Now she looked cool and fresh, as fresh as if she had just come from bathing. And at first he thought she looked older, but then didn’t, and he could never make up his mind on that point. And then he saw the youngest of the Kings was Eustace: but he also was changed as Jill was changed.

Tirian suddenly felt awkward about coming among these people with the blood and dust and sweat of a battle still on him. Next moment he realized that he was not in that state at all. He was fresh and cool and clean, and dressed in such clothes as he would have worn for a great feast at Cair Paravel…Then he [High King Peter] led him to the eldest of the Queens- but even she was not old, and there were no grey hairs on her head and no wrinkles on her cheek…

Whatever age the Christian will be, won’t it be wonderful?

The Lord’s Sweetest Blessings,

Pastor Chris