I will never forget that day.
A nine-month-old daughter of one of our church members had fallen victim to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. I was asked to perform the funeral.
As I looked into that tiny casket, I suddenly saw the face of my own nine-month-old son. I had to step out of the room and gather myself.
My sons are my greatest treasure. I cannot imagine the unspeakable pain of burying one.
But death comes to all—some late, some early.
What happens to those who die so young?
What God thinks of children
The great miracle of the Incarnation is not that God would enter the world he made. As Creator, he had every right to visit his creation. The great miracle was that he would do so as a baby.
Rather than appear among us in his heavenly status, the Lord Jesus chose to become one of us. And not first as an adult, but as a fetus, then a newborn, helpless infant. The hands that held the stars were sheltered in a mother’s arms. Christmas tells us what God thinks of children.
King David said of his deceased newborn son, “I will go to him, but he will not return to me” (2 Samuel 12:23). He believed that his child was already where he would one day be and trusted him to the God who made him.
Jesus made clear his feelings on the subject in two separate incidents.
The first is his response to his disciples’ question, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matthew 18:1).
He knew they needed to see the answer more than hear it, so “he called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said, ‘I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’” (vv. 2-3). The “greatest” in God’s kingdom is the one who is most like a child.
Later, some mothers brought their children to Jesus, seeking his blessing (a typical custom with a visiting, famous rabbi). His disciples “rebuked those who brought them” (Matthew 19:13), so Jesus rebuked them: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (v. 14).
It is obvious that “Jesus loves the little children, all the little children of the world.” Our Creator is also “Our Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:9).
So, what happens to one of his children when they die as a child?
Accounting for accountability
We understand that a youth or adult is responsible for what they know of the gospel. If they reject God’s invitation to salvation, the consequences are their own. But what of one who dies before he or she is old enough to understand this invitation?
Additionally, what of those who are not developmentally able to comprehend salvation, whatever their physical age?
John 14:6 makes clear that faith in Jesus is the only way to his Father. By logical extension, it would seem that none who have accepted his offer of salvation can be in heaven, even if they died too young to comprehend such truth.
But God loves his created children. How can he send them to hell for rejecting a Christ they were not old enough to understand?
One popular answer is the “age of accountability.”
Expressed in various ways through different traditions, it reduces to the idea that each person reaches a certain “age” when they are old and mature enough to understand salvation. From that point forward, they are accountable for such knowledge. Prior to this age, they are not accountable and would be in heaven if they died before reaching this life stage. Here is a clear and logical answer to our question.
But is it biblical?
I cannot find clear reference to this concept in the Scriptures.
By absurd logical extension, the most loving thing we could do for our children before they reach this “age” would be to take their lives; then there is no risk that they could understand the gospel, reject it, and be lost.
Of course, such a belief is unspeakably horrific and would be rejected by any who hold to the “age of accountability” doctrine. But it is nonetheless a logical conclusion of this doctrine.
Every Christian parent of a teenager knows that children eventually reach an “age of accountability” where they can understand the gospel. But I’m not sure this theological concept guarantees their eternal life if they die before reaching such a stage.
I think it is more biblical to trust our children into the hands of their Father and Creator, knowing that he knows and loves them. He cited them as the finest examples and exhibits of his kingdom. He wants us to be more like them.
How could he then reject them when they die before they understand how to accept his love?
What about original sin?
I do not intend to minimize the biblical doctrine of inherited sin by asserting that we can trust our children to their Father. We have all inherited a sin nature from Adam (Romans 5:12-14). This propensity to sin does not force us into rebellion against God—we must still choose to actualize such potential. The choice is still ours. Every human being is apparently born with such a tendency toward sin and disobedience.
But to claim that this inherited original sin places a child outside the possibility of eternal life is to reject Jesus’ clear affirmation of the children brought to him.
Every child is saved by God’s grace, whether they are two or twenty years old. None deserves heaven, whether they are old enough to “sin” or not.
Grace is amazing for us all.
If you have lost a child to death, know that your child is not lost at all.
He or she is in the arms of our heavenly Father.
Let his arms shelter you, his child, as well.