What Happens to Unbaptized Infants Who Die?
And when is the age of accountability?
If the doctrine of original sin is true, and everyone is born with a sinful nature and a rebel towards God, what happens to babies who die? Do babies go to hell? Do they go to heaven?
Do they go someplace in between?
Augustine of Hippo said babies go to hell for eternal punishment, but added that they get a mild sort of punishment. If there’s such a thing. The following comes from the Catholic Encyclopedia:
St. Augustine and the African Fathers believed that unbaptized infants share in the common positive misery of the damned (i.e., hell), and the very most that St. Augustine concedes is that their punishment is the mildest of all.
Eight hundred years after Augustine, a French philosopher named Peter Abelaard (1079–1142) said dead infants went to a cooler place on the edge of hell. He called this place the Limbo of Infants. (The word limbo comes from the Latin word limbus meaning edge.)
“But Paul, I don’t want my child to go to hell or even the edge of hell. What can I do?”
Fear not. Augustine offers a way out: “An infant’s original sin is remitted through baptism.”
If you have ever wondered why Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Moravians, and others baptize their babies, this is why. A sprinkle of water and voila, your child has a get-out-of-hell-free card.
Infant baptism, the cure for your baby’s sin
In the Catholic Church infants are baptized or sprinkled within a few weeks of their birth, but sometimes the ritual is not performed until they are six months old. So infant baptism offers no relief to those who have lost newborn babies.
I have friends who lost their precious son shortly after he was born. It was a heartbreaking tragedy. But at least they weren’t fed Augustine’s line about babies going to hell.
In fairness, many Catholics don’t agree with either Augustine or Abelaard. In its 1980 “Instruction on Children’s Baptism”, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith reaffirmed that: “with regard to children who die without having received baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God.”
Trusting a lost child to the mercy of God is a lot more compassionate that condemning them to hell.
The Lutherans have a similar view to the Catholics. They do not know what happens to unbaptized infants but they trust God has it figured out:
There is some basis for the hope that God has a method, not revealed to us, by which he works faith in the children of Christians dying without baptism (Mark 10:13–16). For children of unbelievers we do not venture to hold out such hope. We are here entering the field of the unsearchable judgments of God (Romans 11:33).
You have to give the Lutherans credit for abandoning Augustine’s damnable diagnosis, but they lose marks for condemning the children of the unsaved and for being uncertain about the will of God.
Some Protestant denominations practice infant baptism, but others don’t. How do those in the second group deal with hell-bound babies? Most give them a free pass until they reach the age of accountability.
Until the child reaches an age where they are accountable for their actions, the thinking goes, God will not hold them responsible for their sin.
The age of accountability myth
How old does a child need to be before they become accountable? Nobody knows. Some say seven years, others say ten, but definitely by the age of thirteen.
What if the child is a late bloomer, has Downs Syndrome, or is otherwise different?
These are the questions that keep theologians busy writing books, but the short answer is nobody knows. And the reason nobody knows is because the age of accountability is a manmade solution for a manmade problem.
Like Augustine’s doctrine of original sin, the age of accountability teaching is not found in the Bible. It’s a fiction.
Although there are scriptures that speak of children being too young to know the difference between good and evil, there is nothing to suggest that God gives grace to kids for a limited time only.
The truth is God gives grace to all of us, young and old alike. Because of Jesus, not even adults are held accountable for their sins (2 Cor. 5:19). We are not judged by how good or bad we are. We are judged by our response to Jesus.
So what happens to babies who die? Do babies go to hell on account of original sin?
This question has led to much confusion and hand-wringing. It has caused some to abandon the faith (because God is cruel) and others to embrace universalism (because a good God could never do this). Uncertainty over their children leaves parents riddled with anxiety and prone to deception.
Bad questions usually lead to bad places.
The gospel for babies
What would Jesus say if he was asked about babies and young children? He would say “the kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (Luke 18:16).
However, because we have swallowed so much religious mumbo-jumbo we doubt whether the kingdom really does belong to such as these.
We have been fed the Augustinian lie that babies are bad to the bone. We’ve heard the Calvinist trollop that infants are depraved little sinners.
Some say that babies will be judged according to the light of their revelation. But how much revelation does a new-born have? What about a miscarried baby?
Others say God looks into the baby’s future and judges them for what they would’ve done. This is absurd. The baby died. They didn’t do anything. How can a just God judge them for what they didn’t do?
The problem with these silly scenarios is they define faith as something you must do, while unbelief is doing nothing at all. Since babies do nothing, they must be unbelievers. But this is back to front. In the Bible unbelief is described as a work and faith is a rest.
What happens to babies and children who die young? They go to be with Jesus.
Every. Single. One.
If you have lost an infant or child, you can be 100 percent certain about this. Don’t listen to those comfortless frowners who say your child is lost, but trust the One who said his kingdom belonged to such as these.
It is a mistake to say babies are rebels, but it’s also incorrect to say babies are righteous and holy. So how do we deal with verses that say things like “without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14)? We don’t. We give those verses to God and trust him to figure it out.
Like the Catholics and Lutherans we entrust our unbaptized babies to the mercy of God.
Happily, God’s mercy is vast beyond all comprehension. His mercy trumps any judgment that may come against our children (Jas. 2:13).
If we could see heaven right now we would find that it is full of the lost children of earth – deceased babies, HIV babies, aborted babies, and miscarried babies. I don’t know what age they are in heaven, but I know they are there.
How do I know? Because if grace is for anyone, it is for babies and children such as these.
Extracted and adapted from Paul’s ebook, Original Sin: What Does the Bible Really Say? available now on Patreon, along with these great titles:
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Just thought I would let you know that I cried after reading this. Once again you have helped me to see how gracious and big our loving God really is. Shame on those who have sought to put added burdens on those who might have lost a child by letting them think they are in hell. David said concerning his dead child in 2 Samuel 12:23 – ” I will go to him one day, but he cannot return to me.” And that was about a child conceived in adultery.
Thanks for the comment, Earl. Yes, I think David had a better understanding of this issue than some people today.
Paul, you misrepresent the baptism of infants in the Lutheran faith. It is not a get- out-of-hell-free card. I used to say things like that before I studied what a sacrament is…and how precious and gracious Christ’s coming to us through a physical means really is.
Hi Cheryl, if you click on the link I provide in the article you can see the Lutheran source directly. If you disagree with the view that Lutherans trust babies to the mercy of God, what do you think happens to them?
You missed what I was saying. Baptism of infants (or anyone) is so much more than “getting out of hell free.” It is Christ through the Holy Spirit coming to those who cannot earn their salvation (everyone). Through the physical means of water and the Word of God, they are “sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” It is being buried in his death and raised to new life in his resurrection (1 Peter 3:20-21). This is one of the great graces we are offered. Parents promise to raise their children in the faith, and the work of the Holy Spirit in that life is nurtured. The child affirms that the faith is theirs when they are older and have studied the scriptures. Sacramental churches “confirm” that faith at different ages, but it’s not called the “age of accountability” as in some denominations.
As for infants who die, I have no doubt that God’s great mercy and love claim them forever. God is not limited by our doctrines or our interpretations of Scripture. I have 9 grandchildren being raised in evangelical churches who are not baptized, and there’s no doubt in my mind that the Holy Spirit is as active in their lives as the 4 who were baptized as infants.
Hi Cheryl, I apologize for missing your point and I agree that rituals can be important to our faith. When our four children were infants we dedicated each one to the Lord.
Regarding the issue of infant baptism: I think I understand what you are saying, although it does seem a bit contradictory given the example of your grandchildren. Are you saying that your baptized grandchildren are saved and sealed by the Holy Spirit and your unbaptized grandchildren are too? If that is the case, what difference does infant baptism make to their salvation?
I have written elsewhere on 1 Peter 3:20-21 and the baptism that saves.
“And when He has come, He will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: of sin, because they do not believe in Me;”
John 16:8-9 NKJV
Once a person (no set age) is presented with the Truth of the Gospel and they understand their need for Jesus, they are held accountable. Not a mystery. Not a myth.
So what do you think happens to babies who die?
Christ died to all sin. We have all been forgiven ( 1 John 2:2 ) but not all of us have been saved. When we by faith believe in the DBR of Jesus Christ we receive eternal life.( 1 Corinthians 15:1-4 ) Babies on the other hand cannot make this choice but since they have already been forgiven through the blood of Christ, God will receive them freely and lovingly.
To be fair …Calvinists say elect infants to to heaven, and some believe all go to heaven
John Calvin didn’t think that. He taught “that men are born vicious” and “obnoxious to the wrath of God.” He allegedly said, “There are babies a span long in hell.”
Yes! God’s grace is the answer.
But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that we were still sinners, Christ died for us. – Romans 5:8
All are saved unless we despise God’s gift of salvation. Babies are saved as well as people who have not heard of the gospel.
Whether we are comfortable with this truth or not, the Bible clearly distinguishes between the infants of believers and the infants of unbelievers, both in the Old and New Testaments. ‘The children of believers are “holy” (clean) whereas the children of unbelievers are not “holy” but “unclean”‘ (1 Cor. 7:14)…
So you’re saying the infants of unbelievers are lost?
If they receive Jesus as their Savior they are not lost. What I said is that Biblically there is a distinction…children of one believing parent are called holy.
I guess if you believe in the inherited depravity of sinners, it makes sense that you would also believe in the inherited righteousness of believers. I find both ideas are unbiblical and it is not what Paul is saying in 1 Cor. 7:14. I have never heard an infant confess Jesus as Lord either.
I grew up Catholic so I am well familiar with the doctrines you shared. Nearly anything could send you to hell. this religion drove me away from God when I turned 18. To be fair, some other denominations caused equal damage building fear & condemnation. So thankful for teachers like you, Paul, bringing needed revelation of God’s Word & His grace. Thank you!
I am.not into the “ religious stance” of ABBA being so black and white that it seems almost impossible to “be and stay saved” neither am I a “ universalist-all saved and accepted” regardless. However Our Jesus and Holy Spirit included so many things in the Word that seemed contrary to Abbas “salvation,acceptance plan” and our assumption of it that confounded so called “ expert believers” at every turn- Matthew 18:3 ark 10:15 ALL children,the Phoenician woman,,the centurion with the dying servant Philip and the eunuch, Peter in Acts 10 oh much more.ABBA included them for a reason !for example I brought up by unbelievers was an unbeliever but when I nearly died and lost consciousness and in the physical to people here on earth it looked like I was going – lost the Lord came to me in the spirit revealed to me who He was and I was able to acceptI Him you see I believe this does/ can happen to others who don’t “ come back” I was dying and unable to “respond” anymore to anything let alone Jesus but I was still conscious in the spirit and able to respond to the most vital “ Invitation” of all. We cannot afford to limit, God for we do not fully understand what He is doing to/ for us in the “spiritual” We need to give ABBA more credit,let Him give us a BIGGER,fuller revelation of Who He is/what He is doing behind the physical ,natural reality in the spiritual where He actually is with us and to trust Him with the” contrary “things we do not understand,”see” or get.
So would you say you had a “near death experience” – as many others testify to – and were born again – though originally and unbeliever before you “died clinically? And so you think that could happen to the unborn?
An other gem of wisdom! Thank you Paul!
There is no safer or better place to be than in God’s hands. This can certainly be no less true for infants and children.
Babies are born receivers, they have to be taught to be fearful of an angry judgmental God. They have no baggage stemming from trying to be their own solution, they’re not trying to hide their shame, their guilt and condemnation by reaching for fig leaf style solutions to coddle their egos.
If we learn about the true nature of God from Jesus, (instead of Moses and the prophets) questions like these fall like dominoes. “Do not prevent the little ones from coming to me”.
When Jesus makes his offer to them they simply receive.
How can it be that in the year 2023 we are still talking about, and even studying, the rambling of guys as delusional as Augustine and John Calvin, as if they were some kind of heroes? And since when did the wage of sin become eternal life?
So thankful for your teaching. God bless you, brother.
Thanks for sharing good insight, Paul. I have touched on this in response to previous articles and you responded that it was not on topic, but I think in this case it’s quite on point to touch on the matter or the fictitious Augustinian eternal damnation again. The proper reading and understanding of Greek words and phrases used, as well as their Hebrew counterparts, has no such understanding. Eternal damnation is simply not in the scriptures and it is as important to understand that as it is to understand that there is no original sin, DNA corruption, etc in new-born little humans.
I used to believe these lies about hell, but not anymore, since I started going beyond the surface in English and other translations, and started investigating the words the original authors chose and also those they didn’t choose to use. It’s both liberating and an infinite source of joy at the realisation of the Goodness and Grace of the Father!
Before the resurrection, everyone was dead spiritually. Humanity up unto the cross was dead spiritually. When Christ died to the sins of the world, there was no longer any condemnation from God for sin in the world. The world was already forgiven of all sin but justification came by way of the resurrection. Forgiveness does not save but provided the way to gain resurrected life by believing that Christ died, was buried and rose again for our justification because of what He did. Babies go to heaven because the sin issue no longer applies to humanity and they are justified by the grace of God because they never had a choice to know the way and accept this new resurrected life.
Are we really so sure that the condemnation came from God?
I suppose if we are to accept it does then all those babies before Jesus were . . .??
Yes because of sin. Romans 8:1 says that there is now no condemnation so obviously, the condemnation was from God because of sin. All those who died before the cross but believed that the promised messiah would come were all saved after the cross including all the innocent babies who also passed before the cross.
There is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus…. “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.”
Romans 8:1……but there is still conviction of sin by the Holy Spirit for those in the world outside of Christ…. “And when He has come, He will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: of sin, because they do not believe in Me;”
John 16:8-9 ……how else will people know their need for a Savior!
It is not the removal of sin that saves, It is the resurrected life that does. Forgiveness is not salvation but provided the way to it. The world has already been forgiven of sin but not all the world has believed in Jesus Christ to receive eternal life”. People will realize that they need a savior to save them from the condemnation of God which is the penalty of death because of their unbelief in Him which can never be forgiven( John 16:9 ) and not the condemnation from sins that have already been destroyed on the cross.
You need to remember there is no such an object as “sin”. Sin is simply the failure to hit the target, so if you failed to hit the target before, by the redeeming work that Jesus did, you are no longer held to account for that. Hitting the target (not sinning) now is to accept the hypergrace extended to all of creation and allowing the renewal of the mind and teaching of the Spirit of God to succeed in hitting the target. If sin was such a big problem the scriptures would not have said that David pleased the Lord. That is because “sin” is not a state, but a failure. Not believing and accepting (even if it was to come, as it was for David) the work of Christ is the problem.
Paul, this is ABOVE AND BEYOND excellent! Thank you sir. Keep giving people (including infants) HEAVEN. It sure beats the alternative. – Terry T
Thanks for the encouragement, Terry.
I have a bit a problem with the following conclusion:
If all babies are saved but not all adults are saved, then it would have been better for the lost adults if they had died as babies
Hi Johannes. I hear this a lot. Here’s my response.