What happens to the innocents?

As I’ve been researching the history of the doctrine of original sin, I’ve been pondering the eternal destiny of persons whom I’m calling “the innocents.” By innocent, I mean any person who does not have the capacity to understand and accept or reject the gospel. This includes those who died as infants, those who were aborted, and those who are born without sufficient mentally ability through a defect or damage.

The inherited guilt view

According to the traditional “inherited guilt” view of original sin, I think the only answer to the question of what happens to the innocents must be, “They are damned.”  Here’s why:

  1. According to this view, all human beings inherit Adam’s guilt.
  2. Being guilty, all human beings are therefore deserving of God’s wrath.
  3. In order to appease God’s wrath, all human beings must trust in Jesus before they die.
  4. The innocents have not done this and are therefore condemned.

Those who hold to inherited guilt commonly respond to this question in one of two ways:

  1. They agree with the above, and reason that God is God, and we should not presume to judge his ways.
  2. They disagree with points 3 and 4 above, saying God makes an exception for persons in this category, so that some or all of them will be saved.

First response: God is God

The first response (God is God) was advocated by Augustine, as he worked out his doctrine of original sin. Infants who died before being baptized would not be allowed entrance into the kingdom of God, and that was that. It seems to me that Augustine was the most logically consistent of those who hold to inherited guilt, as we shall see.

This view does uphold God’s sovereignty, but it does nothing to defend his honor or his justice. Some readers might protest that God does not need to be defended, but I think we need to go no farther than to read the Bible to find out God disagrees. Consider the extended passages in both the Old and New Testaments, which go to great lengths to describe God’s process of judging in order to demonstrate that it is not only just and fair, but also understandable to humans. For examples, see Ps 82.1-8, Ez 18.1-30, Mt 25.14-46, Rev 20.11-15. In each case, God’s process for judging, his motivations, his use of evidence, and his judgments are laid out in a way which we are expected to understand and recognize as appropriate and fair. God is actually inviting us to judge his ways and see that “he judges the world with righteousness; he judges the peoples with uprightness” (Ps 9.8).

What I am saying is this: God himself is telling us how he goes about judging who will receive eternal life and who will not. There is no mystery and his ways in this matter are not hidden. Keep this in mind as we proceed and see how some people want to appeal to mystery to address the issue of the salvation of the innocents.

Second response: God makes an exception

The second response (God makes an exception) shows the great lengths which defenders of inherited guilt will go to both affirm inherited guilt and get innocents into heaven. The conclusions they reach become increasingly ad hoc and unsound. Let’s take a look at some.

Jesus loves the little children

Some writers look at the way Jesus interacts with children in Mt 19.13-15. Their claim is that because Jesus both welcomes children and notes that they have characteristics similar to what we’ll find in the kingdom of heaven, that this means God will extend salvation to infants. 

Note the argument here; it goes something like this:

Premise 1: Jesus welcomes children.
Premise 2: Children have something in common with persons who will be in the kingdom of heaven.
Conclusion: All children will be in heaven.

It sounds nice, doesn’t it? And I’ve heard this from respected Christians, pastors of churches and leaders of ministries. To me, though, it’s a really bizarre argument. I wonder: just what is it that gets these children into heaven? Is it simply that Jesus welcomes them? Is it these specific children who will be in heaven, or is Jesus referring to all children, or all children who are like these children, or perhaps persons of all ages who are like these children?

Before making any conclusions about what Jesus is teaching, let’s first consider if the argument above could apply to any other group of people besides children. As it turns out, it can.

Consider that all four gospels affirm that Jesus was welcoming to sinners such as tax collectors and prostitutes, eating with them and visiting them in their homes. Jesus also told the chief priests in Mt 21.31, “The tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you.” Should we assume that because Jesus was kind to tax collectors and prostitutes, welcomed them, and noted similarities between them and what we’ll see in the kingdom, that all tax collectors will be saved? If so, the argument goes like this:

Premise 1: Jesus welcomes tax collectors and prostitutes.
Premise 2: Tax collectors and prostitutes have something in common with those who will be in the kingdom of heaven.
Conclusion: All tax collectors and prostitutes will be in heaven.

Why should children or infants get a break and not tax collectors? We know that even though children have only lived a few years, they have certainly sinned in some way (at least mine have), and are therefore just as guilty before God as the adult tax collector. According to this argument, though, tax collectors are just as qualified for heaven as children! Clearly, we can see that this logic is flawed, and it takes more than the welcoming kindness of Jesus to save us.

But more than that, the stories in Matthew 19 and 21 are not trying to teach us precisely who will be in heaven. Instead, Jesus is using each event as a teaching tool, to show us the characteristics of those persons we will find in heaven. In chapter 19, Jesus was telling the disciples they could learn something from the children. In the same way, Jesus in chapter 21 was telling the chief priests that they could learn something from the tax collectors and prostitutes. In neither case was he making a judgment about their salvation. Jesus was kind and welcoming to all kinds of people, even some religious leaders (!), but that should not lead us to make any conclusions about their eternal destiny.

The Reformers make exceptions

The notion that infants are treated as a special case is not a recent development. The Westminster Confession reads, “Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated.”

However, not all Reformers agreed with the Westminster Confession, nor with each other. For example, Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin each had a different view on the salvation of infants, as do their successors. It really isn’t possible to say that the Reformers all held to the same doctrine regarding the fate of the innocents. In general, though, they all held to the notion of God making an exception in the case of infants; it is the reason for the exception which differed. For example, the exception could be that the infant had been baptized, or was a child of believing parents, or maybe hadn’t reached the age of accountability, or some combination of these or other factors.

It gets even more muddled. As stated above, the Westminster Catechism affirms that elect infants who die in infancy will be saved, but some who hold to inherited guilt affirm that all who die in infancy are elect. But regardless of whether some or all infants are saved, this line of reasoning seems to completely overlook the glaring affirmation I pointed out above: all human beings are guilty of Adam’s sin. How are infants saved if they are still guilty?

Remember that under the “inherited guilt” view of original sin, these infants are actually guilty of Adam’s sin, and that guilt alone is enough to condemn them. This sin is only removed via baptism or repentance, depending on the Reformer. According to the Reformers, then, we have persons in heaven who have not been cleansed of Adam’s guilt.

And that brings us to the exception. Folks like Luther and Calvin say that God makes an exception for infants because they haven’t committed any sins of their own. And that’s precisely the problem I have with this view: if the Reformer is saying that God makes an exception in the case of an infant and removes the guilt of Adam’s sin, then what is the purpose of this guilt anyway? If God can just remove it, then why apply it? And furthermore, what is stopping God from unilaterally removing guilt from all persons? (This is what Wesley taught, by the way.) What is it about infants that causes God to overlook the inherited guilt of infants, but not to do the same for adults? Is the inherited guilt somehow held in escrow, and only kicks in when the person begins to sin on his or her own? As odd as that sounds, it is exactly what some Reformers taught.

If the infant is in fact guilty of Adam’s sin, as the Reformer affirms, then the Reformer must create increasingly convoluted and ad hoc ways of continuing to hold to inherited guilt while also removing that guilt from an innocent who is unable to repent.

In a future blog post, I’ll describe another way — a way that not only affirms God’s wisdom and justice, but is also biblical, reasonable, and consistent in all cases.

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