Phil Cox

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The innocence of infants

30th November 2013

I'm sometimes asked if I believe that children who die young go to heaven, and I've never been absolutely sure what the answer to that question is. Of course, I'd like to be able to say "Yes" but the Bible doesn't seem to me to answer the question directly.

If you ask me whether young children are sinners, I would have to say "Yes, even the unborn are sinners". I think the Psalmist makes that clear:

Psalm 51v5
Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.

But I recently re-read another verse, which seems to me to say that young children don't experience spiritual death. If that's right, then I think it must also be true that they're not judged by God, and are not condemned. The verse is:

Romans 7v9
Once I was alive apart from law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died.

This seems to me to say that there’s an age at which children become morally responsible for their actions. God didn't judge Paul for his trespasses when he was younger than that, because he wasn't able to make moral judgements then. So, as an infant, Paul was both a sinner and innocent, and so were we.

I don’t know exactly when a child becomes morally responsible, but I do know that the Jews have a ceremony called Bar Mitzvah, when boy is 13 years old, which marks the boy’s coming of age. Bar Mitzvah means “Son of commandment”. In Jewish culture, it doesn’t mean that he’s treated as a fully-fledged adult, but it does mean that he’s held by the community as morally responsible for his actions.

Of course, we have to be careful to distinguish between Jewish ritual and scripture. I’m not saying that we should start giving our children Bar Mitzvahs, or that the Jews should continue to do so, or that they shouldn't. But I do think they’re on to something. I don’t think we can blame a 10-week-old baby for what he does. But clearly, we can blame a 20-year-old-man for what he does. So there must be a point at which the child becomes morally responsible (though not necessarily at 13).

And that’s what I think the infallible word of God is saying here:

  • Paul was alive (spiritually) when he was very young. That is, he was innocent, even though he was a sinner, because God doesn't hold young children responsible for their actions.
  • But he died (spiritually) – that is, he was separated from God because of his sin – when the commandment came. That is, when responsibility for keeping the commandment became his. Paul accepted the responsibility for his actions when he became a son of commandment - at his Bar Mitzvah.

There are other Bible passages which say that young children don't know what's right and what's wrong, or describe them as innocent, including:

Deuteronomy 1:39
... your children who do not yet know good from bad...

Isaiah 7:16
... before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right...

Jeremiah 19:4-5
... they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent. They have built the high places of Baal to burn their sons in the fire...

If my interpretation of this passage is right, it teaches that children who die when they’re very young, or even are aborted and so are never born at all, are not judged by God, and so are accepted into heaven.

Perhaps Jesus had this idea that young children are innocent in mind when he said:

Matthew 18v3
... he said: "I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 19v14
Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these."

God's court will not condemn little children, because they're innocent (even though they're sinners). But we adults must be declared innocent, as they are innocent, for God's court not to judge us. We can only be declared innocent - justified - through faith in the blood of Christ. And the Holy Spirit comes and sanctifies us, making us more innocent in practice over time.

If anybody has any other relevant scriptures (either supporting this idea or against it) please let me know.