In a debate with James White, atheist David Silverman posed the question, "Are there babies in hell"? Silverman is using that as a wedge issue to show that when you take Christian theology to a logical extreme, many Christians will blink. When push comes to shove, they don't really believe what they say they believe, because they balk at the awful consequences. So I'd like to take a shot at the question.
1. The question is speculative, so any answers will be speculative. If an atheist is going to pose a question like that, he can't turn around and complain that my answers are speculative. If that's his reaction, then don't ask the question in the first place.
2. You can have sincere belief in something without having to have unflinching belief in something. We live in a world that routinely confronts us with hard truths. Even if an atheist succeeds in making a Christian squirm, that doesn't falsify Christian beliefs. Lots of things make us wince, but they can still be true–and often are.
Moreover, it's counterproductive. After all, many people naturally recoil at the grim worldview of atheism, yet atheists don't think that's a reason to reject it.
3. The question is deceptively simple, with hidden assumptions lurking in the underbrush. Before we can answer the question, we must interpret the question. What do the key terms mean? How do we visualize the damned? How do we visualize hell?
4. The short answer is that I don't know the answer. I don't have an informed answer to give.
What could be my source of information? The only reliable source would be divine revelation. But the question is too specialized for Scripture to address. Scripture customarily deals with typical cases. Regarding damnation, Scripture says the damned will by judged by their works. That envisions agents above a certain age.
I don't think Scripture speaks to the fate of those who die before the age of reason. It doesn't address cases of diminished responsibility.
An atheist might complain that I'm ducking the question. Not so. I didn't choose my epistemology to evade this particular question. As matter of principle, there are some things we're in no position to know apart from revelation.
5. Still, my ignorance doesn't rule out the possibility in question. So let's examine that. What is meant by "babies"?
Presumably, that's a synecdoche for children below the age of reason. Children in a condition of diminished responsibility.
In general, what happens to people who die at that age? After they pass into the afterlife, do they stay that age? Do they remain psychologically immature?
I surmise that they continue their cognitive development until they have adult intelligence. Assuming, for the sake of argument, that some people who die at that age go to hell, they don't suffer as children. Rather, they suffer as adults. Give them sufficient time.
6. Since the intermediate state is a discarnate state, it's inaccurate to visualize the afterlife containing physical babies, much less naked babies writhing in fire. When a child dies, the child's soul passes into the afterlife.
I view the intermediate state as analogous to a stable dream or collective dream. A state of mind–or minds.
7. Let's take some paradigm cases of evil men, viz. Ted Bundy, Joseph Mengele, Charles Manson, Stalin, Tamerlane, Genghis Khan. I'm citing extreme examples to establish a point of principle.
Suppose one of them died at five. Would he go to hell? The answer may depend on how we answer another question. What made him so sadistic or heartless?
Suppose he turned out so badly due to crucial experiences during his formative years. If so, then his premature death will interrupt that baleful trajectory. His untimely demise may mean he will turn out quite differently in the afterlife. If he's not evil in the afterlife, then I don't assume he'd go to hell when he died.
8. But suppose he was always twisted. It may not have been evident at first, but even as a young child it began to manifest itself in ominous ways.
In that event, he will mature into the same evil person in the afterlife that he became in this life, had he not died so young. If so, then I'd expect him to go to hell when he dies.
9. What do we mean by hell? Suppose, the moment after Hugh Hefner dies, he awakens in a harem. And he's young again. Paradise!
Only there's a catch: when he looks down he sees to his chagrin that he's missing the one organ he needs to take advantage of his newfound opportunities. For Hefner, that would be hell.
Yet that doesn't require demons with pitchforks plunging him into vats of boiling oil. What makes it hellish is deprivation combined with desire.
A state of mind can be hellish. Take inconsolable loneliness.
From what I can tell, psychopaths and sociopaths are miserable. Their sadistic mindset makes them miserable.
Hell can be continuous existence in mental torment. And that needn't be caused by the surroundings of the damned. Even if the surroundings were idyllic, the damned would still be miserable because it's in their character, in their attitude. And I don't think it's unjust for a person in that condition to remain in that condition.