Thursday, October 13, 2005

Infant salvation

Many within the Reformed community believe in universal infant salvation. Traditionally, Warfield has classified no fewer than five different positions on this issue:


1.From the beginning a few held with Zwingli that death in infancy is a sign of election, and hence that all who die in infancy are the children of God and enter at once into glory. After Zwingli, Bishop Hooper was probably the first to embrace this view. It has more lately become the ruling view.

2.At the opposite extreme a very few held that the only sure sign of election is faith with its fruits, and, therefore, we can have no real ground of knowledge concerning the fate of any infant; as, however, God certainly has his elect among them too, each man can cherish the hope that his children are of the elect. Peter Martyr approaches this sadly agnostic position.

3.Many held that faith and the promise are sure signs of election, and accordingly all believes and their children are certainly saved; but the lack of faith and the promise is an equally sure sign of reprobation, so that all the children of unbelievers, dying such, are equally certainly lost. The younger Spanheim, for example, writes…”they are justly reprobated by God on account of the corruption and guilt derived to them by natural propagation.

4.More held that faith and the promise are certain signs of election, so that the salvation of believers’ children is certain, while the lack of the promise only leaves us in ignorance of God’s purpose; nevertheless that there is good ground for asserting that both election and reprobation have place in this unknown sphere. Accordingly, they held that all the infants of believers, dying such, are saved, but that some of the infants of unbelievers, dying such, are lost. Probably no higher expression of this general view can be found that John Owen’s.

5.Most Calvinists of the past, however, have simply held that faith and the promise are marks by which we may know assuredly that all those who believe and their children, dying such, are elect and saved, while the absence of sure marks of either election or reprobation in infants, dying such outside the covenant, leaves us without ground for inference concerning them…It is this cautious, agnostic view which has the best historical right to be called the general Calvinistic one. Van Mastricht correctly says…

Warfield, Works, 9:431-434.


Warfield also mentions that “Calvin seems, while speaking with admirable caution, to imply that he believed some infants dying such to be lost,” ibid. 431, n66.

1.Let us remember that this is by no means a debate confined to Calvinism. The traditional rationale for infant baptism was the presupposition that infants were hell-bound due to original sin unless they received the sacrament of baptism. Although Catholicism has softened its initial position, it can only do so by impeaching its rationale for infant baptism.

2.Logically speaking, the structure of Presbyterian theology is more predisposed to universal infant salvation than Reformed Baptist theology. To some extent, then, you have the same arguments and counterarguments for universal infant salvation as you have for infant baptism.

3.Related to (2) is the assumption that if some infants are lost, they are the infants of unbelievers.

Speaking for myself, I don’t see how this is supposed to follow. In the case of adults, we know for a fact that election cuts across family lines: that you have elect children of reprobate parents and reprobate children of elect parents—as well as elect children of elect parents and reprobate children of reprobate parents. So I don’t see any pattern here from which one could extrapolate to the case of infant mortality.

3.In the nature of the case, universal infant salvation is justified on the grounds of some chronological threshold. This is variously called the age of discretion or the age of accountability.

Although the two terms are used interchangeably, the concepts are hardly synonymous. Scriptural evidence for an age of discretion is not necessarily evidence for an age of accountability—especially in light of original sin.

4.On the face of it, the chronological threshold seems pretty artificial—if not wholly so. If a child dies at the age of 6, he is saved--but if the very same child dies at the age of 8, he is damned? One is, in effect, positing a transition from election to reprobation.

This is a hypothetical transition, to be sure, but the whole discussion is hypothetical in the absence of clear revelation. Does your eternal fate really turn on which side of the age range you fall on? Is that the boundary-condition?

This doesn’t seem to be an argument that has nature in its favor. After all, cognitive development ranges along a continuum. It’s not as if the kid goes to bed one night below the age of discretion and wakes up the next morning above the age of discretion.

And it’s hard to see how grace would respect a chronological threshold. How is the boundary drawn? Where is it drawn? Why is it drawn? If it isn’t a natural boundary or a gracious boundary, then what is it?

Is there really some invisible line to cross? Is the same line in the same place in the case of every human being? Or only those who die in infancy? Does God have the same line for those who die in infancy in some possible world, but not the actual world? The whole scheme strikes me as hopelessly ad hoc.

5.The question of infant salvation is a limiting-case of hell. The reason for these makeshift distinctions is the unbearable specter of babies burning in hell. But is that an accurate depiction?

Once again, this ranges along a continuum. Consider the opposite end of the spectrum. What about the specter of your dear old grandmother roasting in the everlasting bonfire. Is that any less intolerable?

What about your mother or father? What about an adult child who dies prematurely?

Everyone is related to someone. Most-all of us would like to exempt our own family members for liability to damnation.

So the logic for universal infant salvation is really of a piece with the logic for universal salvation, simpliciter. And, by that same token, the logic is reversible. If everyone is not saved, then…

Many things in life are unbearable, yet we go on with life. We all live with a certain amount of sorrow and heartache--some more than others. Life is a fallen world is rife with personal tragedy.

6.Let’s go back to the specter of babies burning in hell.

i) Of course, much of what makes this mental image repellent is just that—the colorful imagery. But let’s not mistake Dante for whatever hell is really like. What we’re literally talking about is the state of the soul—whether a younger or older soul, which--at the general resurrection--will be reunited with a body.

ii) Is the age you die at the age you remain? If you die at 90, are you still 90 in heaven?

In heaven, wouldn’t you, in a sense, age up, age down, or both? You would age down in the sense that if you were past your prime when you died, you’d then revert to an optimal time of life—both mentally (in the intermediate state) and physically (in the final state). But you’d also continue to mature—in that same ageless and youthful state—to mature intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.

iii) The same with those who go to hell. Suppose that some of the great bloodletters of history like Hitler and Stalin and Mao and Attila and Harry Blackmum and Genghis Khan had died in childhood, died before they murdered their millions. And suppose they went to hell.

Should we really visualize them as cute, curly-haired, cherubic babies in hell—50 years later, a 100 years later? Or should be visualize them as what they became, and worse—far worse. In fact, if you put anyone in hell, without the preservative of common grace, much less saving grace, they’ll all turn into a Hitler or Blackmun or Stalin—a super-duper Hitler or Blackmun or Stalin.

What you have here is a natural evolution of sin, from seed to full flower. It is not a little angel turning into devil, but a little devil turning into a bigger devil.

iv) And when we debate the merits of universal infant salvation, not only are we forming a mental image of babies in heaven or hell, but we’re tacitly projecting our mental image onto the mind of God, as if he is visualizing the very same spectacle.

But does God see a baby as a baby, as only a baby? According to Ps 139:16, God sees a baby as a storybook character in a novel that he himself has written. His entire life and afterlife is present to the mind of God—present because he penned every single page.

What is more—God has a number of unpublished manuscripts as well. Books that never went to press. Books he’s written with alternative endings (cf. 1 Sam 23:11-12; Mt 11:21-23).

The point is not that God chooses according to what’s in the book. The point, rather, is that what’s in the book is according to God’s choosing.

Moreover, when we see a baby or a little child, that is literally all we see. We don’t see the soul. But God sees the invisible soul. Not only does he see the future, but he sees an delitescent dimension of the present. Parts of his book are written in invisible ink—legible to his eyes alone.

7.My purpose is not to stake out a firm position on this issue, but to simply draw attention to some neglected considerations.


  1. Thank you for this post. I appreciate it.

  2. This is a subject I have pondered many times over the years. One thing I have come to realize is that most of these explorations into the inner workings of the eternal realms leave out one very important element. That element being the judgements of YHVH.

    Most of us have some memory, when we were just little guys, of watching our mother make something in the kitchen. Us trying to see over the edge of the counter in hopes of understanding what the outcome would be. At a young age, the 4 to 6 range would be common, the interest was most likely to find out if it would be dessert, or just another meal with vegetables. But, really, even with the aid of a stool to get a better look, did we know what we were looking at? In the early stages of baking it would be difficult for a child to know what was intended. So the question was always asked, "are you making cookies?".

    As we see larger numbers of people gravitating towards doctrines that do not contain judgement of any kind, is it so hard to imagine that the idea of how the judgements of YHVH are carried out has become unknown to us? Not understanding His judgements from His perspective leaves us with the uncomfortable task of imagining what the result of those judgements would be, from a human standpoint. Hence the painful imagery we see in art and writings.

    Torah contains so many clear pictures of how YHVH judges the deeds of mankind. From children to adults.

    One example might be the "cities of refuge" that were established for those who had broken Torah, by the taking of a person's life, but had not done it intentionaly. YHVH protected the person's life here on earth to show that He did not hold that person guilty. There is, of course, a deeper lesson for the family of the victim, but that is for another time.

    Another example would be the age at which the sons of those chosen to be in charge of the moving of the Tabernacle in the Wilderness could begin their duties. That age was twenty years. This was due to the seriousness of the job where a mistake could cost you your life. I'm sure the fathers spent a good amount of time instructing their sons on just how to go about their assigned tasks.

    My point is this: while we try to see over the edge of the counter in order to glimpse all those fascinating moves which turn a collection of ingredients into a suprise, we often do not understand how many little judgements are made along the way to the final product.

    For me, the final product is the salvation of all His people. In this He will not fail. Though His ways are past finding out, the end will be as He said, with those whom He has glorified standing before the His throne, giving Him praise for so great a deliverance.

    There are other examples to look at in the NT. Maybe tomorrow.

    Thank you for writing this post. It needs to be discussed much more than it currently is as it leads to deeper truths we all should know. At least, that is my opinion.


  3. Excellent post Steve. Your inclusion of Blackmun with Hitler and Stalin is accurate, I concur. This is a great jumping off point to discuss this issue that all too often is couched in emotional opinion rather than sound exegesis of Scripture.