The Salvation of Infants

The Salvation of Infants April 8, 2022

The Salvation of Infants

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Recently I have been queried by email about the Arminian view of the fate of fetuses and infants who die. The (presumed) Calvinist who has attempted to drag me into admitting some kind of heresy asked me how, in the Arminian view, a fetus or infant can be saved if a person has to freely accept Christ to be saved.

I have heard and read this question before, of course, and I find it odd that anyone would think this is a special problem for Arminians. This heckler clearly does not know enough about the theological problem of infant salvation. Calvinists have even a greater problem than Arminians in this area of theology (soteriology).

In fact, every Christian theology has some problem with infant salvation unless it is universalistic. And that because the Bible does not directly address the issue and because Christian tradition is rife with disagreements about it.

One thing seems clear to me, however, and that is that very, very few Christians (that I have read or met) want to believe that any dying infants go to hell. One Calvinist I read (in doing research for Against Calvinism) said that all infants who die may be presumed to be among the elect. Really? Why? Because God is good and too loving to send infants to hell. Wait. God is too loving and good to send infants to hell but foreordains some people people to hell unconditionally from eternity?

But let’s get back to the issue at hand. Traditionally, Catholics believe that infants who die without baptism go to “Limbo,” but recent popes have declared that mere opinion and not Catholic doctrine. The problem remains unsolved because, in Catholic doctrine, baptism is necessary for salvation. Or is it? Debate among Catholic theologians sometimes leads to disagreement with that traditional Catholic belief about baptism.

I once invited a Lutheran minister, seminary trained, member of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, to speak to my class about Lutheran theology. When asked about the fate of unbaptized infants he said, and I quote, “So far as we know they go to hell.” Later, however, during a second visit to my class, he said they are “in God’s hands” and we cannot know their soteriological fate.

My Christian Reformed relatives and my Pentecostal parents had many friendly conversations about the meaning and effect of baptism. I clearly remember my CRC aunts and uncles arguing that infants and small children “born into the covenant” (born into Christian families and baptized) are presumed to be elect and if they die they are believed to be taken to Paradise. They declined to speculate about infants not born into the covenant.

My Calvinist interlocutor (who I sense more as a heckler) believes that Arminians have a special problem with infant salvation (and the salvation of fetuses who die in the womb) because of our belief in free will. But he also seems to agree with Calvin and other Calvinist theologians that “real salvation” (the application to the person of the benefits of Christ’s atoning death on the cross) happens when an elect person repents and believes (conversion-regeneration-justification). So I turned the tables on him and asked what he thinks about infants who die before they can convert to Christ. So far, silence.

Most Arminians believe that infants (and, of course, not-yet-born children) were innocent and therefore do not yet need conversion-regeneration-justification. Some Calvinists agree. Millard Erickson, for example, in his classic systematic theology Christian Theology, argues this—that infants and children before the age of accountability are not condemnable even though they have inherited a corrupt nature. Guilt and condemnation only begin when they consciously and willfully embrace sin as disobedience to God’s will.

I am an Anabaptist and Arminian and Menno Simons got it right: Infants and children who die are accounted innocent by God for Christ’s sake, meaning his death on the cross set aside the guilt of original sin (Adamic sin) for all infants and children—until they consciously, willfully rebel against God’s revealed will. Most Arminians of many denominations agree with that.

And, as I said in the case of Millard Erickson (and other evangelical Calvinists I have met and read), many Calvinists agree as well.

I have to admit that even though I love interacting with intelligent, informed, thoughtful Calvinists, over the years I have been confronted with stupid questions by many of them. But, to be fair, I have also been confronted with stupid questions by some Arminians! I try to begin my response with calmness and civility, but when they persist in pestering me from a position of ignorance and stupidity, I sometimes lose my cool and react harshly. But so did the prophets and Jesus and the apostles, so I don’t feel any guilt about that.

Some people fancy themselves theologians after reading one or two or three books by (often merely popular) theologians. The market is flooded with books about theological subjects by non-scholars, pastors and others steeped in folk religion or just lacking the ability to think clearly. Most of them know little to nothing about the history of Christian theology and think they’ve discovered a new argument that no one before has dealt with or solved. In almost every case, the issue has already been discussed much by theologians. The salvation of infants is one of those and there are many viable views even if I consider some of them ultimately not valid. Unfortunately, the Bible does not clearly address the issue. As I have said to my theology students many times over the years, “The Bible is not as clear as we wish it were” and I follow that with “And that’s why we theologians stay in business.”

When the Bible is not as clear about a subject as we wish it were, we turn to Tradition, Reason, and Experience (the second, third and fourth elements of the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral). Every theologian worth his or her salt does that (not always well). The earliest Christian theologians, those closest to Jesus and the apostles, did not believe that infants go to hell if they die even as they believed that, ultimately, regeneration depends on a free decision of faith.

Origen, of course, stands out as an exception because he believed in the pre existence of souls and believed that if an infant dies and goes to hell it is because he or she sinned egregiously in that pre existence. However, of course, a reasonable case can be made that, ultimately, Origen believed in the ultimate and universal reconciliation of all human creatures, created in God’s image and likeness, with God. (What he believed about the ultimate salvation of Satan and fallen angels is not as clear. An argument can be made that Origen’s translator into Latin added that “apokatastasis” belief to one or more of Origen’s Greek writings.)

Anyway, and finally, before we confront or attack someone for their alleged heresy or theological error we need to make sure we understand their perspective. One of my mottos to students over the years was “Before saying ‘I disagree’ make sure you can say ‘I understand’.”

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