The question has been asked, “What happens to infants or children when they die?”.
First, let me say that there are various Biblical examples of children being treated differently by God than adults. I think based on Scripture, that very young children innately believe in God, automatically, until they become able to tell the difference between right and wrong (when the Law came, see Romans 7:9). We must trust as a child trusts. Until young children know the difference between right and wrong, they are not culpable for what they do wrong – they are considered innocent (which is not the same thing as being nice, but rather without culpability) and have not sinned (even if they do what we consider to be bad things) and so do not need what we consider to be salvation. Paul wrote in Romans 7:9 that it is only after the Law came (when he learned the difference between right and wrong), that he died spiritually. It was at that time that he needed to be saved. Until then, he was innocent. I am uncertain when the age of culpability (or accountability) occurs, as there are Biblical examples of different examples of ages of accountability. I think it probably differs for each child.
Jesus said the pure in heart will see God:
8 Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
Who loves as much as infants and very young children?
1 Timothy 1:5
5 The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.
At least some people are considered to be holy while in the womb.
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”
In fact, God creates us in the womb, and we are wonderfully made – does God create sinful creatures, or do we become sinful (see 1 Corinthians 7:9 for the answer):
13 For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. 14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.
The Holy Spirit does not reside with sinners, and yet HE filled John from the womb, indicating both that John was not a sinner in the womb and that children have a relationship with God.
15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth.
Why would the baby, if it was condemned, leap for joy at hearing Jesus’ earthly mother’s voice?
41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.
In fact, we are told to become like little children to enter the kingdom of heaven, indicating children have a relationship with God:
2 He called a little child and had him stand among them. 3 And he said: “I tell you the truth, UNLESS YOU CHANGE AND BECOME LIKE LITTLE CHILDREN, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me. 6 But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.
10 “See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.
In fact, the kingdom of heaven belongs to those like children, indicating children have a relationship with God:
13 Then little children were brought to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked those who brought them. 14 Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” 15 When he had placed his hands on them, he went on from there.
15 People were also bringing babies to Jesus to have him touch them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. 16 But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 17 I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”
The children recognize God, showing children have a relationship with God:
2 From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise because of your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger.
15 But when the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the temple area, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they were indignant. 16 “Do you hear what these children are saying?” they asked him. “Yes,” replied Jesus, “have you never read, ” ‘From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise’?”
Welcoming children welcomes Jesus, indicating children have a relationship with God:
36 He took a little child and had him stand among them. Taking him in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”
Causing little children to sin is a horrible thing:
1 Jesus said to his disciples: “Things that cause people to sin are bound to come, but woe to that person through whom they come. 2 It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin.
Jesus carries the little ones in His arms, indicating a relationship with God.
11 He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.
David, inspired by God, wrote many of the Psalms. In Psalm 23, he wrote that his own eternal destination was going to be “in the house of the Lord” – he KNEW he was going to be with God:
6 Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
Remember that David (who was favored by God) said his infant child, who had died, would not return, but he would go to be with him:
2 Samuel 12:22-23
22 He answered, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept. I thought, ‘Who knows? The LORD may be gracious to me and let the child live.’ 23 But now that he is dead, why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me.”
From this, we recognize “the house of the Lord” is where his infant son, to whom David would one day go, went upon death. King David was looking forward to the day when he would be able to meet his son in heaven. These two passages combine to tell us that the dead infant’s soul would go to heaven, not hell.
In Numbers and Deuteronomy, we see the children are not responsible for grumbling, even though they suffer because of the parents – this indicates an age of accountability. Children are treated differently than adults – even by God.
37 Because of you the LORD became angry with me also and said, “You shall not enter it, either. 38 But your assistant, Joshua son of Nun, will enter it. Encourage him, because he will lead Israel to inherit it. 39 And the little ones that you said would be taken captive, your children who do not yet know good from bad-they will enter the land. I will give it to them and they will take possession of it.
28 So tell them, “As surely as I live, declares the LORD, I will do to you the very things I heard you say: 29 In this desert your bodies will fall-EVERY ONE OF YOU TWENTY YEARS OLD OR MORE WHO WAS COUNTED IN THE CENSUS AND WHO HAS GRUMBLED AGAINST ME. 30 Not one of you will enter the land I swore with uplifted hand to make your home, except Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun. 31 AS FOR YOUR CHILDREN THAT YOU SAID WOULD BE TAKEN AS PLUNDER, I WILL BRING THEM IN TO ENJOY THE LAND YOU HAVE REJECTED. 32 But you-your bodies will fall in this desert. 33 Your children will be shepherds here for forty years, suffering for your unfaithfulness, until the last of your bodies lies in the desert. 34 For forty years-one year for each of the forty days you explored the land-you will suffer for your sins and know what it is like to have me against you.’ 35 I, the LORD, have spoken, and I will surely do these things to this whole wicked community, which has banded together against me. They will meet their end in this desert; here they will die.”
In Nehemiah, only those who could hear with understanding were required to listen to the word of God – again indicating an age of accountability. It is the same with us today.
1 all the people assembled as one man in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the scribe to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the LORD had commanded for Israel. 2 So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. 3 He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law.
In fact, we see the Bible recognizes there is a time when we are not aware of right and wrong.
15 He will eat curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right. 16 But before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste.
But once a person is able to recognize right and wrong, that person is responsible for his own sins; these verses indicate each of our souls is alive until we sin.
16 Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their fathers; each is to die for his own sin.
20 The soul who sins is the one who will die. The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous man will be credited to him, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against him.
Even Paul wrote he was alive until the Law came:
7 What shall we say, then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “Do not covet.” 8 But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire. For apart from law, sin is dead. 9 ONCE I WAS ALIVE APART FROM LAW; BUT WHEN THE COMMANDMENT CAME, SIN SPRANG TO LIFE AND I DIED. 10 I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death.
This fits in line with what Jesus said about people who were ‘blind’ not being guilty of sin:
39 Jesus said, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.” 40 Some Pharisees who were with him heard him say this and asked, “What? Are we blind too?” 41 Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.
So apparently, while we all have a sin nature, there is a time when we are not aware of right and wrong (Is 7:16), and not held culpable for what we do wrong (Jn 9:41). If we are not culpable for our sins, we are innocent. The innocent do not need to be justified. The innocent go to be with God upon death. Once we know the difference between right and wrong, we are culpable for our sins (Romans 7:9). The fact that people sin is why we can not be with God unless we are saved. Jesus came and died for our sins, so we might be justified (declared innocent) through faith in Christ (Romans 3:23-24).
21 But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished
Notice that Paul did not say all are born with a sin nature and have to be justified. He said all have sinned – but we have shown that children do not sin since they do not know the difference between right and wrong (have not yet received the Law). So how do we understand ‘all have sinned’?
We know this phrase can not apply to Jesus, for Jesus is without sin.
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are-yet was without sin.
It probably did not refer to Enoch either.
Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him away.
It probably does not refer to Noah either, as God said he was righteous.
This is the account of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked with God.
To be able to understand this phrase, ‘all have sinned,’ we need to look back one chapter in the book of Romans.
6 God “will give to each person according to what he has done.” 7 To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. 8 But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. 9 There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; 10 but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 11For God does not show favoritism.
We see that Paul is speaking about people who have done things. God “will give to each according to what he has done.” But infants have certainly done nothing, and young children have done nothing for which they are culpable. Therefore, the only valid understanding of this term, ‘all have sinned’ is to understand that only people who know the difference between right and wrong and not always done right.
You might think that children need to be baptized to be in the church. But Paul wrote that children are holy, clean, because of the sanctified wife or sanctified husband:
1 Corinthians 7:14
14 For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy.
In summary, until we learn the difference between right and wrong, we are not culpable for what we do wrong – we are considered innocent. The innocent do not need to be justified. Once we learn the difference between right and wrong, we are no longer innocent and we die spiritually. Until that time, we are innocent and will go to heaven when we die. It is only after we die spiritually, when we learn the difference between right and wrong, that we need to be justified before our Judge and saved to go to heaven when we die.