this verse the Lord says, “Should I not pity Nineveh, that great
city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand
persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their
left?” (NKJV). MacArthur opines, “The Lord was referring to the
sparing of 120,000 children, little ones incapable of knowing right
from left, much less right from wrong.” 14 While MacArthur’s
interpretation may be up for debate, the point is still a valid one:
God was merciful in cases when belief was not possible.
The problem for children and the mentally disabled is that
they are incapable of grasping the essence of the gospel and
consequently responding in repentance and faith. This does not
mean that they never engage in what could be considered sinful
behavior. But the child has no way of assessing those acts for what
they are. R. A. Webb makes this observation:
If a dead infant were sent to hell on no other account than that of
original sin, there would be a good reason to the Divine Mind for the
judgment, because sin is a reality. But the child’s mind would be a per-
fect blank as to the reason of its suffering. Under such circumstances,
it would know suffering but it would have no understanding of the
reason for its suffering. It could not tell itself why it was so awfully
smitten, and consequently, the whole meaning and significance of
its sufferings, being to it a conscious enigma, the very essence of the
penalty would be absent and justice would be disappointed, cheated
of its validation. 15
It simply makes no sense to hold children accountable for what
they are incapable of doing in the first place. Furthermore, it
should be noted that they are never called upon to believe. Every
salvific reference in Scripture that calls people to repentance is
directed toward adults. While this could be considered an argument from silence, it also follows the logical progression of what
has already been presented.
Even beyond that though, the way Jesus interacted with children further supports this point. Three parallel passages in the
Gospels (Matthew 19: 13–15; Mark 10: 13–16; Luke 18: 15–17)
refer to the kingdom of God as belonging to children. Thomas
Cragoe, in his exegetical analysis of these texts, concludes not only
that the children were likely infants but also that the grammar
emphasizes their age along with their right standing before God.
Therefore, Cragoe deduces that Christ was in fact declaring these
children to be possessors of the kingdom. This is further supported
by the fact that He went on to bless them. Cragoe again points
out the distinction that “God is only seen to bless those people
who are rightly related to him.” 16
14. John MacArthur, Safe in the Arms of God (Nashville: Thomas Nelson,
15. R. A. Webb, The Theology of Infant Salvation (Richmond: Presbyterian
Committee of Publications, 1907), 42.
16. Thomas Cragoe, “An Examination of the Issue of Infant Salvation” (ThD
Dissertation, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1987), 97–102.
One of the best Old Testament examples that support the
notion of children going to Heaven when they die comes from
the life of King David. David had committed adultery with
Bathsheba, discovered she was pregnant, and subsequently had
her husband, Uriah, killed. Shortly thereafter, the prophet Nathan
confronted David, exposed his sin, and declared that the child
would die as a result. When the baby was born, David petitioned
the Lord for mercy, but the baby died seven days later.
In the midst of this tragedy, the response and words of David
reveal the truth about the destiny of children. Second Samuel
12: 22 and 23 say, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and
wept; for I said, ‘Who knows, the Lord may be gracious to me,
that the child may live.’ But now he has died; why should I fast?
Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not
return to me” (NASB).
It is clear from these verses that David fully expected to be
reunited with his child at some point in the future. This is evident,
not only from the specific wording, but also from the tone of
the passage. David did not mourn the loss of his child, because
he believed the baby was in God’s presence and because he fully
anticipated seeing that little one again. This stands in stark contrast to David’s response to the death of his son Absalom. Absalom was rebellious, both against God and his father. Yet when
this son died, David grieved and wept uncontrollably for him
(2 Samuel 18: 32, 33; 19:2– 4). In the first case, David was secure
in the fact that his baby would be in Heaven; however, Absalom’s
death brought great grief into the life of his father because his
eternal destiny was uncertain.
The topic at hand is a difficult one, not only because Scripture
does not definitively state a position, but also because of the
intrinsic emotion that is present in such a discussion. Even though
one’s position on this matter must be made in an indirect fashion,
that does not mean supporting evidence cannot be found. In fact,
it seems that the two positions find much in the way of overlap.
Where the two depart is not with the transference of sin but with
the definition of what is imputed. Additionally, since the condition
of salvation requires choice and cognitive recognition of sin, there
does seem to be an exception made for those who are unable to
believe. This is further supported by Jesus’ response to children
and the example of King David.
Though Scripture does seem to support the second position, a
word of caution should be noted at this point. There is a reason
why this particular topic is debated, and hopefully the presentation of both sides has been helpful in better understanding the
differences. However, God is loving and God is just. With this,
there must be no debate.
Daryl A. Neipp (DMin, Temple Baptist Seminary) is associate pastor of New
Community Baptist Church, Avon, Ohio. He is an assistant professor and
instructional mentor at Liberty University.
David did not mourn the loss of
his child, because he believed
the baby was in God’s presence
and because he fully anticipated
seeing that little one again.