Perhaps the most difficult aspect of the conquest for most of us to understand is the fate of the children of Jericho and the other cities later destroyed. Some of us may not have a problem with the adults being killed – that’s easier to accept because we can agree that they were a very sinful culture and deserved the wrath of God (just like us). But what about the children? What about the babies? Their deaths at the hands of the Israelites by the command of God is far more disturbing.
As I said Sunday, I believe that those babies and children who did not have the mental capacity to repent and believe went to heaven. Considering the vile culture in which the children of Jericho lived – one of sexual depravity, abuse, and horrific child sacrifice – God’s act to take their lives was the best thing that could have happened to them. They went from the closest thing to hell on earth to being in the presence of the Lord. Their deaths meant salvation.
Can a biblical case be made for this? Is it Scripturally plausible to hold that babies and small children go to heaven? I believe so.
Let me be upfront with you - if we were going to argue this subject in a court of law, we would have to say that the case for the salvation of those who die very young is completely circumstantial. To my knowledge, there is no place in the Bible where we can read explicitly, “children who die while not having the mental faculty to repent and believe go to heaven.” So there is no slam dunk passage to to which we can appeal. However, we can piece together a case for this by drawing implications from several texts.
First, let’s look at Job 3. Job is suffering greatly by this time. He has lost everything dear to him, including his health. He is mourning the deaths of all his children and suffering the horrible pain of large boils “from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head” (Job 2:7). Job cries in 3:11, "Why did I not die at birth, come out from the womb and expire? Why did the knees receive me? Or why the breasts, that I should nurse? For then I would have lain down and been quiet; I would have slept; then I would have been at rest. Job was suffering so intensely that he wished he had died at birth. In the following verses, he goes so far as to say that he wished he had been still-born because then he would have rest.
Is this because newborn and unborn children are not sinners? No. In Psalm 51:5, David writes, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” We are all sinners from the moment of conception. But Job obviously does not believe that infants who die go to hell and suffer eternal torment. Rather they go to a place of rest.
A similar point can be made from Ecclesiastes 6:3-5: If a man fathers a hundred children and lives many years, so that the days of his years are many, but his soul is not satisfied with life's good things, and he also has no burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he. For it comes in vanity and goes in darkness, and in darkness its name is covered. Moreover, it has not seen the sun or known anything, yet it finds rest rather than he. A child who dies at birth is better off than a man who lives a long life, but does not find any meaning in it. How can that be true if that child goes to eternal torment? That child who dies finds something that the long-lived man did not: rest.
“Rest” is a keyword in the Bible. We find it in Hebrews 3 & 4, where it is repeatedly used as a metaphor for heaven. Speaking of the Israelites who died in the wilderness, the writer quotes Psalm 95:7-11, writing “they shall not enter my rest.” In Hebrews 4:8-11, “rest” is clearly meant to be a reference to heaven.
One more Old Testament reference indicates that the baby who dies goes to heaven. In 2 Samuel 12, God takes the life of the baby born to Bathsheba by David. When David’s servants ask why he is not mourning in the traditional manner, David answers that fasting would not bring the child back, “I shall go to him, but he will not return to me” (v23). In Psalm 23:6, we see that David was confident that he himself would live forever in the presence of the Lord. Clearly according to his statement in 2 Sam 12:23, he was also confident that he would be reunited with his son when he died. The implication is that this would take place in the Lord’s eternal presence.
So the question then becomes, “Okay, you keep talking about babies, but what about toddlers and preschoolers, etc?” Most of us have heard of the concept of the “age of accountability.” This is supposedly the age at which a person becomes culpable for their sin. But I like what John MacArthur said in a sermon addressing this issue:
“Get the word ‘age’ out of this discussion. We're talking about a condition of accountability...not an age. Who qualifies then in our discussion as an infant or child who dying is saved, who dying instantly goes to heaven? Who are we talking about? Answer...those who have not reached sufficient mature understanding in order to comprehend convincingly the issues of law and grace, sin and salvation.”
In Deut 1:19-46, God speaks of the little ones of Israel, who “today have no knowledge of good or evil.” This is an interesting passage because in it, Moses is recalling for the generation that Joshua would lead into the land why the first generation died in the wilderness. They died because they disobeyed, but their children did not die. Why? Because at the time of Israel’s disobedience in not taking the land, the second generation were children who had "no knowledge of good or evil." Does this mean that the children weren’t sinners? Of course not. They were born sinners. They simply did not know good and evil. As MacArthur would put it, they had not reached the condition of accountability.
Now so far, I’ve referred mostly to the Old Testament. How about the New Testament, where it is so clearly written that faith is necessary for salvation? Is there anything there that would point toward the salvation of those who have not reached a condition of accountability? We’ll look at that next time.
Posted by Greg Birdwell