What happens to a very young child who dies before having the chance to hear, understand, or accept the gospel? Based on what we know about the character of God (merciful and just), most of us would find it impossible to believe that God would send such a child to hell. However, based on what we know about sin and salvation, specifically that there is only one name through which we must be saved, we're led to an answer we don't particularly want to accept. So how do we reconcile what we think the Bible says and what we think God must be like? Is it possible that the Bible speaks to this issue more clearly than we realize?
First, I would like to show that God, in his sovereignty, chooses to overlook the guilt of those who are not capable of understanding right from wrong. Based on my reading of the text, I would conclude that this extends not just to infants, but also to children (up until they can understand the gospel message) and also to anyone with a sufficiently strong mental handicap. John 9 tells the story of Jesus healing a man who had been born blind, which leads to a confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees. At the end of the conversation, he drops this nugget on them: "If you were truly blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say 'We see,' your guilt remains" (9:41). In the Greek, it actually says "you would have no sin." The person who is truly blind, who is genuinely unable to see spiritual truths, has no sin or guilt. Guilt only arrives at the moment that a person becomes able to comprehend the truth, and refuses to acknowledge it.
You'll note here that the "age of accountability," as this concept is commonly called, is not really an accurate way to describe what Jesus is talking about. I say that because he's not talking about an "age," per se, but a state of mind at which a person understands and has the ability to say, "I see." I see right from wrong; I see that I'm a sinner; I see that sometimes I do things that hurt other people. A child who can understand that can probably understand the gospel message too. Once a child understands the gospel message - once he has "ears to hear," to borrow another phrase from Jesus - that's when he's responsible for what he does with the knowledge. Before that time, he's blind, and "if you were truly blind, you would have no sin."
How do I know this is the right way to interpret Jesus' words? Because it's identical to what Paul writes in Romans 7:9-10. "I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died." What was the time in Paul's life when he was alive without the law? It was the time when he was truly spiritually blind, before he had the ability to understand right from wrong. And he says the same thing that Jesus does: "When the commandment came" - when he gained the ability to say "I see" - "sin came alive and I died." Sin and guilt were born in him once he could understand the law, but before that happened, he was alive apart from the law. The word "alive" here is very important because in Paul's writings it always refers to the state of being saved - compare with Ephesians 2:1-5 and Colossians 2:13.
Again, Paul reiterates this idea that knowledge of right and wrong are what cause sin and guilt to come into our lives. In Romans 4:15, he writes, "For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law, there is no transgression" - no sin and no guilt. Now, Paul doesn't mean that people who have never heard of the Bible get a free pass. He explains earlier in his book that anyone who tries to be a good person is showing that they understand right and wrong and that they have a functioning conscience. He's talking only about a situation in which no law, not even a conscience, exists inside a person's head. For those people, there is no transgression.
In the very next chapter, Paul teaches the same idea with more emphatic wording. "Sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law" (Romans 5:13). Did you catch what he said? In situations where there is no law in a person's life, where there is true spiritual blindness that prevents understanding of the law, God sovereignly chooses not to count sin as sin. He has a special grace and mercy for people who are blind and unable to know true right from wrong, in that he doesn't count their sins against them.
In the chapter after this, Paul explains, "The wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23), and thus any soul which is guilty of sin is deserving of eternal punishment. Yet the entire point of Paul's teaching on the law, and of Jesus' teaching on blindness, is that blindness and guilt cannot coincide with each other. Simply put, a soul which is blind cannot ever be guilty of sin, because "if you were blind, you would have no guilt." Only the arrival of knowledge of right and wrong, and the mental faculties to comprehend such, lead to true guilt. As a general rule of thumb, if a child is unable to understand the gospel, he's probably still under blindness and thus not guilty before God, according to what Paul and Jesus have written.
But wait a minute. Doesn't the Bible teach that the only way to be saved is to go through Jesus? How could a child possibly make it to heaven without professing saving faith in Jesus?
Let me reframe the question. Check out Ezekiel 18:4, where God says, "Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die." This tells us two crucially important things. First, all souls are the default property of God. They only have to be redeemed from darkness after a person sins, but before that, they belong to God - "all souls are mine." Secondly, note that God does not hold any child guilty for his ancestor's sins, not his father's and not Adam's - "the soul who sins shall die." This becomes really obvious if you read the rest of the chapter in context. So no, children are not born guilty of Adam's sin, or guilty of any sin at all. They're born with a sin nature, which will drive them to sin as soon as they understand right from wrong (which was Paul's lament in Romans 7), but before that point, as long as blindness persists, "sin is not counted where there is no law." And if "the soul who sins shall die," then the soul which is not counted guilty of any sin...must live.
That is the bulk of the detailed Biblical exposition on the matter. The case seems airtight, drawn from both testaments and from the words of Jesus himself. Consider also Jesus' words in Luke 18:15-17: "Now they were bringing children, even infants, to him, that he might touch them...but Jesus told them, 'To such belongs the Kingdom of God.'" This often gets paraphrased as "Let the children come to me," but the "children" he was speaking of were infants, and Jesus said, "This is who the Kingdom belongs to." It's not as ironclad a proof text as Paul's writings from Romans, but it sure does make you think, doesn't it?
Now I want you to do some math with me. Planet earth is now (as of last week) home to seven billion people, of whom approximately 1.5 billion are Christians. That's a mere 21.4% of the world's population. If heaven and hell are in a race for souls, it sure seems like hell is winning. I don't know what I think about an eternity where hell outnumbers heaven by more than 3 to 1. But this teaching about children changes everything. If we truly believe that life begins at the moment of conception (Psalm 139), what does it do to our numbers if God gets every fertilized egg that didn't implant, every miscarriage, every stillborn child, every infant, every toddler who ever lived? It makes heaven a whole lot more full, that's what. After all, the Kingdom belongs to them anyway.
That's the essence of the argument, and I've forced brevity upon myself. What I'm getting at is this: every human life is the property of God (Ezekiel 18) until it sins and requires ransoming. A child is "alive apart from the law" (Romans 7) because "if you were truly blind, you would have no guilt" (John 9) and "sin is not counted where there is no law" (Romans 5). God sovereignly chooses to excuse any and all sin as long as a child exists in a state of true spiritual blindness. But "now that you say, 'I see,' your guilt remains" (John 9) because "when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died" (Romans 7). Prior to that, though, "To such belongs the Kingdom of God." I hope that I've given you much to think about.