What Happens to Little Ones When They Die?

Dan and Anna Martin | July 4th 2023

Our son Jed is buried in the children’s area of Saltwell Cemetery in Gateshead, UK. His grave is surrounded by the small graves of other babies and children. As you would expect, these gravesides are among the best cared for in the whole cemetery. Many are as filled with decorations as the space allows. Sometimes, parents will kindly bring flowers and decorate every single grave in the children’s area. There is a tangible yearning on that small field to express the love that parents were not able to shower on their child, since his or her life ended too soon.

What’s most tragic amid this yearning is the lack of certainty about where that child is now. If people believe that their child was a mere bundle of molecules, organised for a while as a human being, but now decomposing into something else, they certainly don’t show it. Without question, people would rather choose to believe that their dead babies are now angels, sending them feathers on the wind. But they’re not sure.

There is no chapter of the Bible that tackles this specific question: what happens to little ones when they die? Consequently we readily acknowledge that some biblically faithful Christians will draw different conclusions to those we share below. We believe that Jesus keeps little ones safe with him when they die. But our ultimate rest is not in our own reasoning or our own answers; it’s in our knowledge that God is always good, and that he will do what is right.

If saving faith is always a gift from God, then it is a gift that God can give to babies and unborn children.

Salvation In Jesus

Biblical Christianity has always believed the following;

  1. All humans naturally turn away from God and therefore cannot save themselves (Romans 3 v 23).
  2. Jesus is our only hope for salvation (Acts 4 v 12; John 14 v 6).
  3. Jesus saves all those who have faith in him (John 3 v 16).

What about a baby, too young for faith in Jesus to have ever been formed? No one wants to say that a baby goes to hell. But neither would a sincere Christian want to say that there is any way of being saved apart from Jesus Christ. It’s easy to see why some Christians simply avoid thinking hard about the question of what happens to babies when they die. But let’s press on in the confident knowledge that God is good.

Without Excuse?

Humans are held to account for what they have done with their knowledge of God. What does this mean? Romans 1 explains that God has revealed himself to people everywhere. So when we live in God’s world without reference to him, we “suppress the truth” (v 18) and we are “without excuse” (v 19).

The question for us is, how does this apply to young children and unborn babies?

The Bible talks about an age when a young child knows “how to refuse the evil and choose the good” (Isaiah 7 v 15-16)—in other words, an age at which a child is capable of making moral choices. It doesn’t specify what this age is. But it implies that there is an age before which a young child does not have the moral capacity to perceive and suppress the truth about God. And that God knows this.

Following this logic, we came to the conclusion that when little ones die without this capacity for moral knowledge of God yet formed, there is nothing separating them from the loving-kindness of God; there is no condemnation. John Piper, a respected pastor and writer, agrees:

The “therefore” at the end [of Romans 1 v 20] says that mankind would seem to have an excuse if they had not seen clearly in nature what God is like. And so, because I don’t think little babies can process nature and make conclusions about God’s grace, glory or justice, it seems they would fall into the category of still having an excuse ... God will not condemn them. (John Piper, “Why do you believe that infants who die go to heaven?”, desiringgod.org)

This is the conclusion we believe we can logically draw: Since little babies died before they formed the capacity to suppress the knowledge of God, they are not condemned.

But we need to add another point:

But little babies who die still need saving.

The Gift of Salvation

People need personal faith in Jesus to be saved. But where does that faith come from? Ephesians 2 v 8 tells us that it is a “gift of God”. Spiritually dead people have no means of saving themselves. But God is the giver of life. He gives new eyes, new hearts, new life to his people—enabling them to see how great his love is, enabling them to trust him personally. Saving faith doesn’t come from us—it always comes from God as a gift. And if saving faith is always a gift from God, then it is a gift that God can give to babies and unborn children.

Does this mean that these most broken and overlooked ones were known and precious to God before time ever began?

Does this mean that Christ at the cross redeemed unborn children who would die—along with all his other people—by his blood? That by his blood they too have received the full inheritance of new life in the presence of God?

Does this mean that God will bring these little ones to a realisation of what colossal privileges they have, and to a personal faith in Jesus worked by the Spirit? That they will come to know the love of the Father, and enjoy him eternally?

While there is no chapter in the Bible which deals directly and at length with these questions, we believe that we can be confident to answer yes, yes, yes.

This is an extract from Chapter 10 of Near to the Broken-Hearted by Dan and Anna Martin. The book has been written to help heartbroken parents know and feel the nearness and tenderness of God when they are facing the loss of a child.

Dan and Anna Martin

Dan and Anna live in Gateshead, North East England with their three children. Dan is one of the pastors at Grace Church Gateshead, an independent evangelical church. Anna is a part-time Urgent Care GP. In 2019 their son Jed died aged 3 weeks old. Their experience of the Lord’s grace to them in that time gave rise to the book, Near to the Broken-hearted.

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