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The doctrine of original sin: What happens to babies who die?

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Nikita wrote to us with a question about original sin and whether children who die as babies end up in hell.

Hello, my name is Nikita, I was looking for an answer on the site about original sin, but I didn’t find an exact answer, I have a question: is it true that children are born in sin and that if they die as babies, they will end up in hell for this sin?

Thanks in advance for your answer.

Dear Nikita,

Thank you for writing to us with a question about original sin and the salvation of babies.

Original sin as traditionally defined by the early church, is a doctrine that asserts the following:1

  1. God created Adam as a real historical human being.
  2. Adam was originally created without sin and was immortal.
  3. Adam sinned by disobeying God’s commandment.
  4. After Adam fell into sin, God punished Adam by afflicting him with both spiritual as well as biological death.
  5. Adam’s altered human nature, guilty and condemned, is imputed to all descendants of the human race (including newborn children). The only exception was Christ, because the Holy Spirit overshadowed His conception. Since all of humanity later descended from Adam, death spread to all men through Adam (Romans 5:12). Thus, apart from Christ, all men in their default position, now stand condemned before God.

Church history

Tertullian (ca. 145–220) was among the first of the patristic authors on record to explicitly teach on the doctrine of Original Sin. Later on, Augustine of Hippo (ca. 354–430) put forward a more systematic study on the topic, appealing to both Scripture and many other theologians who came before him. Augustine demonstrated that the doctrine was not new and that many others taught various aspects of Original Sin long before him.2

Augustine explained that the universal need for redemption by the grace of God was taught by Clement of Alexandria, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and many of the early Church Fathers. Augustine explained that man does not just become a sinner when he sins, but that man is conceived as a sinner first, and that is why he commits sin. In other words, mankind, in his ontological state, is both a sinner and guilty before God from the time of conception.

Subsequently, two camps arose. One camp, represented by the followers of Augustine, embraced the doctrine of Original Sin. The opposing camp was represented by the followers of Pelagius. The controversy culminated in the Council of Carthage (418) and the Council of Ephesus (431). Other councils such as the Second Council of Orange (529) also touched on the subject. In every case, Pelagianism was declared to be heresy. While the controversy went beyond the five points we mentioned earlier in this article to touch on the doctrine of grace (a topic that lies outside of the scope of this article), the point I am making here is that the doctrine of Original Sin is an essential doctrine of Christianity.

The denial of Original Sin has historically been known as the Pelagian heresy. As an evangelical organization, Creation Ministries International affirms the doctrine of Original Sin. However, organizations that claim that God used evolution, with death before man, undermine any basis for original sin. See: Is it ok to be a Christian and believe in evolution; and Biologos, theistic evolution and the Pelagian heresy.

The Bible is clear: we are all born in sin. Therefore, our default destination due to original sin is hell and not heaven. Apart from Christ, everyone who dies will end up in hell. A rejection of Original Sin constitutes a departure from orthodoxy.

Romans 5:12–14 says,

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned—for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.

Romans 5:19,

For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.

John 3:18 tells us,

Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” [Emphasis added]

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You mentioned that you read an earlier article on our website on the salvation of babies, but it did not answer your questions. Part of the reason is that CMI as a ministry doesn’t get into non-essential doctrinal positions since this tends to distract from our ministerial mandate. Unlike the doctrine of original sin (where a denial constitutes heresy), there is a range of acceptable views within what is broadly called, ‘evangelical’ Christianity. Everyone who is saved, is saved in Christ. However, the Bible does not explicitly tell us that all babies are saved in Christ. But if they are saved, they are saved the same way as the rest of us: the imputed righteousness of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:21). Thus, our conclusion on the matter needs to be derived from our understanding of the doctrine of sin, salvation, and our view of the covenants. For this reason, I would recommend speaking to your pastor/elder for further guidance on the topic.

Having said that, here are a few biblical passages to consider. At the end of the day, whatever position you take needs to be based on what the Bible says, and not based on our fallible emotions/intuition. Consider:

  1. He said, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept, for I said, ‘Who knows whether the Lord will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’ But now he is dead. Why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.” (2 Samuel 12:22–23)

Here, David seems to imply that he would see his dead child again. Is David referring to heaven? And if he is, how old was this child, and was his child old enough to understand and believe the Gospel? Or could it be that David is not saying that he will see the child in heaven, but that David will join his child at his death/grave?

  1. … for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. (Luke 1:15) [Emphasis added] And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. (Luke 1:41–44)

Here, John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Spirit in his mother’s womb. Does this mean that all babies will go to heaven if they die, or does this only refer to some such as John the Baptist? What level of knowledge of the Gospel did the Holy Spirit give to John the Baptist in the womb? How was it that John the Baptist knew enough to leap for joy in the womb when Jesus was near?

These are biblical passages that you will have to consider before concluding on the salvation of babies.

The Bible tells us that we have a God who is just and good (Psalm 119:68; Acts 17:31). We will all stand before God to give an account for our lives (Revelation 20:11–15). Our comfort comes from knowing that whatever God decides to do will be just, and it is in the immutable perfect justice and righteousness of God, that we find comfort and peace.

I hope that this reply points you in the right direction to further your study.

Joel Tay

The following write-up about ‘moral hazard’ is worth considering. This may be found in The Genesis Account, by Dr Jonathan Sarfati.

What about aborted babies and the mentally handicapped?

Actually, the Bible doesn’t say explicitly. All we really have to go on is, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right” (Genesis 18:25). Some think that they go automatically to heaven, which would be what I would like to believe, and this would comfort parents who have lost young children or miscarried, and those with mentally handicapped children. However, this actually leads to a serious problem: moral hazard.

Economists use the term ‘moral hazard’ when a particular policy provides an incentive for wrong or counter-productive behaviour.3 The moral hazard in this view is that it would be better for the babies in an eternal sense to be aborted and be guaranteed heaven than to be allowed to live, with a good chance to be damned eternally. After all, Paul said, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).

This would lead to the perverse position that the greatest soul-winner in history would not be the Apostle Paul, Wesley and Whitefield, or Billy Graham, but the abortion industry’s Planned Parenthood. And the greatest individual soul-winner would be Planned Parenthood’s founder, the racist Darwinian eugenicist Margaret Sanger (1879–1966).4

This doesn’t mean that those who die in childhood automatically go to Hell either—indeed, such a view would contradict Scripture. For example, after God punished David’s adultery with Bathsheba by causing their infant son to die, David says, “I will go to him” (2 Samuel 12:23). This seems to indicate that this infant would be in Heaven, where David would go.

And while the Bible doesn’t teach an ‘age of accountability’, there are biblical indications that the rules are different for children. For example, Isaiah 7:16 says, “before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right.” Paul tells us that the thoughts and reasoning of children and adults are different (1 Corinthians 13:11). So since the Bible doesn’t say one way or the other, we are obliged simply to obey God, thus refrain from murdering children, and to trust His judgment.5

References and notes

  1. Warren, C., Original Sin explained, 2002, vii. Return to text.
  2. Warren, C., p.11 Return to text.
  3. For example, if welfare policies mean that a woman is better off financially being a single mother than marrying the working father of her child, then they will incentivize single motherhood and discourage the biblical ideal of a family with a married mother and father. Economists Thomas Sowell (1930– ) and Walter Williams (1936–2020), themselves ‘African-American’, argue that such policies have done what slavery, overt racism, Jim Crow laws, and segregation could not: destroy the black family in America. Return to text.
  4. Bergman, J., Birth control leader Margaret Sanger: Darwinist, racist and eugenicist, J. Creation 22(3):62–67, 2008. While Sanger herself opposed abortion, her eugenicist views were taken to their logical conclusion by the organization she founded. See Margaret Sanger and the minority holocaust: Why is Christianity Today trying to rehabilitate Margaret Sanger’s legacy? Return to text.
  5. It is beyond the scope of this book to take sides on Calvinism vs Arminianism. A Calvinist could argue that the baby’s eternal destiny would be determined by whether he was part of God’s elect. For example, the Westminster Confession states: “Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated, and saved by Christ, through the Spirit, who works when, and where, and how He pleases: so also are all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word.” But it doesn’t state all those who die in infancy or are mentally handicapped are members of the Elect. An Arminian could say that the destination was based on God’s foreseen choice of what the child would have done if he had lived long enough. Again, since we can’t know these things, we should “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13) Return to text.

Helpful Resources

The Genesis Account
by Jonathan Sarfati
US $39.00
Hard cover
Christianity for Skeptics
by Drs Steve Kumar, Jonathan D Sarfati
US $12.00
Soft cover