In earlier parts of this series, we’ve seen how the mainstream Christian teaching about Adam’s sin leads to a problem with Jesus being a true descendant of Adam. We’ve also seen how a close reading of Romans 5:12 solves that problem—at the expense of the tradition view of the meaning of Adam’s sin. The view I’m proposing also helps with another significant theological problem: the fate of the unborn, aborted, and those whose mental incapacitation means they will never be able to believe the gospel.The Doctrine of Original Sin and the Fate of those Unable to Believe
I’m going to argue that my view of Romans 5:12 gives us real textual reasons to look grieving parents in the eye and tell them that a deceased child—whether by miscarriage, abortion, or stillbirth—is with the Lord. They will see their child in heaven. The same is true for children who die before being able to believe the message of the gospel, or any person whose mental impairments prevent belief. For reasons that will become apparent, I will refer to all in this category as “innocents” as we proceed. But to appreciate how my view of Romans 5:12 makes a difference, we need to start with the deficiencies of how those who adhere to the traditional view approach this issue.
There are several tactics used by theologians to get babies into heaven, all while affirming the traditional view of Romans 5:12. The problem they must solve in the context of their presuppositions is illustrated as follows:
My view of Romans 5:12 means that babies, aborted fetuses, the mentally incapacitated, and the infant or young child unable to believe are not under the wrath of God, since: (a) they have not inherited guilt from Adam and (b) they have never sinned (nor could they sin, since sin, defined as a willful violation of God’s moral law, cannot be in the picture with the persons in question. (Violations of ritual purity in OT law were not moral offenses, though true moral offenses could render a person ritually impure).
Despite their moral innocence before God, though, these fetuses, babies, etc. will (as will all humans) suffer death. This makes sense in light of what Romans 5:12 actually teaches—all humans inherited mortality and were in need of God’s grace because of what happened in Eden. This brings us to another important point: the moral innocence of these persons is also not sufficient for eternal life. They need something else: they need to be raised from the dead. And they will be because of Jesus.
What do I mean? Let's see what Paul says in 1 Cor 15:12-2812 Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. 15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. 20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 24 Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27 For "God has put all things in subjection under his feet." But when it says, "all things are put in subjection," it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. 28 When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all.
Let's look first at verse 22. Adam's sin resulted in death, just like Romans 5:12 says; it doesn't say it resulted in guilt. And in parallel thought, because of Christ's resurrection, all shall be raised). Death was conquered by Christ (Rom 6:9, e.g.), and Christ is the "firstfruits" of the resurrection. But what of the other language - the eschatological talk of resurrection and death? That's important, too. The rest of the passage summarizes Day of the Lord themes found in a number of other passages - resurrection, judgment, the kingdom, etc. We need to unravel this a bit. And be warned: what you read here might conflict with some popular system of eschatology that you've been taught, especially if it's a popular dispensational variety (oh, well).
If we turn to Revelation 20 (Great White Throne passage) we read of two resurrections:
Rev. 20:5-6 - Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years (note: there's resurrection #1). The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended (MSH: there's resurrection #2). This is the first resurrection (note: the "this" refers back to the primary focus of the passage - the resurrection of the martyred believers). Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years.What do we make of this? The first resurrection spoken of refers to the raising of martyred believers in the flow of the chapters of Revelation—those martyred prior to the return of Jesus. This resurrection concerns only believers. As such, the "second death" (an explanation of which is coming in the passage below) has no effect on them. That's why they are blessed. But there is a second resurrection that concerns more than martyred believers—it is general, including both unbelievers and believers. We read about that a little later in Revelation 20:
Rev 20:11-15 - 11 Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. 13 And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. 14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15 And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.At this second resurrection, the reason that some suffer the second death (lake of fire) is because of the sins they committed. This takes place, according to the text, after the "millennial kingdom" ("The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended"). This appears to be the resurrection Daniel 12:1-2, since the book of life is mentioned, and since believers and unbelievers are both mentioned.
Looking at the passage, we read first that "books" (plural) were opened - but then another book (singular), the book of life, was opened. The dead were judged by the (plural) books "according to what they had done" - books that recorded their sins, a record of their guilt before God. That record was the basis of suffering the second death (hell). These people were still "in their sins and trespasses" as Paul would say.
Significantly, all that was necessary to avoid the second death was to have one's name written in the book of life. If you had sinned and had never received Christ, you were in the "bad" book. If you had never incurred moral guilt and had never rejected Christ, you weren't in the "bad" book.
Since moral innocents (the fetuses, babies, mentally incapacitated we’ve been talking about) never sinned and also never rejected Christ (they never had the opportunity, nor could they actually believe or reject—something that takes a brain and an act of volition), they are not written in the "bad" book. They therefore can only be in the other book, the book of life (we aren't told of a third). That means that aborted fetuses, stillborn babies, infants and any other person who dies unable to believe will be raised at the second resurrection and never suffer the second death. They are with the Lord because of the resurrection—not works or some imaginary exception made by God. They simply don't fit the description of those who condemned to eternal punishment.
To summarize: I would argue that babies, aborted fetuses, the mentally incapacitated, and the infant or children unable to believe are with Christ because they are raised by/with/because of Christ and are not condemned by their sin. Their salvation has nothing to do with works. It is accomplished by the resurrection. No one is in heaven by their own merit. No one is in heaven that is innocent without being resurrected by by/with/because of Christ. Christ is the essential means of salvation. Without Christ, there is no eternal life.
The above is based on a close reading of Scripture. But if you take the traditional view of Romans 5:12 and the doctrine of original sin, you can’t appeal to any of it.
Thomas Cargoe, “An Examination of the Issue of Infant Salvation,” PhD Dissertation, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1987
Lewis Waggoner, “Baptist Approaches to the Question of Infant Salvation,” PhD Dissertation, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, 1999
Adam Harwood, “The Spiritual Condition of Infants: A Biblical-Historical Survey and Systematic Proposal,” PhD Dissertation, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2007