By Norm Miller
CLEVELAND, Ga. (TMCNews) -- The death of an infant. Few things are "more painful or perplexing," said Adam Harwood -- assistant professor of Christian Studies at Truett-McConnell College, Cleveland, Ga. -- during a Sept. 15 chapel sermon.
Harwood drew the sermon from his book titled "The Spiritual Condition of Infants," which he said examines 10 biblical texts and key writings from 16 theologians throughout church history, has more than 400 footnotes and interacts with more than 200 books and academic articles.
"Before we consider the salvation of infants, we need to be clear about what the Bible says and doesn't say about their current spiritual condition," said Harwood, noting that Genesis 3 and Romans 5 describe humanity's fall into sin.
"We all have a relationship with the first Adam, and that relationship results in our being sinners," he said. "Even before we can understand the difference between right and wrong, we are sin-stained people."
Everyone has an eternal destiny, but the "good news is that God did not abandon his broken creation. At the very moment we were hopeless and helpless in our sin, Christ died for us ... to provide the forgiveness of sin and to offer peace between God and man," Harwood added.
Some won't appropriate this "good news," Harwood said. "Thankfully, some people will go to heaven. And those people ... will have heard ... the saving message of the Gospel ... [and] will have responded by turning from their sin and turning to Christ."
Regarding deceased infants, Harwood described them as 1-year-old or younger, "including the pre-born," saying all infants are part of "sinful humanity." Ignorant that they're sinners, infants have a sinful nature and will knowingly commit acts of sin.
"But infants who die never have a chance to hear, understand, and respond to the Gospel. It's not just that they do not hear and respond; infants cannot hear and respond to the Gospel," Harwood emphasized.
It "seems wrong" for infants to go to hell, he said. But it seems "equally wrong" for God to "welcome sinful people—no matter how young—into heaven. Thus, the dilemma: How does God welcome some, or any sinful infants into heaven?"
Harwood quoted the Baptist forebear, Anabaptist leader Balthtasar Hubmaier (1480–1528), whose response to this dilemma was, "I confess here publicly my ignorance. I am not ashamed not to know what God did not want to reveal to us with a clear and plain word."
Nonetheless, Harwood builds his case on Scripture regarding the eternal destiny of deceased infants.
Harwood noted seven biblical positions mitigating for his stance that deceased infants do not go to hell, saying that:
-- Infants are people. Whereas modern culture deems even an unborn baby as merely a potential person, "Luke, inspired by the Holy Spirit, did not distinguish grammatically between pre-born and born-alive infants. He used the same Greek word (brephos) to refer to John the Baptist as a baby inside the womb (Luke 1:41) and to Jesus as a baby outside of the womb (Luke 2:12). The womb is the place where God creates people," Harwood said.
Harwood also cited the Old Testament records of Ps. 139 and Jeremiah 1, where God formed David in his mother's womb, and knew Jeremiah before He formed him in the womb.
-- Infants are impacted by sin. Though they may die as a result of someone else's sin, "it does not follow that their deaths are a result of either personal or inherited guilt. Instead, death is the result of God's universal judgment against sin," Harwood said, citing the demise of the child resulting from the adultery of King David and Bathsheba (2 Sam. 12).
-- Infants are not sinless. Some speak of infants' innocence, but they are not innocent as were Adam and Eve before the fall or like Jesus. "So, all orthodox Christians agree that infants are not sinless," he said. "What they disagree on is guilt."
-- Infants inherit from Adam death, not guilt, Harwood said, noting contra-opinions of Augustine and John Calvin, who argued and taught that sinful guilt was inherited from Adam. Calvinists cite Rom 5:12-21, where "Paul parallels the work of Adam and the work of Christ. But despite the teachings of Augustine and Calvin, Paul was not arguing for our guilt in Adam. Rom 5:12 states, 'Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned.' Paul connects sin to death and states that all have sinned," Harwood said. "We need to be careful not to read a theological system into the text of Scripture."
Citing theologian Millard Erickson, Harwood said that if all people were "present and guilty because of Adam's disobedience, then an exact correspondence would be that we're all made right with God through Christ's obedience. That's not the case. We must personally ratify the work of Christ in our life by responding in repentance and faith to be saved. In the same way, we must personally ratify the work of Adam in our life by committing an act of sin after we know the difference between right and wrong."
"The Scriptures teach substitutionary atonement -- Christ died in our place -- not substitutionary guilt -- Adam sinned in our place," Harwood added.
-- Inherited guilt requires extra-biblical ways of understanding salvation. If one assumes infants are guilty, then attempts to construct views of infant salvation are difficult. If one begins with infant guilt, then the infant might have a hope of heaven due to baptismal regeneration. This was Augustine's solution.
Harwood also summarized other extra-biblical views that sometimes result from theologians who begin with infant guilt when they explain infant salvation. Those views include infant salvation via parental faith, forgiveness due to post-mortem repentance by the infant, and forgiveness of guilt before the commission of any sinful actions.
-- "Infants are free from condemnation but will later become guilty for sins committed after they develop moral knowledge," said Harwood, noting there is no precise scriptural reference supporting the statement. But he appealed to Deuteronomy 1 and Numbers 14, where offspring of those who agreed with the 10 spies to stay out of the Promised Land were spared the death of their doubting parents. "What was the only reason the younger generation was spared God's judgment? Their age. I'm not suggesting that 20 is the age of accountability, but according to Deut 1:39, that younger generation had 'no knowledge of good or evil.' They lacked moral knowledge and were spared from God's judgment," Harwood said. "Whether you affirm inherited guilt or sinful nature, it's clear that all infants are descendants of the first Adam and have inherited at least a sinful nature."
-- God judges sinful actions, not nature. Consider 2 Cor. 5:10, 'For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.' What is the basis of God's judgment in this verse? Our nature or our actions?" Harwood asked.
Citing New Testament scholar Harold Hoehner, Harwood said Paul clarifies that willful sin bring God's wrath in (Rom. 1-3). "The significance? Augustinian-Calvinists argue for our guilt and the judgment of God based upon our sinful nature," Harwood said, "but Paul argues for our guilt and the judgment of God based upon our sinful actions, which excludes infants."
Shifting from biblical exposition to pastoral application, Harwood noted several Bible passages offering comfort to parents whose infant child has died. "These Scriptures are meant to bring hope and encouragement and can be affirmed regardless of the position you take on inheriting guilt or a sinful nature," said Harwood, noting that:
-- Children are fearfully and wonderfully made (Ps. 139);
-- Parents should never have to bury a child. King David brought his questions and pain to God--continually stating that his hope and trust were in God (Ps. 13);
-- Infant death demonstrates in painful clarity that the world is broken. But Christ through His death on the Cross defeated death and will remake and restore His broken world. Rev. 21:4, There will one day be no more death and mourning;
-- God is present, and He can provide comfort and peace (Rom. 15:13);
-- In Mark 10, Jesus welcomed little children as examples for adults of citizens of God's kingdom. Jesus still does as He did 2,000 years ago. He takes infants in His arms and blesses them (v. 16);
-- Like King David, who mourned the death of his infant son, parents who know the Lord are the only parents who can say "One day, I'll go to be with him" (2 Sam 12:23); and,
-- In John 11:25, Jesus is the only hope for resurrection and reunion with loved ones, whether they are adults, children, or infants.