Romans 5:12 and the Fate of the Unborn, Infants, and Other Human Beings Who Cannot Believe From Birth

Posted By on July 29, 2009

Thanks for your patience with this thread. I hope you see that what follows is another “theological payoff” to the view I’m articulating. Not only do I think this view of Romans 5:12 simultaneously upholds a real “original sin” in Eden, the effect of that sin on all humanity, the need of all humanity for salvation only in Christ, and a coherent answer to exempting Jesus as a son of Adam from Adamic guilt (against the awkward inability of the traditional view to do that), I also believe my view of Romans 5:12 gives us real textual reasons to look grieving parents in the eye and tell them that their miscarried child; aborted child; or deceased infant, mentally impaired child, or small child unable to intellectually process the gospel, is truly with the Lord. But let’s start with the deficiencies of how those who adhere to the traditional view answer the question “where do babies go when they die?” That struggle (and its unsatisfying results) can be applied to the above categories of what I’ll call “innocents” (a category based on my view of what Romans 5:12 really means).

The Problem(s)

There are several tactics used by theologians to get babies into heaven, all while affirming the traditional view of Romans 5:12. To make sure everyone is tracking, the problem is illustrated thusly:

  1. All humans are human from conception
  2. All humans conceived are also persons
  3. All humans and conceived humans (persons) inherit Adam’s guilt via Romans 5:12
  4. All humans, regardless of their age (from conception, to birth, to death) are in a state of guilt before God and thus under the wrath of God, not by virtue of any sin they committed, but by virtue of existing as a human.
  5. Therefore, babies, aborted fetuses, the mentally retarded and unable to believe, the infant or young child unable to believe are STILL guilty before God and under God’s wrath.
  6. The solution to being made right with God is the gospel, and that gospel must be believed to avert hell fire (which is deserved, since all are guilty before God).
  7. There can therefore be no human being not in hell and so in heaven, who has not believed the gospel (or at least who has responded in faith to divine revelation given to them – I throw that in for old-line dispensationalists, and it has some merit due to the salvation of OT believers who believed in the God of Israel before the incarnation and work of Christ).
  8. Even allowing for the point above, babies, aborted fetuses, the mentally retarded and the infant or young child is STILL UNABLE TO BELIEVE other divine revelation that God might have accepted (in parallel to the OT believer situation).
  9. This means that babies, aborted fetuses, the mentally retarded and the infant or young child unable to believe are really the “most lost” humans – they are completely without hope, unable to believe in anything God might provide in the way of revelation.
  10. We must conclude, then, that babies, aborted fetuses, the mentally retarded and the infant or young child unable to believe go to hell, since that is their deserved fate, as those who are guilty before God and unbelievers.

It’s pretty obvious how cruel and offensive this thinking is, but it is completely faithful to biblical theology FILTERED THROUGH THE TRADITIONAL VIEW OF ROMANS 5:12. What are possible responses?

  1. So what – it matters not that we’re offended by God. The real question is “why does God save anyone?” not “can we get babies into heaven?” God damns babies, aborted fetuses, the mentally retarded and the infant or young child unable to believe because of Adam’s guilt and that’s just the way it is, despite how offended we are. We need to let God be God, period.
  2. God makes an exception out of his love and grace. Of course, there is no Scripture for this, but many are comfortable with having no Scripture here. It is a “logical” extrapolation extending from God’s attributes.
  3. God includes babies, aborted fetuses, the mentally retarded and the infant or young child unable to believe within his elective covenant relationship. Now, many evangelical Calvinist paedo-baptists won’t go as far here as to say that the baptized infant is “in” because of his/her baptism should they die before they can believe, but I’ve actually heard some say this. That is nothing more than baptismal regeneration. To deny this is to commit egregious illogic. They’ll say that baptism of the infant doesn’t guarantee salvation; it puts them into the covenant community, but they still have to believe. But then they’ll turn around and say that if the baptized infant dies, they DO go to heaven because their baptism put them into the covenant. NOW, with a change in circumstance, being in the covenant community means salvation. Okay…does it produce salvation or not? Yes and no – it just depends. Okay…what about people who were baptized and then forsake the faith? Does their baptism guarantee their place in heaven because they were once put into the covenant community? If you say no, then you need to backtrack and turn the logic center of your brain off. If you say yes, then you need to be reminded that circumcision, the OT “parallel” to baptism (circumcision, see Col. 2:11-12), while putting people into the covenant community, guaranteed NOTHING in spiritual terms. Remember that thing called the exile” You know, where hundreds of thousands of Jews went astray and God sent them to Babylon as a result. Remember those “here’s what’s going to happen to you if you violate the covenant” passages in the OT (given TO the covenant community members) that were warnings of the exile? Truly, some of the shoddiest theological thinking you’ll ever come across is with respect to the problem of infant baptism when it runs into the “P” of the rest of Calvinism – Perseverance. It’s disturbing, and I’ll get into that subject eventually on the blog. At any rate, to get babies into heaven the Calvinist either has God making an elective exception (electing people who haven’t believed), or has to suspend logic entirely, or just throws up his/her hands and opts for number one in our list (“who cares?”).
  4. Some offer a variation on number one. Yes, God sentences babies, aborted fetuses, the mentally retarded and the infant or young child unable to believe to hell, but he will “wipe away all our tears” so we don’t think about them. So, I guess wiping away tears = erasing our memories. Just where are we taught that we have our memories erased upon glorification? How could we be grateful for salvation if that were the case? How could we appreciated grace if we don’t remember we were sinners, or the point of what Jesus did for us on the cross (and we know he still bears the marks). And just how does that jive with the hints in Scripture (cf. transfiguration) that we will know people we’ve never met before on the other side? This one, like the others, is hardly coherent.

This all comes down to one simple question: Give me/us a verse that gets babies into heaven despite the fact that they are guilty before God and cannot respond to God’s revelation. The traditional view of Romans 5:12 forces its followers into one of the categories above. Good thing there’s a better answer.

The Solution

My view of Romans 5:12 means that babies, aborted fetuses, the mentally retarded 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 not sinned (nor can they sin, since sin, in the sense of a MORAL violation – not a violation of ritual purity).

Despite their moral innocence before God, though, they will (as will all humans – unless there is a rapture!) suffer death. Their moral innocence 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 15:12-28

12 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, jut 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 (MSH: there’s resurrection #1). 5 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 (MSH: the “this” refers back to the primary focus of the passage – the resurrection of the martyred believers). 6 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? Well, the first resurrection regards martyred believers, martyred prior to the end of the “millennial kingdom”. This resurrection is only believers. As such, the “second death” (an explanation of which is coming in the passage) has no effect on them. That’s why they are blessed. The second resurrection is general, including both unbelievers and believers.

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.1

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. However, all that was necessary to avoid the second death was to have one’s name written in the book of life. That one wasn’t about works (there is no works salvation). All that mattered was inclusion in the book. If you had sinned and had never received Christ, you were in the “bad” book. If those conditions didn’t apply to you. You weren’t 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 never sinned and never rejected Christ (they never had the opportunity, nor could they actually believe – something that takes a brain (cf. the conceptus or fetus here), and a brain functioning at a certain capacity (cf. infants, retardation, and even toddlers here), they are not written in the “bad” book. They can only be in the other book (we aren’t told of a third). That means that they are raised with/by/because of Christ, just like all humans, but they never suffer the second death. They simply don’t fit the description; they don’t match the scriptural portrait of those condemned to eternal punishment. I would argue that babies, aborted fetuses, the mentally retarded 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. It has nothing to do with works, and resurrection is absolutely essential. 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.

  1. How Daniel 12:1-2 fit with Rev 20 is a subject beyond the scope of this post; there are several approaches to the problem.

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24 Responses to “Romans 5:12 and the Fate of the Unborn, Infants, and Other Human Beings Who Cannot Believe From Birth”

  1. Jonnathan Molina says:

    Truly the gift of eternal life is wondrous; Thank You Lord Jesus Christ!

  2. cwmyers007 says:

    Your categorizing of sin into a moral aspect and a ritually pure aspect is extrabiblical and an invention to satisy your own theory.

    You should know that the Hebrew term (and no doubt Paul had the Hebrew in mind when he was writing!) denotes a human condition or reaction against the holy and divine. Erring has something of the same dimension, though in its mainly ritual use it describes negligence through ignorance rather than willful transgression (cf. Lev. 4:13). Yet when applied religiously (cf. Job 12:16) it carries the thought that we do not attain to God because we cannot do so. And this is the case of infants. They are born corrupted and therefore they cannot attain to God–they fall short of him–they are sinners! That is exactly what Romans 5 says in addition to the chapters before (esp. ch. 3).

    It is ashame that you still will not deal with the argument that destroys your view: YOU ARE IGNORING THAT ROMANS 5 HAS A COVENANTAL CONTEXT (Ch. 6 shows this forth nicely by discoursing on union with Christ by comparing it to the sign of the covenant, namely, baptism). You are wholly unconvincing until you deal with this covenantal context. You have not reacted at all with the host of scholars that subscribe to the New Perspective on Paul where they see him as a clear covenant theologian…especially in Romans 5. Read some Wright, read some Dunn, you will be able to improve your view on Rom. 5.

  3. cwmyers007 says:

    You just cannot show any proof that Paul was limiting what sin means in Romans 5 to some moral aspect leaving behind the ritual or lack-of-attaining aspect…you are not doing justice to Rm 3:23 that clearly defines sin for you…falling short of glory–God’s glory. And every infant falls short by virtue of their corrupted nature–they cannot attain to God, so they are sinners. Thank God for their natural inclination of trust toward him.

  4. shakie says:

    Professor Heiser,

    I was reading the comments in the post before this and you know cwmyers007 has a point. Look what I read in my TDNT: pay attention to the [note]

    3. Sin and Guilt. Often the terms for sin allude to it in such a way that the translation “guilt” is justifiable or necessary. This is always so when the reference is to the resultant state. Abnormal action and abnormal state are so related that no sharp distinction of vocabulary exists between sin and guilt. The more specific words for guilt belong first to the area of sacral law and bring out its objective character.
    [note this>] One could incur guilt unintentionally but the resultant uncleanness (even if not recognized) would be no less a fact than in the case of sin with a high hand, and would need to be set aside by the same ritual as that employed to restore cleanness. [<note this] Other terms (cf. Ps. 32:1) focus on guilt itself. Emphasis now falls on its intolerable burden (Ps. 38:4). It is the sum of the debts incurred by acts of sin and is manifested in afflictions, which are viewed as punishment for it. The rational or theological character of the OT concept of sin and guilt comes out strongly in the doctrines of expiation and retribution which rest on this basis, though the basis itself is religious.

    cwmyers007 seems to have you on this one.

    Kittel, Gerhard ; Friedrich, Gerhard ; Bromiley, Geoffrey William: Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich. : W.B. Eerdmans, 1995, c1985, S. 45

  5. MSH says:

    @shakie: sure; we’re guilty when we sin.

  6. MSH says:

    @cwmyers007: without this distinction, then you have inanimate objects “guilty” – whatever is profane then becomes “guilty” in this view.

  7. MSH says:

    @cwmyers007: No, Chris, it’s a distinction made across the board in ancient near eastern cultures, of which Israel was one. You can’t have Israel being some sort of “non earthly” culture when practically everything about Israelite religion has an ancient near eastern cultural flavor or equivalent. The temple is typical Canaanite, with some Egyptian elements (the furniture); the “tent” language of the tabernacle and temple has explicit, point-for-point equivalents in Canaanite (esp. Ugaritic) culture. I could list dozens, maybe triple digit examples of this, but you are better off just getting a good archaeological reference work and reading it closely. EVERY culture in the ANE world had a distinction between common/profane and moral offense. They were all “violations” but not all categorized the same way. This is why some “fallings short” were punished and others simply required ritual washings, periods of exclusion from holy ground, etc.

    And which one of these could the human conceptus commit, anyway?

    All I’m doing is what others claim to do, but refuse to do when it comes to exegesis involving theology: CONTEXTUALIZING the Bible. It is what it is, inspired when it was and in the context of the culture of the time. Most biblical scholars restrict that to things like pots and clay jars. THAT is picking and choosing. I don’t select the contextualizations I like and discard the others. I aim to be consistent. Like it or not, the Bible is fixed within a cultural context, and we do injustice to it when we ignore God’s choice of timing and culture when interpreting it.

  8. rode says:

    greaat post..blessings

  9. JEBoothjr says:

    Great article. Looking at 2 Samuel 12:23, the death of David’s son, he states, “I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.” I always looked at this verse as confirmation that babies will indeed go to heaven. Is this correct?

  10. MSH says:

    @JEBoothjr: I think that David did see his son, but I cannot be *certain* David was thinking that. To me, the statement seems optimistic, and not *only* that David thought he would accompany his dead son in Sheol. I should do some blogging on the Sheol issue. I think the OT had a more optimistic view of the afterlife than many OT scholars do.

  11. […] Heiser and MacArthur: What Happens to Babies, the Unborn and Others When They Die? 2009 August 14 by kittykit Romans 5:12 and the Fate of the Unborn, Infants, and Other Human Beings Who Cannot Believe From Birt… […]

  12. Charlie Simpson says:

    Dr. Heiser, Do you agree with the view of man as a three part being (body, soul, & spirit) 1Thessalonians 5:23 & Hebrews 4:12 or do you agree with other Scholars that man’s spirit and soul are the same? In my view the first one is more scripturally correct. If so then where does man’s spirit come from? I am not of the opinion that man’s spirit comes from man when man procreates. God is the father of spirits (Hebrews 12:9). If man’s spirit comes from God at brith or conception then man does not suffer spiritual death (separation from God’s spirit) at birth. Spiritual death happens sometime later when the propensity to sin or sin nature which was passed on in the flesh body and perhaps soul or mind revives itself after knowing the difference between right and wrong (the law). Isn’t this what Paul is taking about in Romans 7:9 when he said that he was alive once but the law came, sin revived and I died? He cannot be talking about phycical death of the body since he is still writing the letter to the Romans. He is talking about Spiritual death and he says he was alive once spiritually but the propensity to sin which was in his members (flesh and mind) overcame him and he sinned (died spiritually). Every person’s name no matter what religion or non religion they are born into appears to be written in the book of life from birth. The 70 Christ sent out had their names already written in the book and they were not yet born again. If an infant, baby etc. dies without ever having a name then God gives them a name. If after they die spiritually they do not accept the free gift of spiritual regeneration offered then their names are blotted out of the book. I conclude with you that babies, infants, etc. are in heaven because they have not yet died spiritually and their names have not yet been blotted out of the book. YOUR THOUGHTS ON THIS?

    Charlie Simpson

  13. Cris Putnam says:


    You should write this view of Ro 5:12 up and present it to ETS. It seems solid to me, I would like see if there are any serious challenges to be made. I can’t see any problems with it and it solves a lot of issues. I’ve heard the age of accountability exception used but this is much more coherent in total.


    • MSH says:

      I actually ran across something in an older article on a completely different subject where the author rabbit-trailed on Romans 5:12, criticizing it for incoherence in other regards (that made sense). Maybe some day I’ll hit it. I want to try and devote 2012 to academic journal publications. I have 6-7 divine council-related papers from conferences that need to become articles before I hit some other things.

  14. panamarick says:

    After fifty six years, fifty of them trying to understand “God’ and trying out every religion I could; I’m convinced religion it’s self is a load of s..t used by those in power to control those who are not in power.

    With that said, I’m always trying to learn more on the subject. I find you interesting so far, but then you write something like this “Despite their moral innocence before God, though, they will (as will all humans – unless there is a rapture!) suffer death.”

    My problem is with only one part of your opinion; it’s the “rapture” part. For the love of god man, how can a man of your education even utter the word let alone suggest there is any validity to the concept. We both know the “rapture’s” origin. Why advance this myth making your self look incompetent and your research suspect in the process? Really, I want to know.

    • MSH says:

      you really need to spend more time reading through the blog. The rapture comment was in jest. Please see my archive on eschatology. I take no position defending a rapture.

  15. Someone says:

    Being thrown in the Lake of Fire and suffering for your sins because you did not accept Jesus is the stupidest thing I ever heard of. God does not “torture” people because of your sins and then allows them to be saved. In the Old Testament whenever someone sinned, death was his punishment. In fact, God said to Adam & Eve that death would be their punishment for disobeying Him, not suffering/torture.
    That’s a legit question. Say for example a person that wants nothing to do with God. He doesn’t want to be saved or anything, but just wants to die and get things over with (there are people like that you know). Will God throw them in the Lake of Fire and they will change their minds because they were tortured? God is forcing His salvation on people. A person cannot have a free will if he knows he will be tormented if he doesn’t accept Jesus.
    1.The power of acting without the constraint of necessity or fate; the ability to act at one’s own discretion.
    Choosing between colours like blue and green. That is free will. But choosing either being with God or being tormented is NOT free will, because you’re being compelled to choose God.
    Annihiliationism is the view that makes most sense. You either choose to be with God, or you are annihilated/obliterated from existence as punishment for your sins. Free will.
    And also, do you ever wander what Judgement Day is for? If you believe in eternal torment in hell, the unbeliever dies and goes to hell, when Judgement day comes you are taken out of hell and judged for your sins, then thrown into something that is somehow worse than hell ! As you can see, that is extremely absurd, makes no sense, and is unjust. Why would you be tortured before your Judgement? Now about Universalem. Unbeliever dies, (sorry, dont know about universalism that much) then is judged, then thrown in lake of fire to be cleansed of your sin by torment? How would you feel if you were that person that was so “loveingly saved” by God? Annihilationism makes perfect sense. When an unbeliever dies he is dead. (well obviously) And then God resurrects him and judges him and tells him everything that he did wrong and why he deserves to die. And God kills him. That;s the end of that. No cruel torturing or “cleansing” required. IF I were that person I would see that God is just. After all, He did say that if you disobey Him you will DIE (Genesis 2:17) Yet most believe man cannot die, believing what the serpent said (Genesis 3:4). But if God threw me into Hell, or put me through some **** cleansing I would see that God is a tyrant and is not just and fair.

  16. Cheryl says:

    …..”Well, the first resurrection regards martyred believers, martyred prior to the end of the “millennial kingdom”.”

    ……..are you suggesting that these believers were martyred during the millennial kingdom? Would love to be able to track this with Scripture. Thank you!

    • MSH says:

      no – hence the quotation marks (the “millennial kingdom” could be the church age).

      • Cheryl says:

        Makes much more sense…..thank you! Have only recently come to the realization that most of what I’ve been taught over the years is essentially wrong. Trying to solidly line everything up with Scripture from this point forward. Basically, if a direct answer is not found in the Scriptures, I disregard the info and move along……it’s humbling to find out that much of what I thought to be true is anything but…..and I come from a conservative evangelical background….

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