The Bible doesn’t explicitly answer the question of whether children who die before they are born again go to heaven. However, enough indirect information can be pieced together from Scripture to provide a satisfactory answer, which relates to infants as well as those with mental handicaps and others.
The Bible speaks to the fact that all of us born of human parents are born with an inherited corruption from Adam that ensures we will inevitably sin. This is often referred to as original sin. While God created Adam and Eve in His own likeness (Genesis 5:1), the Bible says that, once Adam and Eve fell and became sinful, Adam fathered children “in his own likeness” (Genesis 5:3, emphasis added; cf. Romans 5:12). All human beings have inherited a sinful nature through Adam’s original act of disobedience; Adam became sinful, and he passed that sinfulness along to all his descendants.
The Bible speaks matter-of-factly about children who do not know enough “to reject the wrong and choose the right” (Isaiah 7:16). One reason people are guilty before God, Romans 1 says, is that they refuse to acknowledge what is “clearly seen” and “understood” concerning God (verse 20). People who, upon seeing and evaluating the evidence of nature, reject God are “without excuse.” This raises some questions: If a child is too young to know right from wrong and possesses no capacity for reasoning about God, then is that child exempted from judgment? Will God hold babies responsible for not responding to the gospel, when they are incapable of understanding the message? We believe that granting saving grace to babies and young children, on the basis of the sufficiency of Christ’s atonement, is consistent with God’s love and mercy.
In John 9, Jesus heals a man born blind. After the physical healing, the man goes through a process of receiving his spiritual sight. At first, the man is ignorant; he knows Jesus’ name but not where to find Him (John 9:11–12). Later, he arrives at the truth that Jesus is a prophet (verse 17) and that He is from God (verse 33). Then, in speaking to Jesus, the man admits his ignorance and his need for the Savior. Jesus asks him, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” and the man replies, “Who is he, sir? . . . Tell me so that I may believe in him” (verses 35–36). Finally, having seen the light spiritually, he says, “Lord, I believe” and worships Jesus (verse 38).
Following the expression of faith from the man born blind, Jesus encounters some spiritually blind Pharisees: “Jesus said, ‘For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.’ Some Pharisees who were with him heard him say this and asked, ‘What? Are we blind too?’ Jesus said, ‘If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains’” (John 9:39–41). In other words, Jesus says, “If you were truly ignorant [blind], you would have no guilt. It’s because you are not ignorant—you are willfully unbelieving—that you stand guilty before God.”
The principle Jesus lays down in John 9 is that God does not condemn people for things they are unable to do. “Sin is measured by the capacities or ability of people, and by their opportunities of knowing the truth. If people had no ability to do the will of God, they could incur no blame. If they have all proper ability, and no disposition, God holds them to be guilty” (Albert Barnes, New Testament Notes: Explanatory and Practical, ed. by Robert Frew, Baker Book House, Vol. 1, “Jn. 9:41”). According to this principle, babies and young children who are unable to accept or reject Christ are not held accountable for unbelief.
Before people mature enough to discern right from wrong (sometimes called reaching “the age of accountability”), it would seem that they are not held responsible by God. Toddlers sin, and they bear Adam’s corrupt nature, but lacking the ability to understand the concept of right and wrong, they are under God’s grace, in our opinion.
Other biblical anecdotes (e.g., David testifying that he would be reunited with his dead child after death in 2 Samuel 12:23) support the reasonable belief that infants go to heaven when they die. The same holds true for those with mental disabilities who cannot comprehend right and wrong.