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Many people wonder, what happens to little children who die? Through modern revelation and living prophets we have the answer to this important question of the soul.
A friend of mine once shared an experience he had on his mission in Brazil. He and his companion met a woman who forcefully declared that she was not interested in any religious message they had to share. When they asked her why, she explained that she had a son who had died as a little child and that her religious leader had told her that her son could never be saved because he had not been baptized. The thought of this broke her heart and she told the missionaries that unless they had a better message than that, she wanted nothing to do with their religion. Fortunately, they had such a message.
The doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on this topic might be summarized in a single verse of scripture revealed through the Prophet Joseph Smith: “And I also beheld that all children who die before they arrive at the years of accountability are saved in the celestial kingdom of heaven” (DC 137:10).
Although this doctrine is clear, there are still several questions and misunderstanding that arise from this topic. This article seeks to shed light on some of those issues.
Why are Little Children Saved?
It is easy to assume that little children are saved simply because they are cute and sweet and innocent. Although they certainly are all those things, that is not why they are saved. They are saved because of the Atonement of Jesus Christ. The Book of Mormon teaches plainly that without the Atonement of Christ “little children … could not be saved” because “in Adam, or by nature, they fall” (Mosiah 3:16). Although they are innocent of any sin, little children would still be subject to physical and spiritual death brought by the fall of Adam. As a result, without an Atonement they would be as eternally lost as the rest of us (See 2 Nephi 9:6-9).
However, the good news declared in the Book of Mormon and modern scripture is that “the blood of Christ atoneth for” little children (Mosiah 3:16), that “the curse of Adam is taken from them in” Christ (Moroni 8:8), and that “the Son of God hath atoned for original guilt, wherein the sins of the parents [meaning the Fall of Adam and Eve] cannot be answered upon the heads of the children, for they are whole” (Moses 6:54). This is why “men will be punished for their own sins and not for Adam’s transgression” (AF 2). It is because Christ has saved us all from the eternal effects of Adam’s transgression that we are left only to worry about out own sins. Because little children have no sins, they are therefore saved automatically and unconditionally in the celestial kingdom of God.
Truly, even for little children, there is “no other way nor means whereby salvation can come unto the children of men, only in and through the name of Christ” (Mosiah 3:16-17).
Which Children are Saved?
As mentioned earlier, “all children … are saved in the celestial kingdom of heaven,” the only stated condition in this revelation is that they “die before they arrive at the years of accountability” (DC 137:10). Elder Bruce R. McConkie explained this concept when he taught that “accountability does not burst full-bloom upon a child at any given moment in his life. Children become accountable gradually, over a number of years. Becoming accountable is a process, not a goal to be attained when a specified number of years, days, and hours have elapsed. In our revelation the Lord says, ‘They cannot sin, for power is not given unto Satan to tempt little children, until they begin to become accountable before me.’ (D&C 29:47.) There comes a time, however, when accountability is real and actual and sin is attributed in the lives of those who develop normally. It is eight years of age, the age of baptism. (D&C 68:27.)” (Ensign, April 1977).
In other words, accountability does not come dramatically all at once on a child’s eighth birthday. Accountability has been developing within the child all along, but at eight years old they are now sufficiently accountable to be baptized and therefore sufficiently accountable to be responsible for their own sins. Before that, a child cannot sin. As any parent knows, this is not because children are incapable of doing something they know is wrong, but because they are not accountable or responsible for these wrong choices. Children have what might appropriately be called a “grace period” where their wrongdoings do not count against them as they learn and grow into accountability. If they should die in that grace period, then they are saved by the grace of Christ without baptism or any other effort on their part (Moroni 8).
While this grace period clearly ends at eight years old, it is not as clear when this grace period begins. As Handbook 2 states, “It is a fact that a child has life before birth. However, there is no direct revelation on when the spirit enters the body” (21.3.10). Mortal life officially begins when the spirit enters the body and becomes a living soul (Abr. 5:7). The scriptures are clear that this happens long before birth. For example, John the Baptist was touched by the Spirit several months before he was born and signified it by leaping in the womb (Luke 1:41).
As a result, there is hope that still born children will also be included in this grace period and they too will be saved by the grace of Christ. Handbook 2 states, “Temple ordinances are not performed for stillborn children. However, this does not deny the possibility that a stillborn child may be part of the family in the eternities. Parents are encouraged to trust the Lord to resolve such cases in the way He knows is best” (21.3.10). If the spirit enters the body, even if for just a moment, that is considered the child’s life. All these children who die between when the spirit enters the body and when they reach eight years old will be saved by Christ in the celestial kingdom of God. These same principles apply to the children whose lives are intentionally ended through late-term abortion.
What will little children be like when they are Saved?
President Joseph F. Smith, who lost many children to early deaths, was comforted by the doctrine that little children would be resurrected as little children and raised to maturity by their righteous parents after the resurrection. For example, he once shared the following: “Joseph Smith taught the doctrine that the infant child that was laid away in death would come up in the resurrection as a child; and, pointing to the mother of a lifeless child, he said to her: ‘You will have the joy, the pleasure, and satisfaction of nurturing this child, after its resurrection, until it reaches the full stature of its spirit.’ There is restitution, there is growth, there is development, after the resurrection from death. I love this truth. It speaks volumes of happiness, of joy and gratitude to my soul. Thank the Lord he has revealed these principles to us” (Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith, p. 132).
Not only will they reach full maturity, they will also reach full exaltation. Abinadi taught that “little children also have eternal life” (Mosiah 15:25). Elaborating on this, the Prophet Joseph Smith taught that “children will be enthroned in the presence of God … they will there enjoy the fulness of that light, glory, and intelligence, which is prepared in the celestial kingdom (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith p. 200). In other words, they will not just be saved in the celestial kingdom, they will be exalted to the highest degree of that kingdom.
In order to be exalted to the highest degree of the celestial kingdom, all of us must enter into the new and everlasting covenant of eternal marriage (D&C 131:1-3). Little children who die are no exception to this principle and will have that opportunity available to them in the next life. Elder Bruce R. McConkie explained, “Will children be married and live in the family unit? Certainly. There can be no question about this. If they gain salvation, which is eternal life, which is exaltation, it means that they are married and live in the family unit” (McConkie, Ensign April 1977). When and how exactly this privilege will be made available to them has not yet been revealed.
Why do they die?
But, why do little children die? This question is the hardest to answer, especially for those who lose a little child to death. Perhaps the best way to start to answer this important question is with the words of Nephi, who testified, “I know that [God] loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things” (1 Nephi 11:17). We do not know all the reasons for all of the tragedies that happen in mortality but we can rest assured knowing that God loves us and has a plan for us. Although not all tragedies should be assumed to be God’s will, His plan provides the way to overcome all tragedies. As the hymn states, “Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot cure” (Hymn #115)
Sharing his thoughts on why little children die, the Prophet Joseph Smith (who had lost many children) taught, “I have meditated upon the subject, and asked the question, why is it that infants, innocent children, are taken away from us, especially those that seem to be the most intelligent and interesting. The strongest reasons that present themselves to my mind are these: This world is a very wicked world … The Lord takes many away even in infancy, that they may escape the envy of man, and the sorrows and evils of this present world; they were too pure, too lovely, to live on earth; therefore, if rightly considered, instead of mourning we have reason to rejoice as they are delivered from evil, and we shall soon have them again” (Teachings p. 196, emphasis added).
At the funeral of his infant granddaughter, Elder Bruce R. McConkie taught, “There are certain spirits who come into this life only to receive bodies; for reasons that we do not know, but which are known in the infinite wisdom of the Eternal Father, they do not need the testing, probationary experiences of mortality. We come here for two great reasons—the first, to get a body; the second, to be tried, examined, schooled, and tested under mortal circumstances, to take a different type of probationary test than we underwent in the premortal life. There are some of the children of our Father, however, who come to earth to get a body—for that reason solely. They do not need the testings of this mortality” (As quoted in Robert L. Millet, Alive in Christ: The Salvation of little children).
Although nothing in this life can take away the loss experienced by the death of a child, may we find comfort in the doctrine that little children who die will be saved. We know this because it has been revealed by modern revelation and taught by modern prophets and apostles. I conclude with the words of one of those modern Apostles who experienced this very tragedy more than once. He taught:
“Among all the glorious gospel verities given of God to his people there is scarcely a doctrine so sweet, so soul satisfying, and so soul sanctifying, as the one which proclaims—Little children shall be saved. They are alive in Christ and shall have eternal life. For them the family unit will continue, and the fulness of exaltation is theirs. No blessing shall be withheld. They shall rise in immortal glory, grow to full maturity, and live forever in the highest heaven of the celestial kingdom—all through the merits and mercy and grace of the Holy Messiah, all because of the atoning sacrifice of Him who died that we might live” (Elder Bruce R. McConkie, The Salvation of Little Children, Ensign April 1977).