This is a very thoughtful and serious question; unfortunately, no one can provide a definitive answer—simply because there are too many variables to be considered in a case of “youth” baptism.
First of all, it is a mistake to generalize, and assert that “all who are not baptized” will be forbidden entrance into heaven. There will be many in heaven who never were baptized.
For instance, thousands upon thousands of infants and young children die before reaching accountability. They will not be lost (nor enter into “limbo” as alleged in Catholic theology). Many others are mentally handicapped and thus are not in need of God’s law of pardon.
Young children need to be assured that God loves them and that they are in no danger of being lost. Careful language on the part of mothers and fathers would help prevent some of the problems encountered in this area.
That aside, we need to raise, on our own behalf, some thought-provoking issues for serious reflection.
Baptism is for the accountable
Exactly when does a person become accountable to God for his conduct?
This question cannot be answered with chronological precision. Children mature at different rates. Genetics, environment, education—all these factors contribute to one’s spiritual development. Even Jesus grew in intellectual awareness (Lk. 2:52).
No one can “x-ray” another person’s soul and determine his level of responsibility.
Our children should be taught the word of God from their very earliest days. However, they must be allowed to mature sufficiently so that any commitment they make to Christ will be solely theirs, and not that into which they have been led—independent of adequate personal comprehension. It is not uncommon for parents to gently “push” their children into making decisions they are far too tender to appreciate.
Remember this: The choice to become a Christian is the gravest, most consequential decision a person will ever be called upon to make.
Baptism is for the lost
No one is in need of immersion unless he or she is lost, and, therefore, in danger of hell. Baptism is not a mere ritual for sincere people, tender people, devout people, etc., It is for condemned people—folks who will spend eternity separated from God if they die without forgiveness.
Being intellectually qualified to obey the gospel entails far more that being able, in rote fashion, to recite the elements of the plan of salvation—which many children can do. It involves more than just a tender little heart who tells mom he wants to “get baptized,” like others are doing. It involves more than just feeling guilty for sneaking a cookie that had been denied.
It means being lost! Let this point sink in.
One of the most influential arguments an atheist could make would be to call attention to the sweet youngsters that some accommodate with baptism, and then charge: “These people believe that hell is full of these children; otherwise they would not be immersing them for the forgiveness of their sins’.”
Do we actually believe that a seven-year-old child will be separated from God forever in the event of his death?
Baptism is for the responsible
No one is amenable to the gospel of Christ who is incapable of assuming the responsibilities connected with conversion. Jesus taught that those who wish to follow him must be willing to separate from loved ones—even parents—if necessary. He must be daring enough to forfeit his own life if it should come to that (Mt. 10:37; Lk. 14:26; Rev. 2:10).
How could a small child possibly be held accountable to such a rigorous standard? Is a young child physically, emotionally, or socially capable of accepting such a challenge?
Baptism is for the committed
The New Testament symbolically represents our union with Christ as a “marriage” (see Rom. 7:4; Eph. 5:22ff). One’s relationship with the Son of God is the most important commitment he will ever have upon this earth.
Why is it that some parents, who would never dream of allowing their small children to enter into a physical marriage, will, nonetheless, permit them to “get baptized” simply because they are afraid that disallowing that urge would discourage the youngster from developing spiritual interests in the future?
When we tell our immature children that they are “too young” to date, do we entertain the illusion that such will deter them from ever wanting to marry?
When a youngster prematurely asks for baptism, if his parents handle the matter gently and compassionately, the child will not be damaged spiritually.
Baptism is for one who understands
The respected Gus Nichols used to point out that belief in Jesus, as the virgin-born Son of God, is essential to being baptized in a scriptural fashion. He would then observe that one cannot endorse the concept of the virgin birth unless he is able to comprehend the process of a natural birth.
His major point was this: Becoming a Christian depends upon being adequately taught, understanding what is taught, and being committed to a threshold level of very significant doctrinal truths. And this goes beyond a mere recital of certain oft-rehearsed phrases.
Finally, I would conclude with a couple points that deserve some degree of emphasis.
Be careful with arbitrary conclusions
No one can make a sweeping generalization regarding another’s baptism. No one is able to judge, based upon mere age, whether or not someone else sufficiently understands the deeper issues of life, e.g., sin and salvation. We are not prepared, therefore, to draw an arbitrary age-line, below which one is not qualified to submit to immersion.
There have been many occasions, however, when adults have questioned their own baptism at a very tender age. Some wish to remove all doubt; they submit to the command again—with a full knowledge of what they are doing. Safe is better than sorry.
Moreover, occasionally a minister will encounter a case that, to him, appears to be beyond the bounds of propriety. In such a situation he may strongly feel that he cannot, in good conscience, participate. No one should be pressured to become involved in a baptism that violates his personal convictions.
Be prepared with gentleness
There is no doubt but that small children will, on occasion, request baptism—when it is readily apparent that they do not comprehend the gravity of the situation.
A little boy once responded to the invitation at the conclusion of a church service. In his conversation with the minister, he said he wanted to be baptized—and also to ask Jesus for a new pair of roller skates! The minister put his arm around the little fellow, commended him for his sincerity, and told him they would study more as he grew a bit older. The child was perfectly happy with that recommendation.
We should not be fearful of lovingly restraining immature children from making the serious mistake of going through the motions of something they neither need nor truly understand.
We must also remind ourselves that it is just as serious to practice semi-infant baptism, as it is to practice outright infant baptism. To baptize someone who is not lost, is to do them a serious injustice that could have eternal consequences.