This paper was originally published by the Homiletic and Pastoral Review journal.
Since the earliest centuries of the Church, Christians have debated the terminal state of unbaptized babies. (This paper will use the term “unbaptized babies/infants” to represent all who die without baptism and without the cognitive ability to accept or reject God and his salvific acts — e.g., those in the womb, infants, children who have not reached the age of reason, and the mentally handicapped.) Some Christians held the opinion that God consigned unbaptized babies to hell with its associated punishments due to their lack of sanctifying grace. Others held that God allowed babies to enter the Beatific Vision due to their natural innocence. Finally, others believed that God sent babies to a compartment of hell in which they enjoyed natural rest and happiness but not the Beatific Vision. Even today, the Church maintains that the fate of these souls cannot be determined and that she “can only entrust them to the mercy of God.”1
This paper will summarize the central reason (i.e., Original Sin) that some believe deceased unbaptized infants may not go to heaven. It will then provide a more detailed explanation about the varying opinions on this issue and the cause of these disagreements, namely, lack of scriptural clarity. Although opinions on this subject differ, this paper will contend that Sacred Scripture provides a preponderance of evidence that these souls enter the Beatific Vision at death. Accordingly, this paper will lay out biblical and theological evidence to support this claim.
The Problem of Original Sin
When Adam sinned by eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, he lost sanctifying grace and the right to it. Adam, the single individual through whom God gave all humans their nature, could no longer pass to his progeny that which he no longer had the right to possess. Thus, Adam, having lost the right to sanctifying grace, deprived every human being (except Mary and Jesus) of this grace. Consequently, no human can enter heaven without God infusing our souls with grace sometime after birth.
Accordingly, as the opinions go, a child who dies without sanctifying grace cannot enter the kingdom of God because God’s life is not within him, and he remains a subject of Original Sin. Since baptism is the ordinary means by which God infuses a soul with sanctifying grace, then someone must baptize infants to make them subjects of justice. Historically, the Church has struggled to solve this conundrum and has relegated deceased unbaptized babies to either hell or limbo; however, it has never dogmatically defined their terminal state. Confusion regarding their terminal state has prompted speculation by some of the Church’s most brilliant theologians.
St. Augustine of Hippo opined that deceased unbaptized children enter hell where God subjects them to eternal fire. Augustine explicitly rejected the idea of a middle ground, stating, “. . . let no one promise for the case of unbaptized infants, between damnation and the kingdom of heaven, some middle place of rest and happiness . . .”2 Augustine expected God to punish these children with both the pain of separation from Him (poena damni) and the pain of hellfire (poena sensus). However, Augustine also believed that God would punish these children with the “mildest” and “lightest condemnation of all” because they were not guilty of personal sin.3
St. Thomas Aquinas took a slightly different position on this question. Like Peter Lombard, one of Aquinas’ scholastic predecessors, Aquinas argued that children who die unbaptized will suffer poena damni but will not experience poena sensus because they neither merited heaven nor committed personal sin deserving of hellfire. God will eternally place them in a compartment of hell called limbus puerorum (the limbo of the children) in which they will exist in natural beatitude. According to Aquinas, God excludes these children from the Beatific Vision because they died without grace, but He will not punish them with fire because they did not exchange the immutable Good for a creature. These children will live in natural beatitude, namely, contemplation of God without the Light of Glory but with perfect participation in natural goods. They will experience a purely natural happiness but not the supernatural happiness of the saints.4, 5
The International Theological Commission’s (ITC) The Hope of Salvation For Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized contrasts the Latin Fathers (e.g., St. Augustine and Pope St. Gregory the Great) with the Medieval Scholastics (e.g., St. Thomas Aquinas and Blessed Duns Scotus) and then briefly describes the Post-Tridentine Era in which the popes of this period protected the freedom of Catholic Schools to wrestle with the question at hand.6 Some theologians fell into the Augustinian school, while others sided with the scholastics.7 Then, citing Gaudium et Spes, the ITC stated:
[h]uman dignity rests above all on the fact that humanity is called to communion with God, specifying that “[t]he invitation to converse with God is addressed to men and women as soon as they are born.” This same constitution proclaims with vigor that only in the mystery of the Incarnate Word does the mystery of the human being take on light. Furthermore, there is the renowned statement of the Council which asserted: “since Christ died for all, and since all are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partners, in a way known to God, in the paschal mystery.” Although the Council did not expressly apply this teaching to children who die without Baptism, these passages open a way to account for hope in their favor.8
Thus, Vatican II opened the door to other considerations about the question at hand and the hope that God will grant the Beatific Vision to babies who die without baptism, but it also recognized three fundamental truths regarding the fate of unbaptized infants:
(i) God wants all human beings to be saved. (ii) This salvation is given only through participation in Christ’s paschal mystery, that is, through Baptism for the forgiveness of sins, either sacramental or in some other way. Human beings, including infants, cannot be saved apart from the grace of Christ poured out by the Holy Spirit. (iii) Infants will not enter the Kingdom of God without being freed from original sin by redemptive grace.9
Scripture and the constant teaching of the Church clearly express the first two affirmations, namely, God wants to save all men, and He accomplishes our salvation by Christ’s redemptive work and our participation in it, first and foremost, via baptism of some sort. Scripture and the Church have also perennially taught the third affirmation, but they have not clearly explained whether babies who die without baptism somehow receive the requisite redemptive grace to behold the Beatific Vision. So, does God somehow justify an infant, thereby infusing him with sanctifying grace, if the infant dies before the Church baptizes him? Based on the following teachings and biblical principles, the remainder of this paper will argue the affirmative.
Problems With the Aforementioned Theories
Augustine, Aquinas, and the ITC have failed, in my opinion, to fully explicate Jesus’ words in Luke 18:15–16. Although their respective works reference this passage, they do not seem to embrace the thrust of Jesus’ words. Even the ITC’s document, which is a contemporary work, expresses Scripture’s apparent ambiguity on this topic. In their document, the ITC writes, “The idea of Limbo . . . has no clear foundation in revelation . . . Moreover, the notion that infants who die without Baptism are deprived of the beatific vision, which has for so long been regarded as the common doctrine of the Church, gives rise to numerous pastoral problems.”10 The ITC later adds, “It must be clearly acknowledged that the Church does not have sure knowledge about the salvation of unbaptized infants who die. . . . the destiny of the generality of infants who die without Baptism has not been revealed to us, and the Church teaches and judges only with regard to what has been revealed.”11 However, Jesus’ words in Luke 18 reveal solid evidence for the deceased unbaptized infants’ heavenly existence and are crucial for understanding their terminal state.
In Luke 18:15–16 (RSV-CE), Jesus admonishes His disciples for rebuking those who brought their infants and young children to Him. Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God.” Then Jesus says, “Whoever does not enter the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (emphasis added).
First, Jesus says the kingdom of God “belongs” to infants and young children. The New American Bible uses this same verbiage, and the Douay-Rheims Bible says, “. . . for of such is the kingdom of God.” Therefore, per Jesus’ declaration, infants and young children, despite their baptismal state, have a right to the kingdom because it “belongs” to them and is “of” them. Jesus died for them, just as He died for all humanity, and promises that the kingdom belongs to them. Although Original Sin deprives infants of sanctifying grace until baptism, God has redeemed them, and per Jesus’ words, He does not deprive them of the kingdom.
Next, Jesus commands us not to hinder infants from coming to Him. Since Jesus never instructs His people to abstain from an action or behavior in which He engages, Jesus would never hinder children from coming to Him. So, Jesus would not hinder a child at bodily death, innocent of personal sin, from coming to Him. How these babies “come” to Him after death is beside the point. As mentioned, Jesus has redeemed them and has promised the kingdom to them. They merely need to enter His redemption via grace.
Third, Jesus says that the kingdom belongs “to such” and “whoever does not enter the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” Children enter the kingdom of God innocently, and, according to Jesus, their innocence is the standard by which we must enter the kingdom. Since the standard has something more excellent that the one imitating can only acquire by way of exertion or gift, then the standard is in a better state of existence than the one imitating unless the standard forfeits its state (e.g., by refusing baptism or by committing mortal sin once they reach the age of reason). Therefore, naturally speaking, an infant’s intrinsic innocence is the standard for our entrance into heaven. Although, supernaturally speaking, innocence via grace is always better than any natural innocence, when and how God infuses the deceased infant with grace is not the subject of this paper. Rather, that He gives them grace at some point before they enter heaven is this paper’s focus.
Fourth, Jesus tells adults that they must humble themselves like children and be as innocent as they are. However, infants and young children are already innocent and humble. All they must do is “come” to Jesus. If circumstances (e.g., miscarriage, abortion, parental neglect, famine, war, etc.) deprive them of this opportunity during their earthly life, Jesus will not deprive them after bodily death per His aforementioned promise. Also, Jesus gives us some added insight in Matthew 18 about the fate of these infants. In verses 10 through 14, Jesus says, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones . . . So, it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.” Accordingly, infants who die without baptism will not perish because God does not will it. If God does not will them to perish, and they do nothing to resist His will, then God will not allow them to perish.
Additionally, although baptism ordinarily effects initial justification, it is not the only means by which God effects justification. For instance, if the unbaptized Old Covenant people, who committed at least some personal sin, entered heaven without baptism at the Resurrection of Christ, then babies, who never committed personal sin, can enter heaven without baptism, since they fall under the same redemption and because God is not bound by His sacraments. This is well within God’s saving power, and, according to Luke 18, within His will. One might respond by saying that the Old Covenant people had to make an act of faith for grace to justify them. This is true, but the act of faith can be exercised by another, which this paper will discuss in more detail in subsequent paragraphs. Before discussing vicarious faith, however, we should consider parental and ecclesiastical responsibilities.
We must keep in mind that Jesus’ promise in Luke 18 does not negate ecclesiastical and parental responsibilities to baptize children. In fact, clergy/parents must uphold their baptismal responsibilities with the highest reverence. For, our Lord also revealed, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for . . . their angels aways behold the face of my Father who is in heaven” (Mt 18:10). Therefore, parents and the Church have a moral responsibility for ensuring they baptize children as soon as possible. Not only will baptism infuse them with sanctifying grace, thereby freeing them from Original Sin, but it will also give them the best possible advantage for battling Satan once they reach the age of reason. The Church and parents must continue to bring infants to Jesus via baptism, but if the baby dies before baptism, Jesus will not hinder them from coming into the kingdom of God, since baptismal privation is not the baby’s fault.
Analogously, a man designs and builds a mental facility for the mentally disabled and, with some mentally disabled people at his side, says to those who have responsibility over them, “To such belongs this facility.” Through no fault of their own, the people to whom the facility now belongs cannot make it to the facility, and those responsible for their wellbeing will not bring them into it. Mental barriers cause this inability for those who are disabled, and those who have responsibility for them have chosen not to listen to the architect. Yet the house belongs to the disabled as a possession according to the architect’s promise. So, how do the mentally disabled come into their house if no one will bring them into it? Quite simply, the architect must somehow bring them into it. The obligation falls to the architect by way of his promise. God, the true Architect, who is omniscient, is completely aware of the consequences of His promises. He does not make them hastily and is not surprised by their effects. Accordingly, if a baby dies before baptism, by Christ’s promise that the kingdom belongs to them, He will bring them into the kingdom. How Jesus does this is irrelevant. Somehow, He will give them sanctifying grace.
Jesus’ promise must not be imprudently set aside because of some narrow interpretation of justification. Baptism is a requirement for those who know of its efficacy. Similarly, the Eucharist is a requirement for those who know of its efficacy. In John 6, Jesus says, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink His blood, you have no life in you” (v. 53). “Life” in this passage means grace, since we receive God’s life by consuming the Eucharist and all sacraments communicate grace. However, one cannot be held accountable for not receiving the Eucharist if one does not know about Jesus’ teaching. Similarly, one cannot be held liable for not being baptized if one is invincibly ignorant about it or cannot receive it through no fault of their own.
St. Paul addresses invincible ignorance, natural law, and the role of conscience in Romans 2:14–16, in which he writes:
When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law unto themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.
According to St. Paul, whom the Holy Spirit guided when he wrote this letter, God will accuse or excuse Gentiles when he judges them by Jesus Christ. Therefore, Jesus will be the standard by Whom God judges us regardless of our baptismal state, because those who do not have Jesus’ teaching on baptism are a law unto themselves. Accordingly, God will judge infants, and anyone else who cannot obtain sacramental baptism through no fault of their own, by Christ’s innocence and humility.
Furthermore, Paul explains that Gentiles, who do not have the law, are a law unto themselves. Being a law unto oneself necessarily means that a legitimate authority has not applied or revealed another law to this or that person other than the natural law. Unbaptized infants certainly fall into this category of people who do not have the law because they are neither brought into the Old Covenant law via circumcision nor the New Covenant law via baptism.
Paul then tells us that their consciences bear witness. Now, infants’ consciences cannot bear witness to Original Sin because, according to Romans 2:14, they bear witness to what they “do by nature,” and Original Sin is not an act, it is a state. Infants cannot do it. Also, infants, by their very nature, do not commit actual sin. Thus, unbaptized infants’ consciences will not bear witness to sin committed or contracted because they cannot and did not do either one. Although these infants, like the Gentiles in Paul’s passage, exist in a fallen state, they are only accountable for actual sin at judgement. Accordingly, the infant’s conscience will not “accuse” but, rather, “excuse” him on the day of judgment when Jesus will be the standard by whom God will judge them. So, even unbaptized infants will not escape judgement. However, as they are free from personal sin, God will judge them as being innocent.
Regarding invincible ignorance, the ITC document, citing Lumen Gentium’s teaching, states that God can save any person who has no knowledge of Christ and his teachings if they are invincibly ignorant and live a morally upright life (see ITC, 58).12 Now, no person in the state of nature is more invincibly ignorant or more morally upright than a baby, and invincibly ignorant adults have most likely committed at least some sin. Therefore, a baby who has never committed sin is in a better position, spiritually speaking, than an invincibly ignorant adult. Accordingly, if God can forgive an invincibly ignorant adult who never received baptism, then God can forgive an invincibly ignorant child who never received baptism. And if God’s mercy extends to even one unbaptized baby, then justice dictates that His mercy extends to all unbaptized babies. For all babies are equally conceived in Original Sin and all babies are equally devoid of personal sin.
Some Arguments and Counterarguments
Regarding this equality of spiritual status among unbaptized babies, Peter Abelard, in his Commentary of the Letter of Paul to the Romans, wrote, “We even believe that no one who dies in childhood is assigned to this most lenient punishment, unless God foresaw that this one was to be most evil if he were to live [emphasis added], and on account of this, was to be afflicted with greater punishments.”13 Although Abelard bases his opinion on God’s omniscience, specifically, that God knows all actions in which a person would have engaged had he lived long enough, he seemingly does not take into account that God punishes a person based the evil he actually commits and rewards based on the good he actually accomplishes. However, Jesus clearly teaches that God will send the unrighteous goats to eternal punishment and the righteous sheep to eternal life based on their actual deeds (Mt. 25:31–46). Also, Scripture teaches in numerous places that God will punish us according to our works (see Rom 2:6–8; 1 Cor 3:8; 2 Cor 11:15; 1 Peter 1:17; Rev 22:12 and others).
If we accept Abelard’s opinion about those who receive punishment, we must accept it for those who would have done good deeds had they lived long enough. For instance, if a man would have lived another year, another thousand years, or another billion years, he would have finally repented and performed good works that make him worthy of the kingdom. God, being omniscient, would look at his potential good works rather than the actual evil he committed as the basis for his entry into the kingdom. However, Scripture and Tradition nowhere teach such things. Thus, a dead infant’s future actions, had he remained alive, are not a basis for his damnation or his salvation.
Next, the Church traditionally teaches that outside herself, there is no salvation. However, Lumen Gentium and other Church writings give context to this axiom. Lumen Gentium states, “Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved.”14 Now, an infant cannot refuse to enter the Church because he is powerless to do so. To enter the Church, the infant must rely on another to bring him into it via baptism. This reliance implies the responsibility of another. Thus, if the one who has the responsibility does not have the child baptized before his death, culpability falls to the one responsible rather than to the infant. Consequently, we must turn to the Church’s teaching on extraordinary means of salvation.
The Instruction on Infant Baptism recognizes the ordinary means of salvation that begins with faith and baptism and goes on to assert that “baptism is never administered without faith: in the case of infants, it is the faith of the Church.”15 Also, citing Ordo Baptismi Parvulorum (Order of Infant Baptism), the Instruction states, “. . . if the child is in danger of death, it is to be baptized without delay . . .”16 The Council of Trent explains, “This translation [from the state of Original Sin to the state of grace] however cannot, since promulgation of the Gospel, be effected except through the laver of regeneration or its desire [emphasis added] . . .”17 Thus, this paper contends that the Church can accomplish a baptism of desire when a child is in danger of death due to the Church’s perpetual desire for God to save all, even those who cannot seek baptism because of some obstacle. This desire suffices for those infants who die without baptism through no fault of their own. The Church’s desire, as our mother, the new Eve, wed to the Bridegroom, reaches even to those in the womb.
If the parents’/Church’s action at the baptismal font can save babies, and a baptism of desire in life-threatening situations is sufficient for salvation, then the Church’s desire for all infants to be baptized should be sufficient for infants in life-threatening situations (e.g., miscarriage, abortion, infanticide, famine, war, etc.). Accordingly, a baptism of desire for all infants who die without baptism adheres to the Church’s teachings on invincible ignorance and extraordinary means of salvation.
Furthermore, Scripture provides evidence that the faith of others can be an instrument of salvation for someone else. In Matthew 9:2, four men brought a paralytic to Jesus, and because of the crowd, they lowered him from the roof. Jesus, seeing their faith, said, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” Additionally, St. John says, “If anyone sees his brother committing what is not a deadly sin, he will ask, and God will give him life . . .” (1 Jn 5:16). Finally, St. James writes, “. . . the prayer of faith will save the sick man . . . and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (Js 5:15–16). Thus, the Church’s constant prayer for infants who die without baptism has a salvific quality.
Another argument is that God does not give unbaptized infants grace at the moment of death or posthumously. As previously stated, when or how God gives a deceased infant the grace necessary for entering heaven is outside this article’s scope. However, one cannot rule out that God somehow accomplishes this. Although Scripture does not explicitly reveal that God infuses a deceased infant with grace, the story of King David’s first child suggests that He does. In 2 Samuel 12, after David’s affair with Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, David kills Uriah by sending him to the front battle lines. As punishment, God strikes David’s and Bathsheba’s child with an illness from which he dies. Then David laments, saying, “But now he is dead . . . I shall go to him, but he will not return to me” (v. 23).
When David died and went to him, he would have gone to the abode of the just, and on to heaven at Jesus’ Resurrection. We know he entered heaven because Hebrews 11 lists David as one of those in the “great cloud of witnesses,” in “the city of the living God, heavenly Jerusalem,” with “innumerable angels in festal gathering,” with “the Judge who is God of all,” and is one of the “spirits of just men made perfect” (Heb 12:1, 22–23). If David went to the abode of the just and on to heaven, his child, who was in the abode with him, would have done the same. This passage, along with the other passages cited, provides sound evidence for the infusion of grace at death or posthumously.
Although Original Sin deprives us of sanctifying grace at the moment of conception, it does not prevent God from saving the invincibly ignorant who die without baptism. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that God has bound salvation to baptism, but He is not bound by His sacraments.18 Accordingly, God can save babies if they die without baptism. Scripture and the Church’s teachings reveal that God’s salvific work applies to those who die in this state. Furthermore, Jesus commands us not to hinder infants from coming to him and promises that the kingdom of heaven belongs to these children. He also reveals to us that the Father does not will that they should perish. St. Paul affirms that these infants are a law unto themselves and that their consciences will excuse them on the day of judgement.
The Church teaches that extraordinary means of salvation exist and that invincible ignorance, which an infant certainly has, excuses someone from damnation provided they live a morally upright life and do not reject God. Infants undoubtedly fall into this category. The Church also teaches that a baptism of desire suffices when sacramental baptism is not available, and one is in danger of death. Accordingly, if a baby dies before he can receive sacramental baptism, the Church’s desire that the baby be saved suffices to effect a baptism of desire, especially since the faith of one can save another. Therefore, I argue that we can have not only hope that God will save those infants who die without baptism, but we can have assurance that their salvation is God’s will, that Jesus will not hinder them, and that they will enter Eternal Beatitude.
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, online edition: https://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P3M.HTM, accessed 10 April 2022; §1261. ↩
- Augustine, On the Soul and Its Origin, online edition: www.newadvent.org/fathers/15081.htm, accessed 10 April 2022; ch. 11. ↩
- Augustine, On Faith, Hope, and Love, online edition: www.newadvent.org/fathers/1302.htm, accessed 10 April 2022; ch. 93. ↩
- Thomas Aquinas, On Evil, Tr. John A. Oesterle and Jean T. Oesterle, (University of Notre Dame Press, 1995), Q. 5, a. 2. ↩
- Thomas Aquinas, Rainaldo da Piperno, Summa Theologica, online edition: www.newadvent.org/summa/6001.htm, accessed 10 April 2022, III (appendix I), 1, 2. ↩
- International Theological Commission (ITC), The Hope of Salvation For Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized, online edition: https://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/cti_documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20070419_un-baptised-infants_en.html, accessed 10 April 2022; 15–25. ↩
- ITC, 26. ↩
- ITC, 31. ↩
- ITC, 32. ↩
- ITC, 3. ↩
- ITC, 79. ↩
- ITC, 58. ↩
- Peter Abelard, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, tr. Steven R. Cartwright. Washington, D.C., (Catholic University of America Press, 2012), 222. ↩
- Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium, online edition: https://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19641121_lumen-gentium_en.htm.l, accessed 10 April 2022; 14. ↩
- Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction of Infant Baptism, online edition: https://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19801020_pastoralis_actio_en.html, accessed 10 April 2022; 18. ↩
- Instruction on Infant Baptism, 29. ↩
- Council of Trent, Decree Concerning Justification, online edition: ewtn.com/catholicism/library/decree-concerning-justification–decree-concerning-reform-1496, accessed 10 April 2022; Chapter IV. ↩
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, online edition: https://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P3M.HTM, accessed 10 April 2022; §1257. ↩