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Question 78.

What happens to unbaptized children who die. do they go to hell?

 

Answer to Question 78.

 

We participate in the Lord’s Death and Resurrection through the Mysteries of Baptism and Holy Communion. It is through these Mysteries that our salvation is complete and in general we preach that whosoever is not Baptized cannot be saved, which leads us to a question many people ask “What happens to babies who die before they are Baptized – are they doomed to spend internal life in Hades?”

The Western Churches teach that unbaptized babies who die cannot be saved because they believe that we are all born with the guilt of Adam’s original sin. The Orthodox on the other hand believe that only Adam is guilty of his sin and we do not inherit his sin or guilt but only the consequences of his sin which is mortality and death.

Concerning infant deaths St. Gregory of Nyssa living in the fourth century wrote a treatise where he put forth the Orthodox understanding on the subject. He said that if nothing in this world happens without God and if everything is linked to the divine will then of necessity if follows that everything happens within some plan bearing the mark of his wisdom and at the same time of his providential care. Nothing happens by chance because as scripture says “He made all things in wisdom”. If this is so then what wisdom can there be if a human being enters on the scene of life, draws in the air, beginning the process of living with a cry of pain, pays the tribute of a tear to Nature, just tastes the beginning of life’s sorrows, before any of its sweets have been his, before his feelings have gained any strength; still loose in all his joints, tender as he is and so short lived suddenly dies, perhaps because he was left exposed or because he suffocated or because of some illness or weakness of the body? How are we to feel about such deaths? Will a soul such as the soul of an infant behold its Judge? Will it stand with the rest before the tribunal? Will it undergo its trial for deeds done in life? Will it receive the just recompense by being purged, according to the Gospel utterances, in fire, or be refreshed with the dew of blessing? He asks all these questions because so much uncertainty arises from the fact that the child has done nothing in his life, neither bad nor good. Thus having put forth these many questions he then sets out to answer them; he says “I cannot see how we can imagine these things for the souls of such infants.

If they have done nothing bad then there is nothing for them to repay. One is either good or bad and there is no middle category, but the infant has done neither good nor bad in his short life; it has made no actions or choices thus there is no reason for them to earn what we are hoping for. They do not have to fear the judgement because they have nothing to be judged for. The Lord said that the Kingdom comes to them that are deemed worthy of it as a kind of reward or exchange for the good things they have done in this life. By following the commandments and the Lord’s teaching we expect to receive as our reward the Kingdom of heaven. But in the case of infants who die there is no act of doing so what reason is there for saying that they will receive from God any expected recompense.

Gregory gives a very long and exhaustive answer explaining how all life comes from God and gives the differences between the spiritual bodies of angels and the spiritual and sensible bodies of man. He explains that just as food nourishes and gives life to the body so too does the soul receive life by participation in God’s light. The purpose for which man was created is to be united with God. Thus the fulfilment of this purpose, which we call deification or theosis, is not actually a reward from God but a natural condition and not to participate in God is not a punishment, but rather an illness of man’s soul and of his whole being. 

This he explains by using our eyes as an example. The capacity of our eyes to see is not a reward, but a natural condition of healthy eyes. And the inability to see is not a punishment but an illness of the human body. This is the same for the spiritual eyes of the soul: those who have purified their senses participate in seeing God’s light while those who have spiritually unclean eyes cannot participate in God and do not know him. This is not a punishment, but a natural state of illness of the soul. Thus our participation in God or non-participation depends entirely on the state of the soul whether it is in a clean and healthy state or whether it is diseased.  In babies the state of their souls can only be in a state of purity because they have done nothing to make it impure. From his birth man experiences illumination of the nous. The nous is what the fathers call the place where the spiritual heart and mind come together. When a person is created his nous is in a state of illumination. It has been noticed many times that there are infants who pray, even in their sleep. A monk of the Holy Mountain says that when small children turn their attention in some direction and laugh for no reason, it is because they see their angel. Here then we see that Orthodox theology does not agree with Western theology which says that man inherits the guilt of original sin. We believe that at birth a person has a pure and illuminated nous, which is the natural state. As the child grows and passions develop then the noetic part of his soul begins to darken. This then brings us to the question: “If infants have a pure nous which is in a state of illumination, if they have noetic prayer then why do we baptize them?

 This is answered by how we understand what baptism is. Holy Baptism is not the getting rid of original sin as the West believes, but our participation in the death and Resurrection of our Lord. By Baptism we are grafted on to the Body of Christ and we acquire the power to conquer death. This is how we understand the baptism of babies. We baptize them so that they may become members of the Church, members of the Body of Christ, so that they may pass over death and overcome the garment of decay and mortality. In other words, as children grow and the nous becomes darkened by the passions and evil in the world, through baptism they have the ability to conquer death in Christ, they have the ability through the Church to overcome the passions and cleanse and purify the noetic part of their souls once more. 

This ability remains with them into adulthood and with the help of the sacraments and ascetic struggles ordained by the Church as tools to help in the purification process, they can acquire the power to defeat death and attain deification. For deification is the purpose of baptism and it can only be achieved in Christ and in the Church. 

But a child that dies before it is baptized does not mean that it too cannot receive deification. It is born pure and when it dies it continues to exist in pureness. Its soul has not become infected with darkness caused by sin, thus its soul remains healthy and in its natural state and is not prevented in any way from partaking of the divine light. This understanding will also explain why we do not perform funeral services for unbaptized babies. The services performed by the church are exclusively for her members, but also so that we may beseech God to forgive and save the person because he has been tainted with sin. A baby has not had time to sin, it is still in its natural and pure state so in reality it doesn’t need to have prayers offered on his behalf.