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Our readers asked:

Someone told me that if a baby dies before being baptized, the baby goes to hell. Is this true?

Fr. Joe Answers:

I’m happy to assure you that the Catholic Church has never taught that unbaptized babies go to hell. In fact, such a belief was explicitly rejected by Pope Pius VI in 1794, in response to the severe teachings of an group in Italy called the Jansenists.

The fate of unbaptized babies after death has been, however, a topic of discussion in the Church since at least the 4th century. The discussion centered around how to interpret Jesus’ words in the gospel of John (3:5) “no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit.”

Whether these words of Jesus applied to babies was apparently not a concern for the earliest Christians, since they baptized only adults. The practice of baptizing children only gradually entered the church’s life. But once it was established, Christians were faced with the question of how to reconcile Jesus’ words in the gospel of John with the fact that some babies, who were obviously innocent of personal sin, died before being baptized.

St. Augustine in the 4th century developed the idea that every human being upon birth was marked by the “original sin” of Adam and Eve. Augustine thought that unbaptized babies might suffer a milder form of hell, without intense punishment. Augustine’s concept of original sin became the teaching of the church, but his theory about its consequences to unbaptized babies was never adopted by the church as a whole.

This again became a topic of debate in the 12th century. St. Thomas Aquinas developed the theory that unbaptized babies would experience a place of natural happiness that would not, however, include a direct “vision” of God. He called this state of natural happiness “limbo.” The idea of “limbo” was never defined as an official Catholic teaching, although it was widely taught in the absence of a more compelling theory. Other theologians did propose other possibilities: for example, that the faith and love of the child’s parents would be sufficient for the babies to receive a “baptism of desire” and so go directly to a heavenly union with God.

The idea of limbo has fallen out of fashion among Catholics, and is no longer widely taught even as a theory. The present Catholic approach to this question is:

1. Death is the ultimate mystery, and no one has a blueprint as to what happens to any of us after we die.
but
2. We trust in God’s mercy. God is all-loving and the source of eternal life. The new “Catechism of the Catholic Church” (1261) states that “the great mercy of God who desires that all should be saved, and Jesus’ tenderness toward children which caused him to say ‘let the children come to me, do not hinder them’, allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who die without baptism.”

 
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The Author : Fr. Joe
Fr. Joe Scott, CSP, has been a campus minister, pastor and editor as a Paulist priest.
See more articles by (74).
Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • TOmNossor

    Father
    Joe,

    1. I understand Pius VI maintained that the teaching of Limbo was available
    when the Jansenist claimed that Limbo was setting up a THIRD eternal resting
    place for the dead. Pius VI argument was not that babies were in heaven for
    nobody EVER claimed that was possible before the 19th or 20th century. Pius VI
    was merely saying that “We reject as a Pelagian fable a third place for babies
    who die in a state of original sin.”

    What
    reason do you have for suggesting that Pius VI was denying that unbaptized
    infants are in some form hell. The proper understanding of Limbo as
    presented by Aquinas is that Limbo is a denial of the beautific vision (thus
    not heaven and thus properly hell), but without any some aspects of torment.

    Pius
    VI is primarily saying that Limbo is not a third place such that some are in
    heaven, some hell and some Limbo.

    How
    am I misunderstanding this?

    2. The
    Council of Carthage (not an EC) quite explicitly taught that unbaptized infants
    are in hell. This teaching was developed
    further in the middle ages with the idea of Limbo. But, would it not be true that the Father’s
    at Carthage (and 2 Popes who approved of the proceedings at Carthage) did in
    fact teach that unbaptized infants are in hell?

    “It has been decided likewise that if anyone says
    that for this reason the Lord said: “In my house there are many mansions”: that
    it might be understood that in the kingdom of heaven there will be some middle
    place or some place anywhere where happy infants live who departed from this
    life without baptism, without which they cannot enter into the kingdom of
    heaven, which is life eternal, let him be anathema. For when the Lord says:
    “Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he shall not enter into
    the kingdom of God”
    [John 3:5], what Catholic will doubt that he will be a partner of the devil
    who has not deserved to be a coheir of Christ? For he who lacks the right
    part will without doubt run into the left.”

    3. An
    aside: What evidence do you point to when you say, “Whether these
    words of Jesus applied to babies was apparently not a concern for the earliest
    Christians, since they baptized only adults.” This is also something I have seen little of.

    Charity,
    TOm

  • Dennis Patterson

    You shouldn’t be baptizing babies. It doesn’t count. For it to actually be baptism you need to repent and do you really think babies can repent from sin? Acts 2:8 Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
    You are forgiven at baptism after you repent. If there is no repentance, you’re just being dunked in water.

  • arcane.nights

    I was always taught that after Benedict XVI did away with Limbo, all unbaptized children are sent to Hell. It’s absolutely terrible, but it’s what I was taught in CCD and religious education, and growing up Catholic.

  • timothy

    I often wonder if the church has not grabbed the wrong end of the stick in relation to baptism. The Son came to do away with the physical law and provide the higher spiritual law. Is not the birth by water the birth with the mothers waters and the birth by Fire or the Spirit the birth by the Holy Spirit. Really are we all thinking right when we are getting worried about some water been sprinkled over someones head. Lets get realistic most are not even baptised by immersion. It is either one way or another not half way in between..

  • Steven Parrish

    Rocket88,

    Oh really?????!!!!

    Let’s see. Were the babies killed during the flood? Were babies killed during the destruction of Jerusalem in 607 B.C.E. and 70 C.E.? What about the Moabites? What about the destruction of the10-tribe kingdom by the Assyrians? What about God’s instructions to King Saul to kill everyone of the Amalekites, even the animals?
    And last but not least, what about the first born of Egypt? Some of these were babies.

    These are but a few examples of babies devoted to destruction along with adult and live stock.

  • anonymous

    All babies, no matter what religion, will go directly to heaven because all children are born innocent. God forgave Adam and Eve and therefore there is no such thing as original sin. God is the most just, dont you agree? So does it make sense that God would have it that we are born guilty for something we did not do? If a person went to jail because their father committed murder wouldn’t that be unjust?! So this cannot at all be the case, because God is the MOST JUST! Also God does not have kids, because God is one and he doesn’t need anybody, dont you agree? Dont you agree that God is the most powerful? So why would he need a son? Humans have children because one day we will grow weak and die and we will need our children to help us in life and to carry out our legacies. It doesn’t make sense that God would have children. Because God is everlasting, and will never die. You’d be insulting God if you said he had a son. Even the popes cant have kids. You know why? Because they think it’s a sign of weakness and “sin”. So you’re telling me a pope is not allowed to have kids but yet you give God the greatest a son? And even if God did have a son, why would he kill his son off? what kind of loving God is that? And if you telll me that’s the only way to salvate humanity then you are basically saying God’s abilities are limited and he cannot do anything? Are you now telling me that God is not the All Powerful? Do you know see how illogical your way of thinking is?God gave you a brain so you could think, so please use it for that purpose. Don’t just believe something because your parents told you to believe that or because someone claimed to “have spoken to God”. Where’s the proof? Faith is not supposed to be blind. It’s supposed to be true and real and logical. Yes there is a God, he is one, and he is the most loving and most forgiving. This life is a test and we are supposed to do good and be good people, so that when we do die we can go to paradise. I apologize if this comes off disrespectful, but it’s the most logic to me.

    • anonymous

      those are my two cents

    • Lettau Simon

      God does have a son his name is Jesus and he said (john 14:6 ) I Am
      the way truth and the life no one cometh unto the father, but by me
      .(John 3:16)

      For God so loved the world that he give
      his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not
      perish, but have everlasting life.

      (John 14:10)
      Believest thou not that I am in the the father ,and the father in me ?
      The words that i speak unto you I speak not of myself : but the Father
      that dwelleth in me ,he doeth the works .

      (genesis
      1:26) And God said let us make man in our image, after our likeness:and
      let them have dominion over the fish of the sea
      ……………………….this proves that God the father has a son
      (which proves the trinity) ((God the father , God the son and the holy
      spirit – ) ;

      and also that not only that he was there in the beginning but he will be their in the end .He is the alpha and omega .

      (New Living Translation)when the Father sends the Advocate as my representative–that is, the
      Holy Spirit–he will teach you everything and will remind you of
      everything I have told you.

    • Steven Parrish

      “All babies, no matter what religion, will go directly to heaven because all children are born innocent. God forgave Adam and Eve and therefore there is no such thing as original sin.”

      Is this your heart speaking or do you really have knowledge of such. From my reading of the scriptures, only those that have come to know and understand the word and then dedicated themselves to living in harmony with God’s will have the privilege to serve with the Christ as Kings and Priests in heaven. How could a baby or anyone for that matter be obedient to something it never heard let alone was taught?

      Additionally, Adam and Eve died just like God said they would if they ate from the tree (disobedience). They were perfect according to God’s design. They had free will. They could choose to be obedient or not. The consequences of their actions were spelled out prior to their decision to rebel against God’s authority. They deliberately rebelled. They died. They were not forgiven. So, where are you getting this forgiveness stuff from?

      The bible provides a wonderful hope for our loved ones that have fallen asleep in death. The resurrection is a wonderful gift from God. There is no need to make stuff up that his word does not teach let alone state. God provides the comfort for us through his word. So, there no reason to turn to empty philosophies and man-made traditions that are in opposition to bible truth.

  • rocket88

    God will not put anything on this earth as innocent and pure as a baby only to put in hell, limbo, purgatory, etc.if not baptized. Thats just plain and simple stupidity to think that. Any such baby will be with God in all respects and in all spirit for eternity.

  • Dave

    Fr. Joe, this is not a comment but a question. My grandson sied last May (30 day old) and someone has told me that he automatically becomes a saint. I’m sure she meant an angel but maybe you can clear this up for me. Max was babtised before his untimely death but not by a catholic priest, will this make any difference to his afterlife? I have followed with interest your replies to other people and I think you are a very sensible, straight talking man of God. Regards Dave C

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