Do Unbaptized Babies Go To Hell?

Eastern Orthodox icon of Christ embracing victims of abortion

Many mothers agonize over the eternal fate of their children, especially those mothers whose babies died before baptism. Do unbaptized babies and infants go to heaven, or are they condemned to hell? What is the official Orthodox teaching on this matter? Let’s explore that in this post.

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Do unbaptized babies and infants go to hell?

The Orthodox Church does not teach that unbaptized babies or infants will go to hell. Any Orthodox Christian who tells you this is, sadly, misinformed. And he or she is likely unknowingly allowing Western theology to influence his or her views.

Orthodoxy rejects the pernicious doctrine of original sin in Western Christianity that insists every human being ever bears the guilt of Adam’s sin. Instead, the Orthodox Church teaches that we receive condemnation only because of our personal choices to sin. The Western understanding of original sin distorts God. It makes Him into an cruel tyrant who arbitrarily condemns His precious ones to hell by allowing them to die before they can be cleansed through baptism. How barbaric a “God”. How utterly blasphemous!

Do we really think God is so small that He is bound by the rites He Himself has given us? Do we really find Him so merciless that He would condemn the most innocent among us to hell, simply because they were not baptized? God is sovereign. He will have mercy on whom He has mercy and judgment on whom He has judgment (Romans 9:15).

Can a baby or infant sin?

There are three ways to look at sin. Firstly, there is primordial sin, the sin of Adam. The Orthodox understand this not in terms of inherited guilt, but in terms of a fallen world. Primordial sin introduced sickness, suffering, evil, and death into God’s perfect creation (1 John 5:19; Romans 5:12). We are born into Adam’s sin in that we are born into a fallen world. But without our participation, there is no guilt. Therefore, babies and infants bear no guilt for primordial sin.

Second, there is generational sin, which we see in terms of specific propensities to sin. For example, the child of alcoholics will inherit the tendency to sin as his parents, but not their guilt. We do not have to submit to this sinful heritage. We can choose not to carry it on and end it. Babies and infants cannot fall into generational sins, since they are too young to make decisions regarding behaviors and tendencies.

Finally, there is personal sin. These are the sins we commit ourselves, whether because of the general fallenness of this world, the generational fallenness of our parents, or as the invention of sins of our own. A person becomes guilty when they personally sin. Therefore, since a baby or infant cannot consciously or unconsciously make sin a personal decision, he or she does not have any guilt and thus would not be deserving of condemnation.

Where did the idea that unbaptized children go to hell come from?

Historically speaking, the Roman Catholic Church propagated the teaching that unbaptized babies go to hell. They received this teaching from St. Augustine, who based his anthropology on the concept of traducianism. According to this philosophical concept, human souls (like human bodies) are derived from the seed of the father. Therefore, the father may transmit to his children even his own sins. This idea is clearly found in Tertullian and also in Ambrosiaster’s commentary on Romans (appeared ca. 366 – 384 AD). It was this commentary that played a decisive role in Augustine’s theory of “original sin,” which promotes the concept of massa damnata. In other words, the idea that the whole human race sinned through Adam and is condemned to hell through his sin.

Further, Augustine believed and taught that the defilement of original sin is propagated through the act of procreation. Therefore, every conceived human being, according to Augustine, inherits the sin and guilt of Adam. Every human being faces condemnation to hell unless he or she receives cleansing from the stain of original sin through baptism.

If baptism is necessary, how can unbaptized babies not be condemned to hell?

Any discussion regarding baptism must be within the context of the phronema of the Church. Baptism is not an individual agent acting alone, as it does in the Roman Catholic church. In Orthodoxy, baptism is of the church, given by the church, in the context of the Christian community, of which children – unbaptized and even unborn – are already a part.

Christ’s sacrifice was submission of His whole life to God (Luke 22:42). His death on the Cross not only washed away our sins, but also destroyed death itself. When we are baptized, we are baptized into His life and death (Romans 6:4), and we become co-beneficiaries of a life which finally brought God and man into a union of love and a harmony of will. Baptism initiates that essential union for the infant. This initiation will include the forgiveness of their sins, but is not limited to that forgiveness. The life and death of Christ, which reverses the primordial, generational, and personal fallenness of this world, is what the child enters through baptism.

When the Church indicates that something is necessary, that does not mean she dogmatizes in a way that excludes other possibilities. For instance, should a catechumen repose before his baptism, he still receives an Orthodox burial. He is, for all intents and purposes, considered (however imperfectly) a part of the Church. St. Cyprian of Carthage reminds us that the Lord’s side, when pierced, gushed forth blood and water, meaning that baptism can have a non-water component to it. And in fact, this is the case for those martyrs who gave up their lives for Christ before receiving baptism, and for unborn children slain through abortion or lost to miscarriage. They were baptized in their own blood.

The official teaching of the Orthodox Church

The Orthodox Church adheres to the teachings of St. John Chrysostom, who followed the Tradition of the Fathers before him. St. John Chrysostom taught that the transgression of Adam is the cause of our present fallen condition (our fallen nature), where all are bound by weakness, shame, fear, suffering, and death. Chrysostom believed that we inherit this condition due to Adam’s sin, but not as a punishment. Rather, the Lord allows this condition out of His mercy and love. Not only did we not lose from this, he claims, but in fact we have gained. For this condition has become for us a training ground (a school) for virtue, so that we can become capable of receiving the future gifts of God.

Chrysostom rejects the idea God would punish us for Adam’s sin as absurd. We are only responsible, he explains, and punished for the sins we commit ourselves willingly. Chrysostom agrees with infant baptism, not because there is a need to cleanse the child from the sin and guilt of Adam, or because infants have sins of their own, but because through baptism they will receive sanctification, justification, sonship, inheritance, brotherhood with Christ, become members of Christ and a dwelling place for the Holy Spirit.

Keep Reading: The Truth About Heaven And Hell

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4 Responses

  1. Thank you for articulating the Orthodox Church’s position on this topic. I always believed the same idea but I never saw an official position from the Church.

  2. I’m confused, because when I read in the Confession of Dositheus, it makes it a clear point that it is necessary to baptize infants for the sake of their salvation. Can someone help clarify?

    Decree 16
    We believe Holy Baptism, which was instituted by the Lord, and is conferred in the name of the Holy Trinity, to be of the highest necessity. For without it none is able to be saved, as the Lord says, “Whoever is not born of water and of the Spirit, shall in no way enter into the Kingdom of the Heavens.” {John 3:5} And, therefore, baptism is necessary even for infants, since they also are subject to original sin, and without Baptism are not able to obtain its remission. Which the Lord showed when he said, not of some only, but simply and absolutely, “Whoever is not born [again],” which is the same as saying, “All that after the coming of Christ the Savior would enter into the Kingdom of the Heavens must be regenerated.” And since infants are men, and as such need salvation, needing salvation they need also Baptism. And those that are not regenerated, since they have not received the remission of hereditary sin, are, of necessity, subject to eternal punishment, and consequently cannot without Baptism be saved. So that even infants should, of necessity, be baptized. Moreover, infants are saved, as is said in Matthew; {Matthew 19:12} but he that is not baptized is not saved. And consequently even infants must of necessity be baptized. And in the Acts {Acts 8:12; 16:33} it is said that the whole houses were baptized, and consequently the infants. To this the ancient Fathers also witness explicitly, and among them Dionysius in his Treatise concerning the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy; and Justin in his fifty-sixth Question, who says expressly, “And they are guaranteed the benefits of Baptism by the faith of those that bring them to Baptism.” And Augustine says that it is an Apostolic tradition, that children are saved through Baptism; and in another place, “The Church gives to babes the feet of others, that they may come; and the hearts of others, that they may believe; and the tongues of others, that they may promise;” and in another place, “Our mother, the Church, furnishes them with a particular heart

    1. Ronny,

      Christ is in our midst! Thank you for your question – there are probably many others who also wonder about this. The simple answer is this: It is indeed necessary to baptize us all for the sake of our salvation. However, that does not mean God cannot operate outside of His Sacraments and grant salvation to those whom He wills. If He is merciful enough to grant salvation to the repentant thief on the cross, who was not baptized, surely He would extend that same mercy to those who are innocent of sin and allow them into His presence. To believe that God would arbitrarily deny the most innocent of His creatures entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven because He allowed their death before their baptism is not just, nor is it merciful, nor is it loving. Such a view is utterly dependent upon the Western concept of original sin and hell, rather than the Orthodox phronema and teachings about sin and hell. Those Western ideas that stemmed from Augustine fundamentally warp who God is. We hope this helps. Please feel free to post any follow-up questions – God bless!

  3. This is an excellent explanation of the Orthodox view on this issue, which is much more logical than the catholic one.

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