On Unbaptized Infants

Hieromonk Enoch

From what sources we have from saints, councils, and liturgical books, what can we say, little as it is, about the fate of the unbaptized infants?  I will not address St. Augustine’s remarks, and those who in general followed his opinion, because it is so well-known, and, in general, has not been accepted. However, it should be pointed out that this question has posed a problem for saints and ecclesiastical writers, and their solution is not simply, “All unbaptized infants automatically go to heaven,” which is, perhaps, a popular answer to day; nor is it St. Augustine’s solution.

St. Gregory Nazianzen, in his Oration 40, particularly section 23, gives us the following answer:

“And so also in those who fail to receive the Gift, some are altogether animal or bestial, according as they are either foolish or wicked; and this, I think, has to be added to their other sins, that they have no reverence at all for this Gift, but look upon it as a mere gift—to be acquiesced in if given them, and if not given them, then to be neglected.  Others know and honour the Gift, but put it off; some through laziness, some through greediness.  Others are not in a position to receive it, perhaps on account of infancy,or some perfectly involuntary circumstance through which they are prevented from receiving it, even if they wish.  As then in the former case we found much difference, so too in this.  They who altogether despise it are worse than they who neglect it through greed or carelessness.  These are worse than they who have lost the Gift through ignorance or tyranny, for tyranny is nothing but an involuntary error.  And I think that the first will have to suffer punishment, as for all their sins, so for their contempt of baptism; and that the second will also have to suffer, but less, because it was not so much through wickedness as through folly that they wrought their failure; and that the third will be neither glorified nor punished by the righteous Judge, as unsealed and yet not wicked, but persons who have suffered rather than done wrong.  For not every one who is not bad enough to be punished is good enough to be honoured; just as not every one who is not good enough to be honoured is bad enough to be punished.  And I look upon it as well from another point of view.  If you judge the murderously disposed man by his will alone, apart from the act of murder, then you may reckon as baptized him who desired baptism apart from the reception of baptism.  But if you cannot do the one how can you do the other?  I cannot see it.  Or, if you like, we will put it thus:—If desire in your opinion has equal power with actual baptism, then judge in the same way in regard to glory, and you may be content with longing for it, as if that were itself glory.  And what harm is done you by your not attaining the actual glory, as long as you have the desire for it?”


St. Ambrose of Milan in his “On Abraham”, Book II, Ch. 11, sect. 84 states:

“Unless one be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God. He excepts no one, neither the infant nor one hindered by unavoidable accident. These may, indeed, enjoy some unexplained immunity from suffering, but I fail to see how they can possess the honour of the Kingdom.”

In the Lenten Triodion (both in the Greek and Slavonic, the Greek being orignially compiled by monk Nikephorus Xanthopolous in the early 14th century), as well as in St. Gregory Nazianzen’s Oration 40 on Baptistm, as well as in the remarks by St. Ambrose, an answer is provided. The readings provided in the Triodion state that those unbaptized infants go neither to the delights of Paradise, nor to the fires of Gehenna. They are subject to no punishment, it seems, and only suffer the mere loss of what is given to those who enjoy Baptismal union with Christ. Obviously, Our Lord has no reason to punish them, but, While we do commemorate the Holy Innocents, it must be remembered that they died prior to the Resurrection and Ascension; indeed, prior to Pentecost.

The readings are what you find on Meatfare Saturday, or the Saturday before Meatfare Sunday. The Greek text says “oute eis gehenna”; my Slavonic is not good or great, but, I believe it says the equivalent.

It says in the Triodion reading:

“We should also know that when baptized infants die, they enjoy
the Paradise of delight, whereas those not illumined by Baptism and those
born of pagans go neither to Paradise nor to Gehenna. When the soul departs
from the body, it has no concern for the things of this world, but only
for the things of the Heavenly realm.”

One can confirm this by looking at Etna’s English language translation, as well as the Greek text from 1882 , particularly pg. 318, from which it is translated. One can also compare this with the same thing that will be found in the edition printed in the Russian Empire around 1864 during Tsar Alexander II reign and Met. Arseny of Kiev.

In Synod of Constantinople 1772 we have the following statement:

We the godly, following the truth and turning away from such innovations, confess and accept two places for the souls of the dead, Paradise and Hades, for the righteous and sinners, as the Holy Scripture teaches us. We do not accept a third place, a Purgatory, by any means, since neither Scripture nor the Holy Fathers have taught us any such thing. However, we believe these two places have many abodes…
None of the teachers of the Church have handed down or taught such a Purgatory, but they all speak of one single place of punishment, Hades, just as they teach about one luminous and bright place, Paradise. But both the souls of the holy and the righteous go indisputably to Paradise and those of the sinners go to Hades, of whom the profane and those who have sinned unforgivably are punished forever and those who have offended forgivably and moderately hope to gain freedom through the unspeakable mercy of God. For on behalf of such souls, that is of the moderately and forgivably sinful, there are in the Church prayers, supplications, liturgies, as well as memorial services and almsgiving, that those souls may receive favour and comfort. Thus when the Church prays for the souls of those who are lying asleep, we hope there will be comfort for them from God, but not through fire and Purgatory, but through divine love for mankind, whereby the infinite goodness of God is seen.

On the one hand, we believe in only two places and states for the souls of the dead, that is, the place of Paradise, and the place of Hades.  Either the souls of the unbaptized children reside in Paradise or Hades, yet, according to an important liturgical book of the Church, as well as the testimonies of two great Fathers which this is based upon, these souls neither go to Paradise nor to Gehenna? Is this not a problem? Not if we understand this correctly. Not all souls in Hades are in Gehenna, i.e., the place of the damned where there is no relief. Specifically, that part of Hades where the profane have gone who have sinned unforgivably and are punished forever can be equated with “Gehenna”; however, that section, or part, of Hades where souls who have ‘offended forgivably and moderately” would be the only section in these two states, or places, we may speak of. We may, in a way, think of it, using the crude geographical terms we may conceive of, as an ‘upper level’, or an ‘outer limit’ to Hades.

It may, of course, be said that the term ‘limbo’ could be employed. However, if this is done, it must not be acknowledge to be a separate place from Hades; nor can it be said to be Paradise, from which the Triodion excludes the infants.

Yet, we even find in the early Whitby Life of St. Gregory the Great, the Dialogist and Pope of Old Rome, how God answered his prayers even for the pagan Trajan in suffering in torment in Hades.  The following is related in chapter 28:

“Some of our people also tell a story related by the Romans of how the soul of the Emperor Trajan was refreshed and even baptized by St. Gregory’s tears, a story marvellous to tell and marvellous to hear. Let no one be surprised that we say he was baptized, for without baptism none will ever see God; and a third kind of baptism is by tears. One day when he was crossing the forum, a magnificent piece of work for which Trajan is said to have been responsible, he found on examining it carefully that Trajan, though a pagan, had done a deed so charitable that it seemed more likely to have bee the deed of a Christian than of a pagan. For it is related that, as he was leading his army in great haste against the enemy, he was moved to pity by the words of a widow, and the emperor of the whole world came to an halt. She said, ‘Lord Trajan, here are the men who killed my son and are unwilling to pay me recompense.’ He answered, ‘Tell me about it when I return and I will make them recompense you.’ But she replied, ‘Lord, if you do not return there will be no one to help me.’ The, armed as he was, he made the defendant pay forthwith the compensation they owed her, in his presence. When Gregory discovered the story, he recognized this was just what we read about in the Bible, ‘Judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. Come now and let us reason together, saith the Lord.’  Since Gregory did not know what to do to comfort the soul of this man who brought the words of Christ to his mind, he went to Saint Peter’s Church and wept floods of tears, as was his custom, until he gained at last by Divine Revelation the assurance that his prayers were answered, seeing that he had never presumed to ask this for any other pagan.”

Trajan had been dead for centuries, and was a persecutor of the Church.

This, of course, is an extraordinary phenomenon, and one should not place their own hopes of salvation on such an event, which, by its nature is exceptional [similarly, in the Old Testament, God granted life to those who should have, by His Own Law, been punished with death, such as King and Prophet David, who committed adultery and had a man killed].  Exceptions prove the rule.

Yet, cannot something be said for the Mercy of God in favour of infants who only suffer for the sin of another? And, yet, they do suffer for this sin of another; not just the negligent parents, or those who by ignorance or other faults are not part of the Church, but, they suffer from the sin of Adam.  The 419 Council of Carthage, which was given complete approval by the Synod of Trullo, and which has been accepted for ages in the Nomoncanon [literally ‘Canon-Law’], or Pedalion [Rudder] of the Orthodox Christian Church, states in its Canon 120 in the approved edition:

It has pleased the Council to decree that whosoever denies the little ones newly born from the wombs of their mothers when they are being baptized, or asserts that they are baptized for the remission of sins, but that they have inherited no original sin from Adam obliging them to be purified in the bath of renaissance (whence it follows that in these persons the form of baptism for the remission of sins is not true, but is to be regarded as factitious), let him be anathema; for no other meaning ought to be attached to what the Apostle has said, viz., “Sin entered the world through one human being” (Rom. 5:12), and thus it passed over into all human beings; wherefore all of them have sinned, than that which the catholic Church diffused and spread abroad every-where has ever understood those words to mean. For it is on account of this Canon of the faith that even the little ones too, who are as yet incapable of committing if any sin of their own to render them guilty of any offense, are truly baptized for the remission of sins, in order that what sin they inherited from the primordial birth may be purified in them through the process of renaissance.

Ultimately, however, we may trust in God’s Great Mercy and Love, knowing His is Righteousness. Surely, if by some great miracle and much labor on the part of St. Gregory the Lord would deliver Trajan from the torments of damnation, which is so extraordinary, perhaps it is not too much to pray for the departed children who die everyday without the Mysteries, and as we know, for most children, the wombs of their mothers (whether through murder or through the fallen process of life) become their tombs.

Although disliked by many, there is an edition of the life of Elder Basil the New and Theodora which addresses this. At the last judgment, the unbaptized infants rise up, cry out that they lost Baptism by no fault of their own, they say to the Just Judge on the Last Day:

“O Master, O Lord, Thou art blessed and gracious and merciful, because, as the Lord of life and death, Thine Inscrutable Decree deprived us of a time of life, but we beg Thee, have mercy on us, O Lord!” At this plea from these little ones the Lord gave the small ones comfort, and a place of repose, looking upon them with Compassion and Gentleness. The Lord then commanded the Holy Angels to give them a good place, a Mystery having eternal joy.”

How could God do this? How?

“Who is able to enter into the secret judgments of God? Wherefore those things which in Divine Examination we cannot comprehend, we ought rather to fear than curiously to discuss.” [Dialogues of St. Gregory the Great, Book IV, Ch. 26]

And for the souls of so many numberless children who die, through murder of abortion, or through the vast corruption of natural life in the womb, unknown by even their own mothers, or those abandoned in infanticide after birth?

“Yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee, saith the Lord.” [Isaiah 49:15]


Feast of St. Anthony the Great

January 17 (OS) / 30 (NS), 2017

6 thoughts on “On Unbaptized Infants

  • January 30, 2017 at 5:49 pm

    Well researched and written fr Enoch!

    • January 30, 2017 at 8:29 pm

      God bless!
      Thanks, Nikolai!

      • March 7, 2019 at 1:43 pm

        Dear father Enoch,
        I hope that this article is still monitored and that you will see this question, even though two years have passed since you published it. I have been struggling with the mystery of unbaptized infants’ fate for a long time. It seems to me that your article sums up patristic teaching on the subject pretty well, the only quote I see a problem with is the one from a vision of the Last Judgment, where unbaptized infants receive some comfort. At least in the Serbian version of the text, it does not say that the Lord will give them “a good place, a Mystery having eternal joy”, but something much less. A good English translation of an article by a Russian priest, mentioning this very issue, can be found here: http://bit.ly/2EIo8le
        Anyway, I have a question. You made a distinction in your article between Hades and Gehenna. Indeed, I can only see that difference as something that can explain how unbaptized infants are not in torments. However, in the Revelation of Saint John, we have a sentence dealing with the eternal reality, after the Second Coming. It says, in 20:15: “Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.”
        “The lake of fire” is very specific. It does not seem like a place which has an abode free of torment. I feel psychologically pressed to come to a conclusion about this topic, yet I do not want to fall into heresy. If those children are not saved at the Second Coming, and I believe that they won’t be (as is the traditional Orthodox teaching), then how can we reconcile the position “infants in hades, but not in torment” with the quote from the Revelation which states that “ANYONE” who was not counted among the saved will be thrown into the lake of fire?

  • January 30, 2017 at 8:42 pm

    Thank you Fr Enoch for this article. You cover all areas. I am weary of all theological speculation and “visions” concerning the condition of souls after separation from the body and at the Last Judgement. Nor can we trust the numerous “after-death” experiences. We can only pray for God’s mercy and love for all.

    • January 30, 2017 at 9:08 pm

      It was a short over-view. Hopefully someone in the future will write a more expansive study of the Fathers on this issue. I was impelled to write what little I have because of comments I’ve seen from some writers who simply act as if this is a total non-issue, or misapply references in certain Fathers [when those Fathers were speaking of baptized infants].

  • March 29, 2017 at 2:07 am

    A Roman Catholic source on the Vatican website speaks of the Greek position

    “Very few Greek Fathers dealt with the destiny of infants who die without Baptism because there was no controversy about this issue in the East. Furthermore, they had a different view of the present condition of humanity. For the Greek Fathers, as the consequence of Adam’s sin, human beings inherited corruption, possibility, and mortality, from which they could be restored by a process of deification made possible through the redemptive work of Christ. The idea of an inheritance of sin or guilt – common in Western tradition – was foreign to this perspective, since in their view sin could only be a free, personal act.”

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