In two previous posts (here and here), we looked at the possibility of inheriting sin. Based on deeply-rooted cultural assumptions we have here in the West, we think that everyone starts (or should start) tabula rasa. It’s an assumption that ignores lots of complicating factors, like genetics and upbringing, but it’s got some merit: everyone should be given a chance. The Biblical view, in contrast, seems to synthesize the best of these two strains: it recognizes that you are part of something bigger than yourself (your family), and holds each member accountable for one another to a degree, and yet salvation is offerred to the individual, not to the group. That’s why faith is so important, rather than just being (in ancient times) born a Jew or (perhaps, in modern times) born into a Catholic family.
Still, even St. Paul is quick to point out (for example, in Romans 3), that there are serious advantages to being born into a good family. It follows, then, that there are disadvantages to being born into a “bad” family, and as we’re all fallen creatures descended from Adam, all of us are born into just such a family: we’ve got a pretty tarnished history, this human family. This perhaps makes more sense in the way St. Paul conceptualizes it: as an inheritence. An inheritence can leave you a lot of wealth, or it can leave you with a lot of debt. Our inheritence leaves us with both.
All of this is directly tied up in the idea of original sin. But what does it mean to say that someone has original sin? Obviously, it means that their desires are no longer in perfect harmony with the desires of God. C.S. Lewis puts it beautifully in the book I’m reading now, Problem of Pain, when he says, “We are not merely imperfect creatures who must be improved; we are, as [St. John Henry Cardinal] Newman said, rebels who must lay down our arms.”
So we’re born on the wrong side of Eden, so to speak. What about those who die on the wrong side of Eden? I don’t mean those who actively take up the cause of rebellion from God. I mean those who die with the taint of original sin, but who do so through no fault of their own, like infants or the severely mentally retarded. There’s been lots of speculation on this issue:
- Historically, many Catholic theologians have believed that while original sin is enough to deprive you of Heaven, and even send you to Hell, it’s not enough to warrant punishment. In this view, original sin isn’t the same as actual sin.* Rather than a punishable offense, it’s an impurity: enough to keep us out of the beatific vision of God, but not enough to punish us eternally. Because they were impure, but not damnable, these infants were similar to the Old Testament saved, who couldn’t enter Heaven prior to Christ, and who the Bible seems to suggest were in a Hell without punishment (see Luke 16:22-23) until the coming of Christ (see 1 Peter 3:18-21).** Thus, they concluded that unbaptized infants were also on the edge (or limbus) of Hell.
- From this came the theory of limbus infantium or limbus puerorum, which is the “Limbo” most people mean. There were two schools of thought. One, championed by St. Augustine, is that they suffered the “mildest punishment,” because of Romans 5:16-18. The other school said that these infants enjoy the maximum natural happiness, but due to their impurity, cannot see God or be in His direct presence. Peter Abelard combined the two theories in the 12th century, arguing that maximum happiness without the beatific vision is the mildest punishment or condemnation.
- The Council of Florence seems to suggest that original sin is a damning sin (so that infants who die without baptism go to hell, barring a miracle of God’s mercy), or at least a damnable one (in the context, they’re explaining why it’s important to baptize your kids, if memory serves). Specifically, they state that “the souls of those who depart this life in actual mortal sin, or in original sin alone, go down straightaway to hell to be punished, but with unequal pains.” The context here is about individuals who neglect to be baptized, not about infants specifically.
- Fr. William Most suggests that the children who are sent to limbo may be, in many cases, those who God knows will end up in Hell if allowed to mature, and that this state of limbo may be an incredible mercy. (Remember that next time atheists ask why a loving God would allow an infant to die).
- Pope Benedict XVI seems to take an even more liberal (or perhaps hopeful) view than Augustine, Abelard, or Florence: he’s openly skeptical that unbaptized infants go to hell at all. He’s gone so far as to say, in 1985, “Limbo was never a defined truth of faith. Personally — and here I am speaking more as a theologian and not as prefect of the congregation [for the Doctrine of the Faith] — I would abandon it, since it was only a theological hypothesis.”
The Church’s official stance is simply that while original sin is punishable, we entrust the mercy of unbaptized infants to the mercy of God. Nevertheless, a person who declines baptism risks damnation: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16). Christ doesn’t even allow the possibility of someone having saving Faith and not getting baptized.
Some of a more radically Traditionalist flavor have tried to use the Council of Florence’s words against the current pope and modern theologians, and if you take a literalist and legalistic reading, that’s possible: there is a tension, if not an outright contradiction, if you de-contextualize Florence’s phrasing. But in the context, the Council of Florence isn’t contemplating the state of infants who die. For those who they’re addressing their point, they will be held liable for not getting baptized should they refuse. Like with Biblical texts, trying to read them as one might a statute or mathematical principle should be done cautiously: while their point in one regard might lead logically to another conclusion, we should be careful taking them outside of their intended context.
So here’s what I think we can deduce. Children may have to pay off a debt their parents owed, but they weren’t killed for their parents’ sins in the Old Testament (it was forbidden in Deuteronomy 24:16 and Ezekiel 18:20, as I mentioned previously). And our God is a loving God who wishes that none would perish (2 Peter 3:9). Those of us who go to Hell are sent their by our own resistence to God: He would like to apply Christ’s merits to us, and we reject His advances. He knocks, and we don’t answer, or bar the door (see Revelation 3:20). Our house is on fire from sin, and we’d rather perish than let Him save us.
All of this makes sense for those of the age of reason… but a baby? Eternally tormenting a baby because of something that mom or dad (or great-great-great grandma) did is almost certainly out of the question for a loving God who, in the person of Christ, had a human heart. No possible good comes of it, since by the time any of us would even find out He’s doing this, it’d be too late to change our own lives (so this notion some use that God must do it to prove His justice isn’t sound). So assuming that children go to Hell is the least plausible explanation, in my opinion. Nevertheless, Revelation 21:27 assures us that nothing unclean will ever enter Heaven. So either children are in a state of bliss absent God (the “mildest punishment” option), kept from the doors of Heaven by their uncleanliness, or God applies the merits of Christ to them in some way, and cleanses them of their sins (perhaps accompanied by a process of purgation).
Even if these children are kept from Heaven due to their sin, we should note that God is punishing the sin, not the children: if a very muddy animal wants into our house, we might just bring it food and water to the porch, instead. We don’t bar the animal from our house because we don’t love it, but because we don’t want it to get mud on everything else. If the animal will let us, we’ll wash it clean. If not, it’ll have to live outside of the house. Augustine suspects that God will use the “feeding on the porch” option, because of His aversion to sin (mud); Pope Benedict suspects that He’ll bring out the cleansing waters. The truth may be a combination of the two… remember that these infants already have personalities known to God Alone.
That, from what I can tell, is the closest thing we have to an answer from the Bible and the Church. This one may just be a bit beyond what we may know.
*Actual, in its original sense: as in, related to action. Actual sin also covers acts of ommission, so if a person knew they were supposed to be baptized, and decided against, that would be an actual sin, while the mere state of being unbaptized is an original and unchosen one.
** Actually, the limbo of infants and that of the fathers is slightly different. In any case, the Old Testament righteous were saved by Faith, but were still impure without Christ’s blood to wash away their sins, so they waited in what’s known as the Bosom of Abraham or the limbus patrum (limbo of the fathers). The major difference between that and the limbo of infants is that the righteous dead prior to Christ were only there temporarily.