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Infant damnation is the idea that infants who die before being baptized go to Hell, because they inherit original sin which can only be removed by baptism. It's a contentious issue in certain branches of Christianity, with many sects outright rejecting it, even as others hold on to a cruel and outdated bit of theology.
The Bible says
Already in the Old Testament Psalms attributed to King David can we read the following: "Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me" (Psalm 51:5); "Even from birth the wicked go astray; from the womb they are wayward and speak lies." (Psalm 58:3) But interestingly enough, the idea that there are "sinful" babies in Hell doesn't seem to have taken root in Judaism, but only later in Christianity.
Though the apostle Paul perhaps didn't believe in infant damnation (in Romans 7:9, he writes that he became spiritually dead only after learning about God's law), he made several comments that have been construed to support it, e.g., "sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned" (Romans 5:12). This verse was (mis)interpreted by the overrated St. Augustine of Hippo to say that in Adam all sinned (never mind that they were not even born when the alleged Adam allegedly sinned) and thus deserve Hell from the moment that they are conceived. To support this notion, Paul's claim in Ephesians 2:3 that humans are "by nature children of wrath" is often cited. However, the verse where Paul gets the closest to discussing children's afterlife destiny may be 1 Corinthians 7:14 where he describes the children without believing parents as unclean and those who have at least one believing parent as holy. It is of note, though, that he doesn't at all mention baptism in this context. But the folks who are hell-bent on sending babies to Hell can correct Paul's oversight by pointing to the so-called Gospel of John, "no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water" (John 3:5). The Christians who want to believe that unbaptized babies are saved have to be creative when dealing with this verse. What's more, even if they disregard baptism and the original sin, it is unclear how infants who can't yet believe in Jesus and confess him could go to heaven (John 3:16, Romans 10:9).
“”And then one here, another there, shall sires,
Young children, mothers, nursing babes, in tears
Wail their most piteous fate. No fill of tears
Shall be for them, nor piteous voice be heard
|—Sibylline Oracles, Book II, lines 365-368|
Their most piteous fate is described as consisting – among other things – in being cast beneath many horrid beasts in dank, dark Tartarus, yet being burned with much fire, bound in chains of flaming fire and most terribly scourged by angels. It is ironic that a few lines prior to these ravings the author condemned abortion ("Abortions, and all who their offspring cast Unlawfully away…").
Though the Sibylline Oracles were written in Greek, Greek-speaking Christians in the eastern part of the Roman Empire typically did not assign unbaptized babies to hell. St. Gregory of Nazianzus taught that those who "lost the Gift [of Baptism] through ignorance or tyranny… will be neither glorified nor punished by the righteous Judge". St. Gregory of Nyssa went further by affirming that babies' enjoyment of God in the afterlife is at first very small, but gradually increases. These theologians' discussions of the fate of unbaptized babies betray their blissful ignorance of the doctrine of the inherited original sin that had risen to prominence among their western Latin-speaking colleagues who, on the other hand, were ignorant of the Greeks' lack of belief in it. Latin bishop St. Reticius stated: "No one is unaware of the fact that this [baptism] is the chief forgiveness in the Church, in which we put away the whole weight of the ancient crime".:8 It really is a wonder that the schism between the Latin and the Greek church happened as late as it did.
Within the Latin church at the end of the 4th century, Pelagius and his followers rose in opposition to infant damnation (among other doctrines). However, due to St. Augustine and his supporters, Pelagians were condemned as heretics and forced to seek shelter in the east. During the controversy, Augustine inanely argued that infant damnation had always been held by the whole church. He also produced such gems as the suggestion that even some baptized infants go to hell:285 (presumably because God did not predestine them to heaven), and that it is preferrable for infants to exist in the eternal fire than not to exist at all.:286
The doctrine of infant damnation emerged out of the Pelagian controversy only more explicit and entrenched. See this example, from the end of the 5th century:
“”Hold most firmly and never doubt that, not only adults with the use of reason but also children who either begin to live in the womb of their mothers and who die there or, already born from their mothers, pass from this world without the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, which is given in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, must be punished with the endless penalty of eternal fire. Even if they have no sin from their own actions, still, by their carnal conception and birth, they have contracted the damnation of Original Sin.
|—Bishop St. Fulgentius:100|
Another big name who strongly believed in infant damnation was Pope St. Gregory the Great in the 6th century. When considering how God multiplied Job's wounds without cause (Job 9:17) Gregory reminds his readers that God does the same to unbaptized infants – after the wound of death "by a secret and righteous judgment... they even receive everlasting torments, who never sinned by their own will."
The eternal torment of unbaptized infants continued to be taught in the west throughout the Middle Ages and beyond, though the idea has slowly been losing popularity since the era of scholasticism when alternatives such as Limbo started to be proposed.
Many Christians just assume that innocent children go to Heaven when they die. The Roman Catholic Church traditionally taught that unbaptized infants go to a place called Limbo, until it was questioned by theologians. Nowadays, Roman Catholics seem to accept (with no small amount of discomfort) that something or other happens. The Roman Catholic Church itself seems to not know what happens to unbaptized infants, and popes have detailed at least four different positions supposedly "clarifying" the situation, but in reality generally contradicting each other.
In many Protestant sects, the belief is that all children below a certain age automatically go to Heaven if they die. In Left Behind, for example, all children under age 8 are Raptured, regardless of their religious affiliation or the religious bent of the family they were born into. They are considered too young to be able to decide for themselves whether Jesus really is their Lord and Savior or not. The age at which the switchover from "innocent" to "guilty" occurs is known as the "Age of Reason" (no relation to the Thomas Paine monograph, The Age of Reason). Catholicism has an Age of Reason too (age 7), but in Catholic doctrine, its only benefit is that no venial sins committed before reaching the Age of Reason count toward your time in Purgatory — you'll still be barred from Heaven forever if you die unbaptized. Some fundamentalist or traditionalist Catholics still hold the belief that unbaptized infants go to Hell.
Abortions and miscarriages
What happens to the souls of the aborted embryos, fetuses or babies? Since Christians (mostly) no longer believe in Limbo and don't believe in reincarnation, they are stuck with two possibilities:
- The babies go to Heaven. Calvinism holds this position as some other Protestants. Since that is the ultimate goal and only desirable outcome of living the fundamentalist life, and considering how some of these claim it's (much) more likely to go to Hell than to Heaven, you have to wonder why they're so against it in this case. Perhaps because this would imply that all unborn babies should be aborted to ensure their souls are saved.
- The babies go to Hell. This raises some rather sticky questions about God's supposed mercy and benevolence, especially as it's been estimated that two out of three pregnancies end in miscarriages, usually before the women are even aware that they're pregnant. Arminians are, rather unfortunately, forced to hold this position if they're living their beliefs right.
Another possibility is that sufficiently undeveloped fetuses have not yet had souls attached, which would render the whole question moot. But at what age the soul manifests is not explained. Muslims usually believe, although it seems to depend on which "authority" you ask, that the fetus is not "ensouled" until 120 days after conception; if you believe this then it's OK to have an abortion before that time. Among Indonesian Muslims, abortion is often practiced under the euphemism "menstrual regulation". Jewish authorities peg it at 40 days. Although they make no reference to souls, most bioethicists consider experimentation on embryos after they reach the primitive streak stage (14th day) to be unethical.
Of course, as all this puts Christianity in a bad light there are multiple attempts to explain it. These include arguments along the lines of:
- Arminians believe that conversion alone enables salvation; this casts doubt on the salvation of all babies and children who die too young to experience conversion. Really, it's a pretty terrible situation to be in, as to be consistent in holding those beliefs you A) need to accept that the deceased were too young to convert or B) you ignore it and go on to other topics.
- John Calvin and Charles Spurgeon believed that the doctrine of infant damnation was reprehensible and that the Holy Spirit in some way saved those who die very young (assuming that the deceased was part of the elect).
- Verses in the Gospels such as Matthew 19:14 can be interpreted to suggest that children go to Heaven if they die.
- Dante's Inferno posits that, although unbaptized babies do go to Hell when they die, they go to the nice, plush-carpeted outer ring of Hell where there's no eternal torture. For outsiders, especially those who have held a newborn infant in their arms, it seems a trifle harsh that their souls are condemned to eternal damnation simply because their parents are godless commies or because they are too young to convert.
The wider, wider picture
You'd better believe that as much as the church hems and haws about sending babies to Hell when confronted by freethinkers, they're not afraid to use this asshole doctrine to scare and traumatize believers into toeing the line when outsiders aren't looking.[note 1] Nothing motivates parents sucking up to church policy like the threat of roasting babies.[note 2] Scientology would burn with jealousy at this naked manipulation.[citation NOT needed]
“”Nothing indeed can be more curious, nothing more deeply pathetic, than the record of the many ways by which the terror-stricken mothers attempted to evade the awful sentence of their Church. Sometimes the baptismal water was sprinkled upon the womb; sometimes the still-born child was baptized, in hopes that the Almighty would antedate the ceremony; sometimes the mother invoked the Holy Spirit to purify by His immediate power the infant that was to be born; sometimes she received the Host or obtained absolution, and applied them to the benefit of her child. For the doctrine of the Church had wrung the mother's heart with an agony that was too poignant for even that submissive age to bear.
—William Edward Hartpole Lecky
- This isn't a new viewpoint. People were complaining about this bullshit back in 1852.
- Every child is born Muslim Islam 101.
- How can limbo just be abolished? (6 October 2006, 09:38 GMT) BBC.
- Dating the Sibylline Oracles, Books 1-3 by Phillip J. Long (July 20, 2016) Reading Acts.
- Sibylline Oracles, Book II Internet Sacred Text Archive.
- Oration 40, XXIII New Advent.
- On Infants' Early Deaths New Advent.
- Saint Augustine Against Julian, translated by Matthew A. Schumacher (1957) The Fathers of the Church.
- The Fathers of the Church by Fulgentius, translated by Robert B. Eno (1997) Catholic University of America Press. ISBN 0813200954.
- The Books of the Morals of St. Gregory the Pope, Book IX. Lectionary Central.
- The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptised The Vatican.
- How can limbo just be abolished? (6 October 2006, 09:38 GMT) BBC.
- Popes have taken Four Contrary Positions on the Fate of Unbaptized Infants The Apostolic See (archived from November 16, 2013).
- The Voice of an Aborted Child by James Taylor (June 27, 2007) SearchWarp.com (archived from June 30, 2007).
- Misrepresentations of Calvinism Cleared Away by C. H. Spurgeon (c. 1861). In: Spurgeon's Sermons: The Metropolitcan Tabernacle Pulpit, Volume VII, Pages xxvii-xxxix.
- The attitudes of health providers towards abortionin Indonesia by Eniarti Djoha et al. (1993) Reproductive Health Matters 1(2):32-40. doi:10.1016/0968-8080(93)90005-E.
- Human Cloning and Human Dignity: An Ethical Inquiry (July 2002) The President's Council on Bioethics.
- Arminian Inconsistencies and Errors: In Which It Is Shown That All the Distinctive Doctrines of the Presbyterian Confession of Faith are Taught by Standard Writers of the Methodist Episcopal Church by Henry Brown (1856) William S. & Alfred Martien.
- Rationalism in Europe by William Edward Hartpole Lecky (1866) Longmans, Green and Co. Volume 1. Pages 363-364.
- On The History Of The Dogma Of Infant Damnation: To Which Is Added A Brief Statement Of The Doctrine Taught In The New Jerusalem Concerning Infant Salvation. A Lecture Delivered in Deering Hall, Portland, on the Evening of January 10, 1858 by William B. Hayden (1858) David Tucker.