This week's question revisits the discussion on baptism and asks, "I've heard that infants who die before baptism don't go to heaven, but to some lesser place. Is this true?"
The quick answer is to remind us that God is a god of grace and mercy, one who is trustworthy; therefore, we can trust God to care of especially these who are innocent. However, there are indeed those Churches who teach that the unbaptized are in grave danger, even infants. So let us delve into the scriptures and into tradition to see what we can find.
The first issue we must address is: What does baptism do for us? In the beginning of the Christian faith, before even Christ's passion, John the baptizer was promoting a baptism of repentance. His "version" of baptism hearkened back to the baptism of Jewish proselytes who were symbolically washed by baptism to become ritually pure and could thus enter the Temple. But John's baptism took the idea a bit further. When he baptized folk it was less of a purity issue and more of a morality issueyou were baptized for the forgiveness of sins: "John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (Mark 1:4).
As Christianity matured, many took the words of John "repent for the forgiveness of sins" literally and deduced that baptism effected forgiveness (through Christ) and without baptism one could not be forgiven.
Further, Mark records a declaration wherein Jesus links baptism with salvation: "The one who believes and is baptized will be saved" (16:16a). Many theologians took this passage, and one like it in 1st Peter 3.21, to assert that one could not find immediate salvation without baptismindeed, some went so far as to claim heaven was unattainable without it.
Others, however, took seriously the second portion of Mark 16.16 ". . . but the one who does not believe will be condemned" and countered that baptism wasn't necessary for salvation, only belief was. Indeed, these cite as evidence the thief on the cross, who cried out to Jesus to "Remember me when you come into your kingdom" (Luke 23.42). The passage continues and says Jesus granted his request even though he could not have been baptized before he died. Therefore, baptism couldn't be necessary for salvationonly belief is (cf., Mark 1.15; John 3.16, 6.47; Acts 16.31; Romans 10.9).
But what of infants who cannot believe (and what of those who are mentally challenged or are born comatose, or. . . .)?
The initial answer ought to sufficeour God is a god of grace and mercy. However, there is this inner desire that wants, yea needs, more. So what does scripture say about babies who die?
The New Testament was written for unbelievers so they might believe, and for believers so they would better understand how to live the Christian life. It wasn't written to answer all the theological inquiries we've posited over the years. But this doesn't mean we're left without hope. Rather, we can turn to the traditions of those who wrote as well as a bit of scriptural insight.
Traditionally, the Jewish people did not believe children were accountable for their sins (or for anything else) until their thirteenth birthday (thus bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs). Those of the Christian faith, particularly those of Jewish descent in the early church, would have held to this belief even as they became Christian. Thus, it wouldn't have been an issue because anyone under the age of thirteen was clearly a child-of-God, no matter what.
The words of Jesus substantiate this as well. When Jesus said, "Truly I tell you, unless you become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 18:3), it is most likely he was speaking of the attributes of children such as humility and innocence, "for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs" (Mark 10.14).
According to Old Testament law, a child was exempt from the sacrificial systemonly adults were held accountable. God hasn't changed and suddenly taken a critical view of children (and by extension those who cannot possibly understand or know anything about theology or God). Therefore, we can rest assured that God has made provisions for such as these, because surely the Kingdom of God belongs to little children.