Holy Innocents: Why does God allow so many babies to die?

How do Christians account for child martyrdom, child death, original sin and the fact that the majority of Homo sapiens have died before birth?

The feast of the Holy Innocents marks the martyrdom of an unnumbered group of boys aged 2 and under during the reign of King Herod and fulfills the prophecy of St Jeremias:

Then was fulfilled that which was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet, saying, ‘A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because her children are no more.’ (Jer 31:15)

How can children become martyrs if they cannot speak or affirm faith?

These holy innocents are martyrs because they were murdered in odium fidei (in hatred of the Faith). If someone kills a child on accident or even through malice, that child is not a martyr. However, if the murderer kills the child out of hatred for Christ or the Christian faith, then the child is a martyr. Same goes for adults. If a robber shoots a father in his home, he is not a martyr. If an Islamic State terrorists shoots because a man because he won’t renounce Christ, then that victim is a martyr.

Children can become martyrs for the same reason that children are baptized. Other persons can effect persecution (or sacramental grace) upon them. Babies have personal relationships. My babies had “personal relationships” with their mother at the breast immediately (and even before birth). It’s a unique non-verbal relationship. And if that “personal relationship” between mother and baby exists, then a “personal relationship” can exist between a baby and our Triune God.

Parents usher their babies into the eternal life and energy of the Holy Trinity at the baptismal font and so also did Herod’s soldiers baptize the Holy Innocents with their own blood.

Our family asks for the intercession of the boy Holy Innocents every evening and their presence in Scripture and the Catholic Calendar remind us that children die. But why?

Why do children die?

Saint Irenaeus of Lyons (d. 202) explained how the sin of Adam and Eve passed down to all generations and deprived even infants of the supernatural blessing of Eden.

The Eastern Fathers such as Saint Gregory Nazianzus noted the theological problem of children dying. Children are not guilty of personal sins. Why would God allow them to die. And when they die, where do they go? Heaven? Hell? Perhaps a special place reserved for them?

Saint Gregory and others noted that children die not through their own fault, but on account of being born outside Eden – that is being born under the sin of Adam and Eve. The Eastern Churched calls this προπατορικὸν ἁμάρτημα (propatorikon harmatema) or “ancestral sin.”

The Western Church calls it peccatum originale or “original sin.” Without getting into Eastern vs. Western distinctions, all Christians agree that the penalty of death has spread to all human persons, even children. And we all agree (even the Jansenist or Calvinist) that children die not on account of their own personal misdeeds.

Why do they die? We don’t know, but we trust that their eternal life is better than any life they had here. Whether it is postulated as natural paradise, limbo, or a hope for supernatural Heaven itself, their life is one of peace, rest, happiness, and beatitude.

Do most humans die in infancy?

It’s patently obvious that more than 51+% of members of the race of homo sapiens died before the age of 7. We might even dare to say that 51+% of every homo sapiens died before being born. This is a starting fact to consider from a theological perspective. Most humans in God’s image died prior breathing.

Why is this?

There are a few optional explanations:

  1. Predestination Option: God predestines most humans to die in utero or in infancy because he likes the idea of Heaven (or limbo) being populated with people who have never committed a personal sin against him or another – despite them having been conceived without habitual grace. This theory would posit that every human child receives habitual or sacramental grace prior to death to Heaven OR that they don’t receive habitual grace and so end up in perfect natural (but not supernatural) paradise. And this natural paradise is often known off the cuff as limbo. (Pun intended. The Latin limbus means “cuff”.)

    [NOTE: I should add here that the heretic John Calvin used this argument above (that all deceased babies go to Heaven) in favor of unconditional election. He noted that so many babies die before and after birth (including his own dead children), and so this confirms the fact that God chooses them for Heaven without any faith or merit.]

  2. Pre-Existence Option: The Church Father (but not saint) Origen posited that every human pre-existed in a celestial realm prior to conception in a mother’s womb. Each of these minds erred or sinned in this celestial realm and thus were consigned to a carnal life on earth suiting the measure of their rebellion. So a pre-existent mind that rebelled greatly against the Trinity would be given a very tedious life on earth so that they could merit salvation through Christ. However, a pre-existent mind that only slightly rebelled against the Trinity would be given a very brief life on earth by which they would turn back to God. And these, then, are the little children that die before and after birth. They are the ones who sinned in a lesser degree before being conceived on earth.

    [NOTE: This opinion of Origen is not held by many today – except in a corrupted form by Mormons.]

  3. We don’t really know. I think this is the theological position of most Christians. There is no easily packaged explanation for a pair of parents standing over their child’s tiny grave. There is no easy answer for a woman after miscarriage. It’s never been the position of Christians to dogmatically describe the afterlife for children other than saying: “they do not suffer and they are at peace.” We don’t know much because the Bible says nothing about it. We can only rest on the conviction that God desires all men to be saved and that He is fully aware that 51+% die before attaining the age of reason or before professing faith.

PS: If you’re interested in reading more of my posts on the topic of infant death, limbo, St Augustine, St Thomas Aquinas etc., check out this series of posts: Unbaptized babies that die: 5 Theories.

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