Two of the most rewarding practices for a Christian are 1) reading the Bible from beginning to end, and 2) reading the sermons of the Church Fathers. One of the greatest theologians and orators of the Church Fathers is Saint Gregory Nazianzus. He is simply called Saint Gregory “the Theologian” in the East because of his precise and excellent presentation of theology.
Since the Apostles and Church Fathers universally recognized that baptism was the instrumental means by which Jesus Christ removes sin and infuses grace, they also received the pastoral question of what happens to unbaptized babies. Before we look St Gregory the Theologian, let that sink in. The presumption is that infants should be baptized.
Not only that, but we know from the Eastern Fathers and from Western Fathers like Cyprian, Ambrose, and Augustine that baptized infants were confirmed and received the Holy Eucharist. We Roman Catholics would do well to request that the Apostolic and Patristic practice of paedo-communion (infant communion) be rightfully restored to our children.
Here is Saint Gregory “the Theologian” Nazianzus on the death of unbaptized children:
“And so also in those who fail to receive the gift [of baptism]…perhaps on account of infancy, or some perfectly involuntary circumstance through which they are prevented from receiving it, even if they wish…will be neither glorified nor punished by the righteous Judge, as unsealed [by baptism] 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 honored; just as not every one who is not good enough to be honored is bad enough to be punished.”
-Saint Gregory Nazianzus, Oration 40 on the Topic of Baptism, AD 329-390)
Let’s break all this down in bullet point format for clarity:
- Gregory begins with those that die without baptism as adults who are not baptized because of “involuntary circumstance.”
- Gregory then distinguishes those that die without baptism “on account of infancy.”
- Gregory states such persons are neither glorified or punished.
“neither glorified nor punished”
The terms “glorified” and “punished” are most important. What do they mean here?
Let’s start with “punished.” There are two forms of punishment in the afterlife. The first punishment of Gehenna is eternal. It is the punishment of everlasting damnation. The second punishment of therapeutic and cleanses the soul. This is the fire of purification in 1 Corinthians 3:15, and what we call purgative fire.
Clearly an unbaptized baby is not going to be burning in Gehenna forever (Augustine is the only known Christian theologian to even suggest this, and he admits it being untenable). Moreover, it is also untenable to suggest that unbaptized infants go into purgative fires after death, because there is not evil in the soul to cleanse. What is lacking is the gift of sanctifying grace.
In conclusion, no infant (by which we mean ages 0-7 years) would ever go into the eternal fires of Gehenna or the temporary fires of Purgatory.
What is Glorification?
Let’s now look at the term “glorified.” Saint Paul uses the language of “glorification” to describe the final transformation of the Christian after death in the presence of God:
“And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.” (Romans 8:30)
Glorified means to enter the glory of God. It refers to the human soul partaking of the divine nature. Thomas Aquinas calls this becoming “deiform.”
Saint Gregory Nazianzus teaches that the unbaptized infant would not enter the divine glory or partake of the divine nature. So where does this leave the unbaptized baby?
It would seem that the Church Fathers were open to the idea of a natural paradise in the afterlife that was not the same as the supernatural glory paradise of Heaven. What is a “natural paradise”? Well it would entail perfect natural happiness. This would include all pleasure that could be naturally experienced. Saint Thomas Aquinas even suggests that angels infuse light and knowledge into the souls of unbaptized infants. However, it would stop short of the beatific vision and partaking of the divine nature.
Example: the Mother and Child in the Louvre
I once heard a priest suggest that it might be like a 3 year old accompanying his mother the Louvre Museum in Paris. The mother is in awe as she studies the Venus de Milo or the Mona Lisa. However, the 3 year old child does not possess the capacity to admire the Mona Lisa like his mother. The child may be perfectly happy holding the mother’s hand, or examining the pattern of her mother’s dress, or watching the janitor mop the floor in the adjacent gallery.
- Is the child happy? Yes.
- Is the child suffering or being punished? No.
- Are the mother and child together? Yes.
- Are the mother and child experiencing the same thing? No.
- Can the child appreciate the Louvre more than he would appreciate a playground? Probably not – and that is perfectly fine!
Whether we call it Limbo, natural paradise, or something else, it doesn’t seem that we must rush to “all dogs and all babies go to Heaven no matter what.” One of the richest elements of Catholicism (that I constantly stress this on Youtube) is that there is a rich and exotic geography in the Catholic afterlife.
The Catholic Geography of the Afterlife:
There are “many mansions” in Heaven. There are various levels along the way. There is Hades or Inferno which contains up to 4 sections, including Purgatory which also contains various levels. Catholicism does have a binary finality of “Heaven and Hell” but that there are many levels, provinces, guilds, and neighborhoods within each. Every person in Heaven experiences God is a particular way relative to his life on earth. Every person in Hell experiences a varying degree of punishment and intensity relative to his life on earth. God is perfectly just and he doesn’t punish people inordinately.
You sometimes hear someone say: “So you’re saying that if I skip Mass on Sunday, I’m going to burn in Hell forever just like Adolf Hitler?”
That is not what we are saying. We are saying that there is a Hell and if you sin mortally you will be rightfully punished in Hell. That punishment for neglecting Mass will justly be less than the person who performed 5,000 abortions, raped 10 people, donated to the Nazi party, tortured pets, and was ordained as a priest of the Church of Satan. If there are a million and four people in Hell, there are one million and four justly arranged penalties for each and every inhabitant. God is infinitely and perfectly just, and he would never punish someone beyond the measure of their crimes.
The reverse is also true of Heaven. If there are one million and four people in Heaven, there are one million and four different ways of reward and experience of the divine nature. Saint Francis’s proximity and experience of the Holy Trinity is different than that of Saint Mary Magdalene or Saint Ambrose. Each has a various level of charity and merit based on their life and decisions. This delights God.
In conclusion, whether we speak of the Saints, the Old Testament righteous before Christ, those in purgatory, the unbaptized infant, or even the damned in Hell, the afterlife is indeed “customized” by the providential and perfect judgment of God in response to our faith, works, and charity. Nobody, as Gregory states, is punished for something he never performed.
If you’d like to take an online course in Church Fathers (including Gregory Nazianzus) or New Testament Studies (including St Paul on baptism), please visit our online classes for Catholic students: