The mercy of God and the unborn child

I am often in contact with people who have sadly faced the experience of loss of a child through miscarriage or still-birth. Indeed, it is an experience which many people have shared, and bear silently. As many as 1 in 6 pregnancies end in miscarriage, among those women who are aware they are pregnant. While 1 in 200 pregnancies end in a still birth. This is an all to common and painful memory to many of those we worship with, and perhaps to ourselves also.

It is made all the more painful when misrepresentations of the teaching of the Church are offered. This might be the teaching of Augustine that all unbaptised infants, which includes those who are not born to life, are condemned and will be damned in Hell, and the wrath of God is directed towards them even if their punishment is light. I believe absolutely that Augustine was completely wrong in making such statements and misunderstood the effects of sin in the world and the mercy of God towards men. We should remember that Augustine was not considered a Father of the Church in the East. His views on salvation are not those of our great Fathers. Indeed, when Cassian brought the Eastern teaching of salvation to the West he was opposed by Augustine.

Another disturbing teaching, which I believe misrepresents the Orthodox faith and our loving Heavenly Father, is the un-Scriptural idea that there is some place, other than Heaven and Hell, which will be the final destination for infants who could not be baptised. In the Medieval Roman Catholic Church this place was called Limbo. But is has been rejected by Pope Benedict XVI who considered it no more than a theological opinion. Indeed, Limbo was developed in the Middle Ages because the harsh teaching of Augustine was unbearable to so many.

A development of this late Roman Catholic idea of Limbo, a place where those infants who could not be baptised would not be able to see the glory of God in Christ, has been the popular idea that unbaptised infants will be blind in eternity. I can hardly think of anything more contrary to the honour and glory of God, that he should be considered the author and cause of an eternal disability. It seems to me to be a garbled explanation of the Catholic idea that the unbaptised infants would not have the Beatific Vision.

What do I want to say to those who have lost a child before birth? It is that God is love, and does not create anything that he does not say of it that it is good. More than that, the issue which these other views are trying to deal with, is that of Original Sin. But Orthodoxy does not teach such a doctrine. St Cyril and St Severus both insist – we are born mortal but not sinful. And many of the Fathers teach explicitly that a young child cannot be said to sin, and is entirely innocent. How much more the child who is never born into life. There is no sin in an unborn child’s life which could possibly require any punishment.

Yet we face the issue that the Scripture teaches us that baptism is required for union with God, which is the meaning of salvation. This is surely true. When someone accepts the claims of Christianity then they must be baptised. But it is a serious mistake to imagine that God is bound by the methods he requires us to use. Union with God is offered to us in baptism, but God can unite whomsoever he wills by his own word. We must be baptised, but God knows no limits in his grace.

Indeed, our Lord Jesus teaches us that we must be converted and become as little children if we wish to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. But a little child does not need to be converted, to change her mind, because it has not yet resisted and rejected God. The unborn child is guilty of no sin, and has committed no sin, and her unformed mind has not turned from God. What is lacking in union with God, and this is the gift of God, and is not restricted to baptism, even if those of us who are able to ask, “What must I do?”, hear the words, believe and be baptised. Nor even is this clear instruction an absolute rule, as if God is bound by the invitation he offers us, since an infant cannot believe at all, but is still baptised.

St Gregory of Nyssa has a few words to say on this subject. He says that a life of blessedness belongs to the one whose spiritual sight is clear, and that in mankind this requires great effort and the grace of God to overcome sin, but it belongs already to the infant and is lost by us as we grow into sinfulness. He says…

The innocent babe has no such plague before its soul’s eyes obscuring its measure of light, and so it continues to exist in that natural life; it does not need the soundness which comes from purgation, because it never admitted the plague into its soul at all.

He goes on to suggest that the soul of an unborn infant, and even the infant reposing not long into their life, could not possibly suffer any torment because there is nothing in them at all deserving of it, and their infant soul is still turned towards God. Yet there is this difference. The soul of one who has spent his life in overcoming sin, and in hard-won repentance and many experiences of God’s grace, will participate in the blessedness of Paradise and of Heaven with a different character than the one who never sinned, never needed to repent, and has no experience of the grace of sanctification. Yet the blessedness is one, even if the participation is different.

And the dear and saintly Pope Timothy of Alexandria, addressing a woman who had lost three of her children, says…

I was in great grief, mourning and lamenting, as though I saw your small children, and at the same time I heard he voice of the Creator of us all admonishing me, saying, ‘Do you suppose, O man, that your tender mercy is greater than mine? Do you suppose I have no compassion equal to your own, and that I do not say, “Let the children come unto me, for to such belongs the Kingdom of Heaven”.

Do we doubt the mercy of God towards all those he has made, and especially those who have not drawn breath before passing away. St Timothy encourages the bereaved woman to remind herself when she feels her pain the most…

After a short time I will not be left separated from my child, if I am also worthy of the Kingdom of Heaven, then I will not be far from them forever.

This is a blessed truth, of which I am convinced. That our Lord has not created any to be condemned because left without the possibility of baptism in the womb. And that each one who passes to life even before breath is sinless and innocent in the eyes of God. He will unite to himself those he has made and called to himself before birth. And of the blessed state in which they wait, St Timothy recounts a miracle he heard from the mouth of St Dioscorus, in which a young boy had been bitten by a poisonous snake and died, and being restored to life by Abba Longinus, the young boy said…

O father, I am burned by the love of the greenery which my soul saw, I have never eaten anything like it, nor is the eye of man able to look at it, or the mouth of man to describe it. I saw a man of shining appearance, and he took me into the Garden of Eden, and I saw trees which bear many fruits. Then he took me to the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ, and he commanded that they take me to the children who are like me…

In this happy and blessed place the souls of all infants wait in peace and joy. God has made them and called them to himself. Gathered up those who are especially loved by him. The words of St Timothy are a comfort…

Your child was living, and now God has taken her to himself, where there is no death, so that they might live with him forever… their souls fly due to the greatness of the taste of their happiness.

From the experience of love to a experience of even more overwhelming and unceasing love. From the experience of blessedness to even greater experience of blessedness. The pain of loss and separation tempered by the hope and expectation of reunion and of the fulfillment of love in eternity. The mercy of God knows no bounds, and those fragile, innocent, sinless souls created in love to participate in his love are preserved in love now and forever, and wait to greet us and embrace us in love.

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