John 3:5 is as follows:

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.

In the light of that, what happens to those who die before being baptized ? For example, what happens to a baby who dies in the womb of his/her mother ? Or a 5 year old child ? Basically, someone who is not mature enough to reason.


2 Answers 2


Thomas Aquinas hypothesised that a merciful God would not consign innocent babies who died without being purged of Original Sin through baptism, to hell. Aquinas said these innocents must dwell in limbo, a place between heaven and hell, alongside virtuous but unbaptised pagans such as Plato and Moses, born before Jesus had come to explain things. Thus limbo became a Catholic tradition and had Church approval as such.

Now, the International Theological Commission says:

It is clear that the traditional teaching on this topic has concentrated on the theory of limbo, understood as a state which includes the souls of infants who die subject to original sin and without baptism, and who, therefore, neither merit the beatific vision, nor yet are subjected to any punishment, because they are not guilty of any personal sin. This theory, elaborated by theologians beginning in the Middle Ages, never entered into the dogmatic definitions of the Magisterium, even if that same Magisterium did at times mention the theory in its ordinary teaching up until the Second Vatican Council. It remains therefore a possible theological hypothesis. However, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992), the theory of limbo is not mentioned.

So, if you were taught the catechism before 1992, or enquired more fully before Vatican II, you could have been told about limbo and assured that it is real, but you would not easily find such a teaching now. Nevertheless limbo is undoubtedly a strong Catholic tradition, has been taught by the Church and had Church approval, even though it never entered into the dogmatic definitions of the Magisterium.

Since Vatican II, the Catholic Church has begun to move away from its former teachings about limbo and treat it as no more than a hypothesis, and there have been suggestions that the hypothesis will eventually be abandoned. Recent Catholic theological speculation tends to stress the hope, though not the certainty, that unbaptised infants may attain heaven instead of the supposed state of limbo.

  • What's the possibility of the God is preparing a special kind of test for them in afterlife ? Is there such a theory ?
    – SpiderRico
    Mar 16, 2016 at 2:51
  • What God wants from us is love, not to pass a test. The question in a sense is reduced to whether there is love of God in the soul of an unbaptized baby. Since God is omnipotent, he could certainly allow those souls to get to know him in some sense and choose, and the angels and demons did. Mar 16, 2016 at 3:06
  • 2
    @SpiderRico I have never come across any such theory. As I learnt the Catholic teaching about limbo, the innocent children only stay in limbo until the day of judgement, when they are guaranteed entry into heaven. Of course, it now seems the Church sees the infants going straight to heaven, so there can be no test. Mar 16, 2016 at 4:37

I will answer the question from the viewpoint of Roman Catholic doctrine.

1. Summary

It is de fide Catholic doctrine that the souls of those who die in original sin only go to an everlasting state [1], usually called "Limbo of Infants" (Latin limbus infantium or limbus puerorum), in which they do not see God and do not have any expectation of being redeemed and taken to the vision of God at some future time. It is sententia communis, not de fide, that the souls in such state do not suffer any torment.

However, it is not de fide doctrine that there are actually any souls in that state, because it is not de fide doctrine that any person actually dies in original sin only, see section 3.

2. Magisterial definitions about the fate of those who die in original sin only

The doctrine that those who die in original sin only go to an everlasting state of privation of the Beatific Vision, commonly called limbo of infants, is de fide, having been taught in the following magisterial definitions [2]. Note that the most authoritative definitions, i.e. those of Ecumenical Councils, do not state explicitely that souls in the limbo of infants do not suffer any torment or fire, so that this specific point is not de fide but only sententia communis.

Pope Innocent III, letter "Maiores Ecclesiae causas" to Imbert, archbishop of Arles, 1201, DS 780 Dz 410:

The punishment of original sin is deprivation of the vision of God, but the punishment of actual sin is the torments of everlasting hell.

Ecumenical Council of Lyon II, Profession of Faith of Michael Palaeologus, 1274, DS 858 Dz 464:

The souls of those who die in mortal sin or with original sin only, however, immediately descend to hell, yet to be punished with different punishments.

Ecumenical Council of Florence, Session 6 — 6 July 1439, promulgated as bull "Laetentur Caeli: Bulla Unionis Graecorum" by Pope Eugene IV, DS 1306 Dz 693:

Moreover, the souls of those who depart in actual mortal sin or in original sin only, descend immediately into hell, yet to be punished with different punishments.

Illorum autem animas, qui in actuali mortali peccato vel solo originali decedunt, mox in infernum descendere, penis tamen disparibus puniendas. [3]

Pope Pius VI, Constitution "Auctorem fidei," 28 Aug. 1794, listing condemned propositions of the Synod of Pistoia, DS 2626 Dz 1526:

  1. The doctrine which rejects as a Pelagian fable, that place of the lower regions (which the faithful generally designate by the name of the limbo of children) in which the souls of those departing with the sole guilt of original sin are punished with the punishment of the condemned, exclusive of the punishment of fire, just as if, by this very fact, (that) these who remove the punishment of fire introduced that middle place and state free of guilt and of punishment between the kingdom of God and eternal damnation, such as that about which the Pelagians idly talk,--false, rash, injurious to Catholic schools.

Since the original of the text in italics is perinde ac si hoc ipso quod qui poenam ignis removent, the "that" in the usual English translation does not belong.

Note that the Pistoians did not hold that limbo, not featuring fire, was a "middle place and state free of guilt and of punishment between the kingdom of God and eternal damnation", but on the contrary, accused those who held that limbo did not feature fire of holding that. That is, the Pistoians held that the limbo of infants did feature fire and rejected as a Pelagian fable the (wholly legitimate) position that it did not.

3. The question of whether the infants who die unbaptized die in original sin

It is evident that, in order to state positively that an infant who dies upbaptized dies in a state of original sin, it is necessary to state positively that God, in the last second of the infant's life, does not reveal Himself and his love directly to the soul of the dying infant and asks him or her for a response to that revelation, so that if the infant accepts God's love and turns to God, it is a case of baptism of desire whereby God infuses sanctifying grace and charity to the soul of the infant and he or she goes to the Beatific Vision.

The hypothesis that God performs that revelation in the last instant of a dying infant's life is called "illumination theory", and while it is obvious that it cannot be affirmed that this is the actual case, it is also obvious that it cannot be affirmed that this is not the actual case [4].

The possible objection that the last second of an infant's life is too short a time for the divine revelation and the infant's response can be addressed very easily. It is well known that, according to ordinary laws of physics, time flows at different "speeds" in different parts of the universe, e.g. those where the gravitational field has different strength (which is taken into account in the GPS system). From that, it is easy to see that God can change the time scale of the child's soul with respect to the rest of the universe, so that a whole day elapses for the soul of the dying child while only a second elapses in the rest of the universe.

Moreover, that was probably the case when the sun stood still for a day in Gibeon at the order of Joshua (Josh 10:12-14): God did not stop the Earth's rotation (or the sun's movement, for the geocentrics out there), but changed the scale of time flow in the battlefield 100,000 to 1 with respect to the rest of the universe. Why didn't God just kill all the Amorites in a flash? The message of the passage is loud and clear: if God wants the collaboration of his chosen ones in order that they win a battle, He will give them the time they need for that collaboration, even if it requires changing the scale of their time flow 100,000 to 1 with respect to the rest of the universe.


[1] Which, after the resurrection of the dead, becomes the state of the whole person, soul and body.

[2] DS = Denzinger-Schönmetzer; Dz = Denzinger.

[2.a] Denzinger-Schönmetzer 1963: http://www.clerus.org/bibliaclerusonline/en/lt.htm

[2.b] Denzinger 1954: http://patristica.net/denzinger/

[3] https://w2.vatican.va/content/eugenius-iv/la/documents/bulla-laetentur-caeli-6-iulii-1439.html

[4] Brian W. Harrison, O.S., 2005, "Could Limbo Be 'Abolished'?". http://www.seattlecatholic.com/a051207.html

The article, which does a good review of Catholic doctrine, says about the illumination theory:

"Are we to suppose that God miraculously 'fast-forwards' the mental development of these infants (and gravely retarded persons) in the instant before death, following this up with a special illumination so as to render them capable of an at least implicit desire for baptism? But miracles cannot be gratuitously postulated, so we could never be sure, in the absence of any revealed truth in Scripture or Tradition, that this is in fact what God does."

The obvious reply is: "Are we instead to suppose that God does not do that?" Because just as we cannot be sure that this is in fact what God does, we cannot either be sure that this is not in fact what God does.

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