by Fr. John Hainsworth
Often on the heart and mind – will unbaptized children go to hell?
No. The Orthodox Church does not believe that children are born guilty of Adam’s sin and that unless freed of that guilt through baptism and communion they will die without God’s mercy. Such a notion is pernicious both for its barbarism and for its distortion of God. Do we really think that God is so small that He is bound by our rites, the rites He has given us? God is sovereign, and He will have mercy on whom He has mercy and judgment on whom He has judgment (Romans 9:15).
We can talk about sin and guilt in three ways.
First there is primordial sin, the sin of Adam. We understand this not in terms of inherited guilt, but in terms of a fallen world. Primordial sin introduced sickness, suffering, evil, and death into God’s perfect creation (1 John 5:19; Romans 5:12). We are born into Adam’s sin in that we are born into a fallen world. But without our participation, there is no guilt.
Second, there is generational sin, which we see in terms of specific propensities to sin. A child of alcoholics, for example, will inherit not the guilt of his parents but the tendency to sin as they did, or other sins associated with this generational heritage.
Again, we do not have to submit to this sinful heritage, we do not have to carry it on ourselves.
Finally, there is personal sin, the stuff we do ourselves, whether as perpetuation of the general fallenness of this world, the generational fallenness of our parents or surroundings, or as the invention of sins of our own. A person becomes guilty when they personally sin.
A child is not guilty until they make sin a personal decision, either consciously or unconsciously.
It is true that baptism is the washing away of sin, and one could say that it seems senseless to baptize a child if they have no inherited guilt to wash away. However, Christ’s sacrifice, in to which we are baptized, was a sacrifice of His whole life as a submission to God —
“not My will, but Yours, be done” (Luke 22:42)
and His death on the Cross not only washed away our sins, but also destroyed death itself. When we are baptized we are baptized into His life and death (Romans 6:4), and we become co-beneficiaries of a life which finally brought God and man into a union of love and a harmony of will. The infant is initiated into that union. This initiation will include the forgiveness of their sins, but is not limited to that forgiveness.
The life and death of Christ, which reverses the primordial, generational, and personal falleness of this world, is what the child enters through baptism.