The Orthodox Church over centuries has either explicitly or implicitly taught the unbaptized are damned. To quote Saint Augustine, or his disciple Saint Prosper of Aquataine, on this point specifically would be superfluous for two reasons. For one, their teaching on the topic is so frequent and emphatic that no single quote would do it justice. Second, due to the teaching’s connection to Augustine (though Augustine took it for granted that everyone affirmed it in a letter to Saint Jerome), their witness would be ignored despite the fact that as saints their testimony is that of the Church itself.

To help get another perspective, as follows is a short list of saints and authoritative treatments of the subject, discussing the issue from different angles. My hope is to bring out the teaching of the Church from an angle that will make it more acceptable to those who find it hard to stomach Her teachings.n

Saint Ambrose:

Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God [St. John 3:5]. Surely, He exempts none, not even the infant, not one hindred by any necessity: but although they have a hidden immunity to punishments, I know not whether* they have the honour of the Kingdom. (On Abraham, Book 2, Par 84; p. 100 in Tomkinson’s translation; *in other translations “whether” is rendered “how,” which makes more sense given the previous sentence but less sense in the Latin–original Latin for the last sentence is: nescio an habeant regni honorem as found on PL 14, p. 497)

Saint Gregory Nanzianzen

Others are not in a position to receive it [baptism], perhaps on account of infancy, or some perfectly involuntary circumstance through which they are prevented from receiving it, even if they wish…..[They] will be neither glorified nor punished by the righteous Judge, as unsealed 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 honoured; just as not every one who is not good enough to be honoured is bad enough to be punished. (Oration 40, Par 23; Note: The topic of unbaptized children is inferred by some interpreters, but a better interpretation is that Gregory is primarily speaking of the fate of catechumens/interested people where circumstances prevent their baptisms before death. See discussion starting at Par 18.)

Synod of Diapolis (415)

Sundry other points of error were next alleged against him [Pelagius], connected with the mention of my own name [Augustine]. They had been transmitted to me from Sicily, some of our Catholic brethren there being perplexed by questions of this kind; and I drew up a reply to them in a little work addressed to Hilary, who had consulted me respecting them in a letter. My answer, in my opinion, was a sufficient one. These are the errors referred to: “That a man is able to be without sin if he wishes. That infants, even if they die unbaptized, have eternal life. That rich men, even if they are baptized, unless they renounce all, have, whatever good they may seem to have done, nothing of it reckoned to them; neither can they possess the kingdom of God.” The following, as the proceedings testify, was Pelagius’ own answer to these charges against him: “Concerning a man’s being able indeed to be without sin, we have spoken, says he, already; concerning the fact, however, that before the Lord’s coming there were persons without sin, we say now that, previous to Christ’s advent, some men lived holy and righteous lives, according to the teaching of the sacred Scriptures. The rest were not said by me, as even their testimony goes to show, and for them, I do not feel that I am responsible. But for the satisfaction of the holy synod, I anathematize those who either now hold, or have ever held, these opinions.” After hearing this answer of his, the synod [of Diapolis] said: “With regard to these charges aforesaid, Pelagius has in our presence given us sufficient and proper satisfaction, by anathematizing the opinions which were not his.” (On the Proceedings of Pelagius, Chap 23-24)

Nikephoros Kallistos Xanthopoulos

We should also know that when baptized infants die, they enjoy the Paradise of delight, whereas those not illumined by Baptism and those born of pagans go neither to Paradise nor to Gehenna. (Synaxarion Saturday Before Meatfare Sunday)

Council of Jerusalem, Confession of Dositheus (1672)

We believe Holy Baptism, which was instituted by the Lord, and is conferred in the name of the Holy Trinity, to be of the highest necessity. For without it none is able to be saved, as the Lord says, “Whoever is not born of water and of the Spirit, shall in no way enter into the Kingdom of the Heavens.” {John 3:5} And, therefore, baptism is necessary even for infants, since they also are subject to original sin, and without Baptism are not able to obtain its remission…And since infants are men, and as such need salvation, needing salvation they need also Baptism. And those that are not regenerated, since they have not received the remission of hereditary sin, are, of necessity, subject to eternal punishment, and consequently cannot without Baptism be saved. (Decree 16)

Note: The same decree in Saint Filaret of Moscow’s modified translation, one deliberately altered to exmphasize his own thought/interpretaion of doctrine, is even more clear on the question stating:

If infants need to be saved, then they also need to be baptized. And those who have not been reborn and therefore have not received remission in the sin of their parents are necessarily subject to eternal punishment for this sin and therefore are not saved. So babies need need baptism. (Decree 16)

Saint Nicolai of Zica

How then are considered the parents who carelessly let their little ones die unbaptised? As the killers of their own children. (Catechism, p. 49)

Saint Justin Popovic

The baptism of children, in which the recipient on behalf of the children is denied from Satan, testifies that the children are under original sin, for they are born with a nature corrupted by sin, enslaved by Satan. “And the very sufferings of children happen not because of their personal sins, but are the manifestation of the punishment that the righteous God pronounced over human nature that fell in Adam.” In Adam, human nature is corrupted by sin, subjected to death and righteously condemned, therefore all people are born from Adam in the same state. Sinful damage from Adam passes on to all his descendants through conception and birth, therefore everyone is subject to this primordial sinfulness (originis vitio), but it does not destroy in people their freedom to desire and do good and the ability for a grace-filled rebirth. (Dogmatics, Volume 2, Chap 39:3)

Dumitru Staniloae the Confessor

If it is baptism that, through the union with Christ, does away with the substance of that original sin that separated us from God and was stamped upon our very nature, and if, apart from this union with Christ, there is no entry into the Kingdom of God, then it is clear that baptism is absolutely necessary for our salvation (John 3:3). It is also absolutely necessary for children, for they too, through their birth in the flesh, share in this same state of separation from God, and so they too must pass over from the condition of their bodily birth and their destiny to perdition into the condition of those born of water and the Spirit and, consequently, of the saved (John 3:5-6). Insofar as no one is clean of defilement even if his earthly life lasts only a single day (Job 14:4), children too clearly share in this stain, not through their own personal sin but through their birth. (Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, Volume 5, p. 51)

New Martyr Daniel Sysoev:

According to the Lord, all the unbaptized, except for those who were executed for Christ’s sake, will go to hades…As for innocent infants, there is simply no such thing. Every man has a distorted will from the moment of conception. Every man joins the devil’s “mafia” by virtue of his birth, and it is this that made necessary the sacrifice of Christ, which acts in us through baptism, so that infants also might be saved.,,,The homilies of St. Gregory pertain only to unbaptized infants, but even these do not presuppose their salvation. (Letters, p. 16, 18, 20)

In the eyes of God both you and every infant are sinners, and if you do not receive baptism you will go to hades. (Letters, p. 143)

What happens after death to people who do not were baptized? They are going to hell, there is no other way for them. Christ descended into hell only once – on Holy Saturday – and freed those people who lived before His birth, but looking for Him. All the people who don’t want to come to Christ, perish forever….There is no salvation without baptism. If you take the position of J.J. Russo, who believed that children are a clean slate, then, of course, the death of children (without a baptism) would be extremely unjust. But Scripture says that there is not one righteous one. After baptism the grace of God washes away all sins by repentance…In the moment of birth, even of conception, a person enters into an alliance, between Adam and the devil, and becomes a sinner with the very beginning. There is no such thing as “sinless baby.” (Lectures on Dogmatic Theology Missionary Edition, p. 24, 172, 174)

Hades is a kind of underground into which people who have fallen into sin go, and to this day, all of the unbaptized, without exception, wind up there. (Instructions for the Immortal, p. 7)

Sinners and unbaptized go to Hades, where with dread they await punishment. During this time the baptized may yet receive relief by the prayers of the Church. (The Law of God, p. 28; cf p. 143-144)

From the preceding quotations the following can be surmised:

  • The unbaptized are “subject to eternal punishment.”
  • Whatever this punishment is, it is not a “painful punishment.”
  • Before the second coming of Christ, the unbaptized are in Hades. Those who remain in Hades will not be in Paradise at the second coming.

Being that the preceding covers two millennia of Church history and a wide array of sources from individual fathers, hagiographic, and conciliar (with the Council of Jerusalem being Pan-Orthodox and authoritative), this would seem to settle the issue. Perhaps the one father who may disagree with the preceding consensus is Saint Ephraim the Syrian (cf Hymns on Paradise, Hymn 10:13), though it would be pious to interpret the vague statement to be in line with the more explicit statements on the topic–not the other way around. The conclusion one is forced to draw, to the chagrin of many, vindicates Augustine.

It is then with the greatest of irony that Augustine himself comes to “save the day” as he actually offers teachings, consistent with what was just quoted, that both explain and resolve the tension that exists due to the unbaptized normatively not being saved. Augustine, in fact, offers a theological rationale that provides hope.

First, the “punishment” for the unbaptized is “not bad” and preferable to non-existence. In other words, it is not Heaven/Paradise (an experience of God), but it is not a painful or even neutral experience of Hades/Hell. It is pleasant in some natural way:

I do not say that children who die without baptism of Christ will undergo such grievous punishment that it were better for them never to have been born, since our Lord did not say these words of any sinner you please, but only the most base and ungodly…who can doubt that non-baptized infants, having only original sin and no burden of personal sins, will suffer the lightest condemnation of all? I cannot define the amount and kind of their punishment, but I dare not say that it were better for them to never have existed than to exist there. (Against Julian, Book V, Par 44)

It would seem the only “punishment” for unbaptized infants is not having a relationship and synergy with God. Nevertheless, it appears, they will not be deprived of natural goods. This is akin (though obviously not the same as) the circle of the righteous pagans in Dante’s Inferno. A chill, nice place to hang out. Good company. It’s just not heaven.

Second, there are unbaptized infants that are saved if they have been baptized by blood/implicit desire. Augustine discusses this in one of his earliest works if one pays attention to his logic on the issue of what happens to unbaptized children:

Not even the leaf of a tree is created without a purpose. It is, however, purposeless [of my detractors] to ask about the merits of one who has gained no merit. We need not fear that there may be a life halfway between virtue and vice, a sentence of the Judge halfway between reward and punishment. (The Problem of Free Choice, Book 3, Chap 66)

But God does good in correcting adults when their children whom they love suffer pain and death. Why should this not be done, since, when the suffering is past it is as nothing to those who endured it? Those…for whose sake this has happened will either be better men if they make use of the temporal ills and choose to live better lives or they will have no excuse when they are punished at the future judgement, if in spite of the sufferings of this life they refuse to turn their hearts to eternal life?…[W]hen the hearts of parents are softened by the sufferings of children, or when their faith is stirred, or their pity aroused, who knows what ample compensation God reserves for these children in the secrets of His judgments? They have not, it is true, performed right actions, yet they have suffered without having sinned. Nor is it to no purpose the Church urges us to honor as martyrs the children who were slain when Herod sought the life of the Lord Jesus Christ. (Ibid., Chap 68)

In the preceding, Augustine teaches two things. First, there are those who are unbaptized that do not attain to heaven, but neither suffer in the afterlife. However, on top of this, Augustine affirms that there are those unbaptized children who die, but their deaths have some positive effect on the faith of others (this is morbid, but one must follow the logic of what is presented). This being the case, they may attain to salvation like the 5,000 martyred innocents.

The importance of this is that even without the explicit consent of the will, that by partaking in a Christological reality (though being innocent they die for the sake of others, particularly the guilty) the 5,000 innocents have an implicit faith which results in heavenly reward. As the Life of the Virgin ascribed to Saint Maximus notes on this topic: “These heroes and martyrs, age-mates of Christ who unknowingly were knowers of the truth before reaching maturity.” (Chap 44) This is an absolutely central Christian teaching, as God does not arbitrarily flip a switch to save some and not others–some unbaptized and not others.

Why? The atonement of Jesus Christ, potentially, can save everyone. This would include all the unrepentant, let alone unbaptized. So, why doesn’t it? Saint Filaret of Moscow teaches succinctly:

[Christ] offered himself as a sacrifice strictly for all, and obtained for all grace and salvation; but this benefits only those of us who, for their parts, of their own free will, have fellowship in his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death…We have fellowship in the sufferings and death of Jesus Christ through a lively and hearty faith, through the Sacraments, in which is contained and sealed the virtue of his saving sufferings and death, and, lastly, through the crucifixion of our flesh with its affections and lusts. (Longer Catechism, Questions 209-210)

Those unbaptized who in some way were “made conformable unto his death” having “fellowship in the sufferings” of the Lord, with implicit faith (with a will now shaped by the experience), can participate in the atonement. Contrariwise, those who are unrepentant and willfully reject Christ, reject such sufferings and death. They have a human energy/activity and will which rejects God and, divinity being synonymous with grace itself, thereby reject grace and salvation. One would expect that the unbaptized who do not participate in any Christological reality (pertaining to the synergy necessary for the atonement) thereby close themselves off from grace, though without the willfulness of rejecting God. They therefore do not manifest a resistance to grace that results in eternal suffering.

Augustine’s speculations, spectacularly, sum up the full gamut of Orthodox thought on the topic.

Closing thoughts. Far too often, people discuss this topic in a way that does not do justice to the theological tradition of the Church. They claim “God is unfair” if He “punishes innocent babies,” but they do not explain how He would be. Nor do they explain exactly what this punishment is or why/how human beings undergo punishment to begin with. Additionally, they seem to think God can arbitrarily flip a salvation switch, thereby rejecting the Orthodox doctrine of the atonement.

The teaching of the Church does not reduce itself to an “unbaptized babies roast in Hell” sort of reductionism. In fact, the Church has explicitly rejected this. Rather, the Church has preserved the teaching that mankind is fallen in sin and needs to be saved through faith and baptism. The Lord teaches, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” (John 3:5) One must be sure of this. An answer to the perennial question that provides for the “unbaptized” children some sort of baptism by blood or desire is the only answer that can (normatively) work. As for when this applies, one must leave it to God to decide.