May 3, 2007
Today’s world population numbers 6,590,609,730 people, more or less. Only 33% of that population is Christian. Among all the world’s religions, the Catholic Church is the largest with over one billion baptized members. Since the Church teaches that baptism is necessary for salvation, what does she teach about those who are not baptized? What happens, then, to them? If they live virtuous lives, do they go to Limbo like the just before the coming of Christ? Are they saved? Or, when they die, do they fall into hell like leaves off the trees in autumn?
From the very beginning, the Church has recognized the necessity of baptism for salvation. In John’s gospel, Jesus tells Nicodemus that “no one can enter the kingdom of heaven unless he is born of water and the Spirit” (Jn 3:5). Historically, Nicodemus could not have understood Jesus’ response to refer to baptism. But there is no doubt that the early Church did understand Jesus’ words in this way.
The New Testament uses the expression “being born again” to speak of baptism (1 Pt 1:23; cf Titus 3:5). Early translations of Jn 3:5 even render the evangelist’s words “born of water and the Spirit” as “born
again of water and the Spirit.” This clearly indicates a reading of the necessity of baptism in the words of Jesus to Nicodemus. Baptism is
the way into the kingdom.
At the end of Matthew’s gospel, the Risen Lord gives the Great Commission. He tells the Church, “Go, therefore, make disciples of all nations; baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teach them to observe all the commands I gave you” (Mt 28:19-20). Placing on the lips of Jesus a baptismal formula already in use in his community, Matthew faithfully hands on the Lord’s desire for all to be baptized.
Furthermore, within the New Testament, there are many statements that let us see why the early Christian community insisted on baptism as necessary for salvation. On Pentecost, Peter addresses the crowds and proclaims the crucified Jesus as Risen Lord and Christ. He is the one who has fulfilled the plan of God for salvation. Those who hear Peter ask, “What are we to do?” (Acts 2:37). Peter answers, “You must repent, and every one of you must be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38); (cf. Acts 22:16). Through baptism, there is given the forgiveness of sins which cleanses us and makes us holy (cf. Eph 5:26). Through baptism, we die with Christ “so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rm 6:4).
In the divine plan of salvation, Jesus is the Savior. “There is no other name by which we can be saved” (Acts 4:11). God the Father intends to configure all of us to Christ by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit transforms us by grace into the adopted children of God and heirs of heaven (cf. Gal 4:4-7).
Ordinarily, configuration to Jesus Christ takes place through sacramental Baptism. Through this first sacrament of initiation, we are conformed to Christ, receive the Holy Spirit, freed from all sin -- original and personal -- and made a member of the Church, “the universal sacrament of salvation” (
Lumen Gentium 48).
Not every adult, however, is baptized. Some through no fault of their own. The Church, therefore, recognizes that God can accomplish someone’s configuration with Christ in other ways. Already in the early Christian community, martyrdom was accepted as the “Baptism of blood.” It was seen as a substitute for sacramental Baptism.
In addition, theologians speak of the Baptism of desire. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that “the sacrament of Baptism may be wanting to someone in reality but not in desire…Such a man can obtain salvation without being actually baptized on account of his desire for Baptism”
(Summa Theologiae III, q. 68, art. 2).
The Council of Trent acknowledges “Baptism of desire” as a way whereby one can be justified without the actual reception of the sacrament of Baptism: “After the promulgation of the Gospel, this transition [from sin to justice] cannot take place without the bath of regeneration or the desire for it…” (
Now there are individuals who do not desire baptism because they do not know Christ or the necessity of baptism for salvation. When such a person freely chooses to do good, that person is implicitly accepting the divine order for the world. This order includes baptism as the ordinary means to grace. By living a moral life, such an individual opens himself to God’s plan for salvation. There is an implicit desire for baptism. “Every man who is ignorant of the Gospel . . . but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved” (CCC 1260).
“The Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world” (
1 Jn 4:14). Jesus, the Son of God made man, lived, died and rose for all. He is “Lord both of the dead and the living” (Rm 4:11). As the Second Vatican Council teaches, “The deepest truth about God and the salvation of man shines forth in Christ, who is at the same time the mediator and the fullness of all revelation” (
Dei Verbum, 2).
Those who died before Christ and were not baptized had to wait in Limbo for Christ to open the way to heaven. Those who live after Christ and are not baptized through no fault of their own do not. Through baptism of blood or desire, these individuals can choose to accept God’s offer of salvation through Christ’s death and resurrection.
Clearly the Church’s teaching does not limit the salvific activity of God. God’s wisdom is as infinite as his love. He is free to bring individuals in relationship to Christ in ways that are hidden to our understanding. But it is always by the grace of Christ working in their lives that God opens for them the way to heaven.
But what about babies who cannot desire baptism or accept martyrdom as a witness for Christ? What about babies who never have a chance to exercise their freedom of choice to do good and implicitly open themselves up to God’s plan of salvation? If they die before they are baptized, do they go to heaven? Or do they go to Limbo?
This is the second of a series of articles that explore Limbo as a way to understand the Church’s faith on the gift of salvation.