When I was a young teenager, I had a dream one night that continues to impact the way I understand life after death. In the dream, God put me in the vestry of my church and told me to stay there, no matter what happened. After a few minutes, I began to hear explosions outside and, when I looked out the window, I saw a dazzling fireworks display that was partially obstructed by the window. I went to the doorway so that I could see better and, eventually, I took a step outside so that I could see the fireworks that were bursting behind the steeple. Instantly, the church doors slammed shut and flashed with light as if they had been struck by lightning. In that moment, I knew that my dreaming self had been shut out of a relationship with God forever. I was overwhelmed with a gut wrenching, all consuming agony as I wrestled with the realization that I was fundamentally alone and eternally separated from God. The pain that this knowledge caused me was greater than any physical pain that I could imagine. When I woke up, I concluded that whether or not Hell is full of flames, its greatest horror is separation from God.
This early understanding of what existence is like apart from God, is partly responsible for my desire that all of my children spend eternity with God in Heaven. Unlike the mother of James and John, I don’t ask for them to have any special places of honor in Heaven, but I do beg God that they will reach Heaven, even if they have the lowliest place in there (Matthew 21:20-21).
That is why one of the things that has continued to bother me about Noemi’s death is the fact that her unexpected death meant that she was not officially baptized and this means that we have to trust that God has some not-by-the-book way to take away the stain of sin that she inherited as a member of the human race.
I wasn’t raised Catholic so, until recently, I was not aware that the dominant opinion of the modern Church has been that unbaptized babies, due to the sin that they inherited from man’s fall in the Garden of Eden, go to limbo (In fairness, limbo is envisioned as a place where the unbaptized babies are believed to be completely happy while spending eternity separated from God. For me, this is problematic since, as I explained, I don’t understand how anyone can be completely happy while being eternally separated from God). Although the idea of limbo never became an official Church teaching, it resulted in many unbaptized Catholic infants being denied a mass of Christian burial and being barred from burial in consecrated ground. In fact, there are still people who fervently believe that baptism is so essential to salvation that little ones who die before baptism will never be able to see God. Fortunately for me, the whole time that I have been Catholic the Church has welcomed unbaptized babies into their cemeteries and allowed them to have a special burial mass that entrusts them into the arms of God. More importantly, the Church proclaims that there are “serious theological and liturgical grounds to hope that infants who die will be saved and brought into eternal happiness, even if there is not an explicit teaching on this question found in Revelation…the Church respects the hierarchy of truths and therefore begins by clearly reaffirming the primacy of Christ and his grace, which has priority over Adam and sin” (International Theological Commission, 2007)
This teaching is more in line with my own hopes for my daughter which began to form when I was a protestant, pre-adolescent listening to The 2nd Chapter of Acts sing “Killing Thousands” (a song about abortion). At the time, I was becoming increasingly aware of the importance of accepting Jesus into our lives and so I asked my mother how aborted babies could go to Heaven even though they had not asked Jesus for salvation. She replied that, while the Bible does not say anything about what happens to unbaptized little ones, God made them, loves them, and died for them so we can trust that He would not condemn them to an eternity without Him, nor would He condemn himself to an eternity without them.
The problem for me is, that while I know that I should be satisfied by both the Church’s recent teachings on Baptism and my mother’s response to my question about salvation for unbaptized babies, my need for certainty often rears its ugly head. It drives me crazy that we don’t have a Bible verse that specifically says, “an unbaptized infant, who died at the time that God chose and is deeply loved by God, will be welcomed into Heaven and bask in the presence of God.”
Without any such revelation, my “by-the-book” personality makes me want to be able to say, I baptized Noemi, so she is in Heaven. I so easily fall into the trap of thinking that if I can’t have a direct guarantee from God, then the next best thing is having an “if I do this, then God will do this” kind of formula to follow. However, this is a dangerous preference, for two reasons. First, if God always responded in a quid pro quo way, there would be no room for grace and where would any of us be without grace? Second, what I am desiring is absolutely not my faith – in fact, it is the antithesis of it. My faith is based on the fact that “Grace is totally free, because it is always a pure gift of God.” (International Theological Commission, 2007) I am saved because Jesus chose to save me, not because of anything that I did or did not do. Yes, He calls me to participate in my salvation through things that I do, but my salvation comes only from Him. This is also true for my children: their salvation is from Christ, not from anything that they do or do not do.
So when I think about Noemi’s salvation, it is no different from my own, nor is it different from my hope that my living daughter will be saved. Instead, my hope for all of our salvation rests on faith in the death and resurrection of Christ. It depends on the mercy of a gracious and forgiving God who created us and who loves us – a God who wants us to be with Him so much that He would sacrifice His own child to make that happen. My faith is full of “confidence that what we hope for will actually happen” (Hebrews 11:1), because of who God has revealed himself to be throughout time and Scripture, not because of anything that we do or do not do. My own salvation may be “by-the-book,” but it is no less dependent on the will and mercy of God than Noemi’s salvation that could not be “by-the-book.”
We believe in a loving and merciful God. We believe in an all-powerful God who is not bound by our understanding of things. We believe in a God who sacrificed His own son for the salvation of his created ones. It is belief in this God alone that offers us hope for our salvation and for the salvation of the little ones who died before baptism. We can be grateful that our own lives offer us the opportunity to respond to and to accept that salvation through the rituals that have been given to us, but we should also remember that the rituals, while incredibly important and powerful, are gifts for us, not gatekeepers to Heaven. We should never forget that God can work however He chooses, even if it is not at all “by-the-book.”