Trusting God’s Mercy for Unborn Children
Despair vs Hope, Part 3
David C. Reardon
Editor’s Note: In previous issues of The Post-Abortion Review (Spring 1995 and Fall 1995) we examined the role of despair in driving women and men toward choosing abortion and then in holding them back from healing after an abortion. I have been reminded by readers that I had promised at that time to provide a third installment dealing with the issue of how we can have Scriptural confidence in the belief that aborted children are not deprived the joy of Heaven.
Aborted children have been deprived of baptism. They never had the opportunity to know or accept Christ as their Lord. How sure can we be that they are really in Heaven? Though seldom discussed, this is a theological question that is extremely important to the parents of aborted children and to pro-lifers in general. The answer to this question will shape how we view ourselves, others, and our priorities in the pro-life movement.
As previously discussed in this series of articles, a history of abortion can be a major stumbling block for women and men who turn back to God. At first, Satan will seek to deprive women and men the peace of God’s forgiveness by aggravating their fear that God cannot forgive them.. If this temptation to despair fails, Satan will attack the repentant parent’s peace of mind with the fear that even if God can forgive them, their aborted and unbaptized children have been deprived of Heaven.
This fear that unbaptized infants will be denied Heaven is also used by Satan to build a wall of separation and prejudice between pro- lifers and women and men with a history of abortion. Not a few Christians have coldly turned their backs on women and men who have had abortions, believing that by their sins they have forever deprived God of the souls of their unborn children. Such Christians do not wish these parents ill, but they cannot quite bring themselves to offer them comfort, either. Their hearts are simply so burdened with dismay over the “lost souls” of aborted children that they have no sympathy left over for their guilty parents. It is important for such believers to open their hearts to the possibility, or even the convincing evidence that God has saved the unborn victims of abortion.
A greater faith among believers in God’s salvation of aborted babies is important for two reasons. First, once all members of Christ’s Body accept that aborted babies “live in the arms of Christ,” the lingering sense of anger and resentment toward those who have aborted will finally be dissipated. Second, as the dead are entrusted to God’s providence, there will be a renewed concern for the living — for those women and men who suffer the guilt of abortion. It is then that our efforts to promote post-abortion healing will not only be easier, they will also be more compelling.
The Issue: The Necessity of Baptism
The question of salvation for the unborn arises from an interpretation of Christ’s solemn pronouncement to Nicodemus that “no one can enter into God’s kingdom without being begotten of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5). The necessity of baptism is further supported by Christ’s statement, “The man who believes in it [the good news] and accepts baptism will be saved; the man who refuses to believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16). Note, however, that condemnation is pronounced for those who refuse to believe. Nothing is said regarding those who have not had the opportunity to believe. Indeed, we are also told that no one will be judged guilty simply because of his or her ignorance (John 9:41).
What are we to make of this, then? Baptism by water is clearly the way God has given the Church for bringing new members into His Body. When it can be done, it ought to be done. However, God’s mercy is not limited by human failings, nor are His means limited by the physical reality which defines human interaction. Indeed, it is clear in Scripture that God has at least one other way of bringing sanctifying grace to those who have died without having the opportunity to receive baptism by water.
The most obvious example of unbaptized persons who were saved is that of the Old Testament saints, including the patriarchs, the prophets, and untold others. For the sake of these departed, Christ went in death to preach to them “in prison” (1 Peter 3:19) so that they “might live in the spirit in the eyes of God” (1 Peter 4:6). Yet another example is shown in the good thief, who followed Jesus into Paradise (Luke 23:42-44) without the benefit of baptism by water.
In fact, early Christians generally recognized that martyrs who died for the faith before they have the opportunity to be baptized are reborn in a baptism by blood rather than water. Baptism by either water or blood was recognized as having the same efficacy and the same source. This view was defended by the prominent Christian apologist Tertullian around 203 A.D., who wrote:
We have one and only one Baptism in accord with the Gospel (Eph. 4:4-6)…. [But there is] a second font, one with the former [water]: namely, that of blood, of which the Lord says: “I am to be baptized with a baptism” (Luke 12:50, Mark 10:38-39), when He had already been baptized [by water]. For He had come through water and blood, as John wrote (1 John 5:6), so that He might be baptized with water and glorified with blood. He sent out these two Baptisms from the wound in His pierced side (John 19:34), that we might in like manner be called by water and chosen by blood, and so that they who believed in His blood might be washed by the water. If they might be washed in the water, they must necessarily be so by blood. This is the Baptism which replaces that of the fountain, when it has not been received, and restores it when it has been lost.
Tertullian’s argument that baptism by blood can be a substitute for baptism by water is further supported by the fact that Christ offered the sons of Zebedee the baptism of suffering as one with the cup of salvation (Mark 10:38-39). Furthermore, Scripture tells us that before Christ’s death, John’s baptism by water was only a baptism of repentance (Acts 19:4, Luke 3:3). It was only after Christ’s baptism in blood that the baptism of water was raised up to become a baptism with the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5, John 16:7). Clearly, then, the understanding that God has a means to save those who through no fault of their own have been denied the opportunity of baptism by water is not novel. Indeed, it is revealed by Scripture. Therefore, if we are to properly interpret Christ’s insistence on baptism by water, we must admit that it is a binding command on the living, while recognizing that this precept does not preclude God from offering some other spiritual means of rebirth for those who die without this opportunity. What this way is has not been fully revealed. On the other hand, since it is a spiritual baptism which is outside the responsibilities of believers on earth, it is not something about which we need to know the details. It is enough for us to know that it is possible. Once this truth is recognized, we can then confidently trust God’s mercy and justice.
God’s Special Love for Children
We know as part of our revealed faith that God desires the salvation of all (1 Tim. 2:4, Rom. 8:32) and that His mercy endures forever (Psalm 136). Though all are stained by original sin, all whom Christ claims for Himself will live in Him (1 Cor. 15:22-23). That Christ should not claim the unborn as His own is unimaginable, contrary to both reason and revelation. Furthermore, Paul teaches that God’s mercy and providence extend even to the unborn, who have done neither good nor evil (Rom. 9:11), and Christ himself repeatedly expressed His special love of infants and children.
And they brought unto him also infants, that he would touch them: but when his disciples saw it, they rebuked them. But Jesus called them, and said, “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:15-16).
See how Jesus describes Heaven; it is filled with infants such as these! And are not His words a warning against those who would forbid these children entry into His heavenly kingdom? And look at yet another occasion: [The disciples asked Jesus:] “Who is of greatest importance in the kingdom of God?” He called a little child over and stood him in their midst and said: “I assure you, unless you change and become like little children, you will not enter the kingdom of God…. See that you never despise one of these little ones. I assure you, their angels in Heaven constantly behold my heavenly Father’s face…. Just so, it is no part of your heavenly Father’s plan that a single one of these little ones shall ever come to grief” (Matt. 18:1-2, 10, 14).
Other renderings of this last line are that none of these little ones should ever “perish” or be “lost.” These passages suggest a promise of universal salvation for the innocents, for (1) they are numbered among those of greatest importance in God’s kingdom, (2) their angels pray for them before the Father, and (3) the Father wills that none of them should be lost. Notice also that the small child standing before Christ, to whom He pointed as an example, was unbaptized.
Reason, too, demands our acknowledgment of God’s saving grace for the unborn. Christ’s love is so great that He died to bring salvation to sinners who deserve nothing (Romans 5:6-9). Yet, if He would save sinners like us, would He not do at least as much, if not more, for the unborn who have not sinned? Of course He would. Those who doubt it must defend the absurd notion that God’s judgments are less merciful than human judgments.
Theories of Salvation
While the method of salvation for the unborn is not revealed, there are some theories which are useful to consider, remembering always that these are only theories. Some Christian theologians speculate that at the moment of death, God enlightens the minds of the “incompetent” so that they can freely choose for or against Him. This possibility would be analogous to the free choice for or against God which the angels made at the time of their creation.
Others believe that children who die without formal baptism, or other incompetents who are incapable of understanding or freely choosing baptism, acquire salvation through a “vicarious baptism of desire”–that is, through the desire of their parents, the Church, or someone else. Along these lines, it is a common practice within the post-abortion healing movement to encourage mothers and fathers of aborted children to offer a solemn prayer in which they entrust their children to the care of Jesus. This is an important part of the healing experience for many women and men. There have also been reports of mystical experiences in which the dedication of the aborted child was prompted by an interior voice of the Holy Spirit. Others who have prayerfully dedicated an aborted child to God have reported remarkable healing for the mother, father, siblings or other relatives of the aborted child who were not even aware that the prayer was made.
The End of Limbo?
Another theory, which was once widely taught in Catholic parochial schools, is that of Limbo. Contrary to popular belief, this theory has never been a dogma of the Catholic Church. It has always been nothing more than a theological speculation which offers one possible solution to the puzzle of God’s judgment of unbaptized innocents. Still, the idea of their aborted children being confined to Limbo can be very troubling to Catholics and former Catholics who were raised with this teaching. It is an important issue to address then, even for many former Catholics.
According to the Limbo theory, God’s justice precludes punishment of the innocent, but the requirement of baptism precludes the unbaptized from enjoying the actual presence of God, Heaven. Given these two constraints, one can conclude that God must at least supply these souls with a place where they enjoy a state of natural happiness, free of all suffering, where they would lack only the beatific vision of God. This place would be analogous to the place where the faithful who died before the coming of Christ awaited the salvation of the Messiah. In theory, Limbo would be the same or a similar place to that where Abraham and Lazarus were at rest (Luke 16:22) and to where to, after his death, Christ went to preach and to bring the faithful who had gone before into heavenly life (1 Peter 3:19, 4:6).
While Catholics are free to believe in Limbo, the official Catechism encourages believers to hope for more, trusting that God has another means for admitting unbaptized innocents into Heaven. Indeed, the teaching documents of the Catholic Church exclude any theory which would hold that salvation of unbaptized innocents is not possible. Most recently, in fact, Pope John Paul II has written in a major encyclical on abortion that “nothing is definitively lost and you [the women and men who have procured abortions] will also be able to ask forgiveness from your child, who is now living in the Lord.” [Italics added.] In short, while the Catholic Church does not teach the salvation of aborted children as a dogmatic certainty, it strongly encourages believers to hope for this, confident in God’s mercy.
Finally, for those Catholics who might still choose to hold to the theory of Limbo, I would offer two more observations. First, the story of Lazarus and Abraham who communicating with the rich man in his place of torment (Luke 16:20-31) provides ample reason to believe that it is possible for the departed souls to communicate with each other even if they are not in the same place. This suggests that even if aborted children were confined to a “Limbo,” this would not necessarily mean that the parents of aborted children could not communicate with, or even to visit, their unbaptized children in Limbo.
Second, it is clear that Christ Himself is not confined to Heaven. This is proven by the example of Christ’s birth into the world and also by His subsequent spiritual journey to preach in “prison” where the souls of the faithful resided before His death on the cross (1 Peter 4:6). Christ has personally attended to sinners and even the unsaved, both before and after their deaths. Thus, while theologians might argue that unbaptized persons must be denied entry into Heaven, they can never argue that Christ can be deprived entry into Limbo. Thus, even if God’s justice somehow demands that unbaptized babies must be denied the fullness of Heaven, in God’s mercy these same souls could still rest in the arms of Christ, if it is His desire to be with them. Furthermore, if these aborted children are confined to Limbo yet “living in the Lord,” because Christ comes to them, we must also remember that, as Christ told his apostles, “whoever has seen me, has seen the Father” (John 14:9). So, even if the unbaptized are unable to see our Triune God, in all his glory, face-to-face like the sun blazing in the fullness of the day, it appears likely that in the face of Jesus they can at least enjoy the glory of the dawn.
In short, we have circled back to our original argument: if the unbaptized cannot go to Heaven to be with Christ, Christ can go to them . . . and in doing so, bring Heaven with Him. And is this not the way in everyone’s salvation? No one is saved by the merits of his own deeds, not even by the act of baptism. Our faith and salvation are always gifts from God. Baptism is one of His gifts. In the final analysis, it is extremely hard to imagine that our Lordâ€” who Himself came into the world as an innocent babyâ€” would have no gifts to offer the innocent babies who have died to abortion.
The Holy Innocents
Nancyjo Mann, the founder of Women Exploited by Abortion, once suggested that the slaughter of infants has always preceded the coming of a savior. Infant boys were slaughtered by Pharaoh before the coming of Moses. The infants of Bethlehem were slaughtered by Herod, who sought to prevent the Messiah from gaining his throne. Perhaps, she speculated, the slaughter of millions of babies by abortion throughout the world is a precursor to Christ’s return.
No one knows when the Second Coming will be (Mark 13:32). This prophecy suggests that the moment we begin to feel certain that we do know, we are almost certainly wrong (Mark 13:33). Throughout the ages, Christians have looked at the world’s sinfulness and said, “Certainly He will come to judge us now.” Our age is no different
Few Christians would doubt that the horrors of our generation demand judgment. But while we should all pray for Christ’s return tomorrow, we must never neglect our task of building up His Kingdom today. Unfortunately, it is not unusual to find some Christians who are so convinced that the Second Coming is just around the corner that they have become complacent. Sadly, more than a few Christians who support pro-life principles neglect to take a stand, much less to make sacrifices, for the pro-life cause because they believe the world is condemned. They feel we are powerless; therefore, we might just as well wait for Christ’s return. With the approach of the numerically significant year 2000, we sadly see more and more people submitting to the temptation to sit down at the sidelines.
It is true; this sinful age, with its own slaughter of innocents, will not be allowed to go on forever. God will not be mocked. So there are only three possibilities: (1) Christ will return; or (2) God, who is the Lord of History, will crush our modern civilization, adding its dust to the ruins of all the other proud empires which have gone before us; or (3) to glorify God’s own Mercy, the Holy Spirit will conquer our love affair with death by bringing about a time of awakening, healing, and spiritual renewal.
I do not know which of these God has ordained, His return, our culture’s destruction, or our culture’s spiritual renewal. I do know that we, His followers, can only contribute to the latter. This is our task now, as it was from the beginning, to spread the good news of God’s mercy and forgiveness.
But I have strayed a bit. My real reason for bringing up the Holy Innocents who were slaughtered by Herod is that these children have been traditionally considered as assured of heavenly repose by virtue of the fact that they died in an attack on Christ. This was a form of martyrdom. They did not die in defense of their faith, for they did not know it, but rather as victims of mass murder directed against the Messiah.
If we believe the Holy Innocents are in Heaven, then this belief, too, should encourage us to believe in the salvation of the unborn who die by abortion. For whether Christ’s return is imminent or not, abortion in our culture is clearly the result of a diabolical attack on Christian values. In the larger scheme of things, it is an attempt by Satan to usurp the Lord of Life and install a Cult of Death. It is an attack against the Body of Christ, His Church, which includes the vast majority of aborting women and men, who belong to the Church by virtue of their own baptisms. In this attack on Christ’s body, unborn children are the innocent casualties. It is therefore reasonable to assume that, like the Holy Innocents, they too are baptized in their own blood, and, in this way, will be brought into a share of Christ’s own bloody baptism.
We must be confident of God’s mercy, not only toward us, but also toward the unborn. If God has mercy on anyone, certainly He will be merciful with them. Those who seek post-abortion healing must recognize that fears about the salvation of their unborn children are a temptation toward despair–a temptation which must be resisted. If they desire to be reunited with their aborted children, they must not worry about the salvation of their children, but rather about their own salvation, to which end they must build up lives of faith, hope, and charity. Of these, the virtue of hope precludes doubts about whether God will have mercy on their unborn children. For those who seek an end to abortion, confidence in God’s mercy toward the children killed by abortion should undergird our efforts to minister to those who have lost their children to abortion. By helping them to find spiritual healing, we will be helping them to become instruments of God’s will. As His instruments, it is they, speaking with the wisdom of their own experiences, who will bring an end to abortion. We must remember that this is their battle even more than ours. They will fight it to honor the memory of the children they have lost and to redeem their own honor. By helping them, especially by our acceptance, understanding, and compassion, we will be helping to restore respect for all human life.
1. Cyprian, Letters, 72:22 (A.D. 255).
2. Tertullian, On Baptism, 15:1; 16:1-2 (A.D. 203).
3. This type of a fortiori argument, “If Y is true, then how much more likely that Z is true,” was frequently used for teaching and theological deduction by Jesus and Paul. See Matt. 7:11, 10:25, 12:12, Luke 11:13, 12:24, 28, Romans 11:12, 24, 1 Cor. 6:3, Heb. 9:14.
4. Jack Hayford, I’ll Hold You in Heaven (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1990), 47.
5. Dr. Kenneth McAll, Healing the Family Tree (London: Sheldon Press, 1986), 27, 33, 34, 48, 52. McAll, a Protestant who was initially resistant to “prayers for the dead,” provides a good discussion on the practices of the early Church regarding prayerful committal of the dead and how these accord with Scripture. See pages 88-97.
6. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1261.
7. Vatican II documents, reflecting on God’s saving will, include the dogmatic statement that “since Christ died for all (Rom. 8:32) … we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partners, in a way known to God, in the paschal mystery” (Gaudium et Spes, 22). This statement would seem to weigh against the theory of Limbo. If an unborn child is denied the opportunity of baptism by water, then “the possibility of being made partners” in Christ’s redemption must mean that some other means of sanctification is available.
8. John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), 99.
Originally published in The Post-Abortion Review 5(3),Fall 1997. Copyright 1997 Elliot Institute