A common matter I’ve found online regarding baptism is the question of whether babies or children who die unbaptized are saved. It’s a somewhat sordid subject in my opinion. Even I, who am convinced that children are capable of cruelties and completely selfish activities, understand that it pulls at the heartstrings and quite naturally so – even mine. In plenty of blogs and other websites out there one can find a large body of church testimony that says they are damned or are in some sort of limbo-ish hellscape that is not that bad – something along those lines in any case. An honest answer would be that there are numerous answers to this question within Christian tradition.
Some people today are prone to nail the answer down with certainty and deride testimony that contradicts their position. As a universalist, the answer seems clear to me. But I realize not everyone falls into my camp on the question, so it is important to highlight evidence and testimony that unbaptized children are saved that would appeal to a wider audience. And so, I would like to briefly highlight one testimony, a testimony of a martyr no less, which indicates that unbaptized dead children are saved. The testimony is found in the Passio sanctarum Perpetuae et Felicitatis, whose present Latin text as it currently survives dates to 206 to 209 AD.
The martyrdoms of both Sts. Perpetua and Felicitas occurred in 203 AD at Carthage. A free online English translation can be found here. To quickly summarize and truncate the passio at the expense of the other martyrs, Perpetua was a nursing mother and Christian catechumen who refused to renounce her Christianity before the Roman procurator Hilarianus. Her pagan father begged her to renounce her faith and to think of her nursing child. She refused and was eventually martyred in a public spectacle and game.
What I would like to focus on, however, is St. Perpetua’s dream visions. The passio itself has multiple authors. Perpetua wrote much of it, but there is also the testimony of Saturus, and then the editor. In short, the text has three authors. In particular, St. Perpetua’s visions of his dead brother, Dinocrates, who died unbaptized at the age of seven:
7. A few days after, while we were all praying, suddenly in the midst of the prayer I uttered a word and named Dinocrates; and I was amazed because he had never come into my mind save then; and I sorrowed, remembering his fate. And straightway I knew that I was worthy, and that I ought to ask for him. And I began to pray for him long, and to groan unto the Lord. Immediately the same night, this was shown me. I beheld Dinocrates coming forth from a dark place, where were many others also; being both hot and thirsty, his raiment foul, his color pale; and the wound on his face which he had when he died. This Dinocrates had been my brother in the flesh, seven years old, who being diseased with ulcers of the face had come to a horrible death, so that his death was abominated of all men. For him therefore I had made my prayer; and between him and me was a great gulf, so that either might not go to the other. There was moreover, in the same place where Dinocrates was, a font full of water, having its edge higher than was the boy’s stature; and Dinocrates stretched up as though to drink. I was sorry that the font had water in it, and yet for the height of the edge he might not drink. And I awoke, and I knew that my brother was in travail. Yet I was confident I should ease his travail; and I prayed for him every day till we passed over into the camp prison. (For it was in the camp games that we were to fight; and the time was the feast of the Emperor Geta’s birthday.) And I prayed for him day and night with groans and tears, that he might be given me.
8. On the day when we abode in the stocks, this was shown me. I saw that place which I had before seen, and Dinocrates restored, clean of body, finely clothed; and the font I had seen before, the edge of it being drawn to the boy’s navel; and he drew water thence which flowed without ceasing. And on the edge was a golden cup full of water; and Dinocrates came up and began to drink therefrom; which cup failed not. And being satisfied he departed away from the water and began to play as children will, joyfully. And I awoke. Then I understood that he was translated from his pains (tunc intellexi translatum eum esse de poena).Passio sanctarum Perpetuae et Felicitatis, slightly modified translation from W. H. Shewring
This passage has been interpreted many ways. St. Augustine of Hippo understood it to mean that Dinocrates was baptized and then induced towards apostasy of some sort by his pagan father (De anima et eius origine libri quator I.12). This speculation has been rejected on the grounds that the details of the text indicate nowhere that Dinocrates was baptized and furthermore that the circumstances of Perpetua’s family run against that conclusion. As Jeffrey A. Trumbower writes addressing both St. Augustine’s objections and the idea that this passio alludes to purgatory:
Perpetua does not have a vision of “purgatory,” at least as purgatory comes to be defined in later centuries. If Dinocrates were a baptized Christian suffering punishment to purify him of his sins, then we could say that Perpetua saw purgatory. Such an interpretation of Perpetua’s visions, though later championed by Augustine (De natura animae et eius origine 1.12; 3.12), is virtually impossible for the historical Perpetua. It is inconceivable to imagine the pagan father of Dinocrates allowing his child to be baptized, and the boy died so many years earlier that probably no one in the family had yet become a Christian (remember, Perpetua was still a catechumen at her arrest). It is equally unlikely that Perpetua would envision postmortem agony for Dinocrates if he had been a baptized Christian. Even if Dinocrates had been baptized, there is no reason to think that notions of purgatorial punishment had developed in Carthage by Perpetua’s day; Tertullian’s postmortem scenarios do not include them. Thus, Perpetua cannot be connected with the doctrine of purgatory, except in the sense that later generations reinterpreted her visions in that direction. She did offer to posterity a notion of the efficacy of prayer for the dead, which became incorporated into the cultural construction of Purgatory, but only with limits on who could be helped that were not part of Perpetua’s original conception.Jeffrey A. Trumbower, Rescue for the Dead: The Posthumous Salvation of Non-Christians in Early Christiantiy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), pp. 83
Trumbower ultimately concludes that Perpetua saved Dinocrates, but whether or not Dinocrates merely had his pains relieved until the Final Judgement or was saved then and there depends on whether one understands the fountain to convey baptism. Trumbower favors the former and finds the latter highly unlikely (Trumbower, pp. 81-85). In either case, Dinocrates is saved. Other scholars, concur that Dinocrates is saved. Ilaria Ramelli believes the fountain does represent baptism (Ramelli, pp. 78), while Thomas J. Heffernan more generally states that Perpetua saved Dinocrates through the power of the Holy Spirit for all eternity (Heffernan, pp. 54). Either of these interpretations strike me as quite plausible. Let the reader decide I suppose, though I am heavily inclined towards the latter interpretation for the simple fact that punishment (poena) is often associated with hell and it is clearly stated that he is delivered from this punishment. The phrase “Then I understood him to have been moved over from punishment (tunc intellexi translatum eum esse de poena)” strikes me as unequivocal. The word translatum zooms in on the idea of crossing over. Recall that earlier in the first vision that a chasm separated Dinocrates from his sister (et inter me et illum grande erat diastema ita ut uterque ad invicem accedere non possemus). Therefore, being translated or moved over from punishment ought to be understood as that Dinocrates crossed over to the other side of the chasm. In any case, salvation of dead unbaptized children is attested to fairly early on in Christian history.
Bibliography and Further Reading
Halporn, James W. ed. Passio sanctarum Perpetua et Felicitatis. Bryn Mawr, PA: Bryn Mawr Commentaries, 1984.
Heffernan, Thomas J. The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Ramelli, Ilaria L. E. The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis: A Critical Assessment from the New Testament to Eriugena. Leiden: Brill, 2013.
Trumbower, Jeffrey A. Rescue for the Dead: The Posthumous Salvation of Non-Christians in Early Christianity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.