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Widowhood and Remarriage, Unbaptized Babies

[Today’s Christian, January-February 2005]

Q. I was widowed a few years ago and totally devastated by my loss. I am so tired of feeling lost and lonely. Lately I’ve been wishing I had someone to talk to in the evenings. Though I have no desire to remarry, I would like at le ast to have some companionship with the opposite sex. But these thoughts make me feel so guilty and disloyal to my late husband, though I know he has gone to a beautiful, wondrous place where matters of the heart no longer hold any meaning.

A. You feel lost and lonely—lonely because you have been severed from a living part of yourself, and lost because you don’t know what to do next. You can’t visualize how the rest of your life is supposed to go, now that the life you shared with your husband has been snatched away. What next?

This is one of the big "Who am I?" meaning-of-life moments that we don’t expect to have again after we pass the age of 17. Once we’ve begun a successful relationship we find it takes on its own existence, and we are gradually assimilated into a united, comprehensive life. When this union is broken the surviving partner reels disoriented, feeling like an amputee.

It’s up to the surrounding community to offer the bereaved a role that is useful, honorable, and fulfilling. You’re not getting this; in fact, few single people in our culture do, since pairing up is relentlessly presented as the only choice. Singles are continually pushed together and prompted to find a mate, as if anything short of couple-life is deficient.

Christians desperately need to recover a way of seeing the single life as valid and God-pleasing on its own terms, and not simply as a holding tank. Though never-marrieds are made to feel like failures, that would hardly be history’s judgment of their great example, St. Paul. He found his life so fulfilling that he said, "I wish that all were as I myself am" (I Corinthians 7:7).

St. Paul speaks directly of your situation, too. "A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. If the husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. But in my judgment she is happier if she remains as she is" (I Corinthians 7:39-40).

Remarriage is clearly permissible, yet St. Paul says that remaining single will make a widow "happier." Your intense loneliness makes this sound impossible, but early Christians were hardly lonely, whatever their marital status. In those close communities, mutual love was vivid evidence of Christ’s presence, not just a pleasant, superficial "fellowship." Few, indeed, would have lived solitary lives. Single Christian women (or men) might throw in their lot together and share expenses and housekeeping duties in an environment of mutual prayer, the younger caring for the older as they encountered the challenges of age. This setup eventually became known as a "monastery," but less-formal arrangements could work just as well. While some people may remain single, no one is required to be lonely, and marriage is not the only alternative.

There is so much cultural impatience with the singleness that we can stand to put a weight on the other side of the scale. The young widow St. Macrina (d. 379) decided not to remarry, even though well-meaning friends urged her to do so. She insisted that he was not dead, but alive in God, where she planned to meet him one day. "It is a sin and a shame," she said, "for a wife not to preserve her faithfulness when her husband travels to a distant land."
Q. I have a friend who was taught that when babies die before they can be baptized they go to hell. Are there any Bible verses about this? How can I help him?

A. Kerrie, this idea was initially expounded by St. Augustine (d. 430), the most popular Church Father among Western Christians. He interpreted Romans 5:12 to mean that every human is born bearing the guilt of Adam’s sin, and termed this "Original Sin." (Eastern Christians dispute this interpretation, and claim Augustine was using a bad translation.) Since Augustine believed that the guilt of Original Sin could only be removed by the sacrament of baptism, anyone who died unbaptized would face the unavoidable penalty: damnation.

Augustine examines John 3:36, contrasting believers and non-believers, and asks, Which category do infants belong to? If we include baptized infants with the faithful, then the unbaptized must be unbelievers. They "will have to encounter what is written concerning such—they shall not have life, but the wrath of God abideth on them." Augustine added that they would face "the mildest condemnation of all," a proposed realm called "Limbo."

No one is required to accept these views of Augustine. Only Scripture is Scripture, and anyone who pushes beyond its boundaries in a quest for further understanding can make mistakes. While Eastern Christians prefer different Church Fathers (St. John Chrysosotom, for example, or St. Basil, who was brother to the St. Macrina above), no single person got everything right. As the saying goes, "100% of the Church Fathers are right-80% of the time."

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