As Daniel Castellano documents, if we want to understand the doctrine of original sin, especially as taught by St. Augustine, it’s important to note the distinction between culpability (Latin: culpa) and liability (Latin: reatus). If someone is culpable for committing a crime, they are then liable for that crime and receive a corresponding punishment, proportionate to their liability. For example, if you commit a sin, you are held liable for that sin on account of your consent to committing the wicked act, and as such, receive a just punishment. However, per the teaching of the Lord in Luke 12, your liability to punishment corresponds to your knowledge (or lack thereof) of whether or not that act was actually sinful, “The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows.” I bring this up to demonstrate the true distinction between culpability and liability: it’s possible to be fully culpable for a particular sin, while at the same time not being fully liable for it.
However, the reverse is also true: it’s possible to not be culpable for a particular sin, while at the same time being fully liable for it. For example, in Exodus 22, if an Israelite has a bull who is known to gore people to death, and the bull goes on to do just that, the owner is punished for the crime of the bull due to negligence, despite him not actually being culpable for said crime. This establishes that, in principle, it’s possible to be held liable to a punishment for a crime that you yourself are not culpable of committing, provided there is a just reason for why this is happening (as in this case, the reason is negligence).
Although it is a basic principle that children are not to be punished for the sins of their parents (Deuteronomy 24:16, Ezekiel 18:19-20), there are some nuances to this. For example, Scripture also declares that the iniquity of fathers is visited upon their children to the third and fourth generation (Exodus 34:7), and we see this carried out in practice in Genesis 9 when Noah condemns the sons of Ham to slavery on account of their father’s sin. In this case, we see that visiting the iniquity of a father upon his sons means that, just as children can receive a blessed and abundant inheritance from their parents without meriting it, so too can children receive a wicked inheritance from their parents without meriting it. It is in this sense that we are able to say that children can be liable for sins that their parents are culpable of, thereby justly receiving its punishment, which is simply the natural inheritance of the parent’s depraved state.
This is how we are to understand original sin: the culpability for the transgression lies with Adam, however we as his children are held liable for this sin in that we receive its consequences as a punishment. However, this punishment is not a positive action against the sons of Adam, but rather the taking away of that which we were not owed in the first place, namely sanctifying grace (God’s life giving energia). And it’s also important to note that in saying that God deprived Adam of sanctifying grace, this ultimately means that God allowed Adam to deprive himself of this grace, because we know from Wisdom 1:12-14 that “God did not create death,” but rather it is the natural outcome of sinful actions, because when you commit a sin you are turning away from the Source of Life, and when you walk away from Life, there’s only one way to go: towards death. Thus, Adam’s punishment was simply God giving him up to his own sinful desires (cf. Romans 1:24), and our punishment is naturally inheriting the wicked result of that.
In the case of an Israelite being held liable for the sins of his bull, he received the punishment due to the bull on account of negligence; likewise in the case of Canaan being held liable for the sin of Ham, he received the punishment due to Ham on account of not meriting a different inheritance, and legitimately receiving a wicked one from his father. So it is with our forefather Adam: by being condemned to death (hell is simply the eternal actualization of death), we are not being punished for the sin of Adam, but rather we are being held liable to this punishment because we do not merit a state other than the fallen one we have inherited.
This is why the Council of Jassy +1642 is able to say, “[by] Adam becoming guilty, we all likewise, who descend from him, become also guilty. [T]his is called original Sin, because no Mortal is conceived without this Depravity of Nature” (Question 24). Notice that the Council identifies “becoming guilty” in Adam as a “depravity of nature,” meaning that we are not culpable for Adam’s sin, but rather liable to it on account of our fallen inheritance. This point is further confirmed by the Council of Jerusalem +1672, which specifies that “[by hereditary sin] we do not understand [actual] sin… But only what the Divine Justice inflicted upon man as a punishment for the [original] transgression, such as sweats in labor, afflictions… and lastly, bodily death” (Decree VI), going on to state that when a man receives baptism, “it delivers him from the eternal punishment, to which he was liable [on account of] original sin” (Decree XVI). And all of this ultimately goes back to the teaching of St. Augustine himself:
However, it [original sin] is called sin, not in such a way that it makes us guilty, but because it is the result of the guilt of the first man and because by rebelling it strives to draw us to guilt, unless we are aided by the grace of God through Jesus Christ our Lord, lest even the dead sin so rebel that by conquering it revives and reigns… [You] ask me briefly and to the point whether I hold an action or the nature to be guilty in infants. You yourself answer both alternatives, saying that, if it is an action, I must show what acts infants perform; if it is the nature, I must show who made it. You speak as though an evil action, too, made only the nature guilty. In truth, the one made guilty by a man’s action is man, but man is a nature. Therefore, just as adults become guilty by a sinful action so minors become guilty by contagion from adults. (Quoted in Nathaniel McCallum, “Inherited Guilt in Ss. Augustine and Cyril.”)
What Augustine is saying here is exactly what I’ve been saying throughout this article: we are not culpable for the original sin of Adam, however we are liable to it due to our reception of fallen nature, which is how we “become guilty by contagion from adults.” This same point was reiterated by St. Cyril of Alexandria who, on the one hand affirmed that “our nature contracted the disease of sin because of the disobedience of one man, that is Adam, and thus many became sinners. This was not because they sinned along with Adam, because they did not then exist, but because they had the same nature as Adam, which fell under the law of sin,” while also stating, “the whole nature of man became guilty in the person of him who was first formed; but now it is wholly justified again in Christ.” The point is clear enough: we receive the penalty of death from Adam, not because we ourselves are guilty of his sin, but because we share his sinful nature. Moreover, it’s very important to emphasize that this penalty is not a positive action but rather a negative one, meaning that God is not actively inflicting His wrath upon those with original sin, rather He is simply allowing us to fall away from that which was not owed to us in the first place, namely eternal Life, because no man can merit an eternity with God. As Jerusalem +1672 says, “of eternal punishment, of cruelty, of pitilessness, and of inhumanity, we never, never say God is the author… For it is a true and infallible rule, that God is in no way the author of evil, nor can it at all by just reasoning be attributed to God” (Decree III and IV).
Once this is understood, we can begin to speculate about the fate of those who, while having no personal sins, nonetheless still possess original sin, and usually only infants are included in this category (though I will briefly expand on that below). This is a topic that many Fathers of the Church have speculated on, and the general Greek position is summarized well by St. Gregory the Theologian:
It will happen, I believe… that those last mentioned [infants dying without baptism] will neither be admitted by the just judge to the glory of Heaven nor condemned to suffer punishment, since, though unsealed [by baptism], they are not wicked… For from the fact that one does not merit punishment it does not follow that one is worthy of being honored, any more than it follows that one who is not worthy of a certain honor deserves on that account to be punished. (Oration 40, no. 23)
St. Gregory is trying to reconcile two important tenants of the Christian faith: 1.) The justice of God, and 2.) The absolute necessity of baptism for salvation. As we saw above, all men are naturally deprived of entrance into Heaven through our wicked inheritance from Adam, and the only way to absolve this original sin is through Holy Baptism. This, however, begs the question of what we are to do with those who only have original sin, while having no personal sins. St. Gregory explains that it would be unjust to subject these people to torturous punishment, however it would also be unjust to allow them into the glory of Heaven due to them having nothing that merits this, and that’s where St. Gregory leaves it. It’s easy to see how the doctrine of the “limbo of infants” developed from this idea: those who die with original sin but no personal sins are in a kind of “neutral” state where they are neither punished nor glorified. Even St. Augustine, who was constantly accused of being a tortores infantium (torturer of infants) in his own day, wrote the following on this topic:
I do not say that children who die without the baptism of Christ will undergo such grievous punishment that it were better for them never to have been born, since our Lord did not say these words of any sinner you please, but only of the most base and ungodly. If we consider what He said about the Sodomites, which certainly He did not mean of them only—that it will be more tolerable for one than for another in the day of judgment, who can doubt that non-baptized infants, having only original sin and no burden of personal sins, will suffer the lightest (levissima) condemnation of all? I cannot define the amount and kind of their punishment, but I dare not say it were better for them never to have existed than to exist there. (Quoted in Daniel J. Castellano, The Origins of Original Sin, Part IV)
Even though Augustine did believe that unbaptized infants would experience some kind of suffering as a punishment for original sin, he’s careful to maintain that they will suffer the lightest condemnation of all, so light that he cannot define what this will be like, however he’s absolutely certain that it’s better for them to exist in that state than to have never existed at all (unlike what was said about Judas). This topic would actually prove to be very controversial in the post-schism West, with even avid followers of St. Augustine like Thomas Aquinas rejecting the strict Augustinian view that infants will actually suffer, instead developing the view of the Greek Fathers that infants will have some kind of “natural happiness” in hell, akin to the bliss experienced by the righteous of old before the coming of Christ.
It is this latter view, I would say, that has generally been the received view of the Orthodox Church. Although it’s true that the Council of Jerusalem +1672 stated that unbaptized infants will be “subject to eternal punishment, and consequently cannot without baptism be saved,” it’s also true that during Holy Week, we profess the following in the Triodion:
We should also know that when baptized infants die, they enjoy the Paradise of delight, whereas those not illumined by Baptism and those born of pagans go neither to Paradise nor to Gehenna. When the soul departs from the body, it has no concern for the things of this world, but only for the things of the Heavenly realm. (Saturday before Meatfare Sunday)
As is clear, this is essentially a repetition of St. Gregory’s teaching, with an important nuance: unbaptized infants go neither to Paradise nor Gehenna. This is a significant point because Gehenna is the place where sinners go to be eternally tortured after the Final Judgement, and by stating that unbaptized infants do not go there, this can help us understand what the Council of Jerusalem meant by saying unbaptized infants are eternally punished. As was made abundantly clear above, the punishment for original sin is not a positive action of God’s wrath against the sinner, but rather a negative deprivation of sanctifying grace, which naturally leads to eternal exclusion from the Kingdom of Heaven. All subsequent punishments that a sinner would experience in Gehenna would be due to their own personal sins, and not original sin. With all of this considered, I think we can legimittaely interpret the Council of Jerusalem’s teaching to mean that unbaptized infants are eternally punished through their exclusion from Heaven, and not any active suffering on their part. This seems to be further confirmed by the latter half of the Triodion, which appears to be talking about unbaptized infants’ souls that have “no concern for the things of this world, but only for the things of the Heavenly realm,” heavily implying a state of natural happiness for these people, as opposed to the supernatural bliss of the Saints, the very position that would become and still is very popular in the West.
I would like to end this article by throwing in a speculation of my own about the salvation of the heterodox and unbaptized non-infants, in light of everything that’s been discussed above. I’ve demonstrated before that many of our Saints have taught that the salvation of non-Orthodox Christians is a genuine possibility that we leave up to the mercy of God. However, whenever the salvation of the non-Orthodox is discussed by the Fathers, the possibility of salvation is only ever entertained if these people are baptized Christians, never if they are any other religion. This heavily implies a position that I’ve argued for in the past, which is that the heterodox do actually have valid baptisms, and these sacraments actually have the real possibility of effecting salvation because, as has been shown at length, it is not possible for one to enter into Heaven without the grace of baptism.
That said, when it comes to those who are unbaptized but also not infants, I think there’s reason to be optimistic about them too. At the very beginning of this article I mentioned how, per Luke 12, the liability to punishment for a personal sin is dependent on one’s knowledge or ignorance of the sinfulness of their action. What this means is that, if one isn’t aware that what they’re doing is a sin, their punishment will be significantly less than if they were aware. This suggests that, in principle, it’s possible for those who are unbaptized and with personal sins to attain to a state of natural happiness like that of unbaptized infants, provided there is a “sufficient” amount of ignorance on their part, something only God could determine. Moreover, as I’ve explained in a previous article, the Orthodox Church firmly believes that it’s possible for those in hell to be prayed out through the ministry of the Church, so perhaps even the salvation of the unbaptized cannot be completely ruled out.