Jesus christ questions infant baptism
RACHEL Our mobile unit has moved now to the south of the country, to Judea, and we find ourselves on the very banks of the Jordan River, where two thousand years ago John baptized the crowds that came to him. Can you hear the river? … Beside us is Jesus Christ, our special guest. Jesus, I’m sure you remember that very special day when you were baptized by John. It was right here, wasn’t it?
JESUS Yes, I think so. It’s just that there were so many people… I can still see John, dressed in a camel skin, waist-deep in the water. John the Baptist, what a great prophet he was!
RACHEL In your time the people got baptized as adults, but nowadays they baptize kids as soon as possible, when they are still infants.
JESUS You mean, you baptize children?
RACHEL Yes, of course. It’s the custom.
JESUS But what for? A little boy or a little girl, how are they going to be converted to a new way of life if they’ve hardly experienced anything in life?
RACHEL I don’t understand why you’re saying that.
JESUS Baptism is for learning how to share. That what John used to shout whoever has two tunics, let him give one to somebody who has none! That’s what baptism is for for changing your life.
RACHEL Well, your followers say something different. They say that baptism is for wiping away original sin.
JESUS Original sin?
RACHEL Yes, the sin that Adam and Eve committed in the Garden of Eden. God forbade them to eat of the tree of good and evil, but the serpent tempted them and … they ate the apple.
JESUS I already know that story, but what does it have to do with baptism?
RACHEL That’s what we’re asking you, who should know better than anybody, because you came to this world to cleanse us from that sin.
JESUS I came to cleanse what?
RACHEL Original sin. Don’t you know that that sin is inherited, that it passes from fathers to sons to grandsons to great-grandsons? That’s what they taught us. We are all born with that stain, and that’s why we have to get baptized, to wipe it away. And the sooner the better.
JESUS Please explain to me why.
RACHEL Because children can’t enter heaven soiled with the stain of Adam and Eve.
JESUS It’s amazing how life goes in circles! Listen, Rachel, in my time too the priests used to say that people got sick because of the sins that were committed in their family. Once they brought me a man born blind, and they asked me, “Who sinned, this man or his parents?”
RACHEL And what did you answer them?
JESUS I said neither he nor his parents. Because sickness does not come from sin. In those days they saw sin in sick people, and nowadays you see sin in little children. What a horrible mistake.
RACHEL Now it’s my turn to ask why.
JESUS Because no sin is inherited. None. If the parents ate sour grapes, the children shouldn’t have their teeth set on edge.
RACHEL But we can’t help asking you if the children, as you say, are not born with sin, then what’s the sense of baptizing them?
JESUS I really don’t know, but what I can tell you for sure is that, with water or without it, the children will be the first to enter into God’s Kingdom.
RACHEL And the adults?
JESUS Those who are ready to change their lives and to struggle for justice – let them be baptized. They will receive the Spirit of God, as I received it here from the hands of the prophet John.
RACHEL On the banks of the River Jordan, which two thousand years ago witnessed the baptism of John and which today witnesses these controversial declarations, we bring our program to an end today. I am Rachel Perez, special correspondent of Emisoras Latinas.
ANNOUNCER Another God is Possible. Exclusive interviews with Jesus Christ in his second coming to Earth. A production of María and José Ignacio López Vigil, with the support of the Syd Forum and Christian Aid.
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The Jordan River
The Jordan is practically the only river that runs through the lands of Israel. It has its source in the north, near Mount Hermon, and empties into the salty waters of the Dead Sea, the lowest place on the planet, nearly 400 meters below sea level. The Jordan valley is a prolongation of the Rift Valley, which was formed 10 million years ago when the African continent was fractured in a geological event that was decisive for the human species.
The baptism of John
The use of water for purifying rituals is an element present in practically all religions and spiritual movements around the world. The rite of baptism which John popularized and which Jesus received signified that a person publicly declared himself ready to prepare the way of the Messiah. It meant undergoing “conversion” and deciding to change one’s life. Jesus’ baptism was the starting point for his “public life”, the moment when he felt a strong urge to dedicate his life to changing the situation of his country, to sharing his ideas of God with others, and to changing the idea of God that prevailed among the people of his time, an idea that prevented them from freeing themselves and living full lives.
John’s rite was collective and symbolic. After people confessed their faults, John submerged them in the waters of the river as a sign of cleansing and rebirth: water purifies, and from water life is born. The Essenes also practiced purifying ablutions, as is shown by the ritual pools found in the ruins of the Essene monastery at Qumran. Most likely John was linked with this religious group.
Being baptized is being submerged
The first Christians who lived in Palestine were baptized by being submerged in the waters of the Jordan River, thus repeating the rite of John. The early Christians in other regions performed their baptisms in rivers or pools. The very word “baptism” comes from the Greek word for “being submerged”, “sinking into water”. In the course of the centuries this custom was gradually lost, so that today the Catholic rite of baptism uses only a few drops of water, which the priest pours on the head of the new Christian. Christians of the orthodox rites and the evangelical churches continue to practice baptism by immersion in rivers, and even in the sea.
Because babies are born in sin…
The custom of baptizing by immersion receded as it became more common to baptize young children. This practice is found already in some second-century writings, and it gained ground as Christian theology became more and more captivated by the idea that all people are born in sin. Such a belief very quickly led to the dogma of “original sin”.
Theologians found a basis for this idea in a literal interpretation of what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15,21 and in Romans 5,12. The idea was systematized and elaborated in the fourth century by the bishop of Hippo, the great Saint Augustine, who was the most influential theologian between Paul and Luther. He can be considered the “father” of the doctrine of original sin and consequently as the father of the tradition which degrades human sexuality, since this is viewed as the means for “transmitting” this sin. This unholy doctrine is still a key element in official Catholic theology.
Until now this doctrine of “original sin” has been the principal reason for baptizing young babies. For some people it has become almost an obsession: there have been campaigns to baptize babies immediately after they are born, and there are even campaigns to baptize aborted fetuses. Such an obsession is based on fear, namely, the belief that because of “original sin” the souls of these infants, even of those quite undeveloped, would end up in limbo, a “place” where they would not see God and would never again see their parents. After centuries of promoting this absurd belief, Vatican theologians in May 2007 officially declared that limbo “was closed”. Will a consequence of this declaration be the disappearance of the custom of baptizing babies?
Baptism of children: a controversial topic
In the 4th and 5th centuries the meaning of infant baptism was debated by the Pelagians, who were considered heretics by the official church for denying the dogma of original sin. The Pelagians held that children were to be baptized not to have any sin forgiven, but to improve their state and make them adoptive children of God. The official church pursued them cruelly, insisting that even a newborn child is under the power of evil.
The Council of Florence (1442), in its decree against another heretical group called the Jacobites, reaffirmed this doctrine, declaring that baptism should not be postponed, not even for 40 or 80 days, as was the custom for some people. The reason the Council gave was the danger of imminent death, because there is no other remedy available to these infants except the sacrament of baptism, which frees them from the powers of the devil and makes them adopted children of God. Such a belief about innocent babies in the hands of the devil is still expressed in the Catholic baptismal rite, which includes exorcisms expressing the rejection of “Satan, his pomps and his works”, a rejection that the godparents must avow in the baby’s name.
Starting with the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, Christians began to hold positions that were opposed to infant baptism, even though Luther himself maintained it. The Anabaptists, for example, were in conflict with the Lutherans for refusing to baptize children – a conflict that even provoked wars. The only Protestant denominations that continue to baptize children nowadays are the Lutherans and the Moravians. Infant baptism is also practiced in churches such as the Anglican, the Coptic, the Maronite, as well as in the Orthodox churches of Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
The blind man, sour grapes and teeth set on edge
In Jesus’ time people believed that all misfortunes and all infirmities were the consequences of the sins people committed that God punished people in precise proportion to the gravity of the faults. They based such beliefs on the sacred scriptures, for example the book of Exodus, where God warns that he will punish the faults of the fathers for three generations in the future (20,5). And though the prophet Jeremiah and the prophet Ezekiel later questioned this idea and stressed individual responsibility, many of Jesus’ contemporaries still believed that evils and misfortunes came as a result of the sins of their ancestors.
They also believed that God might punish people “out of love”, in order to “test” them. If they accepted such punishments with faith, then the suffering would be changed into a blessing, which would help them toward a more profound knowledge of the Law, and their sins would be more readily pardoned. The teachers of the Law, scrupulous and meticulous in their discussion of these ideas, taught that no punishment that came from God’s “love” could ever prevent a person from reading and studying the Law. Therefore blindness was always viewed as a great curse and true punishment; it was clear proof that a person had sinned or that his ancestors had.
It was precisely in regard to such an extreme case of a “divine punishment”, the case of the man born blind, that Jesus challenged such beliefs, declaring that neither had the man sinned nor had he inherited any sin from his parents (John 9,1-41). Jesus was categorical: no sickness is ever a punishment from God; responsibility for sins is individual; sins are not transmitted from parents to children. In order to make this clear to people, Jesus drew on a reflection of the prophet Jeremiah from many centuries before: if the parents eat sour grapes, the children will not have their teeth set on edge (Jeremiah 31,29-30).