Why Do Infants Die?

St. Gregory of Nyssa (ca. 335-94) tackles the heart-wrenching, faith-testing question: Why Do Infants Die? In his treatise On Infants’ Early Deaths, St. Gregory suggests a possible answer, while holding steadfastly to the conviction that God, in His Divine Providence, does what is best for us.

St. Gregory declares: “A blind unmeaning occurrence can never be the work of God; for it is the property of God, as the Scripture says, to ‘make all things in wisdom’ (Ps 104:24).”

Then he states the problem: “What wisdom, then, can we trace in the following? A human being enters on the scene of life, draws in the air, beginning the process of living with a cry of pain, pays the tribute of a tear to Nature, just tastes life’s sorrows, before any of its sweets have been his, . . . dies.” He asks: “What are we to think about him? How are we to feel about such deaths?”

St. Gregory acknowledges that life and death, particularly of a person so young, is largely a mystery, for which no definitive explanation has yet been found. He writes: “Seeing that our Reason in this matter has to grope in the dark, clearly no one can complain if its conjecturing leads our mind to a variety of conclusions.” Accordingly, he offers one possible answer to the question:

“It is a sign of the perfection of God’s providence, that He not only heals maladies that have come into existence, but also provides that some should be never mixed up at all in the things which He has forbidden; it is reasonable, that is, to expect that He Who knows the future equally with the past should check the advance of an infant to complete maturity, in order that the evil may not be developed which His foreknowledge has detected in his future life.” In this way, any dormant inclination towards doing evil “may not become the actual material for his vice.” Thus, while not interfering with that young person’s free will, God the Creator, Who properly has authority over life and death, removes the opportunity for that person to commit such sins as would have led to his condemnation and suffering.

St. Gregory concludes: “This is that achievement of a perfect Providence which I spoke of; namely, not only to heal evils that have been committed, but also to forestall them before they have been committed; and this, we suspect, is the cause of the deaths of new-born infants. He Who does all things upon a Plan withdraws the materials for evil in His love to the individual.”

Quotations from A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series, Vol. V, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1886).

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