What happens if you die without being baptized?

In John 3:3, Jesus made a statement that has elicited lots of debate in Christian circles. To paraphrase the verse, he said that it was a must for one to be born of water and spirit in order to enter God’s kingdom.

In the light of this, what happens if you die without being baptized? Before we answer this, we must first deal with the elephant in the room. What did Jesus really mean in John 3:3? Did he mean that water baptism was a prerequisite for going to heaven? And if he did, what about the babies who die before they get a chance to be baptized? I will get to this shortly but first, let’s rightly divide John 3:3.

You must be born of water and spirit

In John 3, one of the Pharisees (Nicodemus) who had been a secret disciple of Jesus decided to take the bull by the horns and approach him. But he was afraid of being spotted talking to the Lordbecause his clique of fellow Pharisees wouldn’t approve. So he sneaked up on Jesus at night and before he could even ask the question that was on his mind, he got his answer.

Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, 
unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
John 3:3, NKJV

As a Pharisee, Nicodemus had studied the scriptures extensively but he had never seen such a term before – to be born again.  To understand how strange that must have sounded to him, you have to think of the first time you heard a completely new phrase. Even if you are a Spelling Bee champion, hearing a new phrase will do more than just pique your interest. You will most likely be left confused. Expectedly, Nicodemus was bewildered at the bizarre statement Jesus made. So he asked,

“How can a man be born when he is old? 
Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”
John 3:4, NKJV

In response, Jesus made the controversial statement that is still subject of debate more than 2,000 years later.

Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, 
unless one is born of water and the Spirit,
he cannot enter the kingdom of God.
John 3:5, NKJV

It would appear that Jesus was saying that anyone who doesn’t go through water baptism will not make it to heaven. But those who make such a conclusion based on this scripture alone clearly have not understood what was going on. Let me break it down for you to make it as simple as possible:

  1. Nicodemus approaches Jesus and strikes a conversation
  2. Jesus discerns the question on his mind and tells him he must be born again in order to enter God’s kingdom
  3. Nicodemus doesn’t have a clue what “being born again” is
  4. Jesus explains that being born again means being born of water and the spirit.

See, in John 3:5, Jesus was attempting to explain what it means to be born again. Nicodemus was wondering how it was possible for a fully-grown man to go back to his mother’s womb and get born for the second time and to respond to this, Jesus told him that it wasn’t necessary. One only had to be born of water and spirit. In other words, the first birth would be to be born of water and the second would be to be born of spirit.

The first birth (being born of water) refers to the natural birth everyone goes through. Jesus called it being born of water in reference to the well-known phenomena of water breaking in expectant women as a precursor to childbirth. This is the first birth. The second birth is what Jesus referred to as being born of spirit. In other words, he was telling Nicodemus that being born again was not a natural but a spiritual thing. That is why he said in verse 6,

Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 
John 3:6, NKJV

This new birth, also known as being born of spirit, is also talked about by Apostle Paul.

Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: 
old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.
2 Cor. 5:17, KJV

See, when you receive Jesus in your heart, you become a new man. All things have passed away and everything is now new. Now, we all know that it is not actually true in the physical sense. If you were Asian before receiving Jesus, you will still be Asian afterward. If you were tall, you will not become short. Physically speaking nothing is new. But spiritually speaking, everything has become new. Even though the physical man remains intact, your spiritual man is made completely new! In other words, you have now been born of spirit.

It would therefore be very accurate to infer that John 3:1-5 has nothing to do with water baptism. The passage only illustrates what it means to be born again and why it is a prerequisite for entering the kingdom of God. In other words, John 3:3 does not prove that those who died without being baptized cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.

Reasons why you don’t need to be baptized to go to heaven

It is true that there are many scriptures in the Bible that command believers to be baptized. For instance, In Acts 2:38, sinners are encouraged to believe and be baptized in the name of Jesus. Mark 16:16 also says that those who believe and are baptized shall be saved. Then there is the great commission in Mathew 28 where Jesus sends out his disciples into the whole world to disciple nations and to baptize them in the name of the father, the son and the Holy Spirit. If you were to take these scriptures in isolation, you might assume that water baptism is the ticket for going to heaven.

But there are a number of problems with such an interpretation. For starters, there is the question of what happens to the Christians who die without being baptized. But more importantly, there is enough evidence in scripture that water baptism is not a prerequisite for salvation. Here are some of the reasons from scripture why you can go to heaven without being baptized.

  • Baptism is a symbolism of the new birth

The scriptures that talk about water baptism like Acts 2:38 and the rest should serve to remind us of the symbolism of water baptism. Water baptism should be taken as a symbolism of the new birth. This is why Apostle Paul said the following:

Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were 
baptized into his death?  We were therefore buried with him through
baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead 
through the glory of the Father,  we too may live a new life.
Romans 6: 3-4, NIV

Baptism is, therefore, not what makes you born again. It is just emblem that reminds of the new birth. If Baptism was necessary for salvation, then anyone who died without being baptized wouldn’t have made it to heaven. And we know from the scriptures that this is not true.

  • Evidence of Christians who weren’t baptized but went to heaven

There are lots of believers in the scriptures who were not baptized with the baptism of John but they still went to heaven. For most of these, we can only infer because the Bible remains quiet on whether or not they were baptized. However, we have a golden example in the thief that was crucified with Jesus.

Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Luke 23:42-43, NIV

The thief repented while hanging on the cross. Obviously, he never got a chance to be baptized. Jesus didn’t tell him, “I really would have loved to answer your prayer but unfortunately, you are not baptized.” He just looked at him lovingly and assured him that he was headed straight to heaven as soon as he took his last breath on earth. That alone should be conclusive evidence that believers who die without baptism still go to heaven.  

But there is more…

  • Salvation is by grace and not by works

Christian salvation comes by grace through faith and not through works (Eph.2:8). In simpler terms, the only thing you are required to do in order to be saved is to believe. Paul makes this very clear in the book of Romans.

That if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart 
that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.
Romans 10:9, NIV

Even though the works of salvation play a vital role in the Christian faith, they are not required for one to be saved. If you ever think there is something you can do to qualify for salvation, then you are grossly mistaken because salvation is a free gift that God dispenses to those who believe him.

Jesus never baptized his followers or disciples. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t mean to say that Jesus had a problem with water baptism. In fact, he commissioned his disciples to baptize those that believed the gospel. But I believe the reason why he didn’t baptize was because water baptism isn’t really a necessity for salvation.  Don’t quote me wrong on this – I believe that every Christian should be baptized. However, I also believe that even if one dies without being baptized, they still go to heaven.


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