Is baptism needed for heaven? Q. Are the saints of the Old Testament in heaven? Doesn’t Jesus say that you must be baptized in order to enter the kingdom of heaven? Since baptism was not initiated until the time of Christ, how can those who died before his time be in heaven?

S., Layton, Utah

A. Here’s a reply from Msgr. M. Francis Mannion:

Certainly, the Old Testament saints — and all men and women of good will before the time of Christ — are in heaven. To be a saint means essentially to have encountered the Risen Christ and to have made one’s own the salvation that he brought to the world.

Since the time of Christ, baptism is the sacramental means by which men and women are incorporated into Christ and thus enter heaven. However, the majority of people were and are never baptized ritually.

Catholicism does not say that the lack of baptism means that one cannot be saved. The Church has traditionally taught the notion of baptism of desire. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains: “Every man who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of his Church, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved. It may be supposed that such persons would have desired Baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity” (emphasis in original, No. 1260).  

God has created every human being with no other end than that of salvation. The Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Church in the Modern World pointed out: “Since Christ died for all, and since all men are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partakers, in a way known to God, of the Paschal mystery [of Christ’s death and resurrection]” (No. 22).

This applies also to those who lived before Christ. When Christ “descended into hell,” he went to bring all the just to salvation. (In the Apostles’ Creed, hell means the resting place of all the dead who were awaiting Christ.) The Catechism states: “The descent into hell brings the Gospel message of salvation to complete fulfillment. This is the last phase of Jesus’ messianic mission, a phase which is condensed in time but vast in its real significance: the spread of Christ’s redemptive work to all men of all times and all places, for all who are saved have been made sharers in the redemption” (No. 634).

Those who lived before Christ and waited in the abode of the dead were “baptized” by their encounter with Christ.