Contrary to what you might have heard, limbo is not dead.
The confusion stems from a 41-page report the International Theological Commission issued in 2007, exploring the theological and liturgical grounds for having hope that unbaptized infants who die are saved. The report was immediately hailed in secular media as a death knell to traditional Catholic belief that unbaptized infants go to limbo. One headline in Reuters summed up the slant of the secular media—“Catholic Church buries limbo after centuries.”
Except the commission, which does not have the authority of the magisterium, did no such thing. Instead, it declared the following, right at the outset of the report:
It is clear that the traditional teaching on this topic has concentrated on the theory of Limbo. … This theory, elaborated by theologians beginning in the Middle Ages, never entered into the dogmatic definitions of the Magisterium, even if that same Magisterium did at times mention the theory in its ordinary teaching up until the Second Vatican Council. It remains therefore a possible theological hypothesis.
This was no dismissal or demotion of limbo: it had always been a valid opinion and that’s exactly where the commission left it. And today, despite the compelling case for the alternative scenario made by the commission, limbo itself remains an opinion worth holding and defending.
Limbo is a simple solution to a thorny theological problem: the question of where infants go who have been deprived of the sanctifying grace of baptism and yet have committed no personal sins. The dogmas of original sin and the necessity of baptism would seem to close the doors of heaven to them. Yet it seems inconsistent with everything we know about a loving and merciful God that these infants would suffer the usual punishments of hell, especially since they have committed no sins of their own. The only way medieval theologians could reconcile these truths was to posit the existence a third eternal destination for the unbaptized infants: limbo.
Limbo is in the Bible
It is commonly said that limbo is not in the Bible. But this only holds true for one type of limbo.
Technically, there are two limbos: the limbo of infants and the limbo of the fathers of the Old Testament, who died believing in a savior whom they had never met or known. (The limbo of the fathers was closed after Christ descended to hell and released its denizens, after accomplishing His redemptive work on the cross.) The limbo of infants is indeed not mentioned in Scripture, but the limbo of the fathers is—in both the Old and New Testaments.
In fact, the Old Testament is rife with references to the limbo of the fathers. The operative word in Hebrew is sheol, which appears 64 times in the Old Testament (often left untranslated in English editions as sheol). Sheol has the generic meaning of the underworld where souls go after death. But, over time, the Church has understood it to refer to the limbo of the fathers—in contrast with the other Old Testament word gehenna, which is a clear reference to the hell of the damned.
Technically, both sheol and gehenna are parts of hell, if we understand hell to be simply a state of separation from God. In that context, we could speak of the hell of the damned (gehenna) and the hell of the fathers (or sheol, or the limbo of the fathers). This is why limbo is such a fitting word for this area of the underworld. It comes from the Latin word limbus, meaning edge or border. Where else in hell would the holy fathers of the Old Testament await Christ but its very edges?
The narrower definition of sheol is supported by how it’s used in a number of Old Testament verses. For example, in Job 14:13-14 we read: “Oh, that you would hide me in Sheol, shelter me till your wrath is past, fix a time to remember me! If a man were to die, and live again, all the days of my drudgery I would wait for my relief to come.” Hiding the righteous man in sheol, sheltering him until the judgment of the human race has passed, and offering him relief after a man has “died and lived again”—what else could this be referring to but the death, descent into hell, and resurrection of Christ? (This is exactly the interpretation offered in the Haydock Bible Commentary.)
Another verse seen as a prophecy of Christ’s descent into hell is Psalm 16:10, which proclaims, “For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, nor let your devout one see the pit.” Again, here’s Psalm 139:8, “If I ascend to the heavens, you are there; if I lie down in Sheol, there you are.” In some of the prophetic books, sheol is depicted as ultimately powerless to hold souls back from God. In Hosea 13:14 we read, “Where are your plagues, O death! where is your sting, Sheol!” In Jonah 2:3 it says, “From the womb of Sheol I cried for help, and you heard my voice” (New American Bible, Revised Edition).
The New Testament also refers to the limbo of the fathers. In Luke 16:22-23, Christ calls the limbo of the fathers “Abraham’s bosom,” clearly distinguishing it from the hell of the damned:
When the poor man died, he was carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried, and from the netherworld, where he was in torment, he raised his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side.
In Matthew 27, many saints rose from the grave at the death of Jesus—presumably, their souls had been waiting in limbo. And 1 Peter 3 tells us that Christ preached to the “spirits in prison.” The prison is traditionally seen as limbo—the ‘preaching’ was the announcement of their release.
This biblical evidence for the limbo of the fathers must lend some weight to the belief in a limbo for infants. Certainly if limbo existed once, it does not seem like such a leap to posit a second limbo for unbaptized babies. Indeed, even St. Thomas Aquinas says the two are very closely related: “The limbo of the Fathers and the limbo of children, without any doubt, differ as to the quality of punishment or reward. For children have no hope of the blessed life, as the Fathers in limbo had, in whom, moreover, shone forth the light of faith and grace. But as regards their situation, there is reason to believe that the place of both is the same.” Likewise, in Dante’s Divine Comedy, the two limbos are depicted as the same place: the Fathers were freed from it, while the infants must stay behind.
Early Fathers hinted at limbo too
Once we pass over from the New Testament era into Church history, we don’t have to wait for the Middle Ages for a discussion of limbo. Seeds of the idea are already present in the writings of some early Church Fathers even if they don’t mention limbo by name. St. Augustine offers only the slightest hint of it, concluding in a treatise on forgiveness of sins and baptism that the unbaptized infants will be excluded from the heavenly kingdom of God but will suffer the “mildest condemnation of all” in hell.
In the 4th Century, Gregory of Nazianzus briefly touched on the issue in his Oration on Holy Baptism, writing that unbaptized infants as occupying some middle status between hell and heaven in the afterlife. Such infants will “neither glorified nor punished by the righteous Judge,” he wrote.
Around the same time, Gregory of Nyssa probed the agonizing question on the fate of unbaptized infants at length in his essay, On Infants’ Early Deaths:
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, before his feelings have gained any strength; still loose in all his joints, tender, pulpy, unset; in a word, before he is even human (if the gift of reason is man’s peculiarity, and he has never had it in him), such an one, with no advantage over the embryo in the womb except that he has seen the air, so short-lived, dies and goes to pieces again; being either exposed or suffocated, or else of his own accord ceasing to live from weakness. What are we to think about him?
The premature deaths of infants have nothing in them to suggest the thought that one who so terminates his life is subject to some grievous misfortune, any more than they are to be put on a level with the deaths of those who have purified themselves in this life by every kind of virtue.
In other words, we can’t expect that infants suffer the normal punishments of the damned in hell. Nor can we assume that they share the same lot as the virtuous. Their destination must be somewhere else. But where? Neither Augustine nor the Greek fathers quoted above say it, but the medieval scholastics took their thinking to its logical conclusion: those infants could only end up on the edge of hell—in limbo.
Limbo as compassionate
Medieval theologian Peter Abelard, writing in the 1100s, is credited with first developing the explicit theory of limbo. Abelard argued that the only punishment the unbaptized infants have is the loss of the beatific vision of God, due to their original sin. Pope Innocent III endorsed this theory, as did two ecumenical councils—the Second Council of Lyons in 1274 and the Council of Florence in the mid-1400s. Neither pope nor council made a dogmatic definition and the councils did not even mention limbo by name, but limbo had become the common, albeit undefined, belief of Christians—as it should be today.
Over the ensuring centuries, speculation has continued to swirl over exactly what those infants experience in limbo. In the Summa Theologica, Aquinas, taking a page from Augustine, says their punishment is the “most lenient.” But otherwise, the trend among theologians and others has been to emphasize the extent to which these unbaptized infants have a pain-free existence.
St. Bonaventure, a contemporary of Aquinas, envisioned limbo as being similar to the state of pure nature in which he said Adam and Even had existed for a fleeting moment in time, before they received sanctifying grace in the Garden of Eden (see “Bonaventure on Nature before Grace: A Historical Moment Reconsidered,” by Christopher Cullen, S.J., in the winter 2011 edition of the American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly.) Bonaventure believed that these infants did not experience any sadness because they could not be aware of what they were missing out on. Instead, they were in a state of perpetual tranquility.
In The Divine Comedy Dante says those in limbo are aware of what they are missing, but he goes at lengths to depict their experience as painless. Dante only hears the “sounds of sighs of untormented grief.” His guide, the ancient Latin poet Virgil, explains that those there suffer only because they are cut off from hope. Otherwise, they “live on in desire.” (Inferno, Canto IV.)
Some took the emphasis on the painlessness of limbo even further, arguing that the unbaptized infants in limbo experienced some kind of happiness. In the sixteenth century, Dominican theologian Ambrosius Catharinus said that those infants enjoyed the maximum happiness that is possible by being in a state of pure nature, absent from grace. A Jesuit theologian, Francisco Suárez, continued this line of thought, teaching that “that unbaptized children will not only enjoy perfect natural happiness, but that they will rise with immortal bodies at the last day and have the renovated earth for their happy abode,” according to the Catholic Encyclopedia. By the time of the Counter-Reformation, limbo had indeed come far from its earliest inception in the writings of Augustine and the Greek Fathers.
Some think it’s cruel to exclude infants who never sinned from heaven. But the traditional teaching of limbo emphasizes its compassionate side: not only are those infants spared the pains of hell, they experience tranquility—perhaps even natural happiness (as distinguished from the supernatural happiness of the beatific vision of God in heaven). Truly, the limbo of infants is one of the most beautiful teachings of the Church, a moving testament to the Catholic insistence on both the necessity of salvation through Christ and a loving God’s infinite capacity for mercy.