Where did Limbo come from?

Posted by Alice L. Camille
Tuesday 30, June 2015 | Category:   Doctrines & Beliefs
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When dealing with speculation about the life of the world to come, the admission must be made that we who are living don't know the details of what happens after we die. Having said that, we're obliged to weave into a comprehensive whole the theological threads the church advances with integrity. This, in a nutshell, is how we arrive at limbo (Latin for edge or hem). Limbo is a theological thread that seeks to make sense of other threads already in our Christian pattern of talking about salvation.

The church has much to say about the universal salvific will of God: that God so loves the world, all of it, that God desires to save all of it. That doesn't mean everyone will be saved; only that God desires this end and offers the possibility of salvation to all. It's therefore incompatible to imagine that some parts of humanity never had a fighting chance to be saved: those who lived in the generations before Jesus, or who died before birth or in infancy. The "limbo of the Fathers" and the "limbo of infants" were derived to be of service to these two categories of persons.

Limbo talk resulted from a war of words between Pelagius and Augustine in the 4th century regarding original sin. Pelagius maintained baptism wasn't necessary to erase it, and Augustine vigorously insisted it was. Augustine's view prevailed and Pelagius' position was consigned to the realm of heresy. To be consistent, Augustine was willing to consign all unbaptized babies to hell; however, he softened their suffering there since they weren't guilty of personal sin.

Augustine inhabited the black-and-white theological universe of the Manicheans, who saw good and evil, heaven and hell, angels and demons, as the backdrop for all human dramas. Medieval theologians were uncomfortable with this ruthless perspective, and proposed limbo as a pastoral kindness. Limbo was viewed as a temporary state of separation from God—temporary meaning related to the temporal and therefore coming to a close at the end of time in final judgment. In the meantime, those in limbo enjoy a natural state of happiness exclusive of God's presence. What happens at the end of time to the denizens of limbo is up to God. Presumably, those who choose Jesus Christ at that final hour will enjoy solidarity with redeemed humanity. After all, there's only one kind of redemption, and it's for keeps.

Is limbo still on the books? Since it's never been formally defined by the church, it's never been formally abolished.

Scripture: Deuteronomy 30:19-20; Matthew 10:32-33; 1 Corinthians 15:20-58; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Revelation 21:1-8, 27

Books: Visions of a Future: A Study of Christian Eschatology by Zachary Hayes (Collegeville, MN: Michael Glazier, 1989); Eschatology and Hope by Anthony Kelly (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2006)

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