Lessons from Limbo

The Roman Catholic Church recently announced that it is closing the doors on “limbo.” For important theological reasons, this is a good thing. Yet it gives us cause to reflect a little on our own understanding of the state of existence after death and on the development of theology within the Church.

Developed by medieval Latin theologians, limbo was conceived on the one hand as the abode of deceased pious souls of the Old Covenant who were awaiting the coming of the Messiah. This is the limbus patrum, not unlike “sheol” in biblical and Orthodox iconographic tradition. (Our Paschal icon, often referred to as “the Descent of Christ into Hell,” is in fact a descent into hades or sheol.) More significant, and much more problematic, was the hypothesis, put forth by medieval Latin Doctors of the Church, that there exists as well a limbus infantium, a place where unbaptized infants spend eternity. According to Aquinas, these children—victims of miscarriage, abortion or infant mortality—dwell forever in this domain of “natural happiness,” but they are deprived of the full blessedness of heaven and, consequently, of the hope that they will dwell in communion with other redeemed family members. These versions of limbo, by the way, were quite distinct from the teaching about purgatory, which is conceived as a place of purifying punishment for “venial” (as opposed to “mortal”) sins, for which forgiveness is necessary in order for the deceased person to attain the “beatific vision” or salvation. Neither purgatory nor limbo has found a place in traditional Orthodox teaching.

Before he ascended to the Papacy, Pope Benedict XVI had already expressed doubts about the usefulness (or accuracy) of limbo, calling it a “theological hypothesis.” Since Vatican II, Catholic theologians and pastors have tended to ignore this theologoumenon, but the dogma behind it was never formally reassessed. Originating with Augustine, that dogma reflects a Latin understanding of the effects of “original sin.” Passages such as Romans 5:12 were (mis)interpreted so as to imply that the “original sin” of Adam is transmitted, rather like a defective gene, to all future generations. Therefore any conceived child bears “the sin of Adam” and consequently bears Adam’s guilt. That guilt, and its mortal consequences, are removed only by baptism. If a child dies before being baptized, according to this view, it is still stained with original sin and cannot enjoy the beatific vision.. Yet it was also recognized that such children are innocent of any personal sin. Thus it became necessary to conceive of a domain, realm or state in which such children would spend eternity, one that is distinct from the punishments of hell but equally devoid of eternal blessedness. This conundrum, based on a noble but defective theological logic, led to the notion of limbo.

If the logic is defective, it is because the underlying presupposition is false. The consensus of Eastern patristic tradition, and of Orthodox theologians today, is that the “original sin” of Adam is not transmitted (sexually or by any other means) from generation to generation like an inherited disease. Rather, what we inherit or receive from creation of the “first man Adam” (who represents all of humanity) is the consequence of sin, namely mortality, death. “As sin came into the world through one man [Adam], and death through sin, so death spread to all men because all men sinned…” (Rom 5:12).

The first lesson from limbo, then, is that it is usually not enough to do away with unfortunate (i.e., useless, deceptive or simply incorrect) theological hypotheses. It is just as necessary to look at the underlying theological reasoning behind those hypotheses, and correct that as well. Many Roman Catholic theologians have done just that, and many have modified the traditional Latin view of the transmission of original sin. But many have not, and the consequence is twofold. On the one hand, one must still presume that Catholic teaching holds that infants are conceived, bearing Adam’s guilt; yet on the other, without “limbo” the consequences of that state of being are totally up in the air: theoretically they cannot be admitted into heaven, but they surely cannot be consigned to eternal hell.

The real issue is far broader than the matter of limbo. It concerns nothing less than the Latin understanding of redemption and the role of baptism in that process. By eliminating limbo, are Catholic theologians saying as well that in fact there is no real “inheritance” or transmission of original sin as such, but only of its deadly consequences? Are they now accepting a view of redemption that is less juridical (a forensic removal of sin and guilt) and more existential and ecclesial (incorporating the believer into the death and resurrection of Christ)? And does this mean that they now hold that unbaptized babies—and all children not yet conscious of sin and able to repent—are admitted upon death into the full glory of heaven, by a God whose mercy far outstrips His requirements for justice? If so, they are aligning themselves more closely with the Orthodox position than with their own theological heritage. (Such a realignment has in fact been in evidence since Vatican II. See especially the Catechism of the Catholic Church, §1257-1284, on the sacrament of baptism. This very biblical elaboration makes no mention of limbo, but states regarding children who have died without baptism: “the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them” [1261].)

Limbo was conceived as a response, misguided as it was, to a specific theological problem within Roman Catholicism. That problem concerned the very concept of God that the Latin Church held and taught. In the late and post medieval periods, the Orthodox were exposed to varying degrees of Latin influence, and that influence has carried over, in North America especially, with the conversion to Orthodoxy of many former “Uniates,” Eastern Christians who had been in communion with Rome. Other influences, from exaggerated monastic asceticism to misleading interpretations of Scripture in our church schools, has created in the minds of many of our own faithful an image of God that is more judgmental than merciful: a God of Justice, whose primary concern is to punish those who do not fulfill His commandments.

Like limbo, this conception of God is a popular one. It certainly does not reflect the traditional teaching of the Orthodox Church. Yet like limbo among many Catholics, it dwells in the back of many Orthodox people’s minds, a good number of whom respond either by living in dread before divine wrath or by fleeing the Church altogether.

Perhaps the most important lesson in all of this is that the Holy Spirit is calling and directing us constantly to return to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Particular theologoumena, theological opinions, always need reassessing—not just for their specific content, but for the impact they might have on the lives of our faithful. (A case in point is the “toll houses,” spheres of purification through which deceased persons pass on their journey toward heaven. There is room, to be sure, for some such teaching within the Church—purification as an ongoing process, for example—as long as it does not become, as it so often does, distorted into a Gnostic image of purification through what amounts to torture, inflicted by powers more demonic than angelic.)

The primary question, made clear by the history of “limbo,” is this: To what degree does any given teaching or exposition of the faith actually reflect the witness of Holy Scripture and the Church’s authentic Tradition? To the extent that it does, then it should be retained; where it does not, then the teaching needs to be reinterpreted so that it conforms faithfully to revealed Truth.

Because pious traditions—even erroneous ones—can have such a hold on the popular mind, it requires courage, patience and a great deal of prayerful discernment in order to make this continual reassessment of our various theological interpretations. Nevertheless, we should not fear the process. We should accept it as a function of the Church’s Living Tradition, given and sustained by the Spirit of Truth.