- This article is about Catholic theology. For other uses of the term, see Limbo (disambiguation).
In Catholic theology, limbo describes the temporary status of the souls of good persons who died before the resurrection of Jesus, and the permanent status of the unbaptised who die in infancy (without having committed any personal sins, but without having been freed from original sin).
The root meaning of limbo is "boundary". While "limbo" is often popularly understood to be a "place where souls go", the term also describes and reflects theological uncertainty. As such, limbo is not part of the Church's official doctrine (compare purgatory, which is). Official Church teaching remains that the status of these souls (who don't seem to deserve hell, yet cannot follow the divinely-revealed path to heaven) is in limbo – in other words, their fate cannot be determined.
The Limbo of the Fathers (limbus patrum) (also known as Abraham's Bosom)
Several Biblical passages support the belief that people who lived good lives but died before the Resurrection did not go to heaven, but rather had to wait for Christ to open the gates of heaven. Jesus told the "good thief" that the two of them would be together "this day" in "paradise," (Luke 23:43) but between the Resurrection and the Ascension, Jesus told his followers that he has "not yet ascended to the Father" (John 20:17). He is also described as preaching to "the spirits in prison" (1 Pet 3:19). Medieval drama sometimes portrayed Christ leading a dramatic assault – The Harrowing of Hell – during the three days between the Crucifixion and the resurrection; this assault was presented as freeing the souls of the just, and escorting them triumphantly into heaven. This imagery is still used in the Eastern Orthodox Church's Holy Saturday liturgy (between Good Friday and Pascha).
The Limbo of Children (limbus infantium)
The fate of unbaptized children, such as the Holy Innocents (the male infants slaughtered by Herod in his attempt to destroy the Jewish Messiah), offers a thornier issue.
The foundational importance of the sacrament of baptism (either the ritual baptism by water or the personal baptism by desire ) in Catholic theology gives rise to the argument that the unbaptized are not eligible for entry into heaven, because the original sin of human nature precludes the unbaptized from the pure beatific vision enjoyed by the souls in paradise.
Since infants are incapable of either professing their faith or performing acts of Christian charity, babies rely upon their parents (or other caregivers) to bring them up in the faith. If, for whatever reason, an infant dies unbaptized (see infant baptism), many eminent theologians have argued that a merciful and just God would not condemn infants to the torments of hell.
The existence of the Limbo of Children is highly doubted in today's Church. Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical letter Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), touched on the issue when speaking about the victims of abortion. He said that the church does not know the fate of unbaptized infants, but advised Catholics to trust in God's mercy and love.
Limbo as a state of eternal, natural joy
If heaven is a state of happiness and a union with God, and hell is a state of torture and a separation from God, then (many eminent Catholic theologians have speculated) limbo is a neutral state, in which souls are denied the beatific vision, but saved from the torment of hell. Saint Thomas Aquinas described the limbo of children as an eternal state of natural joy, untempered by any sense of loss at how much greater their joy might have been – a supernatural joy – had they been baptized.
These same speculations often extend to encompass God's salvific plans for the mentally handicapped, children younger than the age of reason, and the unborn. Catholic theologians have speculated that a just and merciful God may, in some way incomprehensible to human minds, give these souls the chance to accept or reject's God's grace, and thereby earn themselves a place in heaven or hell.
Limbo in literature
In the Divine Comedy Dante depicts Limbo as the first circle of Hell, located beyond the river Acheron but before the judgment seat of Minos. The most virtuous of the pagans of classical history and mythology inhabit a brightly lit and beautiful - but somber - castle which is seemingly a medievalized version of the Elysian Fields.
Limbo as a colloquialism
Taken from the original meaning, in colloquial speech, "limbo" is any status where a person or project is held up, and nothing can be done until another action happens. This may also be called "the lurch". For example, if bad weather prevents necessary supplies from getting to a construction site, and the workers cannot do anything else until then, they might be said to have been left in limbo, or "in the lurch".
A "legal limbo" may occur when varying laws or court rulings leave a person without recourse. For example, a person may earn "too much" to receive public assistance from the government, but not enough to actually pay for basic necessities. Likewise, various parties in a dispute may be pointing blame at each other, rather than fixing the problem, and leaving the person or group suffering from the problem to continue to suffer in limbo.