Limbo

Recently (April 20, 2007) there was a decision by the Vatican's International Theological Commission concerning the old teaching that the souls of unbaptized babies, if they die, go to "Limbo" (Latin for a "borderline" or "edge").  The commission suggested that this teaching can be set aside in favor of the view that God in his universal desire that all people be saved will surely find a way to admit these innocent souls into the fullness of eternal life.

       According to the older teaching, Limbo was seen as a state of natural happiness that is neither heaven on the one hand, nor hell on the other.  It is not that these theologians threw out the old doctrine completely. It is rather that they kind of left the idea, which never seems to have achieved the status of a divinely revealed (de fide) doctrine, in a kind of theological limbo of its own.  Nevertheless, this decision has left many, especially Catholics, who were pretty much indoctrinated with the idea of Limbo, and have long been told that they must have babies baptized rather quickly after birth, rather confused.

       The fact is, however, that the idea that Limbo existed at all was first proposed it seems by St. Anselm in the 11th. century to get around the difficulty that was created centuries earlier by St. Augustine who taught that all unbaptized babies are destined for hell.  So the idea that there must be a kind of in-between state, with no punishment, but no "beatific vision" of God either, seemed to make a lot of sense.

       But the problem is that the idea of Limbo was at best a logical solution to what seems to have been a rather questionable doctrine to begin with.  First, it presupposed that Augustine's idea of what we call "Original Sin" is a correct interpretation of and deduction from St. Paul's statement in Romans 5:12 that "just as sin entered the world through one man" (i.e. Adam) "and through sin, death", which in turn was St. Paul's interpretation of Genesis 3: 17, 19. But the real point of this passage was to compare Christ ("the New Adam") to the old and if nothing else, our understanding of the evolution of the human species, and of life in general, would seem to call for a complete reversal of our understanding of the relationship of death to sin.

       The second problem comes from a common misunderstanding of the purpose of Baptism when it is viewed as a kind of "ticket to heaven" rather than as a sacramental rite of initiation into membership in the Church — the gospel phrases "kingdom of heaven" or "kingdom of God" being made equivalent to heaven itself.  Misconstrued this way, it is easy to see why Baptism, which at first was understood as a second birth requiring the intent or consent of the person being baptized (real conversion experience), gradually morphed into something done to little babies or small children without their consent.

       Still perhaps a more basic problem comes from mixing up the Gospel promise of eternal life with the Platonist philosophical concept of a naturally immortal "soul".  This latter idea rarely appears in the Bible, and only clearly in the deuterocanonical Book of Wisdom (3:1) — relegated to the "Apochrypha" by the Reformers.  From this Platonic point of view, it might seem that babies and even unborn fetuses have a soul that needs to be saved and thus baptized at all cost, although later on, when Christian theologians turned to Aristotle for its understanding of biology, this soul that needed to be saved was generally thought to be present in the fetus only during the last three months.  

       However, today, in light of contemporary biology, especially embryology and genetic research, it seems that the theologians have taken a much more modest point of view when it comes to making pronouncements about the nature of the human soul, and especially as to how and when it comes to exist. Accordingly, it seems, it is from this philosophically unencumbered view that they are suggesting that such convoluted ideas like Limbo be replaced by a simple trust in the mercy and goodness of God.

R W Kropf   6/16/07                                                                   Limbo.doc  07-06-16.html