by Hank Hanegraaff

In popular culture limbo is a dance. In common parlance it is a state of suspension. In Roman Catholic theology, however, limbo is quite literally the outer edge or boundary of hell.

First, Roman Catholics have historically subscribed to what is known as the Limbo of the Patriarchs (limbus partum)—patriarchs like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who died prior to Christ’s passion on the cross. In this sense, Catholics hold limbo to be a temporary place for the souls of those who, having died in friendship with God, await “the harrowing of hell” during which the crucified Christ preached to spirits in the realm of the dead. By doing so, Christ rescued the patriarchs and gloriously ushered them from the boundary of hell into the hallowed regions of heaven.

Furthermore, there is the Limbo of Pre-Baptized Infants— those who die too young to be accountable for personal sins, yet have not been absolved of original sin through the rite of baptism. As noted in the HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism, medieval theologians held that limbo “is a place or state where unbaptized persons enjoy a natural happiness, though they remain excluded from the Beatific Vision.” While deprived of the supernatural presence of God, such infants are believed to nonetheless enjoy a state of maximal natural happiness and well-being on the hem of hell.

Finally, there is the limbo described by Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI. While affirming limbo as a credible theological possibility, these men nonetheless hopefully consider that infants—though they have not been baptized—may as yet be enjoying the Beatific Vision. Thus, in 2007, Pope Benedict XVI authorized publication of a document, originally commissioned by Pope John Paul II, titled The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized.

Progression in Catholic theological reflection regarding limbo has enormous ramifications. Augustine contended that children who died prior to being baptized went straight to hell. According to the HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism, “Medieval theologians, wishing to mitigate the harshness of Augustine’s position, postulated the existence of limbo.” And, “modern theology, when it does not reject the notion outright, questions the theological premises upon which limbo is based.” Therefore, Catholic parents may prayerfully hope that prebaptized babies, previously believed to be excluded from heaven, may in reality be enjoying the presence of God (see Matthew 19:14).

In part adapted from AfterLife