Limbo in Catholic Theology

In Roman Catholic theology, Limbo (Latin limbus, edge or boundary, referring to the “edge” of Hell) is an idea about the afterlife condition of those who die in original sin without being assigned to the Hell of the damned. Limbo is not an official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church or any other. Medieval theologians described the underworld (“hell”, “hades“, “infernum”) as divided into four distinct parts: hell of the damned (which some call gehenna), purgatory, limbo of the fathers, and limbo of infants.

  • The Limbo of the Patriarchs or Limbo of the Fathers (Latin Limbus Patrum), also the Bosom of Abraham or Paradise, is seen as the temporary state of those who, in spite of the personal sins they may have committed, died in the friendship of God, but could not enter Heaven until redemption by Jesus Christ made it possible. The term “Limbo of the Fathers” was a medieval name for the part of the underworld (Hades) where the patriarchs of the Old Testament were believed to be kept until Christ’s soul descended into it by his death[1] through crucifixion and freed them (see Harrowing of hell). The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes Christ’s descent into “hell” as meaning primarily that “the crucified one sojourned in the realm of the dead prior to his resurrection. This was the first meaning given in the apostolic preaching to Christ’s descent into hell: that Jesus, like all men, experienced death and in his soul joined the others in the realm of the dead.” It adds: “But he descended there as Saviour, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there.” It does not use the word “Limbo”.
  • The Limbo of Infants is a hypothesis about the permanent status of the unbaptized who die in infancy, too young to have committed personal sins, but not having been freed from original sin. Since at least the time of Augustine, theologians, considering baptism to be necessary for the salvation of those to whom it can be administered have debated the fate of unbaptized innocents, and the theory of the Limbo of Infants is one of the hypotheses that have been formulated as a proposed solution. Some who hold this theory regard the Limbo of Infants as a state of maximum natural happiness, others as one of “mildest punishment” consisting at least of privation of the beatific vision and of any hope of obtaining it. This theory, in any of its forms, has never been dogmatically defined by the Church, but it is permissible to hold it. Recent Catholic theological speculation tends to stress the hope that these infants may attain heaven instead of the supposed state of Limbo; however, the directly opposed theological opinion also exists, namely that there is no afterlife state intermediate between salvation and damnation, and that all the unbaptized are damned.

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