The Roman Catholic notion of Limbo was a triumph of graciousness over cruelty. In this case it was the cruelty implicit in the doctrine of hell. Human decency is more powerful than any creed.
Let’s back up and review the Christian soteriological scheme prior to the medieval creation of Limbo.
In Catholic Christianity, all souls bear the taint of an original sin that was bequeathed to humanity by the first parents, Adam and Eve, who ignored detailed instructions from God about a certain persimmon tree God was partial to. (The Genesis account does not say apple tree but only fruit tree. And so let’s imagine a persimmon tree, or even a kiwi.)
This earliest sin tainted all human relationships with God. God’s irritation was such that God devised a place of separation for the disembodied souls of humans. But the separation itself did not sufficiently express God’s annoyance with humanity, and so God made this place of separation a torture chamber also. To further underscore God’s infuriation with humanity about the fruit incident, the place of separation and the torture were not to be temporary inconveniences but everlasting.
(Note to self: Hell is hell, after all.)
The short list of those consigned to hell is rather long in that it consists of everyone.
There was a way to avoid hell, of course, and that was for each person to make an open declaration that he or she honestly believed the execution of Jesus was effective in delivering him or her from hell. This prerequisite effectively prevented the vast majority of humanity from escaping post-mortem torment since most people had never even heard of Jesus (or hell), especially those who predated his life. It also left unbaptized babies, and children raised outside the church, in the lurch. Some of the ‘Church fathers’ in Christianity’s early centuries assured their readers that babies will certainly be crawling the floors of hell.
A millennium into Christianity, in the medieval period, it dawned on some soft-hearted prelate that it was simply too cruel to send good people (people who had never heard of Jesus) head first, heels kicking into hell. Doubly cruel the delivery of infants and children to eternal, fiery pain.
Enter Limbo, coming from the Latin word limbus, which means ‘border.’
Morally decent people the world over who never heard of Jesus through no fault of their own, and babies and children, do not go to hell when they die. They go to Limbo, a shadowy territory between heaven and hell, on the border of heaven and hell.
Limbo is neither heaven nor hell, neither here nor there. It hasn’t the drawbacks of hell (no overt torment), but it hasn’t any of the advantages of heaven either (no bliss).
In our day, a few theological adepts petitioned the Church to remove Limbo from the Catholic catechism. And they succeeded!
But the Church should have let Limbo remain. A thousand years ago someone used the invention of Limbo to temper the inherent cruelty in the doctrine of hell. As a badge of decency and a monument to human kindness, let Limbo remain.
Human decency is more powerful than any creed.
Featured image ‘limbo’ by paola rizzi via Flickr