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A far green country: Does Limbo really exist?

White Cliffs of Kent

Wikimedia Commons

The white cliffs of Kent, the frontier of England's green and pleasant land, where academics from around the world are gathering to discuss limbo, the 'border' where the innocent unbaptised are traditionally thought to dwell in natural happiness.

Diane Montagna - published on 06/19/17

Experts gather to ponder the Church’s teaching on the fate of unbaptized infants

ROME —  From June 30 to July 1, the Dialogos Institute is holding a colloquium in Ramsgate, England, the shrine of St. Augustine of Canterbury and the place where English-speaking Catholicism began.

The colloquium is on limbo, the controversial idea that people guilty of no sin other than original sin will be prevented from entering heaven forever.

Eminent speakers from around the world are gathering to express a variety of perspectives on this doctrine which has come under a lot of criticism in the 20th century.

Aleteia spoke to Dr. Alan Fimister, assistant professor of theology at St. John Vianney seminary in Denver and Director of the Dialogos Institute, on why he was digging up this controversial and unfashionable subject in Catholic Theology. We talked to him about doctrine, dogma, and oddly, the insights of J.R.R. Tolkien.

Dr. Fimister, why is the Dialogos Institute holding a colloquium on limbo?

Well, lots of people seem to have got it into their heads that limbo is an optional extra to Catholic doctrine or even a discarded experiment but this is not really the case.


Well the word ‘limbo’ is a bit late but the substance of the doctrine goes back to the fathers and was defined by the Council of Florence in the 15th century. So its not optional at all.

What does the word ‘limbo’ mean? What were the medievals referring to in using the word ‘limbo’?

It comes from the the Latin ‘limbus,’ meaning border. It refers to the least punishment possible in hell.

But that’s awful, isn’t it? Don’t unbaptized babies possibly go there?

Well ‘hell’ in theology has a broader sense than in popular speech. It just means the state of being dead and not having the Vision of God.

Is that where Christ would have descended after his crucifixion and death, rather than to ‘hell’ as we commonly understand it?

Yes. That’s right. That is what we mean when we use the phrase ‘descended into hell’ in the Apostles Creed. It means sheol or hades: a general word for the place of the dead outside heaven. The specific place of the just dead before Christ is called by scripture ‘the bosom of Abraham’ as opposed to Gehenna, the fiery place of punishment for the unjust dead (what most people nowadays mean by ‘hell’).

So, after Christ’s resurrection does limbo or hades still exist? Aren’t we left now with just heaven, hell and purgatory?

Hades is a general term for all the realm of the dead: limbo, purgatory and Gehenna. Limbo does still exist because there are still people guilty of no actual sin who don’t go to heaven and that is the group for whom limbo exists.

Many people might think that a bit unfair.

There is a wonderful sign they sell in Hobby Lobby that reads “Grace is when God gives us what we don’t deserve. Mercy is when God doesn’t give us what we do deserve.” Limbo safeguards that truth. God does not owe us heaven. He won it for us on the Cross and He has given us the means to obtain it but He does not guarantee we will make use of those means. He could, but He does not choose to do so. He shows forth His mercy by saving a few, and He shows forth His justice by allowing the rest to be lost. Nevertheless, He is just. Those who have done nothing to deserve personal punishment will be accorded natural happiness in the next life. This is limbo. Only children go there because at the moment each person reaches the age of reason they make a personal choice for or against God and from that moment they can only either go to the heaven of the Blessed or the torments of the damned.

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