No More Limbo Over Limbo

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Roman Catholicism has never officially endorsed the idea of Limbo (a place not as cool as heaven but much better than hell and purgatory). It was proposed as a place for children who die before being baptized and for people who believed before the Messiah's first coming. It looks as if Pope Benedict XVI is pulling the Roman Catholic church out of their ambiguity on this issue. There is no such thing as Limbo, he is now declaring.

According to the article, the idea goes back to Augustine's unwillingness to accept that God would send innocent children to hell. That, of course, fits neither with the biblical teaching on what Augustine later called original sin nor with Augustine's own views on the subject. The biblical teaching on what is required for salvation never includes a footnote indicating an exception for those under some fictional age of reason. Augustine's own views treat original sin as something that's part of us from conception, and original sin is the basis of the death sentence on every single human being (except Christ, although he faced it anyway). I can't see any absolutely compelling biblical argument against the view that all children who die young will be saved. God would have to perform a work of grace specially in each child who is saved to regenerate the person and remove the sin nature, which is what scripture teaches about every adult who is saved. But the lack of any exceptions to what seem to be clear statements seems to me to count as evidence against such a view.

However you treat the biblical silence on the issue, it's clear that there's no positive biblical evidence for such a view. The article seems to me to suggest that the reason for removing Limbo is that there's no biblical evidence for it. Why, then, assume that all children will be in heaven? That equally has no biblical evidence. Are they thinking it's better to err on the side of giving false hope in this life than it is to err on the side of preparing people for the worst in case their children who die young will not be saved?

[hat tip: Claude Mariottini]

Update: See Siris for some hesitations on a number of things here. I don't agree with his interpretation of I Peter's statement about Jesus speaking to the spirits in prison (who in context and especially in relation to Jude and II Peter's similar statements have to be the Genesis 6 fallen angels, with the message one of victory over them rather than salvation). [Update 2: See his comment on this post for his clarification even on that.] I don't have much background in the other issues he raises, but he's much more aware of the history of theology than most religion writers for newspapers like the Chicago Tribune.


Well, I'd guess they also think there is not much anyone can do about it, so it's best to think positive! It is certainly a sensitive topic about which many Christians are happy to say, "I don't know", but surely we need to know what the Bible can tell us so we know whether we actually can do something about it. (Of course, in Catholic doctrine, they would say that, if in doubt, you should baptise the child and that will mean they will go to heaven.)

I have been reading about infant baptism in the Presbyterian tradition, and I am finding the viewpoint there to fit best with my understanding of this issue (which, with the impending birth of our first child, I desperately hope not to experience first hand):

1. Christian parents whose children have died have reason to hope their children are saved in the same way John the Baptist was saved from the womb due to God's covenant with a person and their household. .
2. Non-Christian parents do not have that same hope, because they are not part of God's covenant.
3. This does not mean, however, that children of non-Christians are necessarily not saved - as always, it comes back to God's decision.

Many people point to David's child whom the Lord took from David, and of whom David said, " I will go to him, but he will not return to me" (2 Sam 12:23) to bolster their belief that infants who die are saved. It is not definite proof that the child went to heaven - David could have just been referring to the grave - but at most it supports no. 1 above.

For nos. 2 and 3 I go to 1 Kings 14 where Ahijah prophesies that Jeroboam's boy who is ill will die and will be "the only one belonging to Jeroboam who will be buried, because he is the only one in the house of Jeroboam in whom the LORD, the God of Israel, has found anything good" (v 13) - and in keeping with the rest of the Bible, this must be the goodness of a God-renewed person (no. 3). Ahijah then prophesies that the rest of the males of Jeroboam's family will be killed, which happens years later in 1 Kings 15. I cannot see that there would be no male children in Jeroboam's family at that time. This would indicate, then, that they also came under the same judgement of God for their "lack of goodness" (no.2).

There are other (and often better) verses to appeal to, but definite proof of all of this? I agree with you, Jeremy, there is none in the Bible, and in the end it is a matter of praying for God's mercy and leaving it in His hands. But the above does comfort me some as a Christian parent-to-be.

#1 doesn't make sense to me. One is not made a Christian simply because one's household is. God might regenerate someone from before birth, as seems to have happened with John, but it's not about some covenant Zechariah and Elizabeth made in order to assure their son's salvation. It's about God electing John and administering saving grace before birth.

Some Presbyterians do take infant baptism in the direction that a covenant between the parents and God saves a child, but I think that's probably absorbing a little too much Catholic theology. Part of this is just my sense that Presbyterians confuse the covenant community with the covenant, which makes anyone in the covenant community (which they call the visible church) be in the covenant as well. A nonbeliever who is a member of a church is not necessarily a member of the church and thus is not necessarily in the covenant even if they are in the covenant community. But I think you could consider your unbelieving children part of the covenant and still think the covenant doesn't necessarily save (as you must believe if you think the children can not end up saved after having been in the covenant, as most Presbyterians accept).

As for #2, I can think of two ways to read it, but I'm not sure either helps. Of course non-believers aren't going to be trusting in God in the fullest sense if they aren't even following him faithfully, so this has nothing to do with children being saved if that's what it's supposed to mean. Those who have no hope in God don't have hope in God in this case, but I don't think that says much.

Or maybe you meant the kind of hope that most people who use the word today mean. People who believe in God and heaven but who aren't saved might have a wishful-thinking hope that their children will be saved in the modern sense of the word 'hope', just not the living hope of scripture, which is a kind of well-grounded expectation from genuine knowledge of God. Nonbelievers don't have that, but they don't have it about anything. So either #2 is just not true (if you mean wishful-thinking hope) or it's not saying much (if you mean the living hope).

#3 sounds right to me.

I'm not sure David's case even supports #1. It supports at most that he thought he would die and that his son would not return to him in this life. It doesn't give much indication of what he thought the afterlife would be like. There are indications in some of the psalms attributed to him that he might have had some vague hope in a resurrection, but it's unclear what he thought about it, who he thought would be there, when in his life he wrote some of those psalms, or whether those psalms were all written by him anyway (or which parts of them were written by him if the core was his and they were added to in successive generations).

I'm not convinced that the case of Jeroboam's son shows that his son was regenerated. For one thing, there's no regeneration in the old covenant of the kind we have since Pentecost. Surely seeking God in the old covenant required a work of grace, but it wasn't an indwelling of the Holy Spirit leading to a regeneration in the way that we have post-Pentecost. John seems to be an exception to this, perhaps the first. Even the fillings of the Holy Spirit in the old covenant seem to be temporary fillings for particular purposes, e.g. those of Saul.

The Bible sometimes speaks absolutely about no one being good, but this includes people who are regenerated not being good in themselves but being good only because of God's work of grace. At other times, it distinguishes between those who are faithful to God and those who are not, as in the case when in Elijah's time God counts the number who did not bow the knee to Baal. Even further still is language that speaks even more relatively, speaking of particular character traits or actions that are good in a person who is generally not.

Saul didn't seem to me to turn out faithful to God in the end. Yet David honored him at his death as having done some good for the people of God. One might then say that God would find some good in Saul, even if overall Saul's life was on a downward trajectory of unwillingness to follow what God said. Maybe that's just a sign that Saul was a believer who kept rebelling, but it could just as easily be a relative pronouncement of some good in someone who was overall bad.

A clearer case might be Cyrus, who was obviously not a believer in any sense, and yet the scriptures say lots of good about him (and virtually no bad). It might just be that this was a child who hadn't gotten to an age when he was old enough to have gotten thoroughly bad like the rest of his family, so God was willing to spare him the utter ignominy of no burial. That doesn't mean the child was renewed in an inner way, just that his sinful nature hadn't manifested itself as fully and thus he didn't in a relative sense deserve as bad a state for his body after death.

Of course, whether you're Catholic or not, to have any concern at all about whether infants will go to heaven requires you to believe in Original Sin.

Well, yes, but this conversation has assumed orthodox theology with a view of the Bible as authoritative. Those who want to stray from that simply aren't having the same conversation.

Actually, it requires belief in original guilt. Many in the Eastern Christian tradition back to very early times and a number of Protestants (though I can't name any theologians - it seems to be mostly theologically untrainted laypeople) have believed in original sin while denying original guilt. There was some interesting discussion in the early part of Michael Rea's recent paper "The Metaphysics of Original Sin" on the possibility of separating original sin from original guilt. There is some limited (but I emphasize limited) support to be found for the idea of original sin without original guilt in Romans 5:12, which is traditionally translated "Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men for that all have sinned" (KJV, emphasis added), but the support is even more limited due to the fact that the Greek of the last clause is a bit obscure, and could refer to either a cause or an effect (i.e., it could be that death spread to all because all sinned, as in NKJV and HCSB, or that death spread to all so that all sinned).

Still, I think this is a Biblically and traditionally legitimate solution which is significantly less ad hoc than all of that "age of reason" stuff, and less heretical (and I do really believe this is heretical) than the idea that one can be a Christian and saved either because one's parents are Christian or because of infant baptism.

Why should those who view the Bible as authoritative believe in the doctrine of Original Sin? Furthermore, why is such a belief counted as "orthodoxy"?

I realize that the argument hinges especially upon what you make of Romans 5:12-21, but there is nothing there that talks about people being sinful at birth, and there is no other passage in the Bible that says that, either. Psalms 51:5 is often quoted as though it says that people are sinful at birth, but it doesn't say that--"in sin did my mother conceive me" is part of a poetic parallelism that simply emphasizes David's frustration with the way his life has been saturated with sin.

Besides that, Psalms is poetry--it isn't a good idea to ground such important ideas in poetry. For instance, should we pray to God that "death come deceitfully upon" our enemies, or that they should "go down alive to Sheol" (Psalm 55:15) or should we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute God's people (Matthew 5:44)? Also, Romans 5 never once speaks of men inheriting sin or guilt.

I'm not going to be Pelagian about this and claim that human will is perfectible or that human beings can be perfect aside from the reckoned righteousness of Jesus the Christ, but to deny those things need not mean that we must affirm that people are guilty at birth. That conclusion is not warranted by either the broad sweep of the biblical canon or the individual passages which have been historically used to "prove" it.

Not meaning to be argumentative or "holier than thou" about any of this. But it seems like this issue is one of a few issues that Christians over the years have set up needlessly as a test of fellowship or "orthodoxy"--needlessly doing injury to the faith of many who cannot reconcile such (unwarranted) ideas with their belief that God must be good.

I do think Romans 5 is pretty clear that the death sentence comes upon us all because of Adam's sin and not because of our own sins. Given that, I have trouble seeing how any view that denies original guilt can be consistent with Paul's teaching.

Paul also speaks in Romans 3 of all being under sin, which in context does not mean just that all sin but that all are under the problematic aspects of sin itself as a condition that is true of us all. He may be quoting poetry, but he seems to take these statements at face value, i.e. there really is no one righteous, no one fearing God. Why should that not be true of a younger someone?

Ephesians 2 speaks of being by nature children of wrath, with a sharp U-turn coming from God's gift of grace. There's no sense that this nature of being children of wrath somehow comes in later in life. It's something there by nature and can be removed only by a work of God's grace.

I can understand that there are people who have trouble figuring out how certain ideas fit together with God's goodness, but that shouldn't lead us to reject the clear teaching of scripture. There are several issues that I don't think should be tests of orthodoxy that people often make tests of orthodoxy. On some of those issues, I think you can deny the clear teaching of scripture while still holding to the gospel (but just not seeing the contradiction).

Maybe that's true here. But I will stand by my statement that denying original sin goes against the clear teaching of scripture. Those who do so willingly are clear heretics. Those who do so unintentionally who still hold to the essentials of the gospel (e.g. that it's impossible to come to God without a work of grace) might not be heretics. But that doesn't mean the view is true, and it doesn't mean it isn't a departure from an important truth connected up with the gospel.

Actually, I agree entirely with your interpretation of the 1 Pt passage; between Ephesians 4:8ff and Col 2:12-15 on the one hand, and the fact that the I Pt passage explicitly talks about disobedience in the days of Noah, I think we get a fairly good sense of what is meant. But reading 'He preached to the spirits in prison' as the redemption of the patriarchs only became popular in relatively recent times, and has a lot to do, I think, with reading 1 Pt 3:19 in the light of a very literal reading of 1 Pt. 4:6 (and also trying to make sense of the claim that Christ preached to the spirits). Augustine in one of his letters considers a (possibly Pelagian?) interpretation of the verse that sounds vaguely likely the limbo interpretation, and rejects it vehemently as making no sense; and I don't know of any significant source prior to the nineteenth century that understands the verse as referring to limbo (although, admittedly, I haven't investigated this very rigorously).

Aquinas, for instance, explicitly rejects that the verse has anything to do with the descent into hell (following Augustine), although he mentions that Damascene thought it did (but even Damascene thought that Christ preached to the damned, not to souls in limbo; and not to save them but to shame them); and so never appeals to it at all in his discussions of limbo. Instead he discusses other things: Hosea 13:14; the parable of Lazarus in Abraham's bosom; and the Old Testament doctrine of 'hell', i.e., sheol. And that actually makes sense, if you think about it. On the medieval (and patristic) view, the patriarchs didn't need Christ to preach to them; their whole lives anticipated his coming, and for them death was nothing but a temporary delay of glory (so to speak) until Christ redeemed them. (This is particularly so since the medievals regularly attributed much clearer knowledge of Christ to the patriarchs than we do.)

I'm not particularly committed to limbo as such. But I do think it needs to be given credit for being an interesting attempt to take Old Testament claims about death seriously; something we tend not to do at all, despite the fact that those claims don't map on well to our tendency to divide the afterlife directly into Hell (the damned in the lake of fire) and Heaven (the blessed at the Feast of the Lamb). The medievals had tendencies in that direction, too; but they saw immediately that this faces a number of Scriptural questions, and in response modified their doctrine of the afterlife (hence the limbo of the patriarchs; holding that unbaptized children were in limbo came about for other reasons). Even if they didn't get it right, it was the right attitude. I don't think either Protestants or Catholics today do as good a job of cultivating the same attitude; we're too attached to our cliches and images.

Jeremy: Romans 3 and 5 both speak consistently of the whole world being guilty of sin, but can be reasonably interpreted as refering to our own sin, not Adam's. On this interpretation, original sin is primarily a predisposition toward specific acts of sin, and does not include a component of guilt. We are guilty because of our own sins; we are corrupt and cannot help but sin (apart from the Holy Spirit) because of Adam's sin. Or to say it another way (at the risk of being repetitive): we are guilty because we do not live righteous lives, but because of original sin, we are incapable of living righteous lives. So we are not born guilty, but everyone becomes guilty almost immediately because of the sin nature. I'm not saying that I hold this interpretation, but I don't see anything in Ephesians 2 or Romans 3 or 5 that directly contradicts it. Of course, this would make the 'age of accountability' or whatever very, very early. Basically, as soon as a child is capable of acting, he begins sinning. But it would probably save at least infants and stillborn/miscarried/aborted children.

Brandon: I agree. I had not previously thought of Limbo as equivalent to Sheol/Hades. The idea, of course, that anyone stays in Sheol/Hades permanently is, I think, quite unbiblical, but we do need to do something with Sheol/Hades, and the first thing we should do is stop translating it as "hell" because it isn't the same thing at all.

I suppose I might be open to this view, but I'd have to construe acting very broadly so that lust, envy, greed, and other heart attitudes count as actions. They're clearly not mere dispositions. But it seems to me that those kinds of things, in very minute forms, could be around long before birth. For example, I've heard that twins in utero have been observed to engage in behavior that is at least at a very minimal level selfish.

Yes, I suppose that's possible, and so it might not get the 'age of accountability' doctrine that everyone wants.

For the record, my real view is that those incapable of understanding the Gospel in spoken words (due to age or whatever) are in the same position as those who have never heard it, and we don't exactly know what that is (though we have a hint or two in Romans 1:18-23 and 2:14-16).

I'm not sure what you're suggesting with Rom 2:14-16, but there are three views that go in completely different directions on that passage. The three views are:

1. Gentiles saved by doing the law without knowing about Christ
2. Gentiles partially fulfilling the law without being saved
3. Gentile Christians fulfilling the law by being in Christ

Were you assuming interpretation 1? I think there are serious problems with both 1 and 3.

I'm even less sure what you were getting at with Rom 1:18-23, because that seems to go in the opposite direction as how some have taken 2:14-16. Or was that your point?

I think the clearest hint is in ch.10, where Paul directly considers the question of what happens to those who haven't heard the gospel of Jesus Christ. He doesn't say what happens to them in any explicit way, but he uses it as a call to telling them the gospel, as if he's assuming they will not be saved apart from hearing the gospel.

the passage from Romans 2 seems to be a justification of God's judgment against those who have never heard the Law. That is, it's a response to the question "how can he hold them responsible when they don't know any better?" It's relevant primarily in that it makes it clear that people who have never heard of Christ are still subject to judgment. I agree that your interpretations 1 and 3 are seriously problematic.

I hadn't thought of ch. 10 in that light, actually, but it is clearly highly relevant. At the very least, it says that those who have not heard of Christ cannot be assured of their salvation the way we can.

I happened upon a paper by Gordon Wenham, "Original Sin in Genesis 1-11", which I thought was worth linking to in this discussion.

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