The L-Shaped Room

The Limbo of the Theologians

By the Middle Ages the theologians of the Catholic Church had constructed an elegantly coherent model of the universe: it explained the nature and existence of our world, the church and the individual believer’s place in it. It was a beautifully crafted cathedral of logic, each element neatly dovetailed with the next. The foundations were set firmly in Scripture, the covenantal promises and moral rigor of the Jewish Bible and the Jesus narrative and teachings of the Gospels. It is sturdy stuff, direct, concrete and detailed. Scripture is the ideal foundation for an edifice of faith, but its’ very concreteness and everydayness make it difficult to conceptualize. and so ill-suited for raising the upper storeys of Christianity.

The task of making Scripture both applicable and intellectually explicable fell to Christian exegetes and theologians who applied the current school methods of Greek literary criticism and Greek philosophy to the Scriptural givens. Thus they could begin to educe from the Gospels applicable behavioral norms and intellectual concepts, an ethic and a metaphysic that constitute the structure of Christianity. One has only to read Paul to witness the process in its earliest Christian incarnation.

The Christian medieval synthesis was much like a contemporary cathedral. There is a certain uniformity and even severity of design, while here and there the architect’s plan has yielded to his imagination with sometimes startling results. No less the theologian. Scripture does not answer all the questions of either the believers or the enemies of Christianity, and so the theologian is constrained at times to edge out beyond the New Testament texts and attempt to construct from his own understanding an answer to the moral and intellectual problems that occur in every religious system arising from a revelation.

Regard. Like his Jewish contemporaries, Jesus believed in a doctrine of a Heaven and a Hell. There would be a general judgment after which the evil would be cast into the fires of Hell for eternity and the virtuous rewarded with Heaven. But on the face of it, not everyone who died fit neatly into the severe dichotomy of a Heaven for the really good or an eternal Hell for sinners, and so twelfth century Catholic theologians argued that logically there must be a place, a kind of purgatorium, where the somewhat less than perfect (hopefully you and me) might purge the stains of their misdemeanors in its mercifully banked fires and eventually proceed, singed but saved, to Heaven. Neat! Purgatory! Done! The Church approved.

The medieval synthesis lies in pieces now, brought down by Renaissance science, Enlightenment rationalism, 19th century modernism, 20th century secularism and the movies of Eric Rohmer. The Ptolemaic astronomy that framed it is a scientific curio; the Aristotelian hylomorphism that so economically explained reality now rates no more than a paragraph in the history of philosophy; and here and there the careless pilgrim is liable to stumble over some discarded bit of Catholic theology, morality and devotion. Ou sont, the pious weep, les novenas d’antan?

Among the most sorrowful losses in the Catholic Church’s shedding of its old skin is Limbo. Limbo was an even purer construct than Purgatory and with even less Scriptural warrant. If logic midwifed Purgatory into existence, in the matter of Limbo, the logic was seasoned with a large dollop of sentiment. Christianity emerged directly from a Jewish matrix; indeed, Christianity makes little sense without it: if there is no Old Testament there is no New Testament. And yet. And yet. Salvation comes through Christ’s redemptive death and resurrection. What then of those heroic Israelites –tellingly, the word “Jew” was never used in this context— of the Old Testament? Were Abraham and Moses, David and Solomon going to end up in Hell even though they never had a chance to accept Jesus? And had not Jesus himself described Heaven as “the bosom of Abraham”? No wonder that an early second century theologian like Clement of Alexandria thought the whole idea was unfair.

Clement had no solution to the problem of the fate of the worthy Israelites who preceded Jesus, but he thought, as did most of the Christian thinkers who followed, that the Patriarchs would somehow be saved. The “Patriarchs” in question would be “Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets” (Lk. 13: 28), but a hint in the same Gospel (Lk. 16:16) suggests that they might in fact include all worthy Israelites, and maybe even a few Jews, up to but not including John the Baptist, who was already a “Christian” by his recognition of Jesus as Messiah. But how would or could they be saved ?

Eventually a solution was fleshed out: between his death and his resurrection Jesus would descend into Hell and pluck out those lucky Israelites –that particular dramatic scenario came to be known as “The Harrowing of Hell”— who would then be deposited in Paradise. But before that happened, from the time of their death until Jesus came to fetch them up, the Old Testament paladins were not in Hell proper –Why should they suffer?— but were housed in a place on the edge (Lat. limbus) of Hell. And thus was born Limbo as a place.

That place is presumably now empty –if you’re looking for Moses, he’s now in Heaven— but a model was established, a virtual place, Limbo, somewhere between Heaven and Hell, though perhaps closer to Hell, that permanently housed those who for one reason or another did not fit into the Catholic system of retributive justice. Purgatory was for transients; all those burning there would one day make it into Heaven. Limbo was forever.

If the earliest Christians, who still understood themselves as in some sense Jews, venerated the Israelite Patriarchs, succeeding generations, more and more of them Hellenically educated Gentiles, had a definite soft spot for the Greek philosophers. It was as painful for them to see Plato and Aristotle wrapped in fire and brimstone as it was for others to contemplate Abraham on a bed of burning ash. Had not those two anticipated Christianity or, if not Christianity, then the now Hellenized Christian theology? And, if so, did they, and others like them, not deserve special consideration?

A favorite medieval parlor game, with some ancient and modern practitioners of note, was imagining the geography and topography of the Afterlife. The Jews may have begun the game by locating the place of the Final Judgment in the Kedron Valley between Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives and by identifying Hell with Gehenna, Jerusalem’s ever smoldering garbage dump south of the city. But no one comes close to Dante in laying out a satellite photo-like plan of Heaven, Purgatory and Hell in his three great poems of the same name.

For Dante, Limbo is the first of the nine concentric circles that constitute Hell, its boundary, so to speak. The Church hadn’t said who was in Limbo so Dante went ahead and named his own fantasy team. It included a much enlarged roster of classical authors –Aristotle, “the master of those who know,” gets a special nod—among them Homer and Horace, who assure Dante that he too is in the Poets’ Hall of Fame. That hellish smell of burning flesh may be the Marquis de Sade’s or James Joyce’s, but it’s assuredly not Vergil’s or Ovid’s.

The literati have as company in Dante’s Limbo the founding figures from Trojan and early Roman history like Hector and Aeneas. And there are some surprises. The geometer Euclid and the physician Galen are both in Dante’s Limbo, as is Saladin (Salah al-Din), the Muslim Sultan who savagely destroyed a Crusader army in Galilee in 1187 A.D. but whose reputation for chivalry must have impressed Dante, as are the Muslim philosophers Avicenna (Ibn Sina) and Averroes (Ibn Rushd), “who composed the Great Commentary.”

If the classical Limbo is the Afterlife locus of the virtuous (or poetical) unbaptized, there was one category of the unbaptized that had already attracted the attention of theologians. What, they asked themselves, is to become of infants who have not been baptized and so uninitiated into a share in the redemptive merits of Christ? A difficult issue. Who wants to cast an infant into the infernal fire just because its parents didn’t make it to the church on time? Well, Augustine for one. The dual logic of Original Sin that morally flaws every human and of the Christian doctrine of salvation –later famously sloganned as “No salvation outside the Church”— constrained him to say, “Sorry, you faint of heart, but if you will but read Romans 5:16-18, you will understand that even newborns must taste of the hellfire reserved for pagans, though perhaps in their case, with the heat turned down a trifle.”

What was behind Augustine’s condemnation of unbaptized infants to a mitigated Hell was his long theological struggle with the British common sense moralist Pelagius. This latter had not only denied the notion of an all-tainting Original Sin but had apparently thought might exist, in addition to Heaven and Hell, a kind of neutral place for blameless souls like unbaptized infants. Augustine was deeply committed to a doctrine of Original Sin that affected every newborn, and he persuaded a synod of his fellow North African bishops to formally condemn the teaching that there was “an intermediate place, or of any place anywhere, where children who die unbaptized might live in happiness.” So in the early fifth century, Pelagius seems to have broached the idea of a Limbo-like place and the Church, at least the African Church, pronounced it heretical.

For all the prestige of his name, Augustine’s harsh sentence on unbaptized infants did not gain a lot of traction. Moralists kept chipping away at those punishing hell fires until, with the medieval construction of Purgatory in the 1100s, followed, sometime about 1300, by that of Limbo, the tainted tots were bundled off into that safe but unsatisfying “place” on the frontier of Hell. Their new home was called the “Limbo of the Infants,” which suggests that there was more than one Limbo. The “Limbo of the Patriarchs” was by then empty, we know, cleared out by Jesus himself, but that other unnamed Limbo where Dante met Plato and Aristotle was certainly populated, The Limbos appear to be separate quarters, however, and so the babes in the Limbo of the Infants must never have been able to hear from Euclid (just as well) or Averroes (ditto).

But for every problem there’s another problem. Had not Aristotle –reverent pause— taught that only a rational agent could perform a moral act? And that, assuredly, gets you into Heaven, a truckload of moral acts. So? says the naif. So what about those baptized Christians who are incapable of performing rational acts, those assorted toddlers who die before reaching the age of reason? They cannot possibly earn Heaven or, thank goodness, deserve Hell since they cannot, by definition, either sin or perform an act of virtue. What happens to them?

Once again, Limbo was the perfect solution, in this instance, for incompetence: no contest and so no gain and no pain, just video games and Lego the livelong day, though perhaps with the nippers’ occasional fleeting sense that they might be missing something. And what of their parents? Will their mothers in Heaven miss their offspring? Will it spoil their enjoyment of the Beatific Vision? The theologians seem never to have gotten around to that awkward issue. And what of the mentally incompetent adults? Are they in with the carefree sub-adolescents? Very clearly, there’s work to be done.

Purgatory is an article of faith for Roman Catholics, though not for Eastern Christians nor the Protestants, who will have none of it. As for Limbo, however, the Catholic Church for its part has always kept its distance from the notion, neither affirming nor denying it, but in the nineteenth century, theologians’ voices began to be raised more loudly against the existence of such a place. As for the current Church, the only issue appears to be the fate of unbaptized infants, and the posture struck there is to commit them to God’s mercy, since, tossing the ball back to John 16:12, “There is much that simply has not been revealed to us.” Plato and Aristotle, on the other hand, Mahatma Gandhi and Elie Wiesel, are presumably all on their own.


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