(Late Lat. limbus) a word of Teutonic derivation, meaning literally “hem” or “border,” as of a garment, or anything joined on (cf. Italian lembo or English limb).
In theological usage the name is applied to (a) the temporary place or state of the souls of the just who, although purified from sin, were excluded from the beatific vision until Christ’s triumphant ascension into Heaven (the “limbus patrum”); or (b) to the permanent place or state of those unbaptized children and others who, dying without grievous personal sin, are excluded from the beatific vision on account of original sin alone (the “limbus infantium” or “puerorum”).
In literary usage the name is sometimes applied in a wider and more general sense to any place or state of restraint, confinement, or exclusion, and is practically equivalent to “prison” (see, e.g., Milton, “Paradise Lost,” III, 495; Butler, “Hudibras,” part II, canto i, and other English classics). The not unnatural transition from the theological to the literary usage is exemplified in Shakespeare, “Henry VIII,” act v, sc. 3. In this article we shall deal only with the theological meaning and connotation of the word.
I. LIMBUS PATRUM
Though it can hardly be claimed, on the evidence of extant literature, that a definite and consistent belief in the limbus patrum of Christian tradition was universal among the Jews, it cannot on the other hand be denied that, more especially in the extra-canonical writings of the second or first centuries B.C., some such belief finds repeated expression; and New Testament references to the subject remove all doubt as to the current Jewish belief in the time of Christ. Whatever name may be used in apocryphal Jewish literature to designate the abode of the departed just, the implication generally is
- that their condition is one of happiness,
- that it is temporary, and
- that it is to be replaced by a condition of final and permanent bliss when the Messianic Kingdom is established.
In the New Testament, Christ refers by various names and figures to the place or state which Catholic tradition has agreed to call the limbus patrum. In Matt. 8:11, it is spoken of under the figure of a banquet “with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of Heaven” (cf. Luke 8:29; 14:15), and in Matt. 25:10 under the figure of a marriage feast to which the prudent virgins are admitted, while in the parable of Lazarus and Dives it is called “Abraham’s bosom” (Luke 16:22) and in Christ’s words to the penitent thief on Calvary the name paradise is used (Luke 23:43). St. Paul teaches (Eph. 4:9) that before ascending into Heaven Christ “also descended first into the lower parts of the earth,” and St. Peter still more explicitly teaches that “being put to death indeed, in the flesh, but enlivened in the spirit,” Christ went and “preached to those souls that were in prison, which had been some time incredulous, when they waited for the patience of God in the days of Noah” (I Pet 3:18-20).
It is principally on the strength of these Scriptural texts, harmonized with the general doctrine of the Fall and Redemption of mankind, that Catholic tradition has defended the existence of the limbus patrum as a temporary state or place of happiness distinct from Purgatory. As a result of the Fall, Heaven was closed against men. Actual possession of the beatific vision was postponed, even for those already purified from sin, until the Redemption should have been historically completed by Christ’s visible ascendancy into Heaven. Consequently, the just who had lived under the Old Dispensation, and who, either at death or after a course of purgatorial discipline, had attained the perfect holiness required for entrance into glory, were obliged to await the coming of the Incarnate Son of God and the full accomplishment of His visible earthly mission. Meanwhile they were “in prison,” as St. Peter says; but, as Christ’s own words to the penitent thief and in the parable of Lazarus clearly imply, their condition was one of happiness, notwithstanding the postponement of the higher bliss to which they looked forward. And this, substantially, is all that Catholic tradition teaches regarding the limbus patrum.
II. LIMBUS INFANTIUM
The New Testament contains no definite statement of a positive kind regarding the lot of those who die in original sin without being burdened with grievous personal guilt. But, by insisting on the absolute necessity of being “born again of water and the Holy Ghost” (John 3:5) for entry into the kingdom of Heaven (see “Baptism,” subtitle Necessity of Baptism), Christ clearly enough implies that men are born into this world in a state of sin, and St. Paul’s teaching to the same effect is quite explicit (Rom. 5:12 sqq). On the other hand, it is clear form Scripture and Catholic tradition that the means of regeneration provided for this life do not remain available after death, so that those dying unregenerate are eternally excluded from the supernatural happiness of the beatific vision (John 9:4, Luke 12:40, 16:19 sqq, II Cor. 5:10; see also “Apocatastasis”). The question therefore arises as to what, in the absence of a clear positive revelation on the subject, we ought in conformity with Catholic principles to believe regarding the eternal lot of such persons. Now it may confidently be said that, as the result of centuries of speculation on the subject, we ought to believe that these souls enjoy and will eternally enjoy a state of perfect natural happiness; and this is what Catholics usually mean when they speak of the limbus infantium, the “children’s limbo.” From the 1914 Catholic Encyclopedia
The original author of this blog passed away in July of 2016. RIP Father Carota.