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Christ in Limbo (c. 1575) by an anonymous follower of Hieronymus Bosch[1]

In Catholic theology, Limbo (Latin: limbus, 'edge' or 'boundary', referring to the edge of Hell) is the afterlife condition of those who die in original sin without being assigned to the Hell of the Damned. Medieval theologians of Western Europe described the underworld ("hell", "hades", "infernum") as divided into three distinct parts: Hell of the Damned,[2] Limbo of the Fathers or Patriarchs, and Limbo of the Infants. The Limbo of the Fathers is an official doctrine of the Catholic Church, but the Limbo of the Infants is not.[3] The concept of Limbo comes from the idea that, in the case of Limbo of the Fathers, good people were not able to achieve heaven just because they were born before the birth of Jesus Christ. This is also true for Limbo of the Infants in that simply because a child died before baptism, does not mean they deserve punishment, though they cannot achieve salvation.

Limbo of the Patriarchs

See also: Sheol

Jesus in Limbo by Domenico Beccafumi

The "Limbo of the Patriarchs" or "Limbo of the Fathers" (Latin limbus patrum) is seen as the temporary state of those who, despite the sins they may have committed, died in the friendship of God but could not enter heaven until redemption by Jesus Christ made it possible. The term Limbo of the Fathers was a medieval name for the part of the underworld (Hades) where the patriarchs of the Old Testament were believed to be kept until Christ's soul descended into it by his death[4] through crucifixion and freed them. The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes Christ's descent into Hell as meaning primarily that "the crucified one sojourned in the realm of the dead prior to his resurrection. This was the first meaning given in the apostolic preaching to Christ's descent into Hell: that Jesus, like all men, experienced death and in his soul joined the others in the realm of the dead." It adds: "But he descended there as Saviour, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there." It does not use the word Limbo.[5]

This concept of Limbo affirms that admittance to heaven is possible only through the intervention of Jesus Christ, but does not portray Moses, etc. as being punished eternally in Hell. The concept of Limbo of the Patriarchs is not spelled out in Scripture, but is seen by some[who?] as implicit in various references:

Limbo of Infants

See also: Salvation of infants

Byzantine depiction in the Church of Chora of the resurrection of Christ, raising Adam and Eve who represent all humankind, with the righteous prophets of the Old Testament observing

The Limbo of Infants (Latin limbus infantium or limbus puerorum) is the hypothetical permanent status of the unbaptised who die in infancy, too young to have committed actual sins, but not having been freed from original sin. Recent Catholic theological speculation tends to stress the hope, although not the certainty, that these infants may attain heaven instead of the state of Limbo. Many Catholic priests and prelates say that the souls of unbaptized children must simply be "entrusted to the mercy of God", and whatever their status is cannot be known.[11]

While the Catholic Church has a defined doctrine on original sin, it has none on the eternal fate of unbaptised infants, leaving theologians free to propose different theories, which magisterium is free to accept or reject. Nonetheless, according to Catholic dogma, baptism, or at least the desire for it, along with supernatural faith or at least the "habit of faith", are necessary for salvation. Hence, it is not immediately clear how to reconcile the mercy of God for unbaptized infants with the necessity of baptism and Catholic faith for salvation. Several theories have been proposed. Limbo is one such theory,[12] although the word limbo itself is never mentioned in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.[13] Nonetheless, the theory of limbo has weighty support in the traditional teaching of the Doctors of the Church, such as Saint Thomas Aquinas, Saint Augustine, and Saint Alphonsus Liguori.

Latin Fathers

In countering Pelagius, who denied original sin, Saint Augustine of Hippo was led to state that because of original sin, "such infants as quit the body without being baptized will be involved in the mildest condemnation of all. That person, therefore, greatly deceives both himself and others, who teaches that they will not be involved in condemnation; whereas the apostle says: 'Judgment from one offence to condemnation' (Romans 5:16), and again a little after: 'By the offence of one upon all persons to condemnation'."[14][15]

In 418, the Council of Carthage, a synod of North African bishops which included Augustine of Hippo, did not explicitly endorse all aspects of Augustine's stern view about the destiny of infants who die without baptism, but stated in some manuscripts[16][17] "that there is no intermediate or other happy dwelling place for children who have left this life without Baptism, without which they cannot enter the kingdom of heaven, that is, eternal life".[17][18] So great was Augustine's influence in the West, however, that the Latin Fathers of the 5th and 6th centuries (e.g., Jerome, Avitus of Vienne, and Gregory the Great) did adopt his position.[19]

Medieval theologians

In the later Medieval period, some theologians continued to hold Augustine's view. In the 12th century, Peter Abelard (1079–1142) said that these infants suffered no material torment or positive punishment, just the pain of loss at being denied the beatific vision. Others held that unbaptised infants suffered no pain at all: unaware of being deprived of the beatific vision, they enjoyed a state of natural, not supernatural happiness. This theory was associated with but independent of the term "Limbo of Infants", which was coined about the year 1300.[20]

If heaven is a state of supernatural happiness and union with God, and Hell is understood as a state of torture and separation from God then, in this view, the Limbo of Infants, although technically part of hell (the outermost part, limbo meaning 'outer edge' or 'hem') is seen as a sort of intermediate state.

The question of Limbo is not treated in the parts of the Summa Theologica by Thomas Aquinas, but is dealt with in an appendix to the supplement added after his death compiled from his earlier writings.[21] The Limbo of Infants is there described as an eternal state of natural joy, untempered by any sense of loss at how much greater their joy might have been had they been baptised:

Every man who has the use of free-will is adapted to obtain eternal life, because he can prepare himself for grace whereby to merit eternal life; so that if he fails in this, his grief will be very great, since he has lost what he was able to possess. But children were never adapted to possess eternal life, since neither was this due to them by virtue of their natural principles, for it surpasses the entire faculty of nature, nor could they perform acts of their own whereby to obtain so great a good. Hence, they will nowise grieve for being deprived of the divine vision; nay, rather will they rejoice for that they will have a large share of God's goodness and their own natural perfections. Nor can it be said that they were adapted to obtain eternal life, not indeed by their own action, but by the actions of others around them, since they could be baptised by others, like other children of the same condition who have been baptised and obtained eternal life: for this is of superabundant grace that one should be rewarded without any act of one's own. Wherefore the lack of such a grace will not cause sorrow in children who die without Baptism, any more than the lack of many graces accorded to others of the same condition makes a wise man to grieve.

— Summa Theologica, Supplement 1 to the Third Part, article 2[22]

The natural happiness possessed in this place would consist in the perception of God mediated through creatures.[23] As stated in the International Theological Commission's document on the question:

Because children below the age of reason did not commit actual sin, theologians came to the common view that these unbaptized children feel no pain at all or even that they enjoy a full, though only natural, happiness through their mediated union with God in all natural goods (Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus).[24]

Modern era

In 1442, the Ecumenical Council of Florence spoke of baptism as necessary even for children, and required that they be baptised soon after birth.[25][26] This had earlier been affirmed at the Council of Carthage in 418. The Council of Florence also stated that those who die in original sin alone go to Hell, but with pains unequal to those suffered by those who had committed actual mortal sins.[27] John Wycliffe's attack on the necessity of infant baptism was condemned by another general council, the Council of Constance.[28] In 1547, the Council of Trent explicitly decreed that baptism (or desire for baptism) was the means by which one is transferred "from that state wherein man is born a child of the first Adam, to the state of grace, and of the adoption of the sons of God, through the second Adam, Jesus Christ, our Saviour.[29] Pope Pius X taught of Limbo's existence in his Catechism.[30]

However, throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, individual theologians (Bianchi in 1768, H. Klee in 1835, Caron in 1855, H. Schell in 1893) continued to formulate theories of how children who died unbaptised might still be saved. By 1952 a theologian such as Ludwig Ott could, in a widely used and well-regarded manual, openly teach the possibility that children who die unbaptised might be saved for heaven.[31] He also told about Thomas Cajetan, a major 16th-century theologian, that suggested infants dying in the womb before birth, and so before ordinary sacramental baptism could be administered, might be saved through their mother's wish for their baptism. In its 1980 instruction on children's baptism the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith stated that "with regard to children who die without having received baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as indeed she does in the funeral rite established for them",[32]: 13  leaving all theories as to their fate, including Limbo, as viable possibilities. In 1984, when Joseph Ratzinger, then Cardinal Prefect of that Congregation, stated that he rejected the claim that children who die unbaptised cannot attain salvation, he was speaking for many academic theologians of his training and background.[citation needed]

The Church's teaching, expressed in the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church, is that "Baptism is necessary for salvation for those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for this sacrament", and that "God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments". It recalls that, apart from the sacrament, baptism of blood (as in the case of Christian martyrs) and in the case of catechumens who die before receiving the sacrament, explicit desire for baptism, together with Catholic faith, repentance for their sins (specifically perfect contrition, in the case of catechumens) and charity, ensures salvation. It also states that since Christ died for all and all are called to the same divine destiny, "every man who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of his Church, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved", seeing that, if they had known of the necessity of baptism, they would have desired it explicitly.[33] Additionally, at the Council of Trent and in the Vatican's response to Feeneyism in the 1940s, the Church affirmed in every case the necessity of Catholic faith (also called "supernatural faith"), or at least the "habit of faith", for salvation.

It then states:

As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus' tenderness toward children which caused him to say: "Let the children come to me, do not hinder them",[34] allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism. All the more urgent is the Church's call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism.[35]

Merely stating that one can "hope" in a way of salvation other than baptism, the Church thus urgently reiterates its appeal to baptize infants, the only certain means to "not prevent" their "coming to Christ" for salvation.

On 20 April 2007,[36] the advisory body known as the International Theological Commission released a document, originally commissioned by Pope John Paul II, entitled "The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die without Being Baptized."[11] After tracing the history of the various opinions that have been and are held on the eternal fate of unbaptized infants, including that connected with the theory of the Limbo of Infants, and after examining the theological arguments, the document stated its conclusion as follows:

Our conclusion is that the many factors that we have considered above give serious theological and liturgical grounds for hope that unbaptized infants who die will be saved and enjoy the beatific vision. We emphasize that these are reasons for prayerful hope, rather than grounds for sure knowledge. There is much that simply has not been revealed to us.[37] We live by faith and hope in the God of mercy and love who has been revealed to us in Christ, and the Spirit moves us to pray in constant thankfulness and joy.[38]

What has been revealed to us is that the ordinary way of salvation is by the sacrament of baptism. None of the above considerations should be taken as qualifying the necessity of baptism or justifying delay in administering the sacrament. Rather, as we want to reaffirm in conclusion, they provide strong grounds for hope that God will save infants when we have not been able to do for them what we would have wished to do, namely, to baptize them into the faith and life of the Church.

Pope Benedict XVI authorized publication of this document, indicating that he considers it consistent with the Church's teaching, though it is not an official expression of that teaching.[36] Media reports that by the document "the Pope closed Limbo"[39] are thus without foundation. In fact, the document explicitly states that "the theory of limbo, understood as a state which includes the souls of infants who die subject to original sin and without baptism, and who, therefore, neither merit the beatific vision, nor yet are subjected to any punishment, because they are not guilty of any personal sin. This theory, elaborated by theologians beginning in the Middle Ages, never entered into the dogmatic definitions of the Magisterium. Still, that same Magisterium did at times mention the theory in its ordinary teaching up until the Second Vatican Council. It remains therefore a possible theological hypothesis" (second preliminary paragraph); and in paragraph 41 it repeats that the theory of Limbo "remains a possible theological opinion". The document thus allows the hypothesis of a limbo of infants to be held as one of the existing theories about the fate of children who die without being baptised, a question on which there is "no explicit answer" from Scripture or tradition.[36] The traditional theological alternative to Limbo was not heaven, but rather some degree of suffering in Hell. At any rate, these theories are not the official teaching of the Catholic Church, but are only opinions that the Church does not condemn, permitting them to be held by its members, just as is the theory of possible salvation for infants dying without baptism.

In other denominations and religions

Comparison of Other-wordly places in Christianity and Islam
The Old Testament righteous follow Christ from Hades to heaven (Russian icon).


While Jewish sources are conflicted about what happens to individuals after they die, the concept of limbo does not arise. Furthermore, even the conception of Hell in Judaism is presented as a temporary stage, typically transpiring over a short period of time.[40] According to Talmud, the judgment of the wicked in Gehenna lasts for twelve months.[41] This teaching is attributed to Rabbi Akiva (50-135 AD).[42]


Protestant and Eastern Orthodox

Neither the Eastern Orthodox Church nor Protestantism accepts the concept of a limbo of infants;[43] but, while not using the expression "Limbo of the Patriarchs", the Eastern Orthodox Church lays much stress on the resurrected Christ's action of liberating Adam and Eve and other righteous figures of the Old Testament, such as Abraham and David, from Hades (see Harrowing of Hell).

Some Protestants have a similar understanding of those who died as believers prior to the crucifixion of Jesus residing in a place that is not Heaven, but not Hell. The doctrine holds that Hades has two "compartments", one an unnamed place of torment, the other named "Abraham's bosom". Luke 16:19–16:26 speaks of a chasm fixed between the two which cannot be crossed. Those in the unnamed "compartment" have no hope, and will ultimately be consigned to hell. Those in Abraham's bosom are those of whom it is written of Jesus, "When He ascended on high, He led captive a host of captives" (Ephesians 4:8), quoting Psalm 68:18). These individuals, the captives, now reside with God in Heaven. Both "Compartments" still exist, but Abraham's bosom is now empty, while the other chamber is not, according to this doctrine.


Latter-day Saints teach that "there is a space between death and the resurrection of the body [...] a state of the soul in happiness or in misery until the time [...] that the dead shall come forth, and be reunited, both soul and body, and be brought to stand before God, and be judged according to their works."[44] It is also taught that "all who have died without a knowledge of [the] gospel, who would have received it if they had been permitted to tarry, shall be heirs of the celestial kingdom of God.".[45]

Jehovah's Witnesses, Christadelphians, and others have taught that the dead are unconscious (or even nonexistent), awaiting their destiny on Judgment Day.


The Zoroastrian concept of hamistagan is similar to Limbo. Hamistagan is a neutral state in which a soul that was neither good nor evil awaits Judgment Day.


In Islam which denies the existence of original sin in totality, there is the concept of Barzakh ("obstacle", "hindrance", "separation", or "barrier"), an intermediate period or state between the two worlds, which is mentioned in Quran.[46] [47][48] [49] [50] Barzakh is portrayed as a place in which, the spirit is separated from its former body and freed to contemplate the wrongdoing of its life.

During this period, sinners are punished and the adequately purified rest in comfort. Children, however, are exempt from this stage, as they are regarded as innocent and are automatically classed as Muslims (despite religious upbringing). After death, they go directly to heaven, where they are cared for by Abraham.[51]

Likewise, there is al-A‘raaf, which is analogous to purgatory.[52][53][54][55] Inhabitants of al-A'raaf will be kept there temporarily, and eventually brought to heaven when God wills. Thus, it is not permanent.[56]

Greek mythology

In Classical Greek mythology, the section of Hades known as the Fields of Asphodel were a realm much resembling Limbo, to which the vast majority of people who were held to have deserved neither the Elysian Fields (Heaven) nor Tartarus (Hell) were consigned for eternity.[citation needed]


In Buddhism, Bardo (Sanskrit: antarabhāva) is sometimes described as similar to limbo. It is an intermediate state in which the recently deceased experiences various phenomena before being reborn in another state, including heaven or hell. According to Mahāyāna Buddhism, the arhat must ultimately embrace the path of the bodhisattva, despite having reached enlightenment. The Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra states that an arhat obtains a samādhikāya ('rapture-body') and is reborn in a lotus in a transitory state of existence, unable to awaken for a whole eon. This is likened to a person intoxicated who must spend a certain period of time before becoming sober.[57]

See also


  1. ^ "Christ in Limbo". Indianapolis Museum of Art Online Collection. Retrieved 27 September 2022.
  2. ^ Catholic Encyclopedia: Hell: "However, in the New Testament the term Gehenna is used more frequently in preference to hades, as a name for the place of punishment of the damned. [...] held in abomination by the Jews, who, accordingly, used the name of this valley to designate the abode of the damned (Targ. Jon., Gen., iii, 24; Henoch, c. xxvi). And Christ adopted this usage of the term." Jewish Encyclopedia: Gehenna: Sin and Merit: "It is frequently said that certain sins will lead man into Gehenna. The name "Gehenna" itself is explained to mean that unchastity will lead to Gehenna (; 'Er. 19a); so also will adultery, idolatry, pride, mockery, hypocrisy, anger, etc. (Soṭah 4b, 41b; Ta'an. 5a; B. B. 10b, 78b; 'Ab. Zarah 18b; Ned. 22a)."
  3. ^ "CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: Limbo". Retrieved 16 September 2022.
  4. ^ "SUMMA THEOLOGIAE: Christ's descent into hell (Tertia Pars, Q. 52)". Retrieved 15 January 2020.
  5. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church, 633
  6. ^ See Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev: Christ the Conqueror of Hell
  7. ^ Anne Clark Bartlett; Thomas Howard Bestul (1999). Cultures of Piety: Medieval English Devotional Literature in Translation. Cornell University Press. p. 100. ISBN 0-8014-8455-3.
  8. ^ François Xavier Schouppe (2010). Abridged course of religious instruction, apologetic, dogmatic, and moral: for the use of Catholic colleges and schools. Burns & Oates. p. 248. ISBN 9781445555904.
  9. ^ Timothy Radcliffe (2004). Seven Last Words. Burns & Oates. p. 25. ISBN 0-86012-397-9.
  10. ^ Stromata, book VI, chapter VI
  11. ^ a b The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die without Being Baptised, ITC, 22 April 2007.
  12. ^ Study by International Theological Commission, 22 April 2007, 32–40
  13. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1261
  14. ^ Romans 5:18
  15. ^ On Merit and the Forgiveness of Sins, and the Baptism of Infants; cf. Study by the International Theological Commission, 22 April 2007], 15–18]
  16. ^ Study by the International Theological Commission, 22 April 2007, footnote 41]
  17. ^ a b Canon 110 of the Code of Canons of the African Church
  18. ^ Study by the International Theological Commission, 22 April 2007, 19]
  19. ^ Study by the International Theological Commission, 22 April 2007, 20
  20. ^ Study by the International Theological Commission, 22 April 2007, 21–25]
  21. ^ Summa Theologiae, Supplement to the Third Part, EDITOR'S NOTE
  22. ^ Summa Theologica, Supplement 1 to the Third Part, article 2
  23. ^ Feingold, Lawrence. The Natural Desire to See God According to St. Thomas and His Interpreters. 2nd edition. Ave Maria: Sapientia Press of Ave Maria University. 2010.
  24. ^ The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptised, 23
  25. ^ Curtin, D. P. (January 2007). Laetentur Caeli: Bulls of Union with the Greeks, Armenians, Coptic, and Ethiopian Churches. Dalcassian Publishing Company. ISBN 9798869171504.
  26. ^ Council of Florence Session 11 (Bull Cantate Domino): "With regard to children, since the danger of death is often present and the only remedy available to them is the sacrament of baptism by which they are snatched away from the dominion of the devil and adopted as children of God, it admonishes that sacred baptism is not to be deferred for forty or eighty days or any other period of time"
  27. ^ Council of Florence Session 6 "...the souls of those who depart this life in actual mortal sin, or in original sin alone, go down straight away to hell to be punished, but with unequal pains."
  28. ^ Session 15, 6 July 1415
  29. ^ The Council of Trent – The Sixth Session, translated by J. Waterworth (1848 ed.), London: Dolman (retrieved from Hanover College)
  30. ^ Pius X. Catechismo della dottrina cristiana (PDF) (in Italian). p. 30 (Question 100).
  31. ^ "Other emergency means of baptism for children dying without sacramental baptism, such as prayer and the desire of the parents or the Church (vicarious baptism of desire – Cajetan), or the attainment of the use of reason in the moment of death, so that the dying child can decide for or against God (baptism of desire – H. Klee), or suffering and death of the child as quasi-Sacrament (baptism of suffering – H. Schell), are indeed possible, but their actuality cannot be proved from Revelation. Cf. Denzinger 712." Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, Book 2, Section 2, § 25 (p. 114 of the 1963 edition)
  32. ^ Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (20 October 1980), "The Church's Mission", Pastoralis Actio,
  33. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1257–1260
  34. ^ Mark 10:14; cf. 1 Timothy 2:4
  35. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1261 Archived 30 September 2007 at the Wayback Machine
  36. ^ a b c Catholic News Service (20 April 2007). "Vatican commission: Limbo reflects 'restrictive view of salvation'". Retrieved 20 April 2007.
  37. ^ cf. John 16:12
  38. ^ cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:18
  39. ^ "Vatican City: Pope Closes Limbo". The New York Times. 21 April 2007.
  40. ^ Rose, O. N. (n.d.). "Heaven and Hell in Jewish Tradition". My Jewish Learning. Accessed 23 January 2024.
  41. ^ BT Shab. 33b.
  42. ^ Mishnah Eduyot 2:10.
  43. ^ "Limbo: Recent statements by the Catholic Church, and Protestant views".
  44. ^ Alma 40:21 See Spirit world (Latter Day Saints)
  45. ^ D&C 137:7 See Baptism for the Dead
  46. ^ Qummi, Abbas (24 April 2024). "Intermediate Period (Barzakh)". Al Islam Org. Retrieved 24 April 2024.
  47. ^ "::Al-Maaref:: Islamic Organization | INTERMEDIATE PERIOD (BARZAKH)". Retrieved 24 April 2024.
  48. ^ "What happens to the souls in barzakh?". Darul Iftaa Mahmudiyyah. Retrieved 24 April 2024.
  49. ^ Tesei, Tommaso (January 2016). "2 The barzakh and the Intermediate State of the Dead in the Quran". Unknown - Locating Hell in Islamic Tradition: 29–55. doi:10.1163/9789004301368_003. ISBN 978-90-04-30121-4 – via Research Gate.
  50. ^ Bahmanpour, Muhammad. "Chapter 2: Barzakh The Intermediate Realm The Entry Of The Soul Into Barzakh". Al-Islam Org.
  51. ^ Al-Bukhary, Volume 9, Book 88, Number 171
  52. ^ IslamQA (14 September 2012). "Al-A'raf and "Purgatory"". IslamQA. Retrieved 24 April 2024.
  53. ^ "Concerning Purgatory (al-A'raf)". Al-islam Org.
  54. ^ "Who are the people of A'raf (Purgatory) that will know the People of Paradise and Hell by their faces mentioned in verse 46 of the chapter of al-A'raf?". Questions on Islam.
  55. ^ "Ayah al-A'raf (The Heights, The Elevated Places) 7:46". Retrieved 24 April 2024.
  56. ^ "The one whose good deeds outweigh his bad deeds will enter Paradise and will be safe from punishment - Islam Question & Answer". Retrieved 24 April 2024.
  57. ^ Verrill, Wayne (2012). The Yogini's Eye: Comprehensive Introduction to Buddhist Tantra. Xlibris Corporation. p. 68. ISBN 9781477150443.