In Limbo No More

Al Kimel, over at Pontifications, has posted an excellent article that supports the Vatican’s possible abandonment of the doctrine of Limbo, that is, a doctrine that consigns unbaptized babies to somewhere other than the Beatific Vision of Heaven (in some Catholic accounts, limbo was a place of natural bliss, in others a place of torment.) He references an article by Fr. John Breck which is an excellent Orthodox statement on the subject. Fr. John has been my confessor since my conversion to Orthodoxy – he and his wife Lynn are deeply committed to issues surrounding the death of children. His article comes from a heart and a mind that has engaged the subject on the deepest theological level.

For the Orthodox faith, the question of unbaptized children is not fraught with difficulty. The Western doctrine of Original Sin, in which we are born with the guilt of Adam and thus born deserving of Hell, is simply not part of the Orthodox faith. Orthodox theology speaks rather of Ancestral Sin – we inherit from Adam a fallen world that includes our mortality. Children are born mortal – but not liable to guilt and punishment.

The tragedy of the doctrine of Original Sin, when it is understood in a forensic (legal) manner, is that it inevitably presents God as merciless, or powerless, or worse. It creates stumbling blocks for unbelievers who reject a God who would consign an infant to Hell (or less than heaven).

The sacrament of Baptism, in which we are united with the death and resurrection of Christ, is in no way weakened by the mercies of a God who saves beyond the bounds of the sacraments. The sacraments are not limits – mere “instruments” of grace in the toolbox of the Church. The sacraments are concrete manifestations of the Life of God in the Church. As such, they cannot be limited to those acts that have been given to us for our salvation. The Life of God is the Life of God. He saves whom He wills, how He wills.

Our salvation is no mere legal transaction. Our salvation is our union, our incorporation in the Life of God. It is not foreign to us (death is foreign to us) but is the reason for our existence in the first place. The forensic metaphor tends to make punishment and hell our natural state instead of the failure that it is. Sin, hamartia, means “missing the mark.” It is the failure to become what we are created to be. Sin is not natural to us, but contrary to our nature, a contradiction of who we are as human beings. A God who did not spare His son for the sake of our salvation would not be so unkind as to neglect our salvation because something intervened in our Baptism. Again, I mean no belittling of the greatness of our Baptism. However, in the Orthodox blessing of Water in that service we sing: “Great art Thou, O Lord, and marvelous are Thy works, and there is no word which sufficeth to hymn Thy wonders.” Such a God knows no limits to His love, or the power of His love.

Whenever theology runs counter to the love of God – no matter how neat and tidy – how carefully reasoned – something has gone wrong. I commend Fr. Breck’s article to all of you, and hope that new directions in Roman Catholic theology will indeed come to pass.


  1. says

    The issue of limbo in the Western Church is a tricky one. Obviously, it is a late scholastic invention to deal with a rather thorny subject. I suppose anything we say on the subject is pure speculation, but some we need to bear in mind:

    1. God owes us nothing: This is not an Eastern nor a Western concept. It is a Biblical and Patristic concept. Christ is quite clear in the Gospels that “broad is the way of perdition and many are those that take it”. Salvation is not the natural condition of man, otherwise grace would not be grace. God’s mercy may endure forever, but strictly speaking justice is justice. It is a pity that modern man, due to lack of faith, cannot accept the fact that we are owed nothing by God. (He gave us our existence, what more should we expect from Him?) Many of the Fathers of the Church (Chrysostom, Basil, etc.) are quite at ease with the concept that the vast majority of humanity will fall into the gaping jaws of hell.

    The problem, of course, is not with God. The problem is that modern man, because of his own pride, does not see the depth of evil. Evil is the most profound mystery of the cosmos. How can someone go against his own good and the good of others? That is free choice, and that is a mystery. But it is indeed a great mystery of iniquity. May the Lord deliver us from it!

    So when the child is born, he is under the power of the devil. Why else do the ancient liturgies have exorcisms at baptism? The devil is the lord of this world and the de facto prince of all who have not accepted Christ, no matter how “nice” or “naturally good” they might seem. To take for granted that God will save them through extraordinary means seems a bit like tempting the Lord thy God. He may do it, but we should not count on it nor even expect that such a thing is very likely.

    I am not an Augustinian. I have read very little Augustine. But Christians, like the Jews of old, are a chosen people. To try and fudge this even to make God “look better” to human eyes by saying that God must save all so that He can be “all in all” is going against the truth that God has revealed to us. Again, I must emphasize, God owes us nothing, His ways are not our ways.

    2. Soteriology: A lot of the language you are using about “ancestral sin” has been formulated no earlier than Romanides’ book on the subject. The Greek Fathers were all over the map on this question, and to say that they had “one doctrine” of how all of this works is stretching things a bit. They can be just as “legalistic” in some of their passages as Augustine, and Augustine can at times be just as poetic and cosmological in his concerns about man’s salvation and creation. Drawing stark lines does not help.

    3.Getting rid of limbo… so what?: Even if you got rid of limbo, everyone will still be in “limbo” on the subject. If the Vatican decides to dump it as a speculation, it will not be able to pronounce on the fate of unbaptized infants. So limbo will remain in a real sense, just as it remains in the Eastern Church: a vague question that we leave up to the mercy of God.

    But yes, His mercy does endure forever. So I am not eager at this point “in via” to know the specific plans of God.

  2. fatherstephen says


    1. Of course God owes us nothing – we owe him all, but my point remains that nature is not contrary to grace. This, again, is a later development. Nature (ousia) is good, as declared by God. We do not live in accordance with our nature, this is sin, missing the mark. Grace heals, and “completes that which is lackin