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. 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. Vasquez,

    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 lacking” as the Orthodox liturgical expression has it.

    Justice – now there’s a problem. St. Isaac the Syrian said that “we know nothing of the justice of God, only His mercy.” Indeed He said the justice of God is His mercy. To substitute medieval, even feudal ideas of justice for a Scriptural understanding of justice distorts things very much. God is so just that he pays those hired at the end of the day the same as those hired at the beginning.

    We certainly have exorcisms in Baptism, not because each child belongs to the devil, but that the devil may have no more power over them. We do not assume that simply because an exorcism is performed that the child was thus possessed!

    Injustice is the devil laying claim to anything that belongs to God. Christ descended to the dead to bind the strong man and take back his own. No technicalities, no special pleading by the devil. Do I believe that some will be lost – Scripture and the liturgical texts of the Church would indicate so. Will there be many – perhaps so. Will they be unbaptized children – I do not believe so. Priests like me stand a much better chance of failing to enter the Kingdom.

    Romanides certainly popularized the use of “ancestral sin” in modern Orthodox circles. But it is generally accepted as accurate. The work of Fr. Georges Florovsky would be a greater guide to me – his recognition of improper appropriations of Western theology and ideas into Orthodoxy is historically correct. His Ways of Russian Theology, volumes 1 and 2 are certainly a magisterial demonstration of this (at least as far as Russia goes). Byzantine thought was not immune either. But this is a world away from speaking of conciliar decisions, liturgical imagery and the writings of the major fathers of the Christian East. Here, forensic imagery is largely absent. Simply because a Father may say something judgmental, or strict, etc., is not the same thing as saying that he was working within a forensic metaphor.

    Limbo was rejected by the East as a novelty (as was purgatory). And the imagery that supported it as unworthy of God.

    I am no universalist – except perhaps when it comes to babies. I have heard no theological theories that would pursuade me to abandon the mercy of God. I would add that a theological account that would require the condemnation of a baby should be reexamined. Something is lacking – something is wrong.

    3. It is probably correct that getting rid of limbo would still leave the matter unresolved within Rome. But it would be a good start – from an Orthodox perspective.

  3. Fr. Stephen, thank you for starting your own blog. Your comments on Pontifications were deeply thought-provoking, and I’m glad to see you will still be available here.

    My question is on your last paragraph: “Whenever theology runs counter to the love of God – no matter how neat and tidy – how carefully reasoned – something has gone wrong.”

    As a current participant in the war for the Anglican Communion, this seems to me to be very similar to what is said by the advocates for same-sex blessings and normalization of sexual immorality. Can you comment on why this sentiment is or is not applicable to that set of issues?

    Thank you.

  4. Good question Phil. I don’t think the love of God is a love that refuses to ask us to suffer. The God who loves us is primarily revealed in the crucified Christ. “If anyone would follow me,” we are told, “let him deny himself, take up us cross and follow me.” Suffering is an inherent part of Christian discipleship. The problem is that many modernists equate all suffering with something other than love.

    I believe that our sexual practices need to go to the cross as well as the rest of us, and though the Church would ask much suffering of some, it is still a suffering that is in obedience to the love of God and for our healing.

    I can in no way reconcile the love of God to unbaptized babies burning in hell, or languishing in limbo. There is a diffence between the two.

    I’m tempted to use the cliche of tough love, but prefer to speak of suffering love. Actually, I can think of no other kind of love – when love is rightly understood.

    I’ll post an article shortly on the writings of Fr. Sophrony on the nature of the love of God in this vein. I hope this is a helpful answer.

    With liberalism, I see two approaches rather commonly. One is to condemn all suffering (even legitimate suffering) and therefore to create new moralities. Again in opposition to suffering (legitimate suffering) they will advocate murder, as in the case of abortion and in the case of euthanasia.

    Stanley Hauerwas once commented (I don’t have this as an exact quote, it was a conversation) that whenever you agree to take charge of the outcome of history, then you have agreed to do violence. Liberals like to control history, to fix things. They believe that the world can be made better through such actions. But always, in the end, someone is being killed so that such ends may be achieved.

    That’s a little removed from the case of gay unions, but it is related to the suffering issue. We must understand that suffering is not contrary to God – indeed He invites us into it. But I see nowhere the love of God inviting babies into anything other than redemption.

  5. Fr. Breck wrote: “The real issue is far broader than the matter of limbo. It concerns nothing less than the Latin understanding of redemption and the role of baptism in that process. By eliminating limbo, are Catholic theologians saying as well that in fact there is no real ‘inheritance’ or transmission of original sin as such, but only of its deadly consequences?”

    If they are saying this, then they will inevitably undermine the basis of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, as well as of Limbo. The IC, like Limbo, was proposed by scholastic theologians to address a problem that follows from St. Augustine’s understanding of original sin as inherited by every individual at conception. If Catholics abandon the Augustinian understanding of the transmission of original sin, then they will no longer ask the question to which the Immaculate Conception was proposed as a solution.

    The Pontificator recently argued against a Franciscan theologian who based his defense of Limbo on the thought of Duns Scotus. I would note that Duns Scotus was also the primary early advocate of the Immaculate Conception.

  6. Roland,

    I do indeed think that is what Fr. Breck says in his comments – that the entire forensic metaphor is being shaken. From an Orthodox perspective I think this is good. The forensically imaged doctrine of Original Sin should be reconsidered as inadequate and not sufficiently ground in the Fathers or in Scripture. It’s use of a mistranslation of Romans 5:12 being only one example. Of course, much larger things are at stake. The governing imagery of our salvation. It’s why Orthodox and Roman Catholic can often be far apart. One would assume, that the immaculate conception, argued forensically, would also have to be reexamined. Gets kinda sticky!

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