Discarding Limbo

December 27, 2005 | 6 comments
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My mother was born to a Norwegian Lutheran, who feared for her infant children, lest they die prior to receiving the ordinance of baptism. I never knew my grandmother, but according to my mother, her fear was genuine.

Has there ever been a crueler teaching than the idea that unbaptized infants would be rewarded with eternal damnation? The idea of “limbo” was intended to soften that teaching. It was said to be a place — not quite heaven — where unbaptized babies could live without experiencing the torments of hell. I am not sure whether Grandma Thompson believed in limbo, but it is hard to imagine her taking much comfort from it.

Now, limbo is about to be abandoned by the Roman Catholic Church. Prior to his election as pope, Benedict XVI called limbo “only a theological hypothesis,” and he is doing something about it:

This month, 30 top theologians from around the world met at the Vatican to discuss, among other quandaries, the problem of what happens to babies who die without baptism. They do not like the word for it, but what they were really doing, as theological advisers to Pope Benedict XVI, was finally disposing of limbo – a concept that was never official church doctrine but has been an enduring medieval theory of a blissful state among the departed, somehow different from both heaven and hell.

What concept will replace limbo? According to early reports of the meeting, the theologians are set to replace limbo with a more “compassionate” doctrine that unbaptized children die “in the hope of eternal salvation.”

When my first child, Neill, died, my mother inquired about my beliefs with respect to the state of his soul. I explained that Neill would live in heaven, and that if I did my part, I would be with him again. That sat well with her. I suspect it would have pleased Grandma Thompson, too.

6 Responses to Discarding Limbo

  1. Julie M. Smith on December 27, 2005 at 11:20 pm

    I was thinking about this very issue as I finished reading the Book of Mormon today. I’m not sure what to think about Moroni 8:14–on the one hand it seems too harsh but on the other it doesn’t. (yeah, profound, well-reasoned analysis that is, I know)

  2. Ann on December 27, 2005 at 11:21 pm

    Apparently, some areas of the American Catholic Church discarded this teaching 20 years ago. I asked about it specifically before my older son was born, and was told that it had never been official doctrine, and that the idea of Limbo was a direct denial of Christ’s mercy.

  3. greenfrog on December 27, 2005 at 11:30 pm

    I find the BoM’s wind-down on infant baptism curious. I’ve never quite figured out what to make of it. This time through, though, I was struck more by the several references to dying in a state of sin leading to damnation. Those verses seem out of synch with current teachings (or perhaps my skewed perception of current teachings) that posit, instead, a more uncertain and potentially more favorable fate that might result from post-mortal opportunities and decisions.

    At any rate, as Gordon has noted, the Catholic Church is in the midst of a change — at least a change of speculation. Perhaps its change with respect to infant baptism is similar to the change in LDS doctrine from the damned-as-of-death posited by the BoM and our greater comfort today that depends upon greater post-mortal ambiguity.

  4. DavidH on December 28, 2005 at 11:13 am

    I rejoice in Pope Benedict’s nudge to clarify Catholic doctrine with respect to unbaptized infants.

    I suppose the reason why, for so many centuries, the pseudo-doctrine was taught or believed in some of Christianity that unbaptized infants who died would be damned or go to limbo, was because of its in terrorem effect, to emphasize the importance or urgency of baptism before it is too late. And I suppose the reason for Amulek’s apparent “damned as of death” discourse in Alma 34 is to have the same in terrorem effect–better repent before it is too late. [Of course, if there is no repentance after death, then all of us are permanently barred from God's presence.]

  5. Wilfried on December 29, 2005 at 4:57 pm

    I should have commented earlier for this post strikes a chord of memories. As a child who grew up in Catholicism I remember – in the 1950s – how this doctrine was a core issue of the belief system. We were told in detail the procedure of the “emergency baptism” of a dying infant if no priest was around. We should baptize it immediately and if we failed the poor little thing would be excluded forever. In Dutch limbo is called “vagevuur”, vague fire, not as hot as hell, but still burning the little ones for all eternity. Imagine the impression it made on us children. Yes, Mormon was right to call it an abominable doctrine.

  6. chris runoff on December 29, 2005 at 6:34 pm

    NPR also did a story on this here: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5033332

    Growing up in Mormonism took for granted the doctrines we accept concerning those who die without just opportunity to choose to follow Christ. However, as I grew older and started taking steps to gain my own testimony rather than borrowing that of my parents and leaders, this fundamental doctrine became one the strongest foundations for me.

    The concept of a just God does not coincide with the notion that those with out opportunity are damned and there is much solace for me in fundamental doctrines of repentance after death and baptism for the dead. These were not born of “theological hypothesis” but are truths of the gospel of Christ.