The development of Christian eschatology — ‘Last Things’, like death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell — has led to exquisite literature, such as Dante’s Divine Comedy. The comedy is a journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. But how much can Christians claim to know about the last things?
In recent years, the publishing of books like Love Wins (Rob Bell) has led some Christians to re-think the degree to which the Bible is capable of answering our questions about eschatology. Does Hell really last for eternity, as Dante and a very prominent Latin translation of the Bible say? Scholarship has also rediscovered a number of Christian universalists — or, more minimalistically, Christians who occasionally wrote in such a way as to really sound like universalists — including canonized saints whose writings were indispensable in the establishing of Trinitarian orthodoxy (e.g., St Gregory of Nyssa). This rediscovery of Christian speculation about Hell as done much to reenergize passionate debates.
To be fair, the ancient ‘universalists’ saw Hell as a version of what we might today call ‘Purgatory’, and so their ‘universalism’ could not easily be accused of sentimentalism. But their memory has done much to inspire contemporary universalists in their debate against what has become the conventional view that it is at least possible to go to Hell eternally. (I will call this view ‘ECT’ for ‘eternal conscious torment’, though I suspect that ECT has more barbaric — Edwardsean? — connotations than I, who may reasonably be accused of a kind of traditionalism, would be willing to grant.)
I tend to think that much of the problem with intra-Christian debates in general is a widespread amnesia regarding Christian ideas in general. To wit, most Christians today probably don’t have much more than a vague impression of genuine Christian values. Considering this, I find it unsurprising that debate over fundamental issues has become commonplace.
In my opinion, the conversation would benefit from clear and careful distinctions. The universalist engagement with free will in the question of the scope of salvation is illustrative. Usually, free will is an argument against universalism, but philosophical universalists like Thomas Talbott and David Bentley Hart have attempted to use freedom as an argument for universalism in asking whether the ‘freedom’ to destroy oneself a meaningful freedom. Similarly, those of us who are skeptical of universalism ought to employ more careful terms.
One distinction that was born in Catholic thought was Limbo, a “place” in between Heaven and Hell (not Hell because it is not as severe, not Heaven because it lacks the ‘supernatural’ happiness that is bestowed upon the saved by grace). Formulations of Limbo vary from Dante Alighieri’s fairly terrifying version (practically a mini Hell) to St Thomas Aquinas’ highly optimistic presentation (almost a mini Heaven). Limbo represents the dignity of scholastic thought: as a science concerned with carefully articulating the Catholic faith.
An important thought experiment for Limbo is that of the fate of infants who die before baptism. (It is important to note that baptism is traditionally considered to be the moment of Christian rebirth that saves the human person. As Christ said, “unless one is born of water [baptism] and the Spirit, one cannot see the Kingdom of God” (John 3:5).) Does an unbaptized infant go to Hell, or Heaven? If we say ‘Heaven’, it is implied that baptism is not necessary for salvation (which the traditionalist would deny), and if we say ‘Hell’, it is implied that original sin is really original guilt, and babies who have never sinned can be punished as though they did (which seems morally preposterous).
According to the concept of Limbo, while an unbaptized baby would not necessarily go to Heaven (since Heaven requires grace, and grace is by definition undeserved), the baby would also not go to Hell (since Hell requires an intentional turning away from God, which is accomplished by freely committing a ‘mortal sin’). In this way, the definition of grace and the moral intelligibility of Hell are both preserved.
I will mention just one formulation of Limbo, that of the ‘Angelic Doctor’, St Thomas Aquinas. According to St Thomas, freely turning away from grace by committing mortal sin (mortal sin is by definition freely chosen) is necessary to go to Hell. What if one never committed a mortal sin? Such a person would not deserve to go to Hell, but neither would they thereby ‘deserve’ to go to Heaven, since Heaven is a grace that cannot be earned. Therefore, this person (perhaps an unbaptized infant, or an unbaptized victim of an abortion) would go to Limbo.
St Thomas defined Limbo as a state of perfect ‘natural’ happiness. This is different from Heaven, which is ‘supernatural’ happiness. Supernatural happiness is given by grace. It cannot be earned. I believe that St Thomas’ understanding of Limbo is highly generous, especially compared to some other conceptions of Heaven and Hell that make Hell the default destination for every human being, including infants who seem to lack the moral autonomy necessary for a doctrine of Hell to begin to make sense.
What happened to Limbo? After the Protestant Reformation, some Catholic thinkers felt that the development of doctrine to the notion of Limbo could not be straightforwardly justified by appeals to Scripture or a reading of the most prominent Latin church father, St Augustine. The question about Limbo is this: is Limbo a violation of the biblical and Patristic teachings on eschatology, or is it a fulfillment of their most fundamental principles?
My own conviction is that Limbo is an authentic expression of biblical and Patristic faith. I believe that a return to scholastic principles like Limbo can pave a way forward to an understanding of concepts that have become confusing today. We can move beyond sentimental universalism and morally calloused understandings of Hell by returning to the foundations of these ideas and cautiously seeking to make important clarifications, as I believe the concept of Limbo does.