Limbo is a concept that arose in the Catholic Church to account for those dead who cannot clearly be assigned to Heaven or Hell according to Catholic doctrine. The idea is controversial even among Catholics, and most other Christians do not accept it at all. Throughout the history of the Catholic Church, limbo has been much discussed and debated by theologians. Essentially, it is an intermediate between Heaven and Hell, outside of the presence of God but free of the torment associated with Hell.
According to Catholic doctrine, only those who accept Christ's gift of salvation and become baptized may enter Heaven and live eternally in the presence of God. This becomes problematic in the case of those who are for any reason unable to meet these requirements during their lifetime, although they have not done anything offensive enough to be comfortably consigned to Hell. There are two main categories of limbo: limbus patrum or "Limbo of the Fathers" and limbus infantium or "Limbo of the Children."
Limbo of the Fathers is a temporary state where righteous people who died before the coming of Christ spent their afterlife until Christ's death opened Heaven to mankind. This belief is sometimes associated with the belief that Christ spent the three days between His death and resurrection preaching to the souls of the dead and freeing those who belonged in Heaven from their current state. Limbo of the Fathers applies to such Old Testament heroes as Abraham and Moses, for example.
Limbo of the Children is both the more controversial branch and the best known to those outside of the Catholic Church. Unlike Limbo of the Fathers, Limbo of the Children is often described as a permanent state. This is used to account for young children who die without being baptized. This dilemma is related to the Catholic belief in original sin, the sinfulness that all humans are born with as a result of the Fall of Adam described in the second and third chapters of Genesis. According to Catholic thought, baptism is required to remove original sin, and one cannot enter Heaven in a state of sin of any kind, be it original or personal.
Many Catholics throughout the ages have been troubled by the implications of original sin and baptism on the souls of children who clearly have no personal sin, yet die without being baptized. Many theories have been put forward to reconcile this problem with the Catholic belief in the essentially loving and forgiving nature of God, one of which is limbo. Some Catholic theologians describe it as a state of perfect natural happiness, as distinct from the supernatural bliss known in Heaven.
The word limbo is often used in a non-religious context to refer to any kind of intermediate, neutral state in which nothing really good or bad happens. In this sense, it can be a kind of stagnation or a waiting period with no clear end point.