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What is Limbo?

Niki Foster
Updated Feb 18, 2024
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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.

LanguageHumanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Niki Foster
By Niki Foster , Writer

In addition to her role as a LanguageHumanities editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual topics in order to get ideas for her own articles. She is a graduate of UCLA, where she majored in Linguistics and Anthropology.

Discussion Comments

By anon138528 — On Jan 01, 2011

I had a dream about my losing my younger disabled brother and I looked everywhere for him for days. When I could not find him, I walked along a beach and there was a large white house. It was empty, but there was a small red-headed child in the backyard. When I asked him where my brother was, he did not speak, but pointed to a window on the second floor of the house.

I knew my brother could not have made it here on his own. I found him upstairs, alone, in a room full of empty chairs. He got up and was happy to see me. He no longer was disabled. He was waiting for me there. Is this limbo? please tell me if you think you can help me.

By anon67405 — On Feb 24, 2010

Pope Benedict XVI recently stated that the Roman Catholic Church has never taught Limbo and it is not a place one should treat as a belief of the church.

Certain teachers of the church have taught it and the Pope said it is not a heresy to believe in it, but that the Roman Catholic Church by no means teaches that Limbo is real and rather it is treat as an accidental teaching in the past that was likely false.

It is always important to be baptized, however, upon Jesus' emphasis on baptism even though Limbo is not a teaching in the Roman Catholic Church and rather was stated by Pope Benedict XVI as not being real.

By NoName428 — On Jun 19, 2009

all right, the post said one of the limbo categories was limbus patrum (i used the latin version to sound smart) where righteous people went before Christ came, but I thought before Christ came, righteous people would go to Abraham's Bosom when they died, which was like on the other side of this huge gap from Purgatory or something like that. or is Abraham's Bosom just another name for limbus patrum?

Niki Foster

Niki Foster


In addition to her role as a LanguageHumanities editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual...

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