The Fascinating World of Dante’s Limbo

Most people today don’t quite know what to make of the old doctrine of limbo. Is it a place of eternal natural happiness or a place of hellish torment? Does it even exist, or is it just a game we play at wedding receptions? In Dante’s Divine Comedy limbo makes its appearance in the realm of Hell. Today I’ll take some time to reflect on Dante’s choice in placing it here as well as where limbo fits into contemporary Catholic theology.

In the Inferno’s fourth canto, Dante’s Virgil gives us the inner rationale that determined the fate of souls in limbo.

They did not sin. If they had merits, these

were not enough–baptism they did not have,

the one gate to the faith which you [Dante the pilgrim] believe.

And if they lived before the Christian faith,

they did not give God homage as they ought,

and of these people I myself am one.

Here Dante reveals the presence of souls in limbo who shuffled off this mortal coil both before and after the advent of Christ. These souls receive the least brutal of Hell’s punishments since they did not sin on earth, but the fact remains that they had to go to this place because they lacked baptism, which gives the soul the sanctifying grace necessary to participate in the life of Christ and so attain the Beatific Vision. In connection with this I am reminded of a statement from Frank Sheed to the effect that Hell is not the result of God arbitrarily meting out punishment to mortals, but rather a matter of whether at the time of our deaths we have power to live in Heaven or not—a power bestowed on us precisely when original sin is washed away and we become new creatures in baptism.

Dante sometimes pushes the theological envelope in his work, and here you see that happen when Virgil reveals that he–Dante’s beloved Teacher and guide–himself resides in Hell even though he was granted leave to guide Dante through Purgatory (but not Heaven). It’s almost as if Dante is saying, “My theology can’t justify putting you in Purgatory, but I’m going to find some genius way to make it happen!” Since Virgil is here, that means Dante logically also have him accompanied by Aristotle, “the master of all those who know,” he whom Dante’s master Thomas Aquinas called simply “The Philosopher.” Here of course also must dwell Socrates, Plato, and other great minds of antiquity.

Incidentally, we also find great Muslims in limbo–the sultan Saladin who impressed Christian Crusaders with his savvy in addition to the philosophers Avicenna and Averroes. Aquinas, whose work is reflected here in Dante’s speech, referred to the latter simply as “The Commentator” because his Aristotelian commentary and translation was instrumental in reintroducing this giant of antiquity to the medieval Christian world. Thus, although Dante depicts Hell’s inner city of Dis as spotted with the minarets of Muslim mosques, what he thinks about the religion of Islam as such doesn’t mitigate his immense respect for these individual Muslims who earn the same place as the man whom Christians such as Erasmus story have called “St. Socrates.”

At any rate, Virgil explains to Dante that, while committing “no crime,” he and these others remain lost and suffer only the reality of hopelessly living forever in desire of something greater. In this connection, I think Dante’s placement of limbo in Hell rather than in the Purgatory’s earthly paradise makes a lot of sense. If limbo were really a matter of forever possessing only natural happiness, as some versions of the theory have held, to my mind it would be tantamount to Hell itself since souls there would always retain that “God-shaped hole” in our hearts, restless because our hearts rest only in God, as St. Augustine says.

Another aspect of limbo revealed by Virgil concerns the fact that some of its inhabitants resided there only temporarily:

I had just entered this state

when I saw coming One of power and might,

crowned with the glorious sign of victory.

From us he took the shade of our first father,

the shades of his son Abel and of Noah,

of Moses, who, obedient, gave the Law…

and many others, and he made them blessed.

And I want you to know that, before these,

salvation came for not one human soul.

The image evoked here is that of the limbus patrum, the limbo of the fathers or patriarchs. The theological reasoning behind this last statement was that the Paschal Mystery of Christ alone opens the gate of salvation, and so anyone who lived chronologically before this had to wait for redemption. Thus at one point in time Moses would have sat next to characters such as Cicero in limbo, but after his crucifixion Christ released the former, having “preached to the spirits in prison” (1 Pet 3:19). The Byzantine iconographic tradition, present also in the West in some places, depicts Christ’s harrowing of Hell in the vivid image of Christ breaking the bars of limbo and lifting Adam and Eve up to be with him forever.

In the Apostles’ Creed we also profess that Christ descended into Hell, but the word used here is Hades (Greek) or infernos (Latin), not limbo—a term which might be best translated as “the lowest regions,” i.e. the underworld or netherworld. This is a brief way of illustrating that deciphering the nature of limbo is anything but a simple matter. It has to be done while also considering related but distinct terms such as Sheol (the early Hebrew word used in the Old Testament to describe the fate of all the dead), as well as Hades (classical Greek god/realm of the underworld and the Septuagint’s way of translating Sheol).

All this is not even to broach the question of whether or not unbaptized infants would be found in limbo. Often in church history, theologians have held the sententia or opinion that infants who died before receiving baptism would go to a place of eternal natural happiness for the reasons given above by Dante (Indeed, Dante himself briefly mentions the presence of infants in limbo). This has never been an official teaching of the Catholic Church. I have looked through the popes and ecumenical councils, and have not been able to find any magisterial statements affirming limbo’s existence. The only related thing I’ve found are statements of the Ecumenical Council of Florence which would appear to deny the possibility of anyone being saved without baptism–but the council remains silent on limbo. But please, if you have found anything on limbo itself, let me know as I am always looking for some new theological challenge to take up.

Even if it was commonly taught by theologians in the past, limbo does not appear in the Catechism today. Instead, the CDF and Catechism both have indicated that we should entrust these children to the mercy of God and continue to offer funerary rites for them as we do for adults, thus leaving open hope for their salvation. I may post on this last document some day in the future, but for now let me also link to a germane work of the International Theological Commission which I read and found illuminating when it came out several years ago It gives a historical overview of the Church’s teaching on limbo and offers plausible reasons why today we may have firm hope that infants who die unbaptized are with God in Heaven, not merely in limbo. It is not a magisterial document per se and reminds us that the eternal destiny of unbaptized children is not a reality that has been revealed to the Church. Nevertheless, I think the document accurately reflects the mind of the Church today on this matter. Indeed, the fact that Pope Benedict XVI signed off on it indicates that he considers it in conformity with sound Catholic doctrine.

All that from just a few lines of Dante, and I could have said much more. Alas, I have other things to do, so for now and enjoy until I write again.


Matthew Ramage



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