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Memento Mori

The abolition of Limbo, and the importance of eternity.

11:00 PM, Dec 15, 2005 • By ROSS DOUTHAT
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FOR UNDERSTANDABLE REASONS, Christians of an orthodox stripe tend to grow suspicious when the conversation turns to dispensing with elements of the faith that may have overstayed their welcome. We've been led down that primrose path before: You start with bright talk about paring down the Christian apple to its essential core, and the next thing you know you're peeling fruit with John Shelby Spong, stripping away not only bleeding statues and miraculous medals, but the doctrine of the Trinity and that whole difficult business of the Resurrection besides.

Still, it's hard to imagine that more than a few cranks and old-timers will actually miss the almost-doctrine of Limbo, which the Catholic Church may soon consign to theological oblivion, releasing its unbaptized inhabitants into the merciful hands of the Deity. Not necessarily into heaven, mind you: being the Author of the universe, God may do what He likes with them. But given His reputation for mercy, it seems highly unlikely that they'll be joining Hitler, Caligula, and the casting directors responsible for Andie McDowell's career in the warmer precincts of the next life.

Not, of course, that the Church has ever definitively consigned any human being to hell, Judas included--which is why the notion of a neatly-defined limbo reserved for a neatly-defined segment of humanity was so misguided in the first place. The concept of a semi-blessed realm where the unbaptized frolicked, in ignorance of the even greater blessings denied them, was a well-intentioned theory at its inception, and a welcome alternative to the rather harsher hellfire hypothesis advanced--with, one hopes, a trace of regret--by Saint Augustine, among others. But it ultimately reflected an unwarranted degree of presumption about the afterlife, its geography, and its population distribution.

There's a reason that Limbo made its most effective appearances in Dante and Milton, rather than any theological treatise. All the direct evidence the New Testament offers, from Christ's transfigured body to the visions of John's Apocalypse, suggests that the experiences of the next life are a mystery to be meditated on, rather than a theological puzzle to be solved--as does Saint Paul's reminder that "eye hath not seen, ear hath not heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man what things God has prepared for those that love him." Which is why imagining the intimate details of the hereafter, its lakes and mountain ranges, cities and inhabitants, is an activity best left to the poets and mystics--to the realm of art and private revelation, rather than dogma. And when theologians rush in where angels fear to tread, the results are usually impertinent, bizarre, and more than a bit silly. (Witness the recent flailings of Peter Kreeft, a sensible scholar reduced to inanity when called upon to answer "thirty-five frequently asked questions about eternity.")

A greater degree of agnosticism about the shape of things to come, then, and a greater humility about theology's ability to predict the disposition of individual souls, is one of the more welcome developments in Catholic teaching over the last century or so. Particularly under Popes John Paul and Benedict, the Church's emphasis has shifted away from declaring confidently who will and won't be consigned to perdition, and toward a more modest mixture of fear and hope concerning the next life--fear that souls will be lost eternally (and zeal for their conversion), but hope as well that in the providence of God there may yet be salvation for those who never experience Christian baptism.

There is one difficulty with this development, however, which is that it too often shades into two characteristically modern mistakes--the Panglossian Christianity that denies the reality of sin and the possibility of damnation, and the widespread conceit that a more spiritually mature humanity ought to concern itself entirely with things of this world, and leave death, and its aftermath, out of the picture entirely. The latter error used to manifest itself in utopian follies like Communism, but of late it's primarily visible in the gnostic theism of writers like Elaine Pagels and Karen Armstrong, for whom religion is about the journey, not the destination, and for whom the hope of eternity is only interesting insofar as it makes people behave better here on Earth.