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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.

In the quest for this-world enlightenment and loss-of-ego, Armstrong wrote a few years ago, ideas of an afterlife may be "beneficial" if kept safely in perspective--"but all too often, the quest for immortality becomes profoundly unreligious." In her preferred form of Christianity, Paul's "eye-hath-not-seen" exhortation is reinterpreted as a call to this-world-only religiosity, and the whole Christian idea is reshaped along more eastern lines, with less emphasis on the horror of death and the hope of resurrection, and more on "the discovery of a sacred realm of peace in the depths of one's own self."

Yet death remains--obdurate, inevitable, unmoved by "sacred realms of peace" or anywhere else we might hide from its remorseless advance. And to treat the Christian hope of eternity as a means to another end, whether enlightenment or inner peace or good works or the loss of the ego, is to muddle means and ends beyond recognition. Death isn't "beneficial" to our spiritual quest, it's a reason for our spiritual quest--the horror at the heart of being, and the end of all the ends there are.

Reflecting recently on the death of his mother, Susan Sontag, the journalist David Rieff noted that "there are those who can reconcile themselves to death and those who can't." His mother was one of the latter. She "feared extinction above all else, was in anguish over its imminence," Rieff writes; "I am not interested in quality of life!" she cried, when the doctors suggested that a life-prolonging treatment might not be in her best interests.

Orthodox Christianity, unlike its gnostic and Buddhist reincarnations, refuses to pretend that this desire for life is somehow spiritually immature, let alone "profoundly unreligious." Sontag's cry, like Job's before it, is the question to which Christ's resurrection is the answer, the hallmark of a fallen world that Christians believe their savior died to redeem. Death isn't a development to be reconciled with, but an enemy that God has overcome, so that we can say with Saint Paul "O death, where is they sting; o grave where is thy victory?"

If Limbo told us too much about death and the afterlife, presuming knowledge that no Christian should claim, then a religion that brackets the question of eternity tells us too little. Somewhere between the schematized afterlife of the scholastics and the too-sophisticated-by-half spirituality of today lies the truth--that what comes after death is a mystery that no eye hath seen, but that it's the most important mystery there is.

Ross Douthat is an associate editor at the Atlantic Monthly.