Is Limbo in Limbo?

October 10, 2006

According to this article, the Pope may be about to abolish the Catholic doctrine of limbo, a centuries-old teaching that answers the question, “What happens to unbaptized babies that die in their infancy?” The medieval doctrine of limbo taught that they go to limbo, a sort of halfway house between heaven and hell.
Why abolish a doctrine that has been around for almost a thousand years? Fundamentally because almost no one believes it anymore and hardly anyone teaches it. The Pope himself said that the doctrine was a “theoretical hypothesis” and not a “definitive article of the faith.” He appointed a commission of theologians to consider what to do about limbo. According to the article, before the 13th century the Catholic Church taught that all unbaptized infants go to hell because of the taint of inherited original sin. Limbo as it developed became a region on the “edge” of heaven where those unbaptized infants could live eternally, not exactly in heaven but definitely not in hell.
And there is the further nagging question, one that goes much deeper than questions about limbo. If this partciular doctrine is up for grabs because no one believes it any longer, what other doctrines could be revised or even dropped altogether? Once you start tinkering with the teaching of the church, where do you stop?
Having said that, I wish to commend the Pope for having the courage to face the issue squarely. If there is no scriptural support for limbo (and there isn’t), and if the teaching serves no theological or pastoral purpose, and if most people don’t believe it and most priests ignore it, why keep it on the books, so to speak? It takes enormous courage to confront tradition and say, “We will not teach this any longer.” Overall, I view this as a very positive development. And as an evangelical Protestant from the Reformation tradition, I can only hope that the Pope will appoint a few more commissions to consider a few other doctrines as well.
But it’s not just the Catholics who need to do some housecleaning. Every church has its share of inherited traditions–some of which are very valuable and others that serve no purpose except to perpetuate what was done in the past. That’s why the reformers adopted this slogan: Reformed and Always Reforming.
God bless the Pope for dealing with a doctrine that cannot be justified in the light of Scripture, theology or pastoral practice. Let limbo go into limbo, and let every church consider whether its traditions come from man or from God.

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