Question 138:

Did the Pope himself create limbo so that he can simply abrogate it? You believed in limbo until now. After the Pope abolished limbo, what happened to those who were there?


Answer: In the first part of our answer, we present Islamic and Christian teaching regarding the reality of the Turkish word Araf (= Arabic a’rāf) that the reader has used. In the second part, we ask to what extent it is correct to say that the Pope has abrogated limbo.


The Arabic word a’rāf means: the summit, elevation. Al-A’rāf is the title of Sura 7. Here it means: the mountain crest, the heights and here it alludes to that reference in Sura 7, which describes the peoples behaviour who dwell neither in hell nor in paradise: 7,46-49: Between them shall be a veil, and on the heights will be men who would know everyone by his marks: they will call out to the Companions of the Garden, "peace on you": they will not have entered, but they will have an assurance (thereof). When their eyes shall be turned towards the Companions of the Fire, they will say: "Our Lord! send us not to the company of the wrong-doers". The men on the heights will call to certain men whom they will know from their marks, saying: Of what profit to you were your hoards and your arrogant ways? Behold! are these not the men whom you swore that Allah with His Mercy would never bless?

In the exegesis of the classical Muslim Koran commentaries compiled in the “Korankommentar”(Gütersloh 1996), Vol. 7, p. 74, A. Th. Khoury writes:

“There are various opinions held by Muslim commentators regarding the place described as the mountain crest and the men who live there.

- The summit belongs to the heights of paradise and the men are the elect who have been particularly blessed.

- The place is the mountain crest on the border between paradise and hell, and the men are the distinguished amongst those who have abounded in obedience to God and who have received His special reward. Closer are angels or prophets or martyrs. From the hill they observe those who have been saved as they enter paradise and those who have been damned as they plunge into hell. They themselves must wait for the longed-for happiness in paradise until those who have been saved and those who have been condemned have taken their final places. Then they will enter paradise and will occupy the high ranks determined for them.

- Others (the majority according to Tafsir al-Manar) believe here that the men are in the lowest ranks of the saved, or are those whose good and evil deeds balance each other out, and who have to wait until God in His mercy and grace brings them into paradise. Or they are the evil-doers amongst the faithful whom God forgives once after a certain time has elapsed and allows them to enter paradise.”


The last of these three alternative interpretations led to the conception of a stopover between paradise and hell. For this reason al-A’raf came to mean limbo. This belief then coincides with certain exegeses of another quranic term barzakh (see Sura 23,100). Barzakh means obstacle, barrier, and with some commentators it means a physical barrier between paradise and hell. In eschatological interpretations, the term is sometimes understood similarly to the Christian term limbo. Ibn Hazm (died 1064) teaches that sinners who are believers do not remain in hell forever, but are let into paradise once they have served their temporal punishment. This conception of a temporal hell resembles the Christian conception of purgatory (cf. art. Al-A’raf in C. Glassé, The Concise Encyclopaedia of Islam (London, 1989)


Limbo (Latin for border, fringe, edge) means the place or condition of the dead who are not in heaven, in hell or in purgatory. Limbus patrum (limbo of the fathers) is the place or condition of the righteous who died before Christ and who could not achieve heavenly beatitude from descent into hell and His ascension. Limbus puerorum, which has gained significance only in the Christian tradition, is the place or condition of minors or those who were able to use their reason. These people, even after the Gospel had been sufficiently spread, never received the sacrament of baptism and thus were not integrated into the Church.[The following needs to be said concerning this teaching:]

(a) Holy Scripture offers no witness to Limbus puerorum. (b) While the earliest Christian tradition says nothing explicit regarding the fate of the unbaptised, Limbus puerorum gains great significance in the defence against Pelagianism (i.e. the teaching condemned by the Church that humans can make the first and decisive steps to gaining salvation through their own efforts without divine grace). In refuting the teaching that although baptism was necessary to gain supernatural beatitude (heaven) but not, on the other hand, to gain natural beatitude (eternal life), Augustine stresses, by calling upon the witness of Holy Scripture, that baptism is necessary for salvation and the resulting integration into the Church is the only path to salvation. Scripture and the faith of the Church say nothing about natural beatitude. Thus unbaptised children go to hell even though they suffer only the mildest punishment. Scholastic theologians attempt to soften Augustines rigour by postulating that for the unbaptised limbo is the final condition in the sense of natural beatitude, which is different to hell (excluded from seeing God but no sensory agonies). (c) The Magisterium (=the teaching office of the Church) has never explicitly acknowledged the teaching on Limbus puerorum, even though this belief may not be described at a Pelagian myth, according to a judgment by Pius VI (1794) (DS 2626). (d) Limbus puerorum has gained no significance in ecumenical dialogue. (e) There is disagreement in contemporary Catholic theology on the teaching regarding limbo. Some theologians regard the teaching as binding because in the Catholic tradition it appears above all in various catechisms. However, most contemporary theologians reject limbo, firstly, because it is hard to reconcile with Gods will for universal salvation and secondly, because both Holy Scripture as well as medieval judgments by the Magisterium only know heaven or hell as the final resting place for salvation or calamity following a possible catharsis in purgatory (Josef Finkenzeller, art. Limbus in: W. Beinert (ed.), Lexikon der katholischen Dogmatik (Freiburg, 1987), p. 349ff).

2. Has the Pope abrogated (abolished) limbo?

The answer to Question 1 reveals that a Pope neither created this doctrine nor did a Pope abolish it. It is important to remember the hierarchy of truths here. This states that the individual dogmas should be understood as a part of Christian doctrine and that this doctrine has structures and accents which give faith an objective unity, which is frequently discussed and which also justifies a legitimate plurality of theology. In the final analysis, all articles of faith show Gods revelation as effected through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit to save humanity. Therefore, the core of Christian belief is the doctrine of the triune God together with the doctrine of God made man in Jesus Christ, and the associated doctrine of human salvation and the recreation of humankind. The principle of the hierarchy of truths teaches that a distinction needs to be made between content that is binding from the Gospel and traditions that are legitimate but are not generally binding. Moreover, the Christian doctrine of God’s will for universal salvation needs to be pointed out here. By this the Church understands Gods fundamental loving intention to offer salvation to all people. The opposite of this are theories of Gods limited or particular will for salvation where God has predestined only part of humankind for salvation. The Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Church, “Lumen gentium” (n. 16), teaches that people who search for God and live according to their conscience can gain salvation.


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