The Divine Comedy: Week 5, Soteriological Patches

In Canto IV of the Inferno Virgil and Pilgrim ride the boat across the river Acheron to reach the first level of hell--Limbo.

Limbo is an interesting place. Pain is not inflicted upon the souls in Limbo. Life is pretty normal, sort of what life is like on earth. The "punishment" of Limbo is that life simply carries on and on, without any hope of final consummation. More on this "punishment" in a later post.

In the Comedy Dante places virtuous pagans who died before Christ in Limbo. Virgil himself is a resident of Limbo, as are Homer and Plato and other pagan luminaries.

Limbo has an interesting place in Catholic theology. As generally understood, Limbo is that place that held virtuous or innocent persons who died without baptism. This would include, for instance, good people who died before Christ. The Old Testament saints would be an example. Virtuous pagans who died before Christ are another example, and that's who we find in Limbo in The Divine Comedy. Why we don't find Moses and Elijah in Limbo we'll talk about next week.

Another group believed by Catholics to be in Limbo were unbaptized infants, thought this isn't in the Comedy. While never an official part of church doctrine, for centuries Catholics were taught and believed that unbaptized infants went to Limbo.

The Latin roots of the word "limbo" means "border" and "edge." It's a good word to describe what's going on theologically with Limbo. Yes, as regards the geography of hell, Limbo is on the "border" and "edge." Limbo is in hell, but no one is being tormented there. But my point is more theological, Limbo exists to handle theological situations that seem to fall on "edge" and "border" of our soteriological schemes.

You might think it strange that Catholics believed that unbaptized babies went to Limbo. But these unbaptized babies were falling through a soteriological gap in the Catholic system. The babies were "in sin" and had not been baptized. And yet, they are babies. Innocents. In short, unbaptized babies were a border case that required a soteriological patch on the system. Limbo was that patch. The babies weren't saved, but neither were they damned. They were in Limbo.

You might think that a very forced and contorted solution. But my Church of Christ soteriology had its own Limbo situations. For example, we believed you had to get baptized to be saved. And as teenagers we often wondered, "What if a person got hit by a bus on the way to the church to get baptized? What would happen to them?" That situation fell through the gaps of our soteriological scheme.

And there are other Limbo cases. What about an undiscovered tribe who had never heard the Good News? What about our own versions of virtuous pagans? For example, in Rob Bell's famous video rolling out his book Love Wins, he raised the question of Gandhi. "Is Gandhi in hell?" Rob asks.

My point here is that we all have our Limbo situations, border cases that seem to fall through the cracks of our soteriological systems.

And like Dante, we all have our patches.

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