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Meaning of Being in Limbo

Foram Mehta Aug 18, 2020
The term limbo has been used as a Roman Catholic belief that states that those who die 'unbaptized' end up reaching a place that is believed to be the border of hell. The word limbo is also used colloquially to describe 'one's state of stagnation'. However, the term limbo got more attention after the movie 'Inception' used it as a fictitious term to describe
The word limbo is adapted from the Latin word Limbus, which means 'border'. However, the relevance and existence of this term is apocryphal. We shall explain the state of being in a limbo by dividing it into two parts, religious and the non-religious. The meaning of being in a state of Limbo in the religious-context is as follows-

Religious Context

The term limbo comes form the Latin word Limbuswhich is a Roman Catholic belief, meaning that when one dies without being baptized, his/her soul cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven and gets stuck in a place that lies between hell and heaven. 
Limbus or Limbo indicates a realm where the souls purified of the earthly sins cannot enter the gates of heaven because of the taint of the original sin, which has not been purified by the tradition of baptism. This theory is however, not believed by the protestants.

The Original Sin

It was said that the gates of the heaven are shut down on the mankind because the humans were tainted with the sin committed by Adam and Eve. This was because, it was believed that all human beings will be born in an inherent state of sinfulness and absence of holiness, as humans are decedents of Adam & Eve. 
And to overcome this, the tradition of baptism came in practice. The act of 'baptism' is believed to be a way for remission of the original sin and other sins too. The church has always preached baptism as the gateway to spiritual life and also as a practice for purgation.
Jesus himself taught, "I solemnly assure you, no one can enter into God's kingdom without being begotten of water and Spirit" (John 3:5).

Coming back to the theory of limbo, it is segregated into two categories -Limbo Patriarchs and Limbo Infantium.
Limbus Patriarchs/ Limbo of Fathers
Limbus Patriarchs is a state or a realm where the purified souls of those who died before the Christ ascended to the Kingdom of Heaven, stayed. These souls said to be deprived of the beatific Vision.
St. Paul (Ephesians 4:9) preached, that "before the Christ ascended to the heaven he also descended in the lower parts of the earth". 
St. Peter (1 Peter 3:18-20) also elaborated this by saying "being put to death indeed, in the flesh, but enlivened in the spirit and preached to those souls that were in prison, which had been some time incredulous, when they waited for the patience of God in the days of Noah"
This meant, that the three days between Christ's death and resurrection are believed to have been used by him for preaching the dead souls and freeing them to the heaven from their current state, which was in a Limbo.

Limbus Infantium/ Limbo of Infants

This limbo is explained as a place which is believed to be the edge of hell, where the unbaptized children's souls go, once they die. These children are said to have ceased their existence on the earth without bearing the burden of grievous personal guilt and therefore, they cannot go to Heaven. 
However, it is said that when these souls are in the state of limbo they are in a state of natural happiness but they are deprived of the supernatural happiness which lies in the beatific vision

There is no proof for the evidence of biblical-inclusion of the term limbo. 
Also, the Augustinian theologists did not believe in the existence of a realm called limbo. They believed that those who die unbaptized go to hell, but the punishments they face are milder. This thought was later opposed by other saints like St. Anselm and St. Abelard who strongly apposed this Augustinian tradition. 
The theory of Pelagianism then came in force. The Pelagianism theory teaches that the original sin does not taint the human nature and that god has gifted human being's with a will which is capable of making a choice between the evil and good. All human beings are to be held responsible for their own sins.

It should be noted that, the current Catechism of the Catholic Churchdoes not include the term limbo. The theory of limbo had been deleted by the catholic church in the year 1992, for reasons uncertain. The theory of limbo, has now been replaced with the teaching that, children who die without baptism are entitled to the mercy of god.

The theory of limbo is considered only as theological supposition and, is believed to have been a popular way to teach people, about the necessity of baptism as the door for eternal salvation and the repercussions of not being baptized. 
This theory of limbo is still said to be used as a part of the pastoral practice for explaining the mind of god, when the grieving parents of the unbaptized infants come to the pastors.

The state of being in a limbo holds the status of being a "possible theological hypothesis" 

References for the Term Limbo

In Other Religions
  • Mormon's teachings does not mention the term limbo but it does have references of the people who have died without the knowledge of the gospel, who were waiting for their destiny on the judgment day.
  • 'Hamistagan' is a concept similar to the state of being in a limbo in the Zoroastrain.
  • Islam, though it completely denies the existence of the 'Original Sin' it does mark the existence of a place similar to a Limbo which is called 'Barzakh'.
In Literature
  • In the last book from epic series of Harry Potter by J.K Rowling,'Harry potter and the deathly hallows' Harry appears in the state of limbo with Albus Dumbledore and a part of Voldemort's soul, after he sacrifices himself.
  • Dante Alighieri, the writer of the Divine Comedy poem Inferno also described limbo as the periphery of hell.
  • Seamus Heaney, a Noble Prize winner is best known for his poem called "Limbo", which talks about the Christian belief in limbo.
Non-Religious Context
The term limbo is used in a non-religious context too. It is often used as a vernacular term to describe a situation or a stage where nothing really moves or when nothing good or bad happens. It can be simply described as a stage of stagnation.

Meaning of being in a limbo - In the Movie - Inception
Why I chose to include this as a part of my article because many of you would be trying to look for the meaning of the term limbo with its reference in the movie Inception.
It is important to know the meaning of being in a limbo according to 'Inception', because Inception's concept of being in a limbo has become very popular and is being used vernacularly. The concept of limbo in Inception is fictitious. The concept of the movie is based on people 'sharing a common dream space' while they are 'lucid dreaming'.
In the movie Inception a person enters the state of limbo, when one enters into the deep levels of dreams and dies inside one of the levels or gets stuck in one of the dreams subconsciously, believing that the dream is a reality. After reaching the stage of limbo in a dream, a person cannot come back.
Limbo as a concept, used in any context will always hold a mysterious existence. But it will always leave you to believe in the possibility that, even you can be in the state of a limbo.