April 26, 2007
Divine Comedy, the poet Dante places many a distinguished individual from antiquity on the first level of hell. Here reside Homer and Horace, Aristotle and Cicero. Even Saladin, the famous 12th century Sultan of Egypt, finds his place here along with the great Islamic philosophers Avicenna and Averroës, whose writings influence the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas.
This first level of hell is limbo. It is the place for the unbaptized. Dante locates limbo beyond the river Acheron but before the judgment seat of Minos. Here the unbaptized heroes of old spend their eternity in a castle that resembles Elysium. They do not suffer the pains of the damned. But neither do they enjoy the vision of God in heaven.
As they pass through this place, the Roman poet Virgil, Dante’s guide through hell, tells the author:
That they did not sin; neither did their virtue bestow Anchor
On them any advantage, for they did not receive
Baptism, the gateway to the faith you follow. Inferno, IV, 34.
Thus, Dante frames in poetic form a solution to a problem that plagued great theologians since the time of Augustine. The problem: if Baptism is necessary for salvation, what happened to those who died without baptism? The solution: they went to limbo.
Even the saints of the Old Testament inhabited limbo before the coming of Christ. Abel, Noah, Moses, Abraham and David. They had to wait for Christ to come to limbo to save them and bring them to heaven.
This truth is found in the Apostles’ Creed. This profession of faith used in baptismal liturgy from earliest times speaks of Christ’s going to limbo after the crucifixion. The creed says that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended into hell.” The expression “
He descended into hell” means that, prior to the resurrection, Jesus was truly dead. Like all who experience death, he joined all those who had died in the realm of the dead. But, unlike everyone else, he went there as the Savior. He went to proclaim the good news to the just who had gone there before him (cf.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, 632-633).
According to the teaching of St. Paul, after Christ died, but before he ascended into heaven, Christ, “descended into the deepest levels of the earth” (Ephesians 4:9). According to the first letter of St. Peter, “In the body Christ was put to death, in the spirit he was raised to life, and, in the spirit, he went to preach to the spirits in prison” (1 Peter 3:18-19). In a word, the Scriptures are alluding to Christ’s descent into hell.
This is not the hell of the damned. It is limbo where the just were waiting for Christ. Thus, “in his human soul united to his divine person, the dead Christ went down to the realm of the dead. He opened heaven’s gate for the just who had gone before him” (CCC, 637).
Virgil explains this to Dante when he says:
These and many others He raised to a blessed station;
Before them, I want you to know,
No human souls had ever achieved salvation."
Inferno, IV, 61
All salvation comes through Christ. By the mystery of his death and resurrection, he reconciled the world to God (cf. 2 Cor 5:19). Even those who lived before the coming of Christ are saved only through his paschal mystery. This is the meaning of Christ’s descent into hell.
But what about those who live after Christ? How are they saved? At the end of the Gospel of Mark, the Risen Lord appears to the Eleven and says to them, “Go out to the whole world; proclaim the gospel to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mk 16:15-16). Christ thus makes baptism the way to share in his paschal mystery and come to salvation (cf. Rm 6:4).
Yet, not every one is baptized. Many people die without receiving this sacrament. What happens to them? If they have lived virtuous lives, do they go to limbo like those who lived before the coming of Christ? And what about the babies who die without ever being baptized? Do they go to limbo?
This is the first of a series of articles that explore limbo as a way to understand the Church’s faith on the gift of salvation.