An Argument Against Limbo

Though it's not used in the International Theological Commission's document The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized, I think the following argument is one of the stronger single arguments against a state of limbo:

Ezekiel and Jeremiah report the Lord's word against what has become a current proverb in Israel, "The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge" (Jer 31:29; Ezek 18:2). This saying shall no longer be valid. Particularly in Jeremiah it is clear that the time when "every one shall die for his own sin" pertains to the new covenant which God shall make, when "no longer shall each man teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, `Know the LORD.' "

This prophecy begins to be fulfilled with the coming of Christ, and is absolutely fulfilled in the eschaton. Therefore, at the end of time, no one will die (be definitively separated from participation in God's life) except on account of their own sin. In God's plan, therefore, original sin is something that is relevant only in this life in time, and does not determine anyone's definitive destination.

This argument does not, of course, attempt to give any account of how salvation in Christ is applied to an infant who dies without baptism, but only argues for the fact of its being offered.

15 thoughts on “An Argument Against Limbo”

  1. An initial reaction off the cuff: it follows that in times or places where the gospel is not known, one is better off dying as an infant than living. Those who die as infants skip this temporal life and original sin is not relevant for them, while those who live on in this temporal life find original sin relevant for them and may as a result of the effects of original sin end in eternal damnation.

    1. Several comments to that: first, if it followed from the theory that salvation is somehow offered to each person and thus no one ends in limbo, that one was better to die as an infant than to live in times or places where the gospel is not known, it would follow that it is better to baptized and die as an infant than to live in times and places where the gospel is known. But this is false, and therefore the conclusion in the first case is also invalid.

      The idea that it would be better to die earlier than to live seems to follow from either equating all states of blessedness and degrees of charity, or else supposing that minimizing one's chance of damnation is immeasurably more valuable than, e.g., maximizing the amount of charity one has and exercises.

      Secondly, that argument presupposes a particular way of understanding how God would be giving salvation to such infants (such that they would all be saved), which the argument I gave leaves unsettled. Some theologians who oppose the notion of limbo see salvation given to unbaptized infants without the involvement of their will (or at least without the possibility of their rejecting it), while others suggested that in the moment of death they face a choice for or against Christ.

      1. Considering your three paragraphs:

        #1 ignores the difference in probability of salvation before and after Christ. The difference may be irrelevant, but that fact would have to be argued.

        #2 introduces an interesting topic that would be worth a post in its own right: if Pascal's reasoning in his famous wager is correct, why precisely would it not follow that minimizing chances of damnation (infinite negative) does not overwhelm maximizing chances of a greater degree of charity (finite positive)?

        #3 seems right, although the proposal of a choice for or against Christ is at least as conjectural as limbo and so does not seem to advance the conversation.

        1. ad #2: Doesn't this reasoning stem from what you below call "the post-enlightenment instinct that we are in fact monads"? It seems to treat beatitude as though it were a private good. If one takes St Thomas's famous principle in Q.D. de Caritate, ("To love the good in which the blessed participate in order to acquire or possess it does not make man well disposed towards it, for the evil envy this good also; but to love it in itself, in order that it be conserved and spread, and so that nothing be done against it, this is what makes man well disposed to this society of the blessed.") then it seems evident that it is better to take a greater risk of damnation in order to be able to do more for the increase of the kingdom of God.

          1. Sancrucensis: Let me make sure I understand. You mean to say that the "infinite loss" of damnation is a risk to me privately, while the possibility of doing good is a boon to the kingdom of God collectively. So one cannot consider them on equal footing, and that answers my question about Pascal's wager. Have I understood?

          2. Yes, that's what I meant. I suppose my damnation would also be a loss to the City of God; but this is like the situation of a soldier in battle, his death is a loss to the army, but he still risks that loss for the sake of the the gain that the army gets through his actions.

    2. In fact, whether baptized or unbaptized, there is a certain respect in which it is better to die as an infant than to live (a life in which one commits sins), namely inasmuch as it is better never to sin than to commit sins. But it doesn't follow that it is better simply.

  2. OK, a more reflective reaction. Does this argument mean to say that the basis for the doctrine of original sin is a temporary, Old Testament arrangement like permission for multiple wives or allowing violent revenge? As thing become clearer, and men no longer marry multiple wives or avenge tooth for tooth, the basis of original sin also goes away?

    And does this mean in turn that Christ's salvation, while no doubt saving each of us from our individual sin, is not really necessary for infants because God already has a policy in place to the effect that men shall die only for their own personal sins?

    Those questions are linked, but here is a separate question. When the prophets say that men shall die for their own sins rather than for the sins of their fathers, they have directly in view the actual sins of individuals. Could we argue that the sin of Adam is "mine" more than the sin of my immediate father? That is, could we argue that inasmuch as original sin is a sin of the species man (committed personally by the species' representative) it is "mine", although not "mine" in the way of actual sin?

    1. No, it doesn't imply that the basis for the doctrine of original sin is temporary, but that original sin itself is temporary, only existing within history, except in the case of those who at the beginning of their moral life make it their own by actual sin, and never repent so as to receive remission of sins.

      (On this view), in God's plan Christ's salvation is necessary, among other reasons, because it is the means by which God fulfills his prophecy, by which he sees to it that men die only for their personal sins. Similarly the fact that God "already" had a plan of crushing the serpent does not make Christ's salvation unnecessary.

      Yes, one can understand the issue that way, as Augustine, and Aquinas following him do: e.g.,

      It is said, with much appearance of probability, that infants are involved in the guilt of the sins not only of the first pair, but of their own immediate parents. For that divine judgment, “I shall visit the iniquities of the fathers upon the children,” certainly applies to them before they come under the new covenant by regeneration. And it was this new covenant that was prophesied of, when it was said by Ezekiel, that the sons should not bear the iniquity of the fathers, and that it should no longer be a proverb in Israel, “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” Here lies the necessity that each man should be born again, that he might be freed from the sin in which he was born. (St. Augustine, Enchiridion, 46)

      In this particular text he allows that infants also share in the guilt (reatus) of their proximate parents. Elsewhere he emphasizes that original sin is also the infant's sin, since it was in Adam when he sinned.

      It is interesting, however, that it is usually Ezekiel is quoted, rather than Jeremiah, where the additional eschatological perspective is more clearly present. (Actually there is one obvious reason why Ezekiel would be cited more often than Jeremiah on this issue, namely that he devotes an entire chapter to it.)

      1. OK, this is helpful, but I think my question was not clear enough. Let me try again. To use the Jeremiah/Ezekiel principle (JEP), one would have to argue as follows:

        1. The reason JEP is true is X.
        2. X applies as much to original sin as to actual sin.
        3. Therefore, JEP is true of original sin.

        So my questions are: (a) What is X? (b) Is step #2 true?

        I can't answer these questions for myself as yet.

      2. First I should clarify that when I said "one can understand the issue that way" I didn't particularly mean to affirm that this way of understanding the issue is compatible with the interpretation of Ezekiel and Jeremiah suggested in this post, but that this is a way in which some doctors of the Church have expounded on the passages and the question of dying (the second death) for original sin.

        The argument relies on the fact that original sin is called sin analogously, and that the prophet is speaking of actual sin. A fuller account of the argument originally sketched in the post would be along these lines:

        1. Original sin, the state of separation from God, is called sin because it is a (1) separation from God that is (2) voluntary by reason of Adam's will.

        2. Punishment in the strict sense is due only to voluntary fault.

        3. Therefore, to die only for original sin (i.e., to die the "second death," be permanently separation from friendship with God, on account of original sin) is, insofar as it is strictly punishment, to die on account of Adam's sin.

        4. No man ultimately dies on account of another's sin. (Here the specific principle of Jeremiah and Ezekiel.)

        5. Therefore, no man ultimately dies (the second death) only on account of original sin.

        I emphasized "insofar as it is punishment" in point 3 because it was the position of Eastern Fathers (as well as the Pelagians) that infants dying without baptism are not punished for Adam's sin, yet still do not enter into glory, because they do not have grace and charity. It is hard to see, however, how this position is reconcilable with magisterial pronouncements that deprivation of the vision of God is punishment for original sin.

        1. Thank you.

          Another angle that I would be interested to understand better is why anyone ever did die for another's sin. That is to say, it is clear that in our world many people do die–even morally–because of others. Bad parents, bad schooling, and bad society do not just lead to invincible ignorance but often to sin and moral death.

          The mechanism by which this happens is somewhat understandable and somewhat mysterious, but what interests me is why God has such influence in his plan. Clearly, we are not simply responsible for our own salvation but for that of others, and our actions have real consequences for others' salvation. What a strange power!

          We are happy to find JEP, which proclaims that none of us will be punished for another's sins; but we can't take this as meaning that every man is a moral island. While I can't substantiate this, I suspect that some of today's resistance to limbo and to the possibility of hell for infants stems from the post-enlightenment instinct that we are in fact monads.

          1. That is a good point, and it is important to be aware of the factors that make us inclined to judge a matter one way or another.

            Your mention of "post-enlightenment" calls to my mind a comment of Ratzinger regarding limbo in his interview with Peter Seewald: "Earlier times had invented, it seems to me, a rather unenlightened teaching. [eine eher unerleuchtete Lehre]… The children who so die [without baptism], have indeed no personal sins, and can therefore not be put in hell, yet sanctifying grace is lacking to them and consequently the possibility of the vision of God. They would be given only a state of natural blessedness, in which they are happy. They then called this state "limbo".

            Granted that "unerleuchtet" is not the word used in reference to the Enlightenment, it may in fact not be entirely unconnected in the thinking, as you suggest.

          2. Of course it is true that man is not a "moral island," as you put it, but it would seem to me there must be certain limits on the moral influence that one is able to exert on another through schooling, society, etc.

            I had a discussion recently about whether it is possible to raise a child in such circumstances and in such a way so that the child would with a very high degree of probability, say 99%, live a life of grave sin and die in this state.

            The argument given against this position was to say that if the chances of a child consistently committing mortal sin and continuing in it were this great, than surely God would not hold the child responsible for such things, since it does not seem to be his fault, but rather the fault of the one who raised him in such a way. Certainly human judgment would consider the child to not be guilty of turning out the way he does.

            This argument does not prove that it is *impossible* for one to affect the eternal destination of another, and certainly if we hold that we can help another person attain heaven, then we must be able to hinder them in a sense, inasmuch as we may withdraw whatever we do which might help them to heaven.

          3. The discussion about someone with a 99% chance of living and dying in mortal sin is an interesting one. However, the argument that a person cannot place someone else in such a condition can easily be used to construct an argument against the existence of moral responsibility in general.

            If it is true that God would not hold the person responsible because he was only doing what he would almost certainly do, then it doesn't matter whether or not someone deliberately raises him in this condition: if a person lives in such conditions that he has such a chance of continuing in sin, even without it being another's responsibility, then God will not hold him responsible. But then it follows either that you cannot have a 99% of being lost, or at least that you cannot have that chance until you have already been committing sins.

            A reasonable conclusion from this argument would be that either everyone starts out with the same chance of salvation, no matter what his circumstances are, (Origen would be pleased with this argument), or that at least there is a certain minimum (50%,maybe?) below which no one starts out.

            But now consider this: if a person starts out with a 99% of "sinning," and therefore his act is not considered sin, the reason for not considering him guilty would have to be something like "he couldn't have avoided the act without being lucky." But then consider the opposite case: a person has a 1% chance of sinning. But then he will not be praiseworthy if he does not sin, since this had a 99% chance, just like the first case where there was a 99% chance of sin. But if he is not praiseworthy in avoiding sin, he will also not be blameworthy if he does sin; this had only a 1% chance, so he could not have done it all without being "unlucky", just as in the first case he needed luck to avoid sin.

            You might conclude that a person has to be somewhere in between to be morally responsible: for example, if a person has a 30-70% of sinning, he can be responsible. However, there are evident trains of reasoning from the former argument which will strongly suggest that this position will in the end be logically inconsistent, given that we accept the above arguments.

            A loose summary, leaving the intermediate steps for the reader: if a person who has a 99% chance of sinning is thought to need luck to avoid sin, then a person who has a 50% chance of sinning is completely determined by luck; he will be no more morally responsible than if his actions were determined by a coin flip, which also has a 50% chance of going one way or another.

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