AskDefine | Define limbo

Dictionary Definition



1 the state of being disregarded or forgotten [syn: oblivion]
2 an imaginary place for lost or neglected things
3 (theology) in Roman Catholicism, the place of unbaptized but innocent or righteous souls (such as infants and virtuous individuals)

User Contributed Dictionary



  • a UK /ˈlɪmbəʊ/, /"lImb@U/
  • a US /ˈlɪmboʊ/, /"lImboU/
  • Rhymes with: -ɪmbəʊ

Etymology 1

From etyl la limbus (cognate with limp), notably in the (abblative) expression |in limbo.


  1. In the context of "Roman Catholic theology, since circa 1300": The place where innocent souls exist temporarily until they can enter heaven, notably those of the saints who died before the advent of Christ (limbus patruum) and those of unbaptized but innocent children (limbus infantum).
  2. In the context of "by extension, since the 16th century": Any in-between place, state or condition of neglect or oblivion which results in an unresolved status, delay or deadlock.
    My application has been stuck in bureaucratic limbo for two weeks.
place for innocent souls
  • Dutch: limbo, limbus, vagevuur, voorgeborchte
  • French: limbes
  • German: Limbo
in-between state
  • French: limbes

Etymology 2

Word of uncertain West Indian (notably Jamaican) origin, probably an alteration of limber as it is a physical agility test.


  1. A dance played by taking turns crossing under a horizontal bar or stick. The stick is lowered with each round, and the game is won by the player who passes under the bar in the lowest position.
dance with bar that is lowered
  • Dutch: limbo
  • French: limbo


  • Online Etymology Dictionary}}



Extensive Definition

In Roman Catholic theology, Limbo (Latin limbus, edge or boundary, referring to the "edge" of Hell) is a hypothetical afterlife condition of those who die in original sin without being assigned to the Hell of the damned (gehenna). Medieval theologians described the underworld ("hell", "hades", "infernum") as divided into four distinct underworlds: hell of the damned (which some call gehenna), purgatory, limbo of the fathers, and limbo of infants.
  • The Limbo of the Patriarchs or Limbo of the Fathers (Latin Limbus Patrum), also the Bosom of Abraham or Paradise, is seen as the temporary state of those who, in spite of the personal sins they may have committed, died in the friendship of God, but could not enter Heaven until redemption by Jesus Christ made it possible. The term "Limbo of the Fathers" was a medieval name for the part of the underworld (Hades) where the patriarchs of the Old Testament were believed to be kept until Christ's soul descended into it by his death through crucifixion and freed them (see Harrowing of hell). The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes Christ's descent into "hell" as meaning primarily that "the crucified one sojourned in the realm of the dead prior to his resurrection. This was the first meaning given in the apostolic preaching to Christ's descent into hell: that Jesus, like all men, experienced death and in his soul joined the others in the realm of the dead." It adds: "But he descended there as Saviour, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there." It does not use the word "Limbo".
  • The Limbo of Infants is the hypothetical permanent status of the unbaptized who die in infancy, too young to have committed personal sins, but not having been freed from original sin. Since at least the time of Augustine, theologians, considering baptism to be necessary for the salvation of those to whom it can be administered have debated the fate of unbaptized innocents, and the theory of the Limbo of Infants is one of the hypotheses that have been formulated as a proposed solution. Some who hold this theory regard the Limbo of Infants as a state of maximum natural happiness, others as one of "mildest punishment" consisting at least of privation of the beatific vision and of any hope of obtaining it. This theory, in any of its forms, has never been dogmatically defined by the Church, but it is permissible to hold it. Recent Catholic theological speculation tends to stress the hope that these infants may attain heaven instead of the supposed state of Limbo; however, the directly opposed theological opinion also exists, namely that there is no afterlife state intermediate between salvation and damnation, and that all the unbaptized are damned.

Limbo of the Patriarchs

The Limbo of the Fathers (limbus patrum) was the abode of people who, before Jesus' Resurrection, had died in the friendship of God, but had to wait for Christ to open heaven's gates. This concept of Limbo affirms that one can get into heaven only through Jesus Christ but does not portray Moses, etc., as being punished eternally in Hell.
Like other religious terms such as "Trinity", the term "Limbo" does not appear in the Bible. And like other religious concepts, that of the Limbo of the Patriarchs is not spelt out in Scripture, but is seen by some as implicit in various references.
Bible verse |Luke|16:22 speaks of the "bosom of Abraham", which both the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church, following early Christian writers, understand as a temporary state of souls awaiting entrance into Heaven. The end of that state is set either at the resurrection of the dead, the most common interpretation in the East, or at the Harrowing of Hell, the most common interpretation in the West, but adopted also by some in the East.
Jesus told the Good Thief that the two of them would be together "this day" in "Paradise" (Bible verse |Luke|23:43; see also Bible verse |Matthew|27:38); but between his Resurrection and Ascension, Jesus told his followers that he had "not yet ascended to the Father" (Bible verse |John|20:17). A possible resolution of this apparent contradiction lies in the view that Jesus' statement to the thief can be understood in two ways, depending on where you place a comma (which was not present in the original manuscripts): either "Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise" or "Truly I say to you today, you shall be with Me in Paradise" (Luke 23:43, NASB). The latter interpretation would be consistent with Jesus' subsequent statement to his followers. By this reading, the good thief waited in Limbo until the Resurrection made it possible for him to enter heaven.
Jesus is also described as preaching to "the spirits in prison" (1 Pet 3:19). Medieval drama sometimes portrayed Christ leading a dramatic assault — The Harrowing of Hell — during the three days between the Crucifixion and the resurrection. In this assault, Jesus freed the souls of the just and escorted them triumphantly into heaven. This imagery is still used in the Eastern Orthodox Church's Holy Saturday liturgy (between Good Friday and Pascha) and in Eastern Orthodox icons of the Resurrection of Jesus.
The doctrine expressed by the term "Limbo of the Fathers" was taught, for instance, by Clement of Alexandria, who maintained: "It is not right that these should be condemned without trial, and that those alone who lived after the coming (of Christ) should have the advantage of the divine righteousness."

Limbo of Infants

While the Roman Catholic Church has a defined doctrine on original sin, it has none on the eternal fate of unbaptized infants, leaving theologians free to propose different theories, which Catholics are free to accept or reject.
The fundamental importance, in Roman Catholic theology, of the sacrament of water baptism gives rise to the argument that, because original sin excludes from the beatific vision enjoyed by the souls in heaven, those who have not been freed from it either by the sacrament or by baptism of desire or baptism of blood are not eligible for entry into heaven.

Latin Fathers

Saint Augustine of Hippo held that because of original sin, "such infants as quit the body without being baptized will be involved in the mildest condemnation of all. That person, therefore, greatly deceives both himself and others, who teaches that they will not be involved in condemnation; whereas the apostle says: 'Judgment from one offence to condemnation' (Bible verse |Romans|5:16), and again a little after: 'By the offence of one upon all persons to condemnation' (Bible verse |Romans|5:18)."
The Council of North African bishops, including Augustine, held at Carthage in 418 did not explicitly endorse all aspects of Augustine's stern view about the destiny of infants who die without baptism, but the Latin Fathers of the fifth and sixth centuries did adopt his position, and it became a point of reference for Latin theologians in the Middle Ages.

Medieval theologians

In the later mediaeval period, some theologians continued to hold Augustine's view. In the 1100s, Peter Abelard (1079 - 1142) said that these infants suffered no material torment or positive punishment, just the pain of loss at being denied the beatific vision. Others held that unbaptized infants suffered no pain at all: unaware of being deprived of the beatific vision, they enjoyed a state of natural, not supernatural happiness. This theory was associated with but independent of the term "Limbo of Infants", which was forged about the year 1300.
If heaven is a state of supernatural happiness and union with God, and hell is understood as a state of torture and separation from God then, in this view, the Limbo of Infants, although technically part of hell (the outermost part, "limbo" meaning "outer edge" or "hem") is seen as a sort of intermediate state.
Saint Thomas Aquinas described the Limbo of Infants as an eternal state of natural joy, untempered by any sense of loss at how much greater their joy might have been had they been baptized. He argued that this was a reward of natural happiness for natural virtue; a reward of supernatural happiness for merely natural virtue would be inappropriate since, due to original sin, unbaptized children lack the necessary supernatural grace. In regards to baptism of desire, St Thomas Aquinas stated that only adults were capable of this, and this view seemed to be accepted by the Council of Florence, which quotes St Thomas Aquinas in its Eleventh Session concerning baptism of infants.

Modern era

The teaching of the Roman Catholic Church expressed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church is that "Baptism is necessary for salvation for those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for this sacrament" and that, since "God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments," "Baptism of blood" (as in the case of the martyrs, who are understood to include the Holy Innocents) and, for catechumens at least, the explicit desire for Baptism, "together with repentance for their sins, and charity," ("Baptism of Desire") ensure salvation for those unable to receive Baptism by water.
The Ecumenical Council of Florence (1442) spoke of baptism as necessary even for children and required that they be baptised soon after birth. This had earlier been affirmed at the local Council of Carthage in 417. The Council of Florence also stated that those who die in original sin alone go to hell. John Wycliffe's attack on the necessity of infant baptism was condemned by another general council, the Council of Constance. The Council of Trent in 1547 explicitly stated that baptism (or desire for baptism) was the means by which one is transferred "from that state wherein man is born a child of the first Adam, to the state of grace, and of the adoption of the sons of God, through the second Adam, Jesus Christ, our Saviour.
If adults could effectively be baptised through a desire for the sacrament when prevented from actually receiving it, some speculated that perhaps sacramentally unbaptised infants too might be saved by some waterless equivalent of ordinary baptism when prevented. Cajetan, a major 16th-century theologian, suggested that infants dying in the womb before birth, and so before ordinary sacramental baptism could be administered, might be saved through their mother's wish for their baptism. Thus, there was no clear consensus that the Council of Florence had excluded salvation of infants by such extra-sacramental equivalents of baptism.
Through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries individual theologians (Bianchi in 1768, H. Klee in 1835, Caron in 1855, H. Schell in 1893) continued to formulate theories of how children who died unbaptised might still be saved. By 1952 a theologian such as Ludwig Ott could, in a widely used and well-regarded manual, openly teach the possibility that children who die unbaptised might be saved for heaven — though he still represented their going to limbo as the commonly taught opinion. In its 1980 instruction on children's baptism the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith reaffirmed that "with regard to children who die without having received baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as indeed she does in the funeral rite established for them." And in 1984, when Joseph Ratzinger, then Cardinal Prefect of that Congregation, stated that, as a private theologian, he rejected the claim that children who die unbaptised cannot attain salvation, he was speaking for many academic theologians of his background and training.
Thus in 1992, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, while affirming that "the Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude", but also stating that "God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments", stated: "As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus' tenderness toward children which caused him to say: 'Let the children come to me, do not hinder them,' allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism. All the more urgent is the Church's call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism."
On April 22, 2007, the advisory body known as the International Theological Commission released a document, originally commissioned by Pope John Paul II, entitled "The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die without Being Baptized."
After tracing the history of the various opinions that have been and are held on the eternal fate of unbaptized infants, including that connected with the theory of the Limbo of Infants, and after examining the theological arguments, the document stated its conclusion as follows:
Our conclusion is that the many factors that we have considered above give serious theological and liturgical grounds for hope that unbaptized infants who die will be saved and enjoy the beatific vision. We emphasize that these are reasons for prayerful hope, rather than grounds for sure knowledge. There is much that simply has not been revealed to us. We live by faith and hope in the God of mercy and love who has been revealed to us in Christ, and the Spirit moves us to pray in constant thankfulness and joy.
What has been revealed to us is that the ordinary way of salvation is by the sacrament of baptism. None of the above considerations should be taken as qualifying the necessity of baptism or justifying delay in administering the sacrament. Rather, as we want to reaffirm in conclusion, they provide strong grounds for hope that God will save infants when we have not been able to do for them what we would have wished to do, namely, to baptize them into the faith and life of the Church.
Pope Benedict XVI authorized publication of this document, which is not an official expression of the Church's teaching, but only one of the opinions that the Catholic Church does not condemn, allowing them to be held by its members. Media reports that by the document "the Pope closed Limbo" are thus without foundation. In fact, the document explicitly states that "the theory of limbo, understood as a state which includes the souls of infants who die subject to original sin and without baptism, and who, therefore, neither merit the beatific vision, nor yet are subjected to any punishment, because they are not guilty of any personal sin. This theory, elaborated by theologians beginning in the Middle Ages, never entered into the dogmatic definitions of the Magisterium, even if that same Magisterium did at times mention the theory in its ordinary teaching up until the Second Vatican Council. It remains therefore a possible theological hypothesis" (second preliminary paragraph); and in paragraph 41 it repeats that the theory of Limbo "remains a possible theological opinion".

Limbo in other denominations and religions

The "Limbo of Infants" is not very common in Eastern Christianity, even less so in Protestantism.
Jehovah's Witnesses, Christadelphians, and others have taught that the dead are unconscious (or even nonexistent), awaiting their destiny on Judgment Day.
The Zoroastrian concept of hamistagan is similar to limbo. Hamistagan is a neutral state in which a soul that was neither good nor evil awaits Judgment Day.
Discordianism considers Limbo to be the dwelling place of the goddess Eris.

Limbo in literature

In the Divine Comedy, Dante depicts Limbo as the first circle of Hell, located beyond the river Acheron but before the judgment seat of Minos. The virtuous pagans of classical history and mythology inhabit a brightly lit and beautiful — but somber — castle which is seemingly a medieval version of Elysium. In the same work, a semi-infernal region, above Limbo on the other side of Acheron, but inside the Gate of Hell, also exists — it is the "vestibule" of Hell and houses so-called "neutralists" or "opportunists," who devoted their lives neither to good nor to evil; its residents include those angels who did not fight at all in the war that resulted in the expulsion of Lucifer from Heaven, and also either Pope Celestine V or Pontius Pilate, the text is ambiguous.
One of Nobel Prize winning poet Seamus Heaney's best known works is entitled "Limbo". Rich with allusions to Christian teaching, the poem describes a mother drowning her illegitimate infant and its being netted by fishermen.
Eoin Colfer's book, Artemis Fowl: The Lost Colony (The 5th book in the series),contains demons who escape from Limbo and mess with the other time periods. Another book of Colfer's, The Wish List has brief moments in which Limbo is mentioned.

Limbo in pop culture

  • The Venetian Snares have a breakcore song entitled "Children's Limbo" on the album Find Candace.
  • The band Radiohead have a song titled In Limbo on their 2000 album Kid A.
  • Limbo is a major location in the movie Toothless.
  • In The Matrix Revolutions, the main character, Neo, finds himself in a state of limbo in the form of a subway station named "Mobil Avenue" that is between the Matrix and the Source. "Mobil" is an anagram of "limbo."
  • In Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, Naked Snake "fights" The Sorrow in a limbo-like river. The number of people seen in this river is equal to the number of enemies killed up to the point.
  • In the book Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, after Harry is struck with the Killing Curse, the Horcrux that Voldemort put inside him saves him from death and he winds up in a limbo-like world, in between life and death. The image of Albus Dumbledore gives him a choice between life and death and Harry chooses life.
  • In the novel, The Lost Kings, Limbo is described as an archipelago of self-sustaining islands. Inspector Leo becomes imprisoned there after facing the power of the Seal of Solomon.
  • In the television series The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy, Grim states that while in Limbo, they play the Limbo, going so far as to use skulls to hold the limbo poles in place.
  • In the season seven conclusion of Magnum, PI, Thomas is shot and winds up in Limbo, trying to protect his wife Michelle from agents trying to murder her. At the end, her safety assured, Magnum dies. Or not (depending on the version of the episode).
  • In the British Comedy Series The Mighty Boosh, one of the episodes is called Limbo, in which a character, Howard Moon is accidentally sent to Monkey Hell and has to stay in Limbo until the problem is rectified.
  • In the Horror Game Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly, where there is a place called the Hellish Abyss as the main goal, there are 2 ghosts called Limbo Man and Limbo Woman.
  • Singer-songwriter Alanis Morissette has penned a song called "Limbo No More" for her Flavors of Entanglement album's deluxe edition.
  • The band Rush have a song titled Limbo on their 1996 album Test For Echo.

Limbo as a colloquialism

Differing slightly from the original meaning, in colloquial speech, "limbo" is any status where a person or project is held up, and nothing can be done until another action happens. For example, a construction project might be described as "in limbo" if political considerations delay its permit.
A "legal limbo" may occur when varying laws or court rulings leave a person without recourse. For example, a person may earn "too much" to receive public assistance from the government, but not enough to actually pay for basic necessities. Likewise, various parties in a dispute may be pointing blame at each other, rather than fixing the problem, and leaving the person or group suffering from the problem to continue to suffer in limbo.
The Amstrad PCW's bundled word processing software, LocoScript, used the term "in limbo" to refer to files which had been deleted but which could still be restored, a concept similar to that later implemented by the Trash in the Apple Macintosh and the Recycle Bin in Microsoft Windows 95. On the PCW, the files "in limbo" were marked as belonging to CP/M Plus users 8 to 15. These files were deleted automatically when the space they occupied was needed. It could therefore be dangerous to access a disk containing files created with CP/M Plus using LocoScript, since LocoScript could decide to delete anything in users 8 to 15.
In the licensing of houses in multiple occupation (HMOs), properties registered under a previous scheme, but would not be licensable under mandatory arrangements, would go into a state of limbo when they expire, until the status of any potential additional licensing scheme is fully resolved.


External links

limbo in Catalan: Llimbs
limbo in Czech: Limbus
limbo in German: Limbus (Theologie)
limbo in Spanish: Limbo de los niños
limbo in Esperanto: Limbo (religio)
limbo in French: Limbes
limbo in Interlingua (International Auxiliary Language Association): Limbo
limbo in Italian: Limbo
limbo in Hebrew: לימבו
limbo in Lithuanian: Pragarai
limbo in Dutch: Voorgeborchte
limbo in Norwegian: Limbo
limbo in Polish: Otchłań
limbo in Portuguese: Limbo
limbo in Slovenian: Predpekel
limbo in Swedish: Limbo (religion)
limbo in Vietnamese: Lâm bô
limbo in Tajik: Limbo
limbo in Vlaams: Vôorgeborchte
limbo in Chinese: 靈薄獄

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

Abaddon, Gehenna, Hades, Naraka, Pandemonium, Sheol, Tophet, avichi, cage, coop, enclosure, hell, in abeyance, infernal regions, inferno, jahannan, lower world, nether world, on the shelf, pen, penfold, perdition, pinfold, place of confinement, place of torment, pound, purgatory, shades below, suspended, the abyss, the bottomless pit, the grave, the pit, treading water, underworld
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