LIBERA ME, Domine, Iesu Christe, ab omnibus iniquitatis meis et universis malis,
fac me tuis semper inhærere mandatis et a te numquam separari permittas. Amen.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Descendit ad Inferos

When the Credo says that our Lord descended into hell it doesn’t mean that he descended into Gehenna [which he has previously described as being a kind of rubbish-heap], into the place where wicked people are eternally punished. It means that he descended into Sheol, into the lower world, and preached, not to the souls of the damned, but to the souls of dead people who were in a kind of intermediate state. What was that intermediate state? How are we to think of it?

About one thing the teaching of the Church is quite clear : the holy patriarchs, people like Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, were not in hell at the time when our Lord came – not what we mean by hell – and they were not in heaven. They had to wait for our Lord’s coming before they could get to heaven. And the place or the state in which they waited for Christ’s coming is what we call Limbo. The reason why we call it by that odd name, which makes it sound like a patent soup, is I think because we are most familiar with it from the poet Dante, who wrote in Italian, and therefore we give it its Italian name. It’s really a Latin word, limbus, which means the edge or the border of anything; the hem of your handkerchief, for example. And in theology it means a sort of borderline state, which is the only appropriate home of the borderline cases. Babies who die unbaptized, you see, are borderline cases; not being baptized, they have no right to heaven and yet as they haven’t committed any sins they can’t be sent to hell; therefore they go to the Limbus Infantium, the Babies’ Borderline State. And the unbaptized babies, we are told, go on living there for ever, not enjoying the beatific vision of God, because they are not made to do that, but quite happy all the same because they don’t know what they've missed. That’s one kind of Limbo, which is permanent.

But there was another kind of Limbo, the Limbus Patrum, the Patriarchs’ Borderline State, in which holy people like Abraham and Isaac and Jacob lived up till Good Friday, A.D. 33. They, too, were borderline cases. They were ear-marked for heaven, if I may put it in that way, because they had looked forward, by faith, to Christ’s coming, and in that faith had lived holy lives and gone on worshipping the true God. What sins they had committed had already, somehow, been expiated; they were ripe for heaven. But they couldn’t get to heaven till Jesus Christ died for our sins; they had to wait, and the waiting-room assigned to them was Limbo. I told you that the idea of Gehenna was that of a rubbish-heap; in the same way, if you like, you may think of Limbo as a lumber-room, though the two words apparently are not connected. A lumber-room is a place where you keep things which you don’t need at the moment, but don’t want to throw away because you will need them later on. So it was with the patriarchs; God didn’t need them yet in his drawing-room, so to speak, that is, in heaven, but he would want them there later on, so he didn’t throw them away into Gehenna, the rubbish heap; he kept them in Limbo, which is his lumber-room.

If you were brought up in a fairly large house, which had a lumber-room in the attics, I expect before now you have experienced the great thrill of exploring the lumber-room. Rather dark it was, so that you couldn’t see very clearly what was what, and a good many of the things were covered up in dust-sheets, so that you had to poke about a good deal before you satisfied yourself that this was a roll of carpet, that this was the cage which the canary used to live in till the cat got it, that this was the rocking-horse which you remember standing in the nursery, and so on. What a pity it seemed that so many things were lying idle here, which might be made so useful downstairs: your father’s old top-hat, which would do for drawing-room charades; and the concertina which did leak a bit, it’s true, but still produced noises of a kind; and that large, ugly looking-glass, which might just as well be in your bedroom. And you went downstairs with your hands and face pretty dirty, but all worked up with this adventurous journey among the relics of the past.

Well, when our Lord Jesus Christ had died on the Cross, and left his body in the tomb to wait till Easter morning, the first thing which his spirit did was – what ? To explore his Father’s lumber-room. He went to Limbo, and visited all the borderline cases of the old patriarchs who had been waiting so many centuries for him to come. How they must have crowded round him, and what a lot he must have explained to them which they hadn’t been able to understand properly hitherto ! ‘It’s all right, Adam (he will have said), you did a very foolish thing, and a very wicked thing, when you ate the fruit of the tree although you had been told not to; but I have been hanging, from twelve to three this afternoon, on a very different kind of tree, and now the world has been redeemed from the consequences of your sin. It’s all right, Eve; you disobeyed, but my Mother, by her obedience, has brought salvation into the world, as you brought sin into the world. You see now, Noe, what was the idea of building an ark to save yourself and your family from the flood ? It was a prophecy of the Church which I am just going to found, the ark which stays afloat in a sinful world, and saves men’s souls from being engulfed in it. You, Abraham, when you sacrificed your son Isaac, or rather were prepared to sacrifice him, were doing what my heavenly Father did when he sent me into the world to die. Your ladder, Jacob, set up between earth and heaven, was the image of my Incarnation; you, Joseph, were sold for twenty pieces of silver, I was sold for thirty. Do you remember, Moses, how you set up a brazen serpent on a pole in the wilderness, and all the people who had been bitten by the snakes, if only they could be persuaded to look up at it, got well ? That is what my Cross is going to do now for sinners.’ And so on, all down the list of the holy people whom we read about in the Old Testament. What a holiday that must have been for them all, when our Lord came and explained to them, at last, what their experiences in life had meant, and ended up, ‘Now you are going home with me; it is time you went home !’

All that we mean, when we say that our Lord descended to the people beneath. He didn’t descend to Gehenna; but he descended to Limbo, and preached to the holy patriarchs who were waiting for him there. But now, is that all we mean by our Lord’s descent into the lower world ? I don’t think you can say that the teaching of the Church is very clear beyond that; God’s revelation doesn’t tell us very much, for certain, about a future world. But if you will look at that odd passage in the first epistle of St. Peter, where he refers to this event, you will find a hint, I think, of a further meaning in the doctrine we are considering. He tells us that our Lord, in his spirit, ‘went and preached to the spirits who lay in prison. Long before, they had refused belief, hoping that God would be patient with them, in the days of Noe’. And, he adds, a few verses lower down, ‘that is why dead men, too, had the gospel message brought to them; though their mortal natures had paid the penalty in men’s eyes, in the sight of God their spirits were to live on’. That passage raises a lot of difficulties. Why does St. Peter concentrate entirely on the people who lived at the time of the Flood, when there were so many millions of other dead people to be considered ? Who were the people who had refused belief in the time of Noe, and if they refused belief, why didn’t they go to hell ? And what is all this about their paying the penalty in men’s eyes, and their spirits living on in the sight of God ?

I can only suggest briefly how I should explain the passage, which is a very difficult passage indeed. I think St. Peter concentrates upon the contemporaries of Noe, because in the days of Noe the world was very wicked – that was why the flood happened. And the people who refused belief were the people who wouldn’t take any notice when Noe told them there was going to be a great deluge, and they had better take cover somewhere. The book of Genesis doesn’t tell us anything about what other people thought or said when Noe began to build the Ark, or when it rained and rained and it began to look as if Noe hadn’t been wrong after all. I think what St. Peter means us to see is that there were, even in those wicked days, some people who hadn’t enough faith to go into the Ark when Noe did, and yet weren’t altogether wicked people. What became of them ? They were drowned by the flood, sure enough; they paid the penalty in their mortal natures. But when they were drowned, they didn’t go to hell; their spirits lived on in the sight of God. And to these people, who were not wicked enough to go to hell, and hadn’t got enough faith to go to Limbo, our Lord, in his spirit, went and preached. When it says he preached to them, it only means, I think, that he brought them the good news of the salvation which his Cross had given to the world. Not in Gehenna, not in Limbo – where were they, then ? Surely in Purgatory; in a place or state where they underwent punishment for their sins, but were destined later to go to heaven; only that couldn’t happen till our Lord had died to redeem them; and many of them no doubt weren’t yet ready for heaven, even then.

If that is the true explanation of what St. Peter means, then it follows that Purgatory, too, as well as Limbo, was visited by our Lord in that royal progress of his on Good Friday and Holy Saturday. And with his coming a new hope came to the souls in Purgatory and has remained there ever since. They were souls bound for heaven. What light, what rest was given to them when our Lord came and told them that ! If you and I go to Purgatory, we may have much to suffer there, but it will not be a place of despair or of doubt. We shall be able to say, Descendit ad inferos; Jesus Christ has been here, and he has made a door in this prison house through which, not now but later on, I shall follow him to heaven.

Mgr Ronald Knox ~ extracted from ‘the Creed in Slow Motion’
As shadowlands has quite properly noticed, the theology of Limbo has changed quite a lot since Mgr Knox wrote this sermon in about 1943 : what he says reflects accurately what was understood, and taught, then - but the section about the limbus infantium should no longer be regarded as reflecting exactly the teaching of the Church. I'm sorry - I should have mentioned this before, but I was focussing on the question of the limbus patrum, for today, and overlooked that issue.


  1. I didn't know the Church still spoke of Limbo? Something about 'Baptism of desire'? If unbaptised babies are stuck in Limbo, why aren't Moses and Abraham and all the other Holy men who have lived before and since Christ's time? That means no -one gets to Heaven unless baptized, surely?

  2. There is no declaration saying that Limbo does not exist at all ipso facto. Merely, that it is a theological postulation that some doctors of the church (not mention a fair few Popes and saints) privately believed but cannot defined in the same way or level as the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.

    See here for more details.