06 June 2011

Better Not to Have Been Born? On Judas, Hell and Limbo

And the Son of man indeed goeth, as it is written of him: but woe to that man by whom the Son of man shall be betrayed. It were better for him, if that man had not been born.  Mark 14:21

Real theologians and people who don't like to comment on issues they don't understand may now laugh at me.  But a conversation among friends at dinner yesterday led me to try this post, and to address some speculation on the eternal fate of Judas, by considering the state of those in the Limbo of children (Limbus Infantium).

My interest in the Limbo portion stems not only from the natural interest that most Catholics have in the subject, but also from the point of view of a father who has two children who now actually know the answer to the question.

The starting point of the discussion yesterday occurred when a friend challenged my casual assertion that we can know that Judas is in hell, based upon the words of Christ quoted in the passage of Mark's Gospel printed above.  For if Judas ever was allowed into heaven, even after spending all time before the Last Judgement in purgatory in the greatest torment, he would have been better off to have been born.  Even if he were to spend eternity in a state of natural happiness without the Beatific Vision, he would have been better off to have been born.  Only if he were in the hell of suffering for eternity would it have been better for him never to have been born.

Of course, as the Fathers and theologians who have written about Limbo throughout history would agree, such a one as Judas would not be sent to Limbo.  He apparently committed actual mortal sin, and if he did not repent he would suffer eternal punishment.  His mortal sin in this regard can be compared to Peter's mortal sin in denying Christ; both received the grace of guilt, but only one apparently repented.

The reason that the conversation led to Limbo was my reference to the "eternal state of purely natural happiness", which I attributed to those souls in Limbo.  After some back-and-forth, the challenge was this:  Would it be better to have been born or not if one's eternal destination is Limbo?

The first place I looked was the Catholic Encyclopedia entry on Limbo.  That entry breaks down Catholic thought into pre-Augustinian tradition, the teaching of St. Augustine, and post-Augustinian teaching.  What follows is my distillation of that article.

Before St. Augustine, St. Gregory Nazianzen and the Greek Fathers took the position that those infants who died with original sin but without actual sin were deprived of the Beatific Vision but were not subjected to punishment, because "though unsealed they are not wicked".  The Western Fathers agreed, considering original sin an inclination to evil rather than guilt in the strict sense, and that mere original sin was not a cause for fear on the day of judgement.  The fathers agreed on the positing of an intermediate state without punishment and yet without the Beatific Vision.

After the Pelagian controversy arose, St. Augustine departed from this lenient view and condemned the opinion that affirmed the existence of "an intermediate place, or of any place anywhere at all (ullus alicubi locus), in which children who pass out of this life unbaptized live in happiness."  He then maintained that unbaptized infants share in the common misery of the damned, though they are inflicted with the mildest punishment of all.  Interestingly, though he maintains they are punished, their punishment is so mild that "one may not say that for them non-existence would be preferable to existence in such a state."  So much for the destination of Judas question.  If even St. Augustine considers positive punishment of a small amount to be preferable to non-existence, then a fortiori, a state of eternal natural happiness is preferable to non-existence.

The Augustinian view held sway for several centuries, but eventually post-Augustinian teaching returned to the pre-Augustinian position.  It was first challenged by St. Anselm, then by Innocent III and later definitively rejected by St. Thomas Aquinas.  St. Thomas, "relying on the principle, derived through the Pseudo-Dionysius from the Greek Fathers, that human nature as such with all its powers and rights was unaffected by the Fall (quod naturalia manent integra), maintained, at least virtually, what the great majority of later Catholic theologians have expressly taught, that the limbus infantium is a place or state of perfect natural happiness. 

St. Thomas' point was that there was no argument could justify a lack of actual punishment for unbaptized infants if they were denied the Beatific Vision, since the loss of that vision is the most severe punishment possible. He therefore expressly denied they suffer any interior affliction from a sense of loss of the Beatific Vision.  From the Catholic Encyclopedia: 

St. Thomas held this absence of subjective suffering to be compatible with a consciousness of objective loss or privation, the resignation of such souls to the ways of God's providence being so perfect that a knowledge of what they had lost through no fault of their own does not interfere with the full enjoyment of the natural goods they possess. Afterwards, however, he adopted the much simpler psychological explanation which denies that these souls have any knowledge of the supernatural destiny they have missed, this knowledge being itself supernatural, and as such not included in what is naturally due to the separated soul (De Malo loc. cit.). It should be added that in St. Thomas' view the limbus infantium is not a mere negative state of immunity from suffering and sorrow, but a state of positive happiness in which the soul is united to God by a knowledge and love of him proportionate to nature's capacity.

Since Aquinas' time, "What has been chiefly in dispute is whether this happiness is as perfect and complete as it would have been in the hypothetical state of pure nature, and this is what the majority of Catholic theologians have affirmed." 

And with that I take it that we can posit that Judas is in hell based upon Our Lord's words, though I don't know if it rises to the level of absolute certainty.  Further, as an aside, I take it that babies who die without baptism likely enjoy perfect natural happiness for eternity but do not enjoy the Beatific Vision of heaven.

Regarding the Limbo question today, I suppose that some may recall the non-magisterial document concocted by the International Theological Commission which, citing Karl Rahner among others, opined that there are "serious reasons" to hope unbaptized babies may be saved.  Great.  I will give that the following additional attention it deserves:   

UPDATE:  A good priest referred me to an article written by theologian Fr. Brian Harrison, OS, about Limbo in the theological journal Divinitas.  I have been unable to find that online, but as I continue to look here is a brief article Fr. Harrison wrote for the late, great Seattle Catholic in 2005.  This is a very good article to show that Limbo is indeed a teaching of the mercy--not the severity-- of God.


Anonymous said...

Monsieur le Timman,

I too have one child who knows this answer. God rest his soul.

A question that I have is...if limbo is real, which I think it is...what happens to it at the end of the world, where only Heaven and the Hell of the damned remain? Purgatory will be emptied and Abraham's bosom is already empty.


Melissa said...

This is such an irritating topic for me because there is no answer! Is judas (or anyone for that matter!) in hell? Can any person say definitively that there are people in hell? There have been visions for sure but are they official Church Dogma? Nope.

St Augustine was a little extreme in just about everything...sex only for procreation comes to mind~ but I can't speak poorly of someone who is a doctor of the Church and could eat me alive in debate but when I read that he said all unbaptized babies go to hell...well...I think that's a bit presumptuous.

I have argued this with my priest and just about every other priest I can corner and it all comes back to: we don't know and why would we want to think that anyone was in hell??? Is that Christian? Sure Judas committed a sin by selling Jesus and then hanging himself but could they be considered mortal? Did he not try to give back the silver? Are people who commit suicide really in the right frame of mind to choose this~making it mortal?

As for limbo~ I know that baptism is necessary (according to scripture) but does that mean that God has no other way of salvation? I think that this would be like the question "Can God create a boulder so heavy that He can't lift it?" (or something like that)

The God that I think of is one who wants every soul to come to Him. He would do whatever He could to bring us home and would never let something like baptism keep an unborn child from sharing in the beauty and majesty of His presence. Who knows what He does or says at the moment of death. Who knows if He really allows s*t*n to steal one precious soul. Maybe He does but shouldn't we hope and pray that He doesn't?

Heaven was explained to me as being like a cup and my cup may be a thimble and yours may be a beer mug but they will both be overflowing. I will never know that mine is smaller than yours and we will both be happy. Maybe this is the misunderstanding of limbo. I can't imagine that there is a place (other than hell which is permanent and purgatory which is not)where anyone is denied the beatific vision. Is that not what Christ came to save us from? To open wide the gates of heaven?

So is it better to never have been born? I cannot imagine the agony and shame that Judas felt at the moment he realized what he had done and then the moment when he realized he couldn't fix it. In that moment it would maybe feel like it would be better to have never been born and that was the despair that caused him to hang himself.

I hope that I am not pushing some heresy here (i probably am) but I get so frustrated with this topic. Especially having lost 2 children and trying to make sense of it. I hate the idea of God not being all-loving and merciful. Willing to save us even when we don't know we need it. Maybe I am naive and don't know what I'm talking about :) Peace and Joy!

thetimman said...

PMKD, the way I understand it is that the traditional thinking about the Limbo of infants is that it is within hell, and thus the four last things are unaffected.

thetimman said...

Melissa, I am no expert myself, and so lean on the thoughts and writings of the fathers and doctors. Ordinarily, my starting point on any contested point of the faith is that if Aquinas says something, I should consider that excellent evidence apart from a good reason to doubt it. And his position is lenient compared to Augustine; if these children are happy for eternity, and do not feel sadness from the loss of a chance at heaven, how can that be unmerciful? And this respects the doctrine of original sin and the necessity of baptism for salvation.

Anonymous said...

Dear Timman,

Is there anything from the Fathers that you are aware of that would indicate that those who are resurrected to eternal life and the beatific vision would be able to visit with those "in" the limbus infantus?


Mark Scott Abeln said...

Universalism, like deism, seems to be the first step towards -- or away from -- atheism. Atheists typically believe in universal annihilation, but universal salvation is often acceptable to them. In either case, the Church, or religion, has little use to them. The doctrine of Hell is a "hard saying", and because so many people despair of salvation, they leave or reject the Church.

Dante places virtuous heathens and the unbaptized into the first circle of Inferno. It isn't hellish, but is rather a place of natural happiness. Obviously this work isn't magisterial, but it certainly contains plenty of theology and tradition.

The idea that God is merciful is often applied to such heartbreaking and personal situations as unbaptized children and the suicide of a loved one. But isn't it also true that we can appeal to God's mercy in all cases, even with serial murderers? We tend to be all too willing to consign people we don't like to Hell.

I've read in some Catholic source -- not sure where -- that even punishment in Hell is attenuated and does not strictly conform to pure justice.

God is merciful, and He is also just. We have to preach both, and to be prudent in our own lives.

Methodist Jim said...

Melissa . . . well put. (Sorry if hearing a compliment from a protestant makes wave for you, but at least one still identified as "a friend" of the Timman's even though I certainly have a habit of challenging casual assertions.)

Melissa said...

dear the Timman,

I don't think it unmerciful as much as silly. (sorry~wrong word)Why would God not want every soul in heaven with Him? He can do anything He wants and, while baptism is a known way for salvation, can we exclude that God may have other ways? I think not (but who am i?!)
I am probably wrong here but a few years ago I read about limbo and the necessity of baptism in an article from Origins (Catholic News Service). My understanding was that limbo was no longer considered a place for the unbaptized. The Cathechism says that we rely on the mercy of God and we have reason to hope. (which I think that the theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote a book about) It also says that "God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but He himself is not bound by His sacraments"

And, going out on a limb (and possibly starting a heresy..i pray not) I was told in RCIA that God puts the desire for Him in the heart of every man. Some people try to fill this with drugs/alcohol and some with sex and meaningless relationships and some try to put this on their spouse. Could it not be, that since this desire is impressed on us at conception, that the unborn could somehow be baptized by desire since they never had the chance to excercise their free will to choose something other than God? This was a possiblility discussed in the Origins article along with aborted babies being baptized by blood. I think that we should keep open all possibilities for salvation (I need every avenue available!)
God Bless! :)

Anonymous said...

I honestly believe that this is a discussion that is navel-gazing at best, and harmful to the salvation of those who have problems with the "teaching" at worst.

I put "teaching" in scare quotes not to be coy or impudent, but because, when boiled down to the simplest formulation, the Church's teaching is "We don't know". That's not a criticism of the Church or Her teaching; indeed it is reasonable, scriptural, and in line with the Church's woderful tradition that there are mysteries that we here on earth will never know while on earth.

Certainly, praying for the souls of those that have left this earthly life is well and good, but too often this easily misunderstood and easily misrepresented concept becomes a stumbling block and a cudgel wielded by those wishing to harm Holy Mother Church.