The Great In-Between

Theologians have revised our notions of heaven and hell. But one other destination deserves attention


Carl Hiaasen, in his novels about criminal and cultural mayhem in Florida, offers frequent observations about the physical character and emotional register of American life. The observations are often casual, even fleeting. In Hiaasen's latest book, Basket Case, the narrator at one point says, "From the pancake house I drove directly to the county morgue. The contrast in ambience is not especially striking."

We all know what he means. The communal spaces of the built American environment have undergone a great convergence. Go back a hundred or two hundred years and these various spaces—tavern, courthouse, church, hospital, shop—seem palpably distinct in feeling. Go to the equivalent places now and you will be in the grasp of a single sensibility. The atrium of a Hyatt, the reception area of a law firm, the meeting annex of a church, the viewing parlor at a funeral home—locales such as these have become nearly indistinguishable. The colors and carpeting, the plant life and artwork, all seem to derive from common templates. If there's music, it's the bittersweet sax and candyland jazz that leach from recessed speakers everywhere.

These locales have one other thing in common. They are places where we mark time, cool our heels, hold our horses, keep our shirts on, and otherwise negotiate the transitions between episodes of productive activity. They are the physical embodiment of the state known as limbo—the most prevalent condition of modern life.

In traditional Western conceptions of the afterlife the Big Three permanent destinations have long been heaven, hell, and limbo (purgatory was merely an unpleasantness for transients, the afterlife's O'Hare), with most of the attention being devoted to heaven and hell. In recent years religious leaders have done a significant amount of new thinking about both these places.

Pope John Paul II, for instance, has stated that heaven is not a "physical place among the clouds." The Catholic theologian Richard McBrien, drawing on developments in the natural sciences, has observed, "We are no longer forced to choose between believing either that heaven is a city in the sky somewhere or that it doesn't exist at all. Now we can think of heaven as an alternate state, perhaps as another dimension." Revisionism about heaven may soon extend to Muslims. Islamic martyrs, according to a famous passage in the Koran, can expect a heavenly reward in the form of plenteous virgins. According to an article in The New York Times, new scholarship suggests that this expectation is the result of a serious mistranslation that occurred in antiquity, and that "virgins" should actually read "'white raisins' of crystal clarity."

Hell, too, has undergone a metamorphosis. A couple of years ago the cover of Christianity Today, a prominent evangelical magazine, posed the question "Hell: Annihilation or Eternal Torment?" This may not sound like much of a choice, but the annihilationist view of hell (damnation as nonexistence) actually represents a moderating of the traditional Jonathan Edwards view ("The pit is prepared. The fire is made ready"). The Church of England has formally abandoned the notion of hell as a fiery domain, and so have most Catholic theologians, who along with liberal Protestants now tend to see hell as a state in which "a person suffers from the deprivation of God."

And then there is limbo. The concept of limbo first gained wide appeal in early Christian times, as a humane response to a perceived theological injustice. If entry into heaven required baptism, as Christian doctrine stated, then what fate awaited the souls of innocent people who missed out on baptism through no fault of their own? What about infants who died before baptism? What about virtuous folk outside the Christian world, or anyone who lived before the advent of Christianity—including revered figures among the Israelites, such as Abraham and Moses? Was hell the only option?

The solution was limbo, a neutral holding pen where souls would experience neither the ecstatic transports of the elect nor the grinding punishments of the damned. Christian theologians began exploring the idea in the Middle Ages. In the thirteenth century it was endorsed by Thomas Aquinas. Dante, in The Divine Comedy, gave it a humanistic expansion, populating his limbo not only with luminaries from the Hebrew Bible but also with worthy pagans (Socrates, Plato, Aeneas, Brutus) and, surprisingly, a number of prominent Muslims (the philosophers Avicenna and Averroës; the warrior Saladin, scourge of the Crusaders). And limbo enjoyed wide support from ordinary people, for whom it represented a kind of plea bargain with God.

As it happens, limbo was never accepted by the Church in any official pronouncement. And in recent years the need for limbo has been obviated by a relaxation of the entry standards for heaven. A merciful Creator, it is said, would never condemn an innocent soul on the basis of legal technicalities. As an afterlifestyle option, heaven is now available to everyone.

And yet limbo has not disappeared. "Science is the record of dead religions," Oscar Wilde once wrote; religious imaginings often get a second wind as mundane phenomena. Limbo's profile in the next world may have diminished, but its stature in the present world has waxed correspondingly. Consider the ubiquity of "limbo" in popular discourse. "We're all in limbo," George W. Bush announced during the standoff in Florida with Al Gore. In the aftermath of last year's terrorist attacks, an editorial writer for The Providence Journal declared American consumers to be in a state of "semi-wartime limbo." An Iranian national on French soil, snared in a web of immigration peculiarities, has been "in legal limbo" in Terminal One of Charles de Gaulle Airport for thirteen years. The Canadian poet Irving Clayton has declared that his whole country represents the physical embodiment of limbo. (Hell, he adds, is embodied by the country immediately to the south.) The entire Mormon Tabernacle Choir lip-synched its way through the Winter Olympics—for its members as public an experience of limbo as one can imagine. There may be no concept of limbo in Islam, but one suspects that the al Qaeda terrorists imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay will soon come to the idea on their own.

Limbo is not merely a figure of speech. Think of the sheer amount of waiting—the sheer amount of "being there"—we all must endure. Woody Allen famously remarked that 80 percent of success is just showing up, but most of what happens after showing up amounts to limbo. Actually, Allen's estimate is high—it ignores all the time spent in the limbo of in-between. In days of yore the average person did a lot of staying put. "Happy the man whose wish and care / A few paternal acres bound," wrote Alexander Pope, echoing the earlier sentiments of Horace. Today our lives count down between floors in elevators, between stops in cars, between flights at airports. Telephone time spent on hold is an increasingly non-trivial component of ordinary life. Some biologists even argue that our entire species should be considered "on hold," because cultural and technological advances have vitiated natural selection. Meanwhile, technology brings new categories of limbo into being, with frozen embryos, Internet chat rooms, "media timeouts" during basketball games.

Utopian visionaries have wondered for centuries how we might bring about heaven on earth. Their dystopian counterparts have worried that we would instead create a hell on earth. Now comes a Third Way. Who rules this limbo of the quick? I am no theologian, but to judge from the music, it might well be Kenny G.