Oh, My Pop Culture Limbo: I’ll just… wait here, then.

You’re probably aware of the idea of Limbo. No, not the party trick. The concept of a place of eternal waiting. Not very good, not very bad. Just… not much of anything, forever. Here’s the technical religious definition:

Limbo, which comes from the Latin word meaning “border” or “edge,” was considered by medieval theologians to be a state or place reserved for the unbaptized dead, including good people who lived before the coming of Christ. (source)

Limbo has never been part of any official Catholic doctrine, although it’s been taught to Catholics for centuries. I first learned about it from Dante, who visits Limbo (located outside the gates of hell) in the Inferno. Dante places well-known, respected historical pagans like Socrates and Plato in Limbo, but argues that righteous Biblical figures like Abraham were plucked from their eternal condition by Christ when he descended into hell following the crucifixion.

"Whatchu doing, guys?" "Not much, just chillin' under this rock in Limbo."

“Whatchu doing, guys?” “Shh, the Nazgul are coming!”

The existence of Limbo has been pretty thoroughly nixed in recent years; Catholics from the pope downward basically agreed that Limbo didn’t exactly mesh with the idea of a loving God, since the aforementioned unbaptized dead included the souls of children with no personal sin. Although it wasn’t entirely ruled out, a Church document released a few years ago points out that “People find it increasingly difficult to accept that God is just and merciful if he excludes infants, who have no personal sins, from eternal happiness, whether they are Christian or non-Christian.” (source)

Regardless of whether Limbo exists or not, or who is or isn’t in it, the concept has meshed itself into pop-culture enough that even a non-religious person will know what you mean if you say that something is “in limbo”.

Inception_Limbo-500x5001_2164292Inception’s worldbuilding focused heavily on the concept of Limbo, actually including a final dream-level called Limbo as a major plot point. This realm is a universal location into which any dreamer who goes too deep or dies in the dream gets funneled. Once there, time moves infinitely faster than it does in the waking world. It’s hard to keep hold of yourself, and without outside interference, you can grow old and die without ever waking up from the dream. This isn’t a remotely religious limbo, but hey—they could have called it anything. Calling it Limbo was an intentional and evocative choice, because it carries cultural significance.

And that’s just the most specific example I can think of. There are plenty of value-neutral post-death waiting places in pop culture. There is the waiting room (and really most of the afterlife) in Beetlejuice. In Marvel comics, Limbo is a plane outside time, ruled over by a future version of Kang the Conqueror called Immortus. Harry’s post-death King’s Cross in Harry Potter has elements of Limbo, as does the Void space in Doctor Who.

tumblr_li371iqnaQ1qgl8g0o1_500Limbo isn’t an official Catholic doctrine, and it never really was. But it’s fascinating to see how far reaching a religious concept can be—especially to the point where it has basically lost its religious connotations and is understood by pretty much anyone you talk to, regardless of affiliation or belief.

Oh, My Pop Culture Jesus: The Devil is Totally Evil

The devil is totally evil and you should hate him! Actual religious beliefs affect how religion is portrayed in pop culture, and of course affects how religious figures are portrayed. Now, Satan may not be Jesus. He’s not a paragon of virtue that is upheld by believers (unless they are Satanists, but we aren’t talking about them), but nevertheless he is an extremely important character in Judeo-Christianity.

Because Satan is an evil character, pop culture often pits him against the noble and righteous characters. When we talk about the devil in pop culture, we are often talking about the typical villain archetype. He is evil without reason or remorse. He does everything he can to destroy our virtuous heroes. Not only does he attempt to destroy them in the typical “I’m going to kill you” way, he also attempts to destroy our heroes by tempting them to evil. By doing this the devil gains more souls for hell and turns people away from God.

A lot of people say that Nazis are the perfect villain, because everybody hates them. You will never have a theater full of people getting pissed at how Nazis are treated. Well, pencil in Satan next to Nazis. Our default setting is to hate Satan. There is nothing endearing about him. Furthermore, he has a plus side over the Nazis—he is more interesting. Remember this is a character that according to most Judeo-Christian mythology is someone who was best friends with God before rebelling against him. Again, our default is to assume God is good and awesome. God created us, gave us life, and free will, so why would someone hate him?

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