As I grew up Catholic, I don't recall much of this nonsense. If it got taught to me, it was very much the equivalent of water through a sieve - it didn't stick. I was too busy growing up, enjoying my childhood, etc.
I looked up the word (I do this often: I look words up constantly, even though I'm fairly confident I know the meaning already).
So when I did, there was a facet that most people haven't taken a gander at. (See? Double-checking your facts can take you off on some intriguing voyages on occasion.)
Much like the West Indian dance it shares a name with, it takes a bit of a limber spine to measure up to the bar.
I speak of course of the limbus patrum ("fathers' limbo"), where apparently all the Old Testament 'saints' were confined, until the 'Messiah' came on down and released them.
The answers.com entry says this:
The concept of the limbo of the fathers (limbus patrum) is that people who lived good lives but died before Jesus' Resurrection did not go to heaven, but rather 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.
So where on earth did they dredge this...interesting story up from?
From here (Lazarus and Dives):
There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day: And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores, And desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man's table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham's bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried; And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame. But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented. And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence. Then he said, I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send him to my father's house: For I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment. Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them. And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent. And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.
(Translation according to the King James Version of the Bible)
How does anyone derive the concept of limbo from this quick tale? Simple, really: allegory. That dreaded meme that has so tangled our lives, that it's like random ivy growing over the walls of our minds.
But of course, there's no boilerplate anyone can agree on:
"Christians debate what the story says about the afterlife. Most Christians believe in particular judgment and see the story as consistent with it. Eastern Orthodox Christians see the story as consistent with their belief in Hades, where the righteous and unrighteous alike await the resurrection of the dead. (The word translated as hell in the story is Hades.) Western Christians usually interpret Lazarus as being in heaven or limbo and the rich man in hell.
"Instead of particular judgment, some Christians believe in soul sleep and general judgment only. Proponents of general judgment, for example Seventh-day Adventists and Christian Universalists, argue that this is a parable referring to Jewish and Gentile views of the Messiah. Other advocates of general judgment simply say that it is a parable that is devoted to morality, not the afterlife.
"In the secular view, the story represents the 1st-century Jewish belief in sheol ("Hades" in Greek, as in this passage). Sheol was said to be where all (or almost all) the dead went. In sheol, some would rest in peace and others would suffer while waiting for Judgment Day. in this story, Lazarus and the rich man both go to sheol, where the dead are divided according to their virtue. Lazarus goes to the place of comfort with Abraham while Dives is tortured in fire."
(For the more intrepid reader, here's a bizarre extrapolation of the whole thing, riddled with errors.)
This alleged event where Jesus descended into the bowels of Sheol is also termed the Harrowing of Hell - it's a great little story if you believe that sort of thing: damnation, redemption, salvation, and wrongs made right. But of course the believers bypass the obvious.
That is, if the 'fathers' were beloved, is this how an all-loving deity treats them? True enough, Gehenna and Sheol are different, but the separation of the concepts are nuanced at best.
"Hey, you loyal adherents, can you hang around for a few thousand years and eat dirt, while I sort out this whole 'original sin' mess?"
Did he pass out bibs? Recipes for some variety? Pipe in some heavenly music to fritter away the centuries?
Is this the guy you want to work for?