The term Fate of the Unlearned describes an eschatological question about the ultimate destiny of people who have not been exposed to a particular theology or doctrine and thus have no opportunity to embrace it. It is sometimes combined with the similar question of the Fate of the Unbeliever. Differing faith traditions have different responses to the question.

Jewish tradition

Within Judaism is the tradition of the Noahide Covenant, which proposes that non-Jews can have a direct and meaningful relationship with God or at least comply with the minimal requisites of civilization and of divine law.

Catholic tradition

The Catholic Church believes that Christ attained salvation "for all men" by his death on the cross.[1] It teaches that salvation comes from "God alone," but that the Church is the "mother" and "teacher" of the faithful.[2] Specifically, it teaches that Christian baptism is generally necessary for salvation.[3] However, Catholic teaching also allows for the salvation of one with genuine ignorance of Christian teaching, who "seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it."[4] Unbaptized catechumens are saved, in the Catholic view, because the desire to receive the sacrament of baptism, together with sincere repentance for one's sins, assures salvation.[5] In the case of the righteous unlearned, "It may be supposed that such persons would have desired Baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity" and, by extension, they will attain salvation.[6] Dante attempted to answer this question with the first level of Hell in the Divine Comedy, where the virtuous pagans live. They are described as those who lived before the time of Jesus and therefore unable to enter Purgatory or Heaven. Amongst them is Virgil, Dante's guide through Hell and Purgatory.

Protestant tradition

The reformer John Calvin, writing his Institutes of the Christian Religion at the time of the Reformation, wrote "beyond the pale of the Church no forgiveness of sins, no salvation, can be hoped for" [IV.i.iv]. Calvin wrote also that "those to whom he is a Father, the Church must also be a mother," echoing the words of the originator of the Latin phrase himself, Cyprian: "He can no longer have God for his Father who has not the Church for his mother."

The idea is further affirmed in the Puritan Anglican Westminster Confession of Faith of 1647 that "the visible Church . . . is the Kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation." Despite this, it is not necessarily a commonly held belief within modern Protestantism, especially Evangelicalism and those denominations which believe in the autonomy of the local church. The dogma is related to the universal Protestant dogma that the church is the body of all believers and debates within Protestantism usually centre on the meaning of "church" (ecclesiam) and "apart" (extra).

Latter-day Saint tradition

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches that those who die without knowledge of LDS theology will have the opportunity to receive a knowledge of the gospel of Jesus Christ in the Spirit World. Latter-day Saints believe that God has provided a way so that all of mankind will have an opportunity to hear the message of the gospel, and can thereby choose whether to accept it or not. Latter-day Saints cite biblical passages found in 1 Peter.

1 Peter 3:
18 For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit:
19 By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison;
1 Peter 4:
6 For this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.

Since Latter-day Saints believe that all must receive the proper ordinances in order to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, today members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints participate in a massive genealogical effort to compile names of their kindred dead, and then to perform sacred ordinances, such as baptism, in behalf and as proxies for their deceased ancestors in sacred temples, which are found throughout the world.

"Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?"  — 1 Corinthians 15:29

Islamic tradition

According to Qur'an, the basic criteria for salvation in afterlife are the belief in one God, Last Judgment, acceptance and obedience of what is in the Qur'an and ordained by the prophet and good deeds.[7] As the Qur'an states:

Surely those who believe (Muslims) and those who are Jews and the Sabians and the Christians whoever believes in Allah (God) and the last day and does good-- they shall have no fear nor shall they grieve.

Qur'an[Qur'an 5:69]

The Qur'an also asserts that those who reject the Messengers of God with their best knowledge are damned in afterlife[7] and if they reject in front of the Messenger of God, then they also face dreadful fate in this world and in afterlife (see Itmam al-hujjah). Conversely, if a person discovers monotheism without having been reached by a messenger is called Hanif.

To reduce the broad scope of the Islamic tradition to a single answer, however, would be as problematic as to do the same for Christianity - different Muslims have answered this question in different ways at different times. Some Muslims have maintained - and still do - that paradise is only available to those who fall into one of the explicitly accepted categories of following Islam, Christianity, or Judaism as is suggested by some verses of the Qur'an, and this is a very commonly held view. Within this, though, there are some differences of opinion. Some believe that following such legitimately revealed religions as Judaism or Christianity is acceptable only prior to the advent of Islam or at least prior to an individual Christian or Jew having learned about Islam.

Others believe that even Christians or Jews living, for example, in a majority Muslim country, are still eligible to be accounted as worthy of paradise if they follow their own religions in a spirit of righteousness. The Qur'an, for its part, says of the People of the Book that they

are not all the same; among the people of the book are an upright group, who recite the verses of God throughout the watches of the night and make prostrations. They believe in God and the Last Day and command that which is good and forbid that which is bad, and compete with one another in good works. Such are among the righteous.

Qur'an[Qur'an 3:113-4]

Going on the basis of this verse and others like it, many believe that Christians and Jews will be judged individually in the next world, and some of each will be in Paradise and others in Hell.

The more complicated question of what will happen, for example, to people of religions other than Judaism and Christianity is significantly more controversial. There is particularly controversy over the meaning of the word "sabians," which is often taken to the mean the Zoroastrian religion, but is sometimes interpreted to cover many other faith traditions, sometimes including Hinduism and Buddhism, this latter interpretation being highly controversial. The long presence of Islam in South Asia, however, has engendered many debates about the status of Hindus, which has run the whole gamut between a more standard dismissal of Hinduism as shirk, or polytheism, to some Muslims, such as Mirza Mazhar Jan-e-Janaan even going so far as to recognize Rama and Krishna as Prophets of Islam not explicitly mentioned in Muslim scripture - thereby making Hindus equivalent to Christians or Jews.


  1. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed., para. 1741
  2. Ibid, para. 169.
  3. Ibid, para. 1257 et seq.
  4. Ibid, para. 1260.
  5. Ibid, para. 1259
  6. Ibid, para. 1260.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Moiz Amjad. Will Christians enter Paradise or go to Hell?. Renaissance - Monthly Islamic journal 11(6), June, 2001.

See also

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