Fate of the unlearned
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The fate of the unlearned (or destiny of the unevangelized) is 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. The question is whether those who never hear of requirements issued through divine revelations will be punished for failure to abide by those requirements.
It is sometimes addressed in combination with the similar question of the fate of the unbeliever. Differing faith traditions have different responses to the question; in Christianity the fate of the unlearned is related to the question of original sin. As some suggest that rigid readings of religious texts require harsh punishment for those who have never heard of that religion, it is sometimes raised as an argument against the existence of God, and is generally accepted to be an extension or sub-section of the problem of evil.
The Catholic Church believes that Jesus Christ attained salvation "for all men" by his death on the cross. It teaches that salvation comes from "God alone", but that the Church is the "mother" and "teacher" of the faithful. Specifically, it teaches that Christian baptism is necessary for salvation, and that the Catholic Church is also necessary as "the universal sacrament of salvation", but that some may be joined to the Church by baptism of desire or by baptism of blood (martyrdom), and thus attain salvation also through the Church. Catholic teaching 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". Unbaptized catechumens can be saved, in the Catholic view, because the desire to receive the sacrament of baptism, together with sincere repentance for one's sins, together with the attainment of "divine and Catholic faith" assures salvation. 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, God may permit them to attain salvation.
In Protestantism, the issue centers on whether those who have not heard the Gospel receive salvation or damnation. There are some who believe that those who died without an opportunity to learn of or understand the Christian message are destined to Hell, which may include those who lived before Jesus' time, those who lived in remote places and never learned of it, those who die in infancy or before birth, and the mentally disabled. Some Protestants agree with Augustine that people in these categories will be damned to Hell for original sin, whereas others argue that God needs no human help in delivering salvation. The French 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".
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). Theologian John Sanders noted that "Although God's decision on this issue is final, the church has never agreed on the nature of that decision." Sanders and Clark Pinnock propose a position known as "inclusivism", under which many of the unevangelized will receive salvation because they have faith in God as they know him (as Hindus or Muslims, for example), and they are saved by Christ's work.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, (LDS Church) or Mormonism, 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. Mormons assert that modern day revelation has clarified and confirmed the Biblical accounts that during the three days between his death and resurrection, Christ "went and preached unto the spirits in prison" (1 Peter 3:19, see also 1 Peter 4:6), at which time he also commissioned other spirits to "go forth and carry the light of the gospel to them that were in darkness, even to all the spirits of men" (Doctrine and Covenants 138:30 ). Since Latter-day Saints believe that all people must receive the proper ordinances in order to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, today members of the LDS Church participate in a massive genealogical effort to compile names of their kindred dead, and then act as proxies in ordinances performed on behalf of their deceased ancestors within LDS temples. The beneficiaries of this temple work are then free to accept or reject the vicarious ordinances performed on their behalf.
Mormons do not believe that children come into the world with any guilt, because Jesus Christ atoned for "original guilt"; therefore no one is condemned by original sin and people are only responsible for their own sins once they have reached the age of accountability. Those incapable of understanding right from wrong, such as the mentally handicapped, are also saved under the atonement of Jesus Christ without baptism.
In Mormon belief, only "sons of perdition" who choose to reject Jesus after receiving a sure knowledge of him are destined for a form of Hell called outer darkness. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, considers this a form of universalism that assisted the early rise of the Mormon faith.
A similar issue exists in Islam, as different authorities within the faith have issued different theories as to the destiny of those who do not know of Muhammad or Allah. Islam generally rejects the possibility that those who have never heard of the revelations embodied in the Qur'an might automatically merit punishment.
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. 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.
The Qur'an also asserts that those who reject the Messengers of God with their best knowledge are damned in afterlife 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, a person who discovers monotheism without having been reached by a messenger is called Hanif. But it should be remembered, Islam also states every community in the world, no matter how isolated, had been sent at least one prophet to teach them. So, this belief limits the possibility of people never heard of God's message. Part of Ibrahim's story in the Qur'an [Quran 6:74] also suggests every man is capable of finding one true God by his own common sense.
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 accept Islam as is suggested by some verses of the Qur'an, and this is a very commonly held view. It is also believed that following religions such as Judaism or Christianity is acceptable only prior to the advent of Islam and only in their original unaltered form in the way they were revealed to their messengers without any distortion or idolatry like present day Christianity.
One view is that "A person who has never heard of Islam or the Prophet... and who has never heard the message in its correct and true form, will not be punished by Allah if he dies in a state of disbelief. If it were asked what his fate will be, the answer will be that Allah will test him on the Day of Resurrection: if he obeys, he will enter Paradise and if he disobeys he will enter Hell." But, even those who have not heard the message will be held to some standard of conduct: "Because everyone is a born Muslim, those who have never heard of Islam are only responsible for not doing what common sense tells him or her to do. Those who knowingly violate God's laws will be punished for their wrongdoing." Under this view, those who have not heard the message are "excused," and Allah "rewards such people for the good they have done, and they enjoy the blessings of Paradise." A similar view is that "if such people find the Creator through the use of reason, even though they do not know His Names or Attributes, they will be saved. If they do not do this, they will not be saved."
Some would extend this mercy to the incompetently evangelized, that is, to people "who have been reached by the name of Muhammad but who have been given a false account," and for whom it is then said that they "have not rejected true Islam but only a distorted version of it and they will therefore be judged in the same category as those people who never heard of Islam in the first place."
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". 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.
The problem of the unevangelized does not arise in religious or spiritual traditions such as Deism, Pandeism, and Pantheism, which do not include any revelation or require obedience to revealed rules. In Deism, some believe that individuals will be judged by one's obedience to natural laws of right and wrong to be obtained by the exercise of reason alone, and so, failure to exercise reason in the effort to make this determination is itself the cause for punishment.
In Buddhism, all souls, whether evangelized or not, will continue to be reincarnated until they have achieved Nirvana. However, Buddhist scholars[who?] have said that "any suggestion that enlightenment is immediately available to anyone who really wants it, even if he has never heard of Buddhism, is likely to be received with incredulity or even resentment."
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.
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