Virtuous paganism is a concept in Christian theology analogous to that of the "righteous gentile" in Judaism. It addressed the problem of pagans who were never evangelized and consequently during their lifetime had no opportunity to recognize Christ, but nevertheless led virtuous lives, so that it seemed objectionable to consider them damned. Prominent examples are Socrates, Cicero, Trajan, and Virgil. The Roman Catechism issued by the Council of Trent, based on the opinion of Thomas Aquinas, asserted that these souls were waiting in a limbo between heaven and hell, and were freed at Christ's Harrowing of Hell.
A modern Catholic rendering of this is known as anonymous Christian in the theology of Karl Rahner. Dante Alighieri in his Divine Comedy places a number of virtuous pagans to the first circle of hell (analogous to Limbo), including Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan, and notably also Saladin, a Muslim.
"Virtuous paganism" became relevant to Romanticism with its interest in North European mythology or enthusiasm for the rediscovered pagan ethos of the Icelandic sagas. Tom Shippey argues that the fiction of J. R. R. Tolkien, set in a fictitious pre-Christian past, is significantly based on such a concept of virtuous paganism,
writing just before the outbreak of World War II - Tolkien was also rather disturbed by Norse mythology: he saw that the ethos it represented could be used by either side, as indeed it was in the deliberate cultivation of Götterdämmerung by the Nazi leadership a few years later. Nevertheless it did provide an image of heroic virtue which could exist, and could be admired, outside the Christian framework. In some respects the Old Norse "theory of courage" might even be regarded as ethically superior to the Classical if not to the Christian world-view, in that it demanded commitment to virtue without any offer of lasting reward...He also felt that Old Norse mythology provided a model for what one might call "virtuous paganism," which was heathen; conscious of its own inadequacy, and so ripe for conversion; but not yet sunk into despair and disillusionment like so much of 20th century post-Christian literature; a mythology which was in its way light-hearted. (Tom Shippey, Tolkien and Iceland: The Philology of Envy )
- Cindy L. Vitto, The virtuous pagan in Middle English literature, DIANE Publishing, 1989, ISBN 978-0-87169-795-0.