What happens to Non-Christians upon death?

Does the Catholic Church have an official position on what happens to the souls of those who have never heard the Gospel message when they die? For example, someone in Outer Mongolia or another country in which Christianity is unknown or little known. I struggle with this in light of John 14:6.

We trust that God has some way of revealing Himself to them. They wouldn’t know the name “Jesus” and they wouldn’t have access to the Sacraments of the Church, but if they followed the One who is in their hearts to the best of their understanding and ability, then God would count it as faith, just as He did with Abraham.

I once knew a man who was born in an “unexplored” region of Africa, and lived with a tribe that had not encountered Christianity in any form whatsoever, within living memory.

Nevertheless, they worshipped a god who, when examined carefully, shared many of the same characteristics as Jesus Christ, including having at some point come to earth as a human being, died for sins, and been raised again from the dead.

When Catholic missionaries encountered the tribe, they set about learning their language, and teaching them the Gospel message. The people of the tribe responded, “We know this God! Thank you for teaching us his name.” Over the course of time, they were all baptized and brought into the Church, and they were given a priest and the Sacraments. My friend and all the boys in his class were also immediately put into the seminary, with the view of providing the tribe with its own priests, ultimately, so that they wouldn’t have to import strangers.

Today, he is a Catholic missionary in my city, re-evangelizing a lost culture.

To answer your question a little more directly, in our Catholic faith, we don’t speculate about who, specifically, might be in Hell, or going to Hell. That is God’s jurisdiction, and He doesn’t share that information with us.

Instead, we pray for the dead, and hope in God’s mercy, not only for those who have never had the opportunity to hear the Gospel, but also for adults who seem to have died in a state of sin, and for children who have never been baptized.

I’m not an expert on this subject, but I believe it depends on how moral that person was dependent on that person’s ability to understand if their action was moral or immoral. I believe we are held responsible for our actions to the same degree in which we know or should know if our action is moral or immoral. At one end you would have a devout Catholic who fully understands and accepts the teachings of his faith who is held to the highest standard given his ability to know to a greater degree what is moral and immoral and on the other end you have the person in your example who would be held to the base standard (that level of knowledge of morality that all humans know based on our intellect and reason).

Thanks, jmcrae and oldcatholicguy. That makes a lot of sense. I feel better about it now.
I kind of thought it wasn’t fair to those folks in other parts of the world where Christianity isn’t known much if John 14:6 was interpreted to mean everyone in the world had to die with Christ as Savior in order to be with God in heaven after death. Thank God for missionaries through whom the number of people unexposed to the Gospel is lowering.

How much do you like to read? :slight_smile: Pope John Paul II has written many letters and encyclicals that help to explain what the Church has always taught- that salvation is through the Catholic Church. Can people who are not Catholic, and who are not Christian, and those who do not know God be saved? Yes! He explains this in depth. But I will only quote a portion and you can read the entire encyclical and others at your own leisure. From Redemptio Missio by John Paul II:
Salvation in Christ Is Offered to All
10. The universality of salvation means that it is granted not only to those who explicitly believe in Christ and have entered the Church. Since salvation is offered to all, it must be made concretely available to all. But it is clear that today, as in the past, many people do not have an opportunity to come to know or accept the gospel revelation or to enter the Church. The social and cultural conditions in which they live do not permit this, and frequently they have been brought up in other religious traditions. For such people salvation in Christ is accessible by virtue of a grace which, while having a mysterious relationship to the Church, does not make them formally part of the Church but enlightens them in a way which is accommodated to their spiritual and material situation. This grace comes from Christ; it is the result of his Sacrifice and is communicated by the Holy Spirit. It enables each person to attain salvation through his or her free cooperation.
For this reason the Council, after affirming the centrality of the Paschal Mystery, went on to declare that "this applies not only to Christians but to all people of good will in whose hearts grace is secretly at work. Since Christ died for everyone, and since the ultimate calling of each of us comes from God and is therefore a universal one, we are obliged to hold that the Holy Spirit offers everyone the possibility of sharing in this Paschal Mystery in a manner known to God."19

Is an encyclical written by a pope considered ex cathedra?

Thanks for the excerpt from the encyclical, zab. It sheds even more light on the subject.

This is a short, enjoyable article written by one of our apologists, Jim Blackburn. You might find it to help explain the Catholic view.


Peace of Christ! :slight_smile:

Thank you for the links…very informative

Not generally.

It’s important to realize, though, that what the Pope says in an encyclical, unless there’s something obviously wrong with it, can ordinarily be trusted to be coming from within the Holy Tradition that came to us from the Apostles.

The Apostles, though they urgently evangelized the whole world, they did this in the trust and expectation that God wants to save every human being on earth, and make every human being who has ever lived into a Saint in Heaven.

It is not recorded that they beat themselves up over the parts of the world they were not able to reach during their lifetime - they trusted God to have a plan for the people they didn’t get to in person.

Thanks to all who have responded. Much obliged for the information. It makes a lot of sense. I used to be upset in my spirit because I had heard it preached that John 14:6 applied to everyone – no exceptions. It just didn’t seem fair or just if that were the case. It is nice to know that God made provision for those who were never introduced to the Gospel due to no fault of their own.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit www.catholic.com.