In the writings of scholastic and early-modern theologians, we can distinguish four main categories of non-Christians able to be saved: catechumens, babies who die before baptism, people who lived before Jesus, and people who have never heard of Jesus. As we will see, in each case, they believed salvation was possible.
St. Augustine denied the possibility of salvation to any non-Christian, including catechumens and unbaptized babies. On both these points, the Western Church gradually formed a consensus that rejected his opinions because they contradict our understanding of God’s justice. Would God damn a person who died the day before their baptism was scheduled? Where Augustine deferred to God’s inscrutable will, scholastic theologians concluded that the desire (votum) for baptism is sufficient to gain its power. After all, the water of baptism itself does not save people, as if by magic: it is God the Savior who made water the effective instrument of his salvation. Therefore, if someone desires that water and fails to receive it through no fault of their own, it is only fitting that God will still save that person. Therefore, neo-scholastic theologians say that baptism’s necessity for salvation is not absolute but “hypothetical.” Thus it becomes a dogmatic formula that, although God has bound salvation to the sacraments, he is not bound by them. Since baptism is the sacrament by which we enter the Church, we can infer the conclusion that the Church’s necessity for salvation is also “hypothetical” rather than absolute. To put it another way: God has promised himself to the Church, but he is not bound by the Church. God can do anything and can save anyone he wants. We now only need to work out who we think God might save and how he would do so through his Son.
The second category is similar to the first, in that it involves dying before baptism. Nevertheless, scholastic theologians saw a big difference because infants lack the votum (desire) for baptism. Since they cannot desire baptism, they cannot be saved. Nevertheless, because the schoolmen were convinced it would be unjust for God to damn them when they had not actually sinned (for Augustine, original sin was enough), they reached for an extraordinary conclusion. To reconcile the contradiction, they invented limbo. Limbo (limbus means border) was, strictly speaking, part of Hell, but it was like an antechamber. There was no punishment in Limbo since no sins had been committed. Therefore, it was a “place” of natural happiness, but without the beatific vision. Limbo had no basis in Scripture or Tradition, yet it solved a serious theological problem so effectively that it eventually became the common opinion of theologians and popes. It was never made dogma, however, because it could not be made dogma. Dogmas, by definition, are part of the deposit of faith, but there is no limbo in divine revelation.
As a result, limbo has fallen on hard times and no longer plays any role in Catholic doctrine. One searches for it in vain in modern theology books, papal encyclicals, Vatican II, or the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The “New Theology” that triumphed at Vatican II was centered on returning to the “sources” of revelation. It rejected limbo not only because it cannot be found in revelation, but because it rejected the very notion of “natural happiness.” The Catholic Church has refocused its belief on our intrinsic God-centeredness: God made us in his own image to be with him forever. “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” The end of humanity is communion with God, not a merely natural satisfaction.
As for unbaptized babies, theologians since the Council have given two new solutions that have found widespread acceptance. The first isn’t strictly an answer, but is rather to hope for their salvation on the basis of our faith in God’s universal salvific will and mercy: “Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved [. . .] allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism.” The second answer is the theory that the votum of the parents for their child’s baptism (or the Church’s votum) is sufficient. After all, if the parents can already vicariously provide the faith requirement for baptism, why can they not also vicariously provide the votum for baptism? A document created by the International Theological Commission has this to say on the second theory:
Many, many attempts have been made in modern times to explore the possibility of a votum in the case of an unbaptized infant, either a votum exercised on behalf of the infant by its parents or by the Church, or perhaps a votum exercised by the infant in some way. The Church has never ruled out such a solution.
Before the Incarnation
The third category is people who lived before Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is apparent from numerous scriptural passages that the ancient Israelites believed that they continued to exist after death as “shades” in the underworld. They called this Sheol, and we English speakers may naturally call it Hell. However, it was not a place of fiery punishment for sinners; rather, it was a pit of darkness lacking true life, where everyone went when they died (see Eccl 9:1-10). Prior to the birth of Jesus, Jews already had come to believe that there was a nice part of Sheol, with water and light, where the righteous awaited salvation, separate from a fiery part of punishment for sinners (e.g., 1 Enoch 22). This belief in a twofold afterlife before the final Resurrection underlies the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Lk 16:22-24). Clearly, then, people who lived before Jesus did not need to believe in him in order to be saved. Their faith in and love for God were sufficient. This did not lessen the exclusive salvific power of Christ, since the “intermediate state” after death is not true salvation, but only a holding place. Some early Christian texts speak of a “harrowing of Hell,” when the soul of Christ on Holy Saturday went to liberate all the righteous souls in (the good part of) Hell. Consequently, Church declarations that speak of the necessity of baptism for salvation always include the logical stipulation “since the promulgation of the Gospel.” Faith in Christ and baptism in his name could not have been necessary prior to his Resurrection.
Those who never heard of Christ
Recalling that theology is faith seeking understanding, we shouldn’t be surprised that some theologians eventually interpreted the phrase “since the promulgation of the Gospel” in a relative rather than in an absolute way (not unlike the “hypothetical” necessity of baptism). This development was prompted by a practical reality: the crossing of the Atlantic Ocean at the turn of the 16th century led to the discovery of huge swaths of people in the Americas who had never heard of Jesus. Almost immediately Franciscan and other missionaries began evangelizing them. At the same time, the Jesuits started going to South and East Asia to evangelize.
Because the belief that salvation comes through faith in Jesus is so central to Christianity, theologians were very careful in how they reasoned about the salvation of non-Christians. Prior to the 16th century, the prevailing view was that of St. Thomas Aquinas: if God wanted to save a non-Christian, he would miraculously send them an angel or missionary to tell them about Jesus. The idea of people not knowing about Jesus was so unlikely that they framed the question through the proverbial “child raised in the wilderness.”
The 16th century exploded the medieval conception of the world. From lived experience, something new dawned on Christian consciousness, namely that the world was full of huge numbers of non-Christians that, unlike Jews and Muslims, had never heard of Jesus or Christianity. This led to new theological work, driven primarily by Jesuits like St. Robert Bellarmine. They reasoned that the Gospel had not actually been “promulgated” in the whole world in the early centuries of Christianity. Only now that missionaries were going to the Americas and Asia was it being promulgated globally, bit by bit. Thomas’s notion that God would send an angel to anyone he wanted to save was not plausible in the face of such large numbers. This fact, combined with God’s universal salvific will, led to the conclusion that the peoples of these lands should be understood in the same way as the whole human race was before Jesus. That means that they, too, could have been saved through faith and love, before the introduction of baptism.
To explain this, as in the other cases I’ve described, theologians reasoned based on concepts they already understood, in this case St. Thomas’s distinction between “explicit” faith in Jesus and “implicit” faith. A righteous Jew could have explicit faith by awaiting the promised Son of David, but Thomas says even Gentiles could have “implicit faith” in him:
If some were saved without receiving any revelation, they were not saved without faith in a Mediator, for, though they did not believe in Him explicitly, they did nevertheless have implicit faith through believing in Divine providence, since they believed that God would deliver humankind in whatever way was pleasing to Him.
Essentially, Thomas argued that belief in divine providence is “good enough,” because it implies acceptance of whatever method God chooses for salvation, such as a unique mediator. Jesuits reasoned that, if that was true of Gentiles before the time of Jesus, it could also be true of people in any part of the world before the “promulgation of the Gospel” where they live. Although this distinction between implicit and explicit faith may seem odd today, it fit well within the scholastic framework of making distinctions to solve problems (like hypothetical versus absolute necessity). By saying there was “implicit” and “explicit” faith in Jesus, they could both preserve the necessity of faith in Jesus for salvation and account for how non-Christians could be saved. The latter was necessary to preserve the doctrine on God’s universal salvific will.
All this brings us to the modern era and a crucial fifth category of non-Christian: what about people who have heard of Jesus and Christianity, yet still don’t believe in him. Can they, too, be saved? According to Catholic doctrine, they can. This will be the subject of part III.
 Ott, 356.
 Catechism of the Catholic Church 1257.
 St. Augustine, Confessions 1.1.1, as quoted in Catechism of the Catholic Church 30.
 Catechism of the Catholic Church 1261.
 International Theological Commission, The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die without Being Baptized (2007) 94.
 See Benedict XVI, Encyclical on Christian Hope Spe Salvi 44-45.
 This laudable effort, unfortunately, was historically intermingled with brutal colonialism and racism, but that is a story for another time.
 See Francis A. Sullivan, SJ, Salvation outside the Church? Tracing the History of the Catholic Response (1992), 52-56.
 See Sullivan, 84-99.
Image: Christ’s descent into Limbo. By Andrea Mantegna – en.wikipedia.org, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3170375
Dr. Rasmussen is an adjunct professor in Georgetown University's Department of Theology & Religious Studies. He has a Ph.D. in the same subject from The Catholic University of America, specializing in historical theology and early Christianity. He is the author of Genesis and Cosmos: Basil and Origen on Genesis 1 and Cosmology (Bible in Ancient Christianity 14; Brill, 2019).