The question is often asked, "If faith in Jesus is the only way to have eternal life with God, what about all of the people who have never heard of Jesus?" There are a variety of opinions on the answer and a variety of people who ask the question.
What is the eternal destiny of those who have never heard of Christ?
Sometimes this question is asked by people who only want to throw up a smoke-screen and who really don't care about the answer. Such a person needs to understand that on the day of judgment, the issue will not be about the heathen in general, but each person in particular (including the questioner). He will be held accountable for his own personal knowledge of Jesus and what he did with that knowledge.
Others, however, genuinely struggle with the issue, so an answer is important to give. And to properly answer the question, a number of key biblical areas need to be examined.
The first area concerns the nature of God. The Bible says that God is a good and righteous God who will deal rightly with all people: "Let the rivers clap their hands; let the hills sing for joy together before the LORD, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity" (Psalm 98:8-9). The Scriptures also say He is all-powerful, so He has the ability to reach and save everyone He desires: "Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases" (Psalm 115:3). The Bible also records that God is all-knowing, so the situation and whereabouts of every person is known to Him: "You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar" (Psalm 139:2).
The second area needing review is what the Bible says about the knowledge every person has about God. Even if a person has not been introduced to the name of Jesus, the Bible says he intuitively knows about God from creation, according to the Old Testament: "The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world" (Psalm 19:1–4).
The New Testament specifically says that people know about God, but reject Him: "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse" (Romans 1:18-20). The word "excuse" in the Greek is apologia, which means "defense." No one will have a right to stand before God and claim ignorance of His existence.
A third topic needing discussion to answer the question concerns the state of all humanity – all people everywhere are lost and need God's grace and deliverance from their sin. The Bible says, "None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God" (Romans 3:10-11). Everyone from birth sins against God because all have a built-in law of failure: "Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest" (Ephesians 2:3 NASB, emphasis added).
Because of this fallen nature that everyone inherits, everyone rejects the things of God: "The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned" (1 Corinthians 2:14). Paul also says, "For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot" (Romans 8:6–7). The fact is, an unbelieving person is deaf and blind to God's spiritual truth.
Now, the question needs to be asked: What is the difference between a blind, deaf and rebellious person in a remote jungle and a blind, deaf, rebellious man in one of the most Christian cities and nations in the world who is given the Bible to read? Answer: Nothing.
The key is that it does not matter WHERE a person was born or WHEN a person was born, the truths presented above remain the same. God is a just, fair, and righteous God. Everyone who has ever been born instinctively knows about God, but each person is also born with a sin nature that rebels against God and is not morally capable of seeking Him or understanding and appreciating His grace.
Access to more or less information is not the crux of the problem. The primary issue is the spiritual deadness of everyone born into the world.
God saves people today the same way He saved before anyone knew the name of Jesus: through faith, a fact spelled out by the writer of Hebrews: "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the men of old gained approval" (Hebrews 11:1-2 NASB, emphasis added). However, what has changed is the content of information necessary for saving faith. Theologian Charles Ryrie sums it up this way: "The basis of salvation in every age is the death of Christ; the requirement for salvation in every age is faith; the object of faith in every age is God; the content of faith changes in the various dispensations [ages or times]."
Christ has been and will always be the basis of salvation, as stated by Peter in Acts: "And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12). Yet, those saved during the Old Testament era did not know the name of Christ nor did most (if any) understand that God Himself would come and die for their sins.
However, in the Church Age (inaugurated on the day of Pentecost in the first century; cf. Acts 2), the name and gospel of Christ are known, and it is through the preaching and knowledge of Christ's gospel that people are saved today, which is what Paul says: "'EVERYONE WHO CALLS ON THE NAME OF THE LORD WILL BE SAVED.' How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?. . . .So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ" (Romans 10:13-14, 17, emphasis added).
Jesus spelled out the fact that no one can come to Him unless God calls the blind and deaf sinner to Christ: "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day" (John 6:44). This calling is necessary for everyone, those in the most Christianized nation and those in the remotest jungle. God uses missionaries, the work of Bible translators, and even dreams/visions sometimes to call people to Christ. And the end result is that all nations and peoples will be represented in heaven: "After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands" (Revelation 7:9, emphasis added).
God, who is sovereign over everything, has determined when and where someone will live and whether he hears the gospel or not: "And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place" (Acts 17:26). He is fully in control of who is saved and who is not.
The question of what happens to those who have never heard of Christ is an interesting one to explore, but the more important question is, what will you do with the information about Jesus that you have? As C. S. Lewis said, "If you are worried about the people outside [of faith in Christ], the most unreasonable thing you can do is to remain outside yourself."
How does God judge people raised in non-Christian cultures?
How does God judge people raised in other religions or non-Christian cultures?
Is there an age of accountability in the Bible? What happens to babies that die?
Before Jesus died for our sins, could people be saved? How?
Is it true that Jesus is the only way to heaven?
Truth about Salvation