I believe in Jesus, that he came to earth, lived a perfect life, and died for my sins; but, if faith in Jesus is absolutely the only way, then what about the people who died who never heard of Him? He doesn’t punish children for not believing he died for their sins because they don’t know Him yet and can’t comprehend that kind of sacrifice, so how could He punish those who never had the opportunity to know about Him when it’s not their fault? Or what about the people who died before Jesus rose again or before his life even began? What about all of the important people from the Old Testament like Adam and Eve, Noah, Joseph, David, etc? Do they just not get to go to Heaven because they lived before Jesus’ sacrifice?
First, let me say that you have asked a really good question. The question of what happens to those who have never heard the gospel is one that is frequently asked, often with a two-fold concern, first, for the justice of God (how can he punish people for never having heard the gospel) and second, for compassion toward people. We all naturally feel sorrow for those who are still in their sins and exposed to God’s wrath (Rom. 9:1-3).
At the outset it is important to say that God doesn’t punish people for not having heard the gospel. He punishes them for the sins they have committed. Sin is a violation of his law (1 Jn. 3:4) and results in death. “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). “The soul who sins shall die” (Ezek. 18:4). It should also be remembered that everyone is fully responsible for his or her own sinful thoughts, words, and deeds, and being responsible, they will have to give an account of them to God.
Secondly, God could have chosen not to offer salvation to anyone on any terms at any time, and he would not have committed any injustice to anyone. God doesn’t owe us salvation. This is the very meaning of grace. It is “unmerited favor.” No one deserves it. The wonder is not that some obtain it and some do not. The wonder is that anyone at all should do so.
Third, having graciously chosen to offer salvation to us sinful human beings, the Lord could have chosen to do so on any terms he deemed wise. He has deemed it wise—because it was the only way consistent with his own righteousness—to offer us salvation by way of the sacrifice of Christ. Our salvation had to come through a man, since it was a man who plunged us into ruin; but it had to come to us through one who was more than a man, because the life of no mere man was of sufficient value to atone for the sins of the world. And so Jesus, who is both God and man, met both qualifications. As a man, he acts on behalf of men to restore the glory that man had robbed from God; as God, his death is of infinite value, capable of atoning for the sins of the world (Jn. 1:29).
Fourth, God has attached a qualification to receiving the benefits of Jesus’ sacrificial death, namely, giving ourselves to him, body and soul, to live and die for him. This is what it means to believe in Jesus, for faith is no mere mental assent to a proposition, but a whole-hearted devotion to Christ.
That hearing the gospel and coming to personal faith in Jesus Christ is necessary for salvation is implied in what Paul says in Romans 10.
If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “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? (Rom. 10:9-14)
Fifth, God could have chosen to send out all his holy angels to the four corners of the earth to call people to repentance and to announce the good news that whoever believes in Christ will be saved. But he didn’t. He chose instead to tie the progress of the gospel to the seemingly weak and ineffectual ministry of human beings sharing the gospel by word of mouth.
What, then, of those who have never had the opportunity to hear the gospel? Again, they are not condemned for not having heard. They are condemned for having broken God’s law, which is holy and just and good (Rom. 7:12). But their not having had an opportunity to hear the gospel is an illustration of what Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans concerning God’s sovereignty in dispensing his grace.
Is there injustice on God’s part [that some receive his favor and others do not]? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who has mercy (Rom. 9:14-16).
Though this may seem difficult at first, we can be sure of this: there is no injustice in God (Zeph. 3:5; cf. Gen. 18:25).
As far as the saints in the Old Testament are concerned, the Bible teaches that they were saved on the basis of their faith in God in anticipation of what Jesus would do for our salvation when he should eventually come (Rom. 3:25; Heb. 9:15).
As far as children go, it is widely believed they that will receive God’s mercy so as to be saved if they should happen to die before contracting the guilt of actual transgression (as opposed to the guilt of original sin). However, since there is no direct mention of this in Scripture, there is a difference of opinion on this point among worthy theologians.
In all these things we should remember that God judges people according to the knowledge they possess.
That servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more (Lk. 12:47-48).
Again, God never does any injustice. Those whom he punishes, deserve to be punished. We who are saved deserve to be punished too, but we have received mercy through Jesus Christ. How humbling is this?! God has so worked in our lives that he has brought us into contact with the gospel and has opened our hearts to embrace it. The hymn writer, Robert Robinson nailed it when he said, “Oh to grace how great a debtor, daily I’m constrained to be!”