This is one of the most commonly asked questions about Christianity—and frankly, it’s challenging because we don’t have the complete answer. God hasn’t explicitly told us how he is going to deal with these situations. But we do know a few things about the matter.
First, we know from the Bible that everyone has a moral standard written on their hearts by God, and that everybody is guilty of violating that standard. That’s why our conscience bothers us when we do something wrong.
Second, we know that everyone has enough information from observing the created world to know that God exists, but people have suppressed it and rejected God anyway—for which they rightfully deserve punishment (Rom. 1:18–20).
Third, we know from both the Old and New Testaments that those who seek God will find him. Jesus said, for example, in Matthew 7:7, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” The Bible also indicates that the Holy Spirit is seeking us first, making it possible for us to in turn seek him (John 16:7–11). This suggests to me that people who respond to the understanding that they have and who earnestly seek after the one true God will find an opportunity, in some way, to receive the eternal life that he has graciously provided through Jesus Christ.
Fourth, we see repeatedly in Scripture that God is scrupulously fair. Genesis 18:25 asks, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” Said author Ronald Nash: “When God is finished dealing with all of us, none will be able to complain that they were treated unfairly.”
Finally, we know that apart from the payment Christ made on the cross, nobody has a chance to getting off of death row. But exactly how much knowledge a person must have about Jesus or precisely where the lines of faith are drawn, only God knows. He and he alone can expose the motives of a person’s heart.
Let me add that, without exception, every time I’ve heard this question it has been from someone who has heard about Jesus. As important as this theoretical discussion is regarding the fate of those who have never heard, I need to remind thaose people that they have heard the good news and that they are responsible for what they do with it. In fact, Jesus said in Luke 12:48, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”
My strong encouragement to you, or to the friend who asked you this question, is to respond to God’s gracious offer of salvation through Christ and then join those of us who are doing all we can to spread his love and truth to everyone we can possibly reach—especially those who have never heard the good news.
“For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”
Jesus, in Matthew 7:8