A question often asked is what happens to those who have never heard about Jesus. This is a fair question as Christians claim that salvation is through Christ alone. History tells us that Jesus came mid-history and to one geographical location. To claim then that all those who lived before Jesus' coming or before hearing about him are going to hell understandably seems rather harsh, salvation then is not an issue of personal response but to a large extent an accident of history and geography.
In my view the bible answers gives us some good leads to help us answer this question.
The New Testament refers to a number of people are have been saved and have gone to live with God for eternity, but who never heard specifically about Jesus!
These include Abraham and Sarah (Rom 4) and a whole long list of people in Hebrews 11 who are presented as examples of faith. These include the foreign prostitute Rahab. Hebrews also refers to the high priest Melchizedek of Gen 14 and Ps 110 who was a priest of the Most High God and whom Jesus followed as supreme priest (see Heb 7 in particular).
So this rules out the view that a person who has not heard specifically about Jesus or who lived before him is automatically separated from God for all eternity. So how was it that these people who lived before Christ are saved?
The first thing we can say for sure from the teaching of the NT is that they were not saved because of a perfect life. The Christian Gospel tells us that the reason humanity do not receive eternal life is because they have done wrong. This is universal. Sin separates us from God (Rom 3:23; 6:23). This makes sense, because there can exist no evil, sin or defilement in eternity or then evil will exist forever and contend against goodness.
In the named OT saints in Heb 11 and elsewhere, an examination of their lives indicates that even the very best of them failed to live the life that will gain them eternity by works i.e. none of these people lived a perfect life. Hence, they were not saved because of the things they did per se. They were flawed people who made mistakes. Some like Samson even rejected God for great periods of their life, coming back to him in the last minute (see Jdg 13-16).
Rather, they were saved because of their faithful relationship with God as they knew him as revealed to them (Rom 4:3; Heb 11:1, 39-40). These people were all saved because despite their faith-ups-and-downs, they walked through to their death in a living trusting relationship with God in terms of the way he had been revealed to them.
Abraham for example lived for many years trusting God and doing what he said (read Genesis 12-25). He made mistakes but hung in there. He knew God as ‘El, the God of his ancestors who he worshiped at shrines and as a nomad. He knew nothing about him as Yahweh or as the God of Israel, for Israel did not exist at this point. He knew nothing about Jesus or crucifixion or resurrection. Yet he was saved.
Similarly Moses initially knew God as 'El but after a sensational revelation of his being in which God made himself known as Yahweh followed him (the burning bush account in Exod 3). We are told that he disobeyed God on several situations (e.g. Exod 4:10-26; Numb 20:1-11). Yet he was saved on the basis of his lifelong faithful relationship in this God (read Exodus; Numbers; Deuteronomy).
This suggests to me that in other cultures where Christ has not been preached there are others like Abraham and Moses who knew God and walked in faithful relationship with him. Indeed I am of the view that God is knowable through creation and if we reach out to the creator seeking him to reveal himself to us, he will.
Some will think I am suggesting that people can be saved by other religions or that all are saved. However, I am not saying this at all. These people were not saved by religious ritual or doing the right religious thing like going to a shrine, making the right sacrifice, praying the right way, giving money to the poor, pilgrimmages or doing the right religious thing. No religion can save whether it be Islam, Hinduism, Judiasm, Buddhism or even the systems of the Christian church. These are all flawed and to varying degrees, inaccurate expressions of faith.
Rather, they were saved through their relationship of faith in God as revealed to them through creation and through his own special personal revelation.
Neither does this mean all are saved. The NT is clear, more people will not be saved than saved. Jesus made this clear when asked whether only a few will be saved (Lk 13:22-30). What I am saying, is that of the multitude of humanity who existed before Christ and never heard his name, there will be some whose faith in the God of creation will see their faith credited to them as righteousness as did Abraham. Though they did not see the apex of God's revelation Jesus, they honoured God with their lives believing in him and worshiping him (as per Melchizedek).
This means to me that where Christ has not yet been made known, or where he has been made known inaccurately, it is possible that people within these religious systems may be saved through their faithful relationship with him. They are not saved by the system, but by their faith in Christ.
Having said this, no matter who they are, they are saved through Jesus and God's grace, their faith in God being credited to them as faith in Jesus. People who lived before Christ are still saved retroactively by and through Jesus whose death saves them. This means that while they did not believe in Jesus in the contemporary Christian sense, they are still saved by his death and resurrection because of their living faithful relationship with God.
The type of faith that saves is a faith that lasts until their death; that is, they died in that relationship. The NT makes clear that is those who endure in their faith to the end that are saved. Hence it is not enough to say yes to God, get baptised and then expect to be saved. One must remain in that faithful relationship to the point of death to receive salvation (see Mt 20:1-16; 21:28-32; 24:13; 25:1-13; 1 Cor 15:2; Heb 6:1-8; Rev 2:26 etc.)
For me then, those who have not heard about Christ still have opportunity to be saved. However, they are not saved through any religious system or through perfect righteousness, but through an active living faith in God as they know him.
What is equally clear in the NT is that while this may be true, once a person has heard the gospel of concerning Christ clearly explained to them then it is on the basis of their response to Christ that they are saved. Interestingly it is only such people who ask this question! Jesus is God's final and dynamic revelation of his person. He came to end such questions; he came as God's final word. When we have heard the glorious story of his death and resurrection and appeal for us to come to him and experience eternal life, it is on this basis that we are saved. So what will you do? Will you say yes to Jesus? I hope you say yes, because there is nothing I would like more than to hang out forever with you. And God wants that even more than I do!