Question: : What happens to people who have never heard the gospel? Do they go to hell?
Answer: Romans 1:18-20 indicates that there is no one who has not known about God. From what He has created, the truth about who He is has been “clearly seen” so that no one has an “excuse.” God has made the truth “plain” to everyone, but people “suppress the truth by their wickedness.”
This seems to indicate that every human being has had a witness to the truth about God and that every human being should have submitted his or her life to God, but instead has, according to the verses that follow, 21-23, devised some other form of worship and “exchanged the glory of the immortal God” for some version of God created by their own foolish and darkened hearts.
So even if someone has not heard the gospel, they have received testimony of who the true God is and have rejected it. They have claimed to be atheists or have adopted some form of religion that is not the truth. “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven” against them, and we may thus suppose that at the judgment they will not be allowed into heaven. Jesus even described people who would stand in the judgment and say that they had lived their lives in the name of Jesus but whom he did not know and whom he would require to depart from him (Matthew 7:22,23).
However, if someone were to respond to the witness in creation about who God is and sought a true relationship with Him, God has shown that He will go to any length to bring the gospel message to them. We see examples of this in the book of Acts. In chapter 10 God sends an angel to Cornelius, a Gentile man who had embraced the teachings of Judaism, to tell him to send for Peter so Peter could enlighten him further about the gospel and how to have a relationship with God. Then God gave Peter a vision that convinced him to go with Cornelius’ representatives. Peter preached to Cornelius and his household and they all received Jesus Christ.
In chapter 19 Paul comes across several “disciples” of John the Baptist who had apparently left Israel and moved to Ephesus before they were introduced to Jesus. Paul shares the rest of the story with them and they are saved and baptized.
We have heard many testimonies of Muslims who have had dreams about Jesus and been moved to seek out a Christian witness or to read the Bible and have become followers of Jesus Christ. We have had missionaries who have gone to tribal peoples and found them receptive to the gospel because they had received a prophecy from among their own people to expect someone bearing this message of salvation.
There is some mystery as to why someone would respond to the truth they have and others would not. This is where the issue of divine election is often brought into the discussion. But regardless of what role that plays we are told by Peter that “God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right” (Acts 10:34,35). Our loving and just God will never reject someone who truly wants to know the truth, but will see to it that the truth is made clear to him or her.