There have been two times in my life that I have wrestled with this question: once when I was a young believer, and then again 20+ years later. When I think about this question, there are two groups of people that come to my mind: adults who have never heard the Gospel and children who are too young to understand it. In other words, very young children may have “heard” the Gospel but simply been unable to grasp it. For them, I think that 2 Samuel gives us the answer. After David’s child with Bathsheba dies, David says in Chapter 12:23, “Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me.” This indicates that David would see his child again in heaven and, I believe, gives us assurance that when young children die, we will see them again.
What about adults who die without having heard the Gospel? I believe that Romans 1:18-23 gives as clear an answer as any other passage in Scripture. Verses 18-20 say this: “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” This chapter goes on to say that people make images (idols) made to look like people and animals rather than worshiping God. In other words, they worship things in creation rather than the Creator.
The phrase “being understood from what has been made” is an important one in trying to answer this question. I believe the Lord is telling us that people can at least dimly apprehend the concept of Him, the Creator, by looking at His creation. On a personal note, I believe that this is why my best times of worship are when I am in nature. Much more importantly, I believe this is one of the reasons why there have been groups of people who have been remarkably receptive to the Gospel, to the point where, in mass numbers, they have almost immediately accepted it when they have heard it. Don Richardson’s remarkable book Eternity in Their Hearts (1981) gives examples of people like the 19th-century Karen of Myanmar and the Lisu of China to illustrate this.
In Revelation 7:9, the apostle John tells us in his vision of heaven: “After this I looked and there before me was a multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb.” In other words, the Bible is very clear that when we get to heaven, there will be representatives from every people group who have ever lived. However, what of individuals who die without having heard the Gospel? Is it possible for such people to be saved? Again, I refer to Romans 1, which says people are “without excuse” because of what they can see in creation. I don’t know if it’s possible to definitively say whether such people will be in heaven or not (I don’t think they will be), but what we do know is that all of those who God has chosen, from the beginning of creation until Jesus returns, will be there.
The word “chosen” is used throughout Scripture to refer to those who are God’s people–those who are saved. Rather than getting into an extended discussion of whose choice it is, let’s look at John 6:44, where Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day.” This is as clear a statement as there is in Scripture that the Lord draws people to saving faith in Himself. And in John 10:28, Jesus says, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.” The Lord will always save those who He has chosen, even in countries that are now closed to missionaries. Sometimes He uses technology, such as radio and the Internet. There have also been accounts of people who have had dreams in which Jesus appeared to them. At the time of the dream, they have not understood it was Jesus, but the dream has led them on a journey of discovery and ultimately to saving faith.
Over the years in trying to answer this question, I have heard and read many times, “It’s not fair.” That’s one reason that Rob Bell (author of Love Wins) believes everyone will eventually be in heaven. One conclusion I have come to is that the entire human race, including me, deserves to spend eternity in hell; that’s “fair.” The fact that I am going to instead be in heaven for eternity is pure grace. If you are reading this and are not yet a Christian, heaven can be your eternal destination as well if you trust in Jesus as your Savior and Lord.