What about those who have never heard?
Are they condemned to Hell?
One reason this question so puzzles us is that we begin with a wrong assumption. We ask the question from the standpoint of self-righteousness, as though we are all equally deserving and accepting of God's pardon; yet mean-old-God withholds the opportunity from some poor souls and gives it to others.
The only way to comprehend the answer is to switch perspectives. As long as we are earthbound looking up, all we see are trees and clouds. From a spaceship, we can see the whole picture and that is God's perspective. Ultimately, everything is God's perspective, so it stands to reason we should align our minds with His before trying to understand anything He does.
When we start with the Scriptural premise that God is good, that he is kind, patient, and "not willing that any should perish," (2 Pet. 3:9) we are forced to view the Big Question in a new light. Isn't it logical to assume that a God like that has already thought it all out?
If we admit that because of our selfishness, sinfulness, and outright rebellion against God, none of us deserves His pardon. We should get what we asked for. The fact that He made such a sacrifice to save us from ourselves is incomprehensible. Would a God who sacrificed Himself to purchase our redemption willfully withhold that salvation from any heart who would accept it? Wouldn't He find a way to make that offer available?
The second fallacy in this questions involves those years before Christ came. In a casual reading of the Old Testament, we may conclude that God chose the Jews to bless and everyone else was condemned forever. But during a study of the Israelites' struggles and moves and conquests, I noticed something. In so many passages, the writer describes Israel's moves and adds "and the aliens with them." There were always non-Jews from every land who had recognized the one true God and had joined forces with Israel.
When Moses went on the run from Pharaoh after murdering an Egyptian taskmaster, he ended up in Midian--a long way from the chosen people of God. One of the first people he met was Jethro, who is described in Exodus as "a priest in Midian." Here was a guy a long way from God's chosen ones, yet he already knew and was actively serving the one true God. How did that happen?
Often before Israel went to war with a pagan nation, the pagan king would send messengers saying, "We have heard of you and of your God who does miracles for you!" No New York PR firm could have handled the marketing better than God did. Individuals had many opportunities to join forces with the people of God and God had left strict instructions that they were to be treated as brothers.
If the God of the Old Testament had spread word of Himself even into pagan lands who had never met an Israelite, doesn't it stand to reason that the God of the New Millennium is even now continuing to spread the news of his redemption plan to everyone who would choose to accept it?
The questions that stump us do not stump God. Those antagonistic questions that threaten to pervert our faith and keep unbelievers away from the truth are what the Apostle Paul was referring to when he reminded us:
We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ, (2 Cor. 10:4)