There are actually several groups to consider with this question and my understanding comes thru trying to make sense of all of them. My thoughts are tentative and I am happy to adjust it if I am shown to be scripturally incorrect. Salvation is clearly thru Christ. Christianity states that men only get heaven thru Christ and I am not seeking in this post to defend this--the Bible states that we are fallen and deserve death. In terms of justice, we all deserve hell; that Christ would save any is due to his mercy. We cannot earn our salvation and it is Christ's blood that allows our sin to be forgiven. My question is, who can the blood cover?
From a salvation perspective history is divided at the cross and resurrection. This divides mankind into 2 groups. However these can further be divided into those inside and outside covenantial communities. For those prior to Christ the covenential community were those who followed Yahweh. After Christ it is the true church. Can those outside those groups get into heaven?
Exclusivists claim that only those who are inside these communities are covered by Christ's blood and thus get entry into heaven. Inclusivists say that others can get in, sometimes including people from other religions. Universalists believe that everyone eventually will get into heaven. I would consider myself to be an inclusivist though prefer the term extended exclusivist. Strict exclusives may object to that, though I prefer it as I think entry to heaven is completely tied up in following Jesus.
Previous posts have shown my views on salvation. The saved are those who follow Christ. Repentance has to do with turning around, turning from behaviour that results in death to walking in the ways of God. If this is the case then can people who have never heard the gospel follow Jesus?
One cannot reasonably follow someone they have never heard of. They can however know something of Christ indirectly. Romans informs us there is enough in natural revelation to point to a creator. Because the Holy Spirit is always at work, even amongst the unsaved, he can in some sense draw men to God. The knowledge of God these people have is very limited compared to what we have with the more specific revelation of the Bible, as well as the Holy Spirit indwelling us, but it is still knowledge.
I think it possible for men to attempt to live for God in as much as they know. People living before and after the cross may try to be obedient to what they think God requires of them based on a desire to please God. They are still sinners and fail at times. Their obedience is imperfect because of imperfect knowledge. Sin that is committed is still sin even when we don't know that it is, sincerity cannot override sin; but the punishment may be less based on incomplete awareness.
Because these people are sinners they deserve death as we all do. But I do wonder whether Jesus will allow his blood to cover those who truly wish to live for God as best they know how. It is as if they are looking for God all their lives and when they die and face Christ they recognise him as the one they were looking for.
In the final book of the Narnian Chronicles, The Last Battle, when night falls on Narnia, the creatures are all forced to look at Aslan:
But as they came right up to Aslan one or other of two things happened to each of them. They all looked straight in his face, I don't think they had any choice about that. And when some looked, the expression of their faces changed terribly—it was fear and hatred:... And all the creatures who looked at Aslan in that way swerved to their right, his left, and disappeared into his huge black shadow,... But the others looked in the face of Aslan and loved him, though some of them were very frightened at the same time. And all these came in at the Door, in on Aslan's right. There were some queer specimens among them.While this is fiction, I think there is something to Lewis' analogy. We can't get our theology from fiction though, so is there anything in Scripture that suggests this?
Passages about Nineveh and the queen of the South may give some clues. Though one could argue these people came into a relationship with Yahweh it was possibly based on less extensive knowledge than that of the Hebrews.
Comments about god-fearing Gentiles suggest these persons were on the path to heaven with perhaps incomplete knowledge; note how Cornelius still needed to be told about Jesus. These either antedate Christ or were perhaps proselytes so do not directly equate to the current situation. But for those who have never heard of Christ, how is their situation different from others pre-Christ outside God's covenant?
Jesus tells a parable about sheep and goats. Many interpreters apply this to Christians but some apply it specifically to those who have no direct knowledge of Christ.
"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.' Then the righteous will answer him, saying, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?' And the King will answer them, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.'The setting is the gathering of the nations. This is perhaps a pointer to not equating the sheep with Christians and the goats with non-Christians. A second pointer is that the individuals of the nations are judged by their works. But there is a third feature that points away from this being about Christians and non-Christians. In discussing this with my pastor he suggested that the parable is very likely to be about those who have never heard the gospel because the sheep are surprised by the king's comments. The reaction of the sheep is not one that would seem likely of Christians who have already been told to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked. Whereas those who seek righteousness may do these things yet not know they are doing it for Jesus.
"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' Then they also will answer, saying, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?' Then he will answer them, saying, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life." (Matthew 25:31-46)
And what of the idea that Christ avails his blood to cover those who only meet him after death? Firstly scripture suggests that we need to make our decision before death (and these people have), not that the power of atonement can only be applied before death. And secondly, this is the situation of those in covenential relationship with God pre-Christ such as Noah, Abraham and David. Christ did not die until after their death but it is still Christ's death that avails them heaven—incidentally, this is consistent with them going to Sheol after death until, at least, Christ's resurrection.
If my conclusion is true, and I am cautious about my conclusions, why evangelise? Why take the gospel to those who have never heard?
Because choosing God without the gospel is probably not common. Telling those who are seeking God about Jesus gives them joy in knowing Jesus now, security of their future, power to avoid sin, encouragement to tell others. And for the majority who are heading to hell it is the opportunity to turn. The gospel is the power of salvation, it convicts sinners who repent and choose life.