What happens to those who die without ever hearing the Gospel? Surely they are not eternally damned?
The question here is one of justice, that is, what would be the just outcome of such a case. Of course the law courts of this world are not infrequently charged with travesties of justice, whereby the guilty are set free, the innocent imprisoned, and punishment given that fails to fit the crime. However, we are dealing with justice according to God, and I would echo the words of Abraham: "Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?" (Gen. 18: 25). Indeed He will. To quote another, "[Is there] unrighteousness with God? Far be the thought" (Rom. 9: 14). While human systems of justice may fail in righteousness, God always does what is right, "For righteous is Jehovah; he loveth righteousness." (Ps. 11: 7). He who is just (Is. 45: 21), cannot do what is unjust. We can rest assured that with every soul that ever lived, God will act towards them in perfect righteousness. There will be no miscarriages of justice. Leniency on the one hand, or excessive harshness on the other, will have no place––in every case it will be evident that God has dealt rightly. With this in mind, we can proceed with the question.
On what grounds is a person judged? Is it because he is a sinner or because he has sinned? Is he judged because of what he is, or because of what he has done? Man does not become a sinner by sinning; he sins because he is a sinner. For David says in Ps. 51: 5 "Behold, in iniquity was I brought forth, and in sin did my mother conceive me". Man cannot help being what he is (a sinner), but it is for what he has done that God holds him responsible. In Rev. 20: 12 we read that "the dead were judged out of the things written in the books according to their works". God judges on the sole ground of what a man has done: " in [the] day of wrath and revelation of [the] righteous judgement of God, who shall render to each according to his works" (Rom. 2: 6,7). Thus as "all have sinned" (Rom. 3: 23) all are lost unless God intervenes. God does not, however, leave man to end up in judgment on account of his sins. He gives a testimony that man is responsible to believe, and that will prevent him coming into judgement (John 5: 24). Yet how can people believe a testimony that they have never been given? They cannot.
Now the basis for man’s salvation is the work of Christ, "who gave Himself a ransom for all." (1 Tim. 2: 6) Yet the death of Christ took place at one point in time and so the testimony that Christ died for our sins could not be given until after he had died. Hence no one heard the Gospel in all its fullness prior to the death of Christ. Having said that, God has never left man without a testimony to Himself. And the test for man has always been Will he believe God? Eve believed the Serpent rather than God. Adam fell because he listened to Eve instead of God. What distinguishes those who are saved is that they have believed God. The actual testimony that they have believed may differ, but the One that they believe is the same down the ages. So Rom. 4: 3 says "And Abraham believed God, …". The point here is not what he believed but the One whom he believed. The actual testimony that is believed may change, indeed it has, but the God who gives that testimony remains the same (Mal. 3: 6). Yet can we say that every one, no matter when and where he lived has had a testimony from God for which he is held responsible to believe? And that if that testimony is believed such a person will ultimately be saved? The answer is Yes. So what is that testimony? For not all have even had Abraham’s testimony let alone the "glad tidings of the grace of God" (Acts 20: 24). What universal testimony have all had that should turn them to God in faith?
God’s fundamental testimony to Himself is in creation: "the heavens declare the glory of God; and the expanse sheweth the work of his hands" (Ps. 19: 1). This is Paul's argument that all are responsible: "Because what is known of God is manifest among them, for God has manifested [it] to them,––for from [the] world’s creation the invisible things of him are perceived, being apprehended by the mind through the things that are made, both his eternal power and divinity,––so as to render them inexcusable” (Rom. 1: 19, 20). When lost men meet God in judgement, not one will have an excuse. Why? Because they have rejected the witness of nature to a creator God. It is a universal and unavoidable testimony to which all responsible persons are bound to answer. Hence no one will be damned because of ignorance––they will be damned because they have rejected God.