How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher?Romans 10:14
If salvation comes through faith, as Paul says in Romans, then what happens to those who have no faith? I'm not talking about those who heard the gospel and rejected it, I'm more interested in those who never heard at all.
As Paul said, “How will they hear without a preacher?”
Do those who never hear the gospel have no hope?
Are they doomed to eternal conscious torment, annihilation, or some other fate dealt to those who are ungodly? Are they going to be numbered with the unbelievers upon death?
Is their only chance of salvation dependent upon someone making it to them to present to them the gospel?
What if the preacher's car breaks down?
Or, more realistically, what if you are living in North America during the first century?
How did they hear without a preacher? And if they had no preacher, did they have no hope?
One passage that comes to mind is Acts 17:30:
Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent.Acts 17:30
What God is overlooking in this passage is people who worshiped idols because they did not have access to accurate teachings concerning the nature of God.
God winked at, or overlooked, their ignorance but held them accountable once they became aware of truth.
Now, a lot of people may stop there, but I tend to wonder how this works.
In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul says that the Rock that watered Israel in the wilderness was the Christ:
and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ.1 Corinthians 10:4
So Jesus the Christ was among His people during the Exodus making sure that they had water. There is another passage in the New Testament that is similarly surprising and circumvents how we typically view God:
But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.Matthew 5:44-45
So God sends rain and sun (blessings) on everyone. Ancient peoples who did not have access to the right language to describe God, did their best with what they had. They recognized God in the sun and in the rain and in the harvest. They did their best to thank Him and honor Him even though they fell short of capturing exactly who He was, but, then again, don't we all to some extent?
It was this ignorance that God overlooked, but now He calls those who hear to change their minds and believe in Him as He is revealed through Jesus.
So, what happens to those who do not hear?
God loves them just the same. He will not hold them accountable for things outside of their control.
As Jesus would say, “To whom much is given, much will be required.”
It is not just to require the same from someone who has been given nothing.
One more passage for you to end on:
For when Gentiles who do not have the law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, 15 in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, 16 on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus.Romans 2:14-16