The whole world is in need of salvation. Everyone is subject to the corruption of sin and mortality, and even creation itself is waiting for its own redemption (Romans 8:19-21). But there is no salvation for anyone apart from the Lord Jesus Christ, His cross and His resurrection. His atoning work is sufficient for the sins of the whole world, in all times and places, and He is the only way to salvation for everyone who has lived.
The witness of the apostles in the New Testament is that whoever believes on Him is saved, born again, receives eternal life, inherits the kingdom of God. But that raises questions about infants and people who are mentally incompetent to believe — what about them? There is also the question about the “heathen” and people who have never heard of Jesus. And what about people who existed before Jesus came and who therefore never heard of him?
The Gospel of John sheds some light on this, I believe. For Jesus is the True Light who gives light to every one who comes into the world (John 1:9). I think this is not just true concerning after Jesus came into the world but that it extends even to those who lived before His incarnation. For He is the creator of the world (John 1:3), the source of life: “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men” (John 1:4). Even before John reveals that the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14, a statement about the incarnation), we learn the Jesus is the Light and that he gives light to everyone who comes into the world. So I believe that applies to every person who has ever existed and ever will. The light that Jesus gives is a manifestation of God’s grace, without which, no one is able to turn to Him and be saved.
I am also reminded of the passage in Ecclesiastes 3, where The Preacher says, “He has put eternity in our hearts, except that no man can find out the work that God does from beginning to end” (v.11). This seems to me to speak of a witness that God has given to every person. And, of course, Paul says that “what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse” (Romans 1:19-20). The problem has never been that nobody knew what was necessary to know but that “although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Romans 1:21). In other words, the problem is not that they did not receive light, but that when they received light, they rejected it, so their foolish, unbelieving hearts were darkened.
Surely God holds everyone accountable only for the light He has given each one — no more and no less. And there is a point where each person becomes accountable for whatever light that has been given them. That is, there comes a point in their development when they able to choose whether to receive it or reject it. If a person never reaches that point of accountability, say, an infant or child who dies before they reach that stage, or a person who has otherwise never developed to sufficient competency to respond, I believe that God does not hold them accountable but graciously receives them — but only the basis of Messiah’s saving work.
For those who have never heard of Jesus the Messiah, I believe God does nonetheless give them light and holds them accountable for whatever light He has given. If they respond to that light in faith, then if more light is necessary, I believe God will give it to them and will continue to do so until they have sufficient light. However much light is necessary, God will give it.
I think this has always been so. How much light did people have before Jesus came? Surely there were people who were saved in the Old Testament, even though they were not of Israel. What faith was Adam accountable for? Or Seth? Or Enoch? Or Melchizedek? Or Job? We know that Abraham believed God and it was accounted to Him as righteousness, but it was a budding light, not like the fuller revelation of Jesus the Messiah we have received in the New Testament. Or how about Nebuchadnezzar, who said, “And at the end of the time I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my understanding returned to me; and I blessed the Most High and praised and honored Him who lives forever: For His dominion is an everlasting dominion, and His kingdom is from generation to generation” (Daniel 4:34). Was Nebuchadnezzar saved?
Jesus gives light to every one who comes into the world, and I believe it is sufficient light, if anyone will respond to it in faith. I don’t know where the dividing line is on that or exactly how much light God requires, but I believe the God supplies whatever light is needed and does not hold anyone accountable for any more light than He has given them. However, I do know what message God holds me accountable to preach: the message of King Jesus the Messiah and salvation through faith in Him.
Ultimately, all these other questions I leave to God to deal with in His goodness and mercy, but I do believe His mercy may well be wider than we expect.