The debate between Christian progressives and fundamentalists rages over this question. The former say yes, the later say no.
Delight in Truth is with the fundamentalists on this one. It is not possible for a human being to be saved without hearing and believing the gospel. The gospel states that every man is a sinner under the wrath of God and must be born again unto life by hearing and believing that Jesus died and rose again to atone for the sin of those who believe in Him.
So, here are the common issues brought up:
1. The people prior to Jesus’s public ministry certainly did not hear the name of Jesus. Are they all condemned? The answer is no. The saints of the Old Testament are saved through Jesus. They were looking forward to the Christ and His suffering. The Christ, or the Messiah, was a very common theme in Judaism and those faithfully waiting for the Christ to save them are certainly saved by faith. Here is the example of Moses looking forward to Jesus:
“He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward.” Heb 11:26
2. What about those people who did not have access to the Moses and the Law and the Abrahamic covenant? There a few exceptions prior to Abraham where special revelation from God was given to certain people. Melchizedek and Job are examples of this.
3. Now, here is the big one. After the time of Christ, what about those people who by virtue of their geographic location could not have access to the gospel? Examples here include ancient Japanese, Chinese, Aztecs (see art above), Mayans, etc… Could any of them be saved?
If the bible is correct, the answer is no. Apostle Peter says of Jesus:
“Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” Acts 4:12
The progressives will now bring up the Romans 1 and 2 discourse regarding conscience being a guide and providing teaching between right and wrong:
“14 (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.) 16 This will take place on the day when God judges people’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.” Rom 2:14-16
Too bad this is in the context of judgement. This is the judgement at the White Throne when God will judge all of condemned humanity. This is not a judgement for those who are saved.
The law that is embedded in everyone’s heart is there for condemnation, not for salvation. It does not have the power to save. It can only condemn.
This is what the Bible teaches. Complete exclusivity through Jesus. This is our impetus to evangelize the world! Jesus is the only Way!