What is sin and what is God’s remedy for sin:
Firstly we need to understand the nature of sin; how it manifest in the first place, how it is passed on, and what God’s remedy for sin is. These are important considerations if we want to adequately address the above question.
Sin entered the human race [and all creation] when Adam & Eve disobeyed and rebelled against God and ate of the forbidden fruit. The entire creation was changed under the curse of the fall, and the physical death of all living creatures started at this time. Additionally spiritual death [separation from God] entered the human race [Adam & Eve and all their descendants]. Spiritual death is passed from father to children – this is a blood curse and explains why Christ had to be born of a virgin so that, humanly speaking, He was born without the [blood] curse of sin. This is also why we see the importance of the shedding of blood, usually of an innocent lamb, on behalf of the sins of people in the Old Testament. The blood curse can only be removed through blood sacrifice.
Sin is only forgiven/remitted through the shedding of innocent blood on behalf of sinners:
Heb 9:22 And almost all things are by the law purged with blood; and without shedding of blood is no remission [of sin].
In the OT animal blood was shed as a covering [or downpayment] for sin. The priest/high priest officiated on behalf of the [Jewish] people. [And similarly with Abraham, *Cain & Abel, **Adam & Eve et al prior to the Jewish people.] But had to be repeated as it only covered past sin. This pictured the yet future “payment in full” when Christ died on the cross and shed His blood for ALL of humanity’s sin; past, present and future. In reality ALL sin of all people is paid on their behalf by Christ’s shed blood. To appropriate that forgiveness of sin (and therefore salvation) one has to believe that God/Christ has paid [will pay; OT saints] for our sin Himself.
We see this pictured in the OT when Abraham was about to sacrifice Isaac in obedience:
Gen 22:6 And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of them together.
Gen 22:7 And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, My father: and he said, Here am I, my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?
Gen 22:8 And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering: so they went both of them together.
Note the phrase “God will provide himself a lamb”. This is actually a play on words. While God did indeed provide a lamb/ram for the sacrifice [instead of Isaac], this phrase ALSO reveals in a prophetic sense that “God Himself” will become that very lamb; Christ the Lamb of God whose shed blood is the all sufficient payment in full for sin [for those that believe on Him].
* Note: Cain & Abel:
Why did God accept Abel’s offering but reject Cain’s?
Gen 4:3 And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the LORD.
Gen 4:4 And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the LORD had respect unto Abel and to his offering:
Gen 4:5 But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell.
The answer is actually quite simple in light of what I’ve just outlined above:
Abel sacrificed an animal [remember Heb 9:22 “without shedding of blood is no remission”]; its blood covered his sin. Whereas Cain only brought fruit and vegetables; no blood, no remission of sin, therefore an unacceptable sacrifice/offering.
**Note Adam & Eve:
Even right back in the garden of Eden and immediatly following Adam and Eve’s sin and fall, God provided animal skins to “cover their shame [sin]”. Remember that prior to the fall there was no death. God providing animal skins to “cover” Adam and Eve reveals that God took the life of these animals – shed their blood – and while these coverings were to hide their physical nature, the shedding of innocent animal blood ALSO pictures God covering their sin and therefore their fallen spiritual state. These animals were perhaps the very first creatures to die following the fall, and picture future animal blood sacrifices for sin in the Old Testament, and the ultimate and final sacrifice [for sin] of Christ [the Lamb of God] on the cross in the new Testament.
Christ’s death and sacrifice on the cross:
Of course, after the once-for-all-time sacrifice through Christ’s shed blood was made, there was no longer any validity in sacrificing animals as a temporary payment for sin; full payment of the debt owed does away with the need of any further part payments.
The ONLY option which is left for someone wishing to have forgiveness of sin, and therefore that they become recipients of salvation and eternal life, is to place their faith upon Christ’s death on the cross that they might be PERMANENTLY washed of their sin [past, present and future] through His shed blood.
So in summary:
In the Old Testament sin was only covered through animal blood sacrifice on peoples’ behalf, and by these individuals having faith that God’s provision for sin remitted them of their PAST sin. Further blood sacrifices were required for future and subsequent sin. Animal sacrifice in the OT was only a downpayment for sin and pictured the payment-in-full which would occur when Christ [the Lamb of God] died on the cross. OT saints were ultimately forgiven of their sin [and received salvation] through Christ’s future death on the cross, and their faith in God’s [future] provision for their sin.
In the New Testament, after Christ’s death, those people who put ther faith in Christ’s shed blood for their sins [PAST, PRESENT and FUTURE] are washed clean from the curse of the fall, are made new creatures in Christ, and obtain salvation the instant they believe on God’s all sufficient sacrifice for sin. And while future sins are to be repented of, this in no way effects a person’s salvation. Although it may effect their rewards when, as believers, they stand before the judgement seat of Christ where their works following salvation are judged – they may be rewarded or suffer loss of reward. Their salvation is never in question though.
So back to the question, “Can people who never hear about Jesus go to heaven?”
Since Christ’s death there have existed no other methods of payment for sin, and therefore I believe scripture is clear that salvation and forgiveness of sin is NOT AVAILABLE to “people who never hear about Jesus”; who never hear the gospel of Christ, and therefore never believe on Christ for forgiveness of sin and salvation.
Any individuals who do not hear of Christ, though, will be held to lesser account than those who reject Him having heard the gospel:
Remember Rom 2:12:
“For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law: and as many as have sinned in the law shall be judged by the law;”
Similarly, sinners who die without hearing the gospel of Christ will likewise perish [suffer spiritual death] without having knowingly rejected Christ; they will still perish for their unforgiven sin but will suffer least/less in hell.
Those who truly seek God will find Him:
Mat 7:7 Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you:
Mat 7:8 For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.
True seekers of God will be led by the Holy Spirit to Christ.
Today, for instance, if the testimony of creation and conscience leads one to seek after [the true] God, then the Holy Spirit’s job is to lead such an individual to where they can have the gospel of Christ presented to them. Their response to the gospel then determines their eternal destiny.
Discussing salvation [for us today] outside of Christ is both dangerous and misleading, and encourages people to put their faith where I believe scripture makes clear there is none.
[Note: I made the above comment on an ‘academic Christian’ blog. While some of the comments are sound [Sam Hight & Jonno1 for example], others, like with many academic ‘elites’, reason away the plain text of scripture IMHO. I will addend below subsequent responses I made as separate comments.]