All believers know that Jesus died for our sins. He gave His life so we can have eternal salvation, living with Him and other believers in heaven. However, what happened to the people who died before Jesus was born? Was it possible for them to go to heaven, or would they go to hell?
Did Old Testament believers go to hell?
Some believe that Old Testament saints went somewhere created explicitly by God. Heaven didn’t open for them until Jesus sacrificed Himself on the cross. Their sins were covered up but not taken away. Christ’s death removed sin, allowing these saints to go to heaven. Jesus brought them to heaven at His ascension. Old Testament believers went to a location of rest and comfort called “paradise” when they died.
The Old Testament discussed life after death, and everyone who died went to a place of conscious existence called Sheol, translated as “the realm of the dead” or “the grave.” The wicked were there, but so were the righteous. Since they weren’t redeemed through Jesus’ death and resurrection, they couldn’t go to heaven. Sheol served as a waiting room or holding place for Old Testament believers who died in faith, casting themselves on God’s grace and mercy to save them through the coming Messiah.
Hades is the New Testament equivalent of Sheol. Luke 16:19-31 shares that, before Jesus’ resurrection, Hades was divided into two places: a place of comfort, where Lazarus was, also called Abraham’s side. The other realm was a place of torment, where the rich man was. Luke 23:43 describes Lazarus’ place as “paradise,” while the place of torture was called Gehenna, as referenced in Mark 9:45. Luke 16:26 says there was a great chasm between hell and paradise. No one could cross this chasm, indicating that your fate was sealed after death.
In modern times, when unbelievers die, they go to the torment side of Hades with the other nonbelievers, similar to the Old Testament. Revelation 20:13-15 says that at the final judgment, Hades will be cleaned out before the Great White Throne, where occupants will be judged before going into the lake of fire. At the same time, when a believer dies, 2 Corinthians 5:6-9 says they’re present with the Lord in heaven, joining the Old Testament saints who’ve been there for thousands of years.
Everyone will get a resurrection, either to eternal life or everlasting shame and contempt. The Bible says that New Testament saints who died will resurrect at the rapture, although it’s less clear about when Old Testament saints will be restored. It’s believed that Old Testament believers will join their resurrected bodies after the tribulation period when Jesus comes to earth to develop His millennial kingdom.
Were people saved before Jesus’ death?
Since man’s fall, the source of salvation has been Christ’s death. Before or since the cross, no one would be saved without that critical event in the world’s history. Jesus’ death paid the price for any previous sins of Old Testament saints and the future sins of New Testament saints. Faith has always been a requirement for salvation, and God has always been the object of one’s faith for salvation. Psalm 2:12 says those who take refuge in Him are blessed.
Genesis 15:6 says Abraham believed God, which was enough for God to credit it to him for righteousness. The sacrificial system of the Old Testament didn’t remove sin, as detailed in Hebrews 10:1-10. However, it pointed to the day the Son of Man would shed His blood for the sins of the human race.
Through time, what has changed is the content of a believer’s faith. God’s requirement of what we should believe is based on the revelation He gave humanity up to that point or progressive revelation. Adam believed God’s promise in Genesis 3:15 when He said the seed of the woman would defeat Satan. Adam believed God, confirmed by the name he gave Eve in verse 20, and the Lord illustrated His acceptance by giving them skin. That’s all Adam knew, but he believed it.
Abraham believed God according to the new revelation and promises God gave him in Genesis 12 and 15. No scripture was written before Moses, but humanity was responsible for what God showed. Throughout the Old Testament, believers were saved because they believed God would take care of their sin issues one day. Now, we reflect, knowing He already took care of our sins when He died on the cross.
However, what about believers in Jesus’ day before His resurrection? Did they understand the price Jesus paid by dying on the cross for their sins? Matthew 16:21-22 tells us that in the latter part of His ministry, Jesus told His disciples that He would go to Jerusalem to suffer at the hands of teachers of the law, chief priests, and the elders. He also told them that He would die and rise on the third day. How did His disciples react? Peter took Jesus to the side, telling Him that it would never happen to Him. Peter and the other disciples didn’t know the whole truth but were saved because they believed God would handle their sins. They didn’t know how He would do it any more than Abraham, Adam, David, or Moses knew, but they believed Him.
In modern times, we have more information than those who lived before Jesus’ resurrection because we have the complete picture. Hebrews 1:1-2 says that previously, God would speak to our forefathers through prophets in various ways. However, in the last days, God spoke through His Son, the heir of all things through whom He made the universe.
Our salvation is still based on Christ’s death, and faith is still required for salvation. God will always be the object of our faith. Modern believers know that the content of their faith is that Jesus died on the cross for our sins, was buried, and rose on the third day. While those who died before Jesus’ death lived in Sheol, modern believers can take comfort in being reunited with Jesus when the time comes.