The full question we received was, “before Jesus died on the cross and opened the gates of Heaven, where did people go when they died?”
I love the way the person asked this question because it indicates an understanding that it is only by Jesus’ finished work on the cross that anyone, in any time period, goes to Heaven. That includes Old Testament saints. They did not go to Heaven when they died, because Jesus had not come to earth and lived the life we could not live and died the death we should have died. His work, alone, opened the way to the Father in Heaven.
While people in the Old Testament were saved by the grace of God when they trusted in Him (saving faith), their sins were not yet washed away (atoned for) by the blood of Jesus. After God delivered His people from Egypt, and when He first set them on a journey to their inheritance in the Promised Land, He gave them a system of animal sacrifice to be a blood offering to cover their sins. However, the blood of an animal could never fully atone for the sins of man, and the works of man (including sacrificial works) could never fully satisfy God. Therefore, it was necessary that a day would come when God would send His Son, to be incarnated as a man, to live a pure and sinless life and to die as the perfect Lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world (John 1:29).
In the wilderness God had told His people that the life of man is in the blood (Leviticus 17:11) and therefore only by the blood of a man could the wrath of God’s judgment of sin be satisfied and the penalty for sin be paid. And, it had to be pure, sinless blood. Only Jesus could be that sacrifice and so He laid down His life in submission to His Father’s will and His blood was acceptable in God’s sight.
So where did Old Testament saints go before Jesus’ finished work?
We know that only Jesus is the way, truth and life (John 14:6) and the Old Testament saints did not know the Way. Prior to Jesus’ atonement, the Old Testament saints went to a place called Abraham’s Bosom. In Luke 16, Jesus describes two distinctly different places, where man’s soul went at death:
1. the place of comfort called Abraham’s Bosom and
2. the place of torment that we refer to as Hell.
1) Abraham’s Bosom Was Not Heaven.
Heaven is defined as the place where God dwells. Geographically we think of it as being “up above,” beyond the heaven that we see, the one in which birds and airplanes fly. The place where God dwells is even beyond the heavens in which the sun, moon and stars exist. God’s dwelling place is considered to be the highest of heavens (Luke 19:38), the “Heaven of heavens” (Deuteronomy 10:14, 1 Kings 8:27) and is referred to in the Bible as the third heaven (2 Corinthians 12:2).
Where was Abraham’s Bosom?
Abraham’s Bosom was located “down below” the heavens in the depths of the earth. Jesus referred to it as the “heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40) and it was the abode of the righteous dead prior to Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus also referred to this place as “paradise,” when He promised the thief on the cross next to Him that he would be with Him that same day, in paradise. (Luke 23:43)
What was Abraham’s Bosom?
Abraham’s Bosom was a place of comfort and it was a place of waiting. The sins of Old Testament saints were remitted by the Levitical system of atonement using the blood of animals. Since this was not sufficient to completely atone for sins, those who died in faith went to Abraham’s Bosom and waited until the time their sins would be paid for completely. They waited for the promised Seed, the Rescuer, the One who was promised in the Garden (Genesis 3:15, Galatians 4:4) to their father Abraham (Genesis 22:17-18, Galatians 3:16) and promised again to their most exalted earthly King, King David (2 Samuel 7:12-16, Acts 13:21-23).
When Jesus offered Himself in payment for the penalty of man’s sins, His shed blood made the complete and final atonement for sins. And, when Jesus ascended into Heaven, He led the Old Testament saints from Abraham’s Bosom to their new dwelling place with Him (Ephesians 4:8) in the Heaven of heavens.
2) The Other Place
Since the time of Jesus’ ascension, there now only remains the place of torment within the earth. We call this place “hell,” which is a translation of the Hebrew word “sheol” (meaning the world of the dead, the grave or the pit) and the Greek word “Haides” (meaning the place of departed souls, the grave). Remember, prior to Jesus’ ascension into Heaven both Abraham’s Bosom and the place of torment existed in the earth as the place of the dead. Since Jesus’ ascension only one place remains, Hell. That is why, when we refer to Hell now, we are referring to the place of torment only.
The place of torment is similar to Abraham’s Bosom in that it is a temporary abode for the unrighteous dead (Abraham’s Bosom was the temporary abode for the righteous dead until the saints were fully redeemed). In the place of torment the unrighteous await a final judgment that is yet to come, which is referred to as the Great White Throne Judgment in Revelation 20:11-15. At that time, all the souls in the place of torment will be bodily raised and judged. They will go to their eternal destination, which the Bible calls the Lake of Fire (Revelations 20:15). The Lake of Fire is certainly not a place of comfort and rest.
In Abraham’s Bosom the Old Testament saints were comforted by Father Abraham, but now they are in the comfort and rest of God the Father—the God whom the Old Testament saints knew as the God of their forefathers. Heaven is the eternal resting place of all who die in faith, having had their sins forgiven and washed away by the blood of Jesus. The Old Testament saints awaited Jesus’ atonement, and then were taken there. New Testament saints, those who live in the age of the Christian Church (also known as the age of the indwelling Holy Spirit), go immediately to be with Jesus in Heaven. (2 Corinthians 5:8) at the time of death.
It’s amazing to think that our souls will be transported up above the heavens of our atmosphere and outer space, and beyond that to the Heaven of heavens in which God the Father and Jesus the Son dwell. We will join the multitude of saints who have gone before us. In the words of the popular Christian song…
~ I Can Only Imagine ~
I can only imagine what it will be like
When I walk by your side
I can only imagine what my eyes will see
When your face is before me
I can only imagine
I can only imagine when that day comes
And I find myself standing in the Son
I can only imagine when all I will do
Is forever, forever worship you
I can only imagine,
I can only imagine
Surrounded by your glory
What will my heart feel
Will I dance for your Jesus
Or in awe of you be still
Will I stand in your presence
Or to my knees will I fall
Will I sing hallelujah
Will I be able to speak at all
I can only imagine
I can only imagine
When all I will do
Is forever, forever worship you
I can only imagine.
I Can Only Imagine, song by Mercy Me
Album: Almost There (2001)
Be Ready Always...
to give a reason for the Hope that you have (1 Peter 3:15). When you can’t share the gospel with your words, share it by leaving tracts that tell people about God's grace.
When leaving a tract, always be diligent to pray about the short gospel message. Pray that it be found by someone who is in need of Jesus’ saving grace, and pray that the person will have a tender heart and open ears to receive the gift Jesus desires to give them.
By the power of the Holy Spirit, even a small tract can help in turning a broken, sinful person from darkness to light.
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