How did people go to heaven before Jesus’ death and resurrection?


3d human with a red question markHere’s an interesting question that has provoked much thought and discussion for me in recent years:

If salvation is only attained through faith in Jesus Christ, how were people in the Old Testament saved, ie before Jesus’ death and resurrection?

Were they able to through obeying the OT laws? If not how else would they be saved? Hmmm

Your thoughts and insight would be greatly appreciated.


10 thoughts on “How did people go to heaven before Jesus’ death and resurrection?

    • stu

      But Jesus hadn’t died on the cross yet? Can you please expand on your response? :)

  • David

    Just to “stir the pot” a little, what about Enoch and Elijah, who didn’t die but went straight to heaven!!

  • Don Barton

    According to

    For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.”

    Abraham’s faith was reckoned to him as righteousness. Old Testament saints were saved by faith, not works. The sacrifices of animals in the O.T. was merely a foreshadowing of the work of Christ on the cross. These sacrifices pointed to Christ’s work. They were like ‘reserve tickets’ for the final atonement, the completed work of Christ on the cross.

    Christ, himself stated that “no one comes to the Father but by me”.

    Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

    A good article concerning salvation in the Old Testament can be read here. http://bible.org/article/old-testament-salvation

  • stu

    Thanks for that Don. So basically the OT people, like Abraham, were still saved by trusting in God with their lives, as they could see that fulfilling the law on their own efforts was impossible. The law pointed to what was required by God in the atoning death of a substitute to bear our sins. Even before the Mosaic law this seemed to be known as Abel “brought the firstborn of his flock” as a sacrifice to God (Gen4:4).

    However the part that has challenged me is that faith is only valid according to what it is placed in. We can have great faith, but if the object of that faith is futile, then our faith is in vain.

    Don I liked the ‘old testament salvation’ link you gave. In particular the following paragraph:

    “Christians, and Jewish people, the scattered tribes of Israel, should not view the plan of salvation in two distinct and separate ways. The Old Testament, just as clearly as the New Testament, presents the way of redemption and salvation. Israel was to look forward, in faith, to the coming, sacrificial Messiah, and the Christians look back, in faith, to the finished redemptive work of the Messiah. The single fact is clear; the Messiah of God, God Himself, came to earth to exchange His life for each one of us. We need only place our faith in Him to secure God’s forgiveness for our sin.”

  • stu

    I have been reflecting on

    21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

    over the last week. One could argue the most critical and theologically rich verses in the Bible! There is so much in those verses! I might write a blog on them later… although come to think of it you could write many on just those verses!

    However

    23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

    read as follows: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation (great word – will look at what that means more at some point) by His blood to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in His divine forbearance He had passed over former sins. It was to show His righteousness at the present time, so that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”

    Warren Wiersbe makes the following observation:

    25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.

    teaches that in the ages before the full revelation of the Gospel of Christ, God appeared to be unjust in ‘passing over’ the sins of mankind and forgiving such people as Noah, Abraham, and Enoch. True, He did send wrath in some cases; but generations of sinners seemed to escape the judgment of God. How was God able to do this? Because He knew that at the cross, He would give a full display of His wrath against sin, and yet through Christ’s death provide a redemption for sins that had merely been covered by the blood of bulls and goats (

    9:1 Now even the first covenant had regulations for worship and an earthly place of holiness. For a tent was prepared, the first section, in which were the lampstand and the table and the bread of the Presence. It is called the Holy Place. Behind the second curtain was a second section called the Most Holy Place, having the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, in which was a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron’s staff that budded, and the tablets of the covenant. Above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Of these things we cannot now speak in detail.

    These preparations having thus been made, the priests go regularly into the first section, performing their ritual duties, but into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people. By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing (which is symbolic for the present age). According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, 10 but deal only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation.

    11 But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) 12 he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. 13 For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.

    15 Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant. 16 For where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established. 17 For a will takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive. 18 Therefore not even the first covenant was inaugurated without blood. 19 For when every commandment of the law had been declared by Moses to all the people, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, 20 saying, “This is the blood of the covenant that God commanded for you.” 21 And in the same way he sprinkled with the blood both the tent and all the vessels used in worship. 22 Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.

    23 Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. 24 For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. 25 Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, 26 for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. 27 And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, 28 so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

    10:1 For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.

    Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said,

    “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired,
    but a body have you prepared for me;
    in burnt offerings and sin offerings
    you have taken no pleasure.
    Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will, O God,
    as it is written of me in the scroll of the book.’”

    When he said above, “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), then he added, “Behold, I have come to do your will.” He does away with the first in order to establish the second. 10 And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

    11 And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12 But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13 waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. 14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.

    15 And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying,

    16 “This is the covenant that I will make with them
    after those days, declares the Lord:
    I will put my laws on their hearts,
    and write them on their minds,”

    17 then he adds,

    “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.”

    18 Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.

    19 Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

    26 For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27 but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. 28 Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. 29 How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? 30 For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” 31 It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

    32 But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, 33 sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. 34 For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. 35 Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. 36 For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised. 37 For,

    “Yet a little while,
    and the coming one will come and will not delay;
    38 but my righteous one shall live by faith,
    and if he shrinks back,
    my soul has no pleasure in him.”

    39 But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.

    )”

    What a beautiful illustration of God’s sovereign hand at work throughout the ages! We have so much to be grateful to Him for!

  • Tim

    @Don Barton
    Thanks so much for your clear answer. I’ve been wandering about this question, too, and your answer really helped me understand.
    Thanks again!

  • Kat

    I believe that somewhere in the bible it says that when Jesus died he was three days and three nights at the heart of the earth. What I’m saying is before Jesus died no one went to heaven above but rather a place down below. No one went to heaven before Jesus did. All the old testament saints went to a certain place at the heart of the earth which is now Hell. Back then the believers and unbelievers were all in one place but they were somehow separated by a distance that made a good peaceful dwelling place for God’s people while a dark, gloomy perhaps fire and painful place for the unbeliever. When Jesus died he came down there and brought all his saints back with him to heaven because they now have a savior who can wash away their sin completely making them holy enough to enter heaven. Even though it is true that they were saved because they believed there would be a messiah, before there is one how can they be forgiven blamelessly by the blood of God’s son? They had to wait for his coming and death before they could be glorified with him and then after that were able to go to heaven.

  • Don

    Kat, thanks for your comment.

    Martin Pakula commented on the sister post to this one. Read the following:

    At the Reformation one of the heresies that the Reformers combated was what is called “soul sleep”. John Calvin even wrote a treatise against it. This heresy comes from a misunderstanding of a common phrase in the New Testament that speaks about believers falling asleep (eg

    13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.

    ). This phrase refers to believers dying. It doesn’t suggest that they sleep to awake at the resurrection. For Jesus said to the thief on the cross that Today, he would be with him in Paradise (

    43 And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

    ). Paul speaks about dying to be with Christ (

    23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.

    ). That is, when Christians die, they go to be with the Lord. They do not sleep to awake at the resurrection. However their death to those who are still alive can be described as “sleep”, because we will see them again. They are not dead to us forever.

    Matthew’s Gospel has an interesting account where the faithful Old Testament dead are raised to life after Jesus’ resurrection and seen in the city (

    52 The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, 53 and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many.

    ). This is, I believe, what Revelation refers to as the first resurrection (

    The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection.

    ). That is, the faithful in the Old Testament – those who trusted in God and his promises – were freed from Sheol by Jesus’ death and resurrection and are now in heaven with Jesus. Christians, both Jew and Gentile, who have died since Jesus go to be with Jesus in heaven with them.

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