Where did Old Testament believers go when they died?

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Heaven is the eternal home of the people of God. The Apostle Paul had the confident expectation that when he died he would be with the Lord (cf. 2 Cor. 5:8; Phil. 1:23), but what happened to Old Testament believers when they died? This question has resulted in interesting discussions and varying views. In this post I will simply introduce three views with brief comments concerning my view.

View 1: Soul Sleep
This view teaches that when an OT believer died their soul entered into a state of rest or “sleep”. This condition was temporary and lasted until the resurrection of Christ; or as most teach it will last until the believer’s future resurrection at the time of Christ’s return. This is the doctrine of “soul sleep”. Seventh Day Adventists share variations of this view and it has never gained much acceptance in the history of the church. I believe this view ought to be rejected (more on this doctrine in a future post).

View 2: Temporary Paradise
A view that is held by many evangelicals is that when the OT believer died, they were ushered into a temporary paradise. One name for this place is “Abraham’s Bosom” (). It is understood by this view that this place is not in Heaven, but rather in a section of Sheol/Hades in which the righteous dwell (the other section is for the unrighteous). It is said that this is where Jesus went in between His death and resurrection (cf. , more on this in the next post), and released the OT saints so that they may go to Heaven (Paradise relocated). Though this is distinct from the Roman Catholic teaching of Limbus Patrum, there are some similarities. I find some of the arguments employed by the evangelical adherents to the “Temporary Paradise” view persuasive, but I am not convinced.

View 3: Intermediate Heaven
It is called the “intermediate Heaven” because after the Lord Jesus Christ returns, the people of God will dwell in the new earth (), which is the eternal Heaven. The intermediate Heaven is the current dwelling of the redeemed, is the same place where the hosts of angels are, and the where the throne of God is (). This view teaches that when the OT believers died, their bodies went to the grave and their soul went to be with the Lord in Heaven. There they wait the day when they will receive their future bodily resurrection.

I believe the third view is correct for the following reasons. I acknowledge that in the OT both the believing and unbelieving expected to go to Sheol when they died. However, OT believers also appeared to have had the expectation that when they die they will be with the Lord (; ). Interestingly, when the Lord took Elijah, the Scripture says he was taken to Heaven ( cf. concerning Enoch). What does this indicate? For the believer, their body goes to the grave and their soul goes to be with the Lord awaiting the future resurrection (). Secondly, the criminal who was converted on the cross next to our Lord was told that after he died, he would be with Christ in “Paradise” (Luke 23:43). I recognize that some view the “Paradise” in this text as a temporary holing place for OT saints, however the use of this word in the other NT occurrences makes it clear that it is a reference to Heaven (2 Cor. 12:3; Rev. 2:7).

When it comes to views 2 and 3, I think there are some good arguments on both sides. There are other questions that can be asked, but they will have to be for another post in the future. With that said, in my view OT saints went immediately to Heaven when they died, just like believers do today.

23 and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side.

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

21:1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”

Then came one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues and spoke to me, saying, “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.”

4:1 After this I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” At once I was in the Spirit, and behold, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne. And he who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian, and around the throne was a rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald. Around the throne were twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones were twenty-four elders, clothed in white garments, with golden crowns on their heads. From the throne came flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and before the throne were burning seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God, and before the throne there was as it were a sea of glass, like crystal.

And around the throne, on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with the face of a man, and the fourth living creature like an eagle in flight. And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say,

“Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty,
who was and is and is to come!”

And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, 10 the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying,

11 “Worthy are you, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they existed and were created.”

5:1 Then I saw in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals. And I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. And one of the elders said to me, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”

And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. And he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne. And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song, saying,

“Worthy are you to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation,
10 and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on the earth.”

11 Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, 12 saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” 13 And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” 14 And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders fell down and worshiped.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
forever.

and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

11 And as they still went on and talked, behold, chariots of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.

By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death, and he was not found, because God had taken him. Now before he was taken he was commended as having pleased God.

and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

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Andrew Courtis

Andrew Courtis

ANDREW - Serves as Pastor of Hills Bible Church. I am married to Dianne and we have three children (Kate, Emma and Jack). I was born and raised in Melbourne, moved to Adelaide to undertake theological studies (BMin.), and have completed additional studies with the Australian College of Theology (MATh.). I have served in pastoral ministry in both Melbourne and Sydney and am a qualified school teacher. I am committed to expository preaching and making the word of God known and understood.

2 thoughts on “Where did Old Testament believers go when they died?”

  1. Thanks for the quick summary Andrew. This isn’t something I think about very often but it is good to have this reminder that heaven isn’t the end – there is a lot more after that!

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