How Did People go to Heaven Before Jesus’ Death and Resurrection? Updated

How Did People go to Heaven Before Jesus’ Death and Resurrection? Updated

Early in the life of this blog, Stu asked this question.

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 (do so) through obeying the Old Testament laws? If not how else would they be saved?

I thought it would be good to revisit these questions.

(John 14:6) Jesus said to him, I am l the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (7) If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

(8) Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” (9) Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?

One assumes that this question is asked in the light of this exclusive claim of Christ in response to Philip’s question. This claim eliminates all other ‘religious’ pathways to God and indeed, excludes all other so called prophets and deities.

Jesus is held dear by many for his loving, compassionate and forgiving ways, but one must come to grips with this claim. Either he was God incarnate or he was a mad liar. We hold that Jesus was and is who he claims to be, the Son of God incarnate, very God and very man.

Back to the question. In the light of this claim of Christ, how did people prior to Jesus redeeming work on the cross get to heaven; were they saved some other way? I like the way John MacArthur answers this question.

Everyone is saved through Christ. He died for the sins of the world. For them, it was future. For us, it is past, but it was still through Christ. It was His death, His sacrifice. It atoned for the sins of the OT saints as well as the NT saints. And, every time they sacrificed a lamb, and every time they sacrificed a ram, and every time they sacrificed a turtle dove or a pigeon, every time they sacrificed any animal, it was the picture of Christ, the picture of Christ, the picture of Christ. So, they had to know that there was coming one who would pay the penalty for their sins, one ultimate sacrifice. Christ, alone, can save.

Now, the means for salvation has always been the same: Faith. And, at any given point in the unfolding revelation of the Word of God, salvation came through faith, believing God. Abraham believed God. It was counted him for righteousness. What did he believe? He believed as much as God had revealed. And, God had revealed even by that time that he was sinner and that the only savior was God, and that God would pay the penalty for his sin. Now, he didn’t understand all there was to know about Jesus Christ, but he understood enough to know that he was a sinner and needed a savior and God would provide a savior. That is why it says in Hebrews 12, that Moses could foresee Christ, even Moses.

So, I believe, the OT people were saved by faith in God. They believed God’s word as much as was revealed to them, and knew their own sinfulness. In fact, the reason they would carry out the sacrifices, and the reason they would do all the things God told them to do was an outworking of an inward faith. It was not to earn salvation. It was to demonstrate the reality of it. They were saved by faith in Christ. They didn’t know who Christ was. And, they didn’t know specifically when and how and all of that, but they believed God. They were sinful, and God would have to provide a sacrifice for them.

The same promise repeated throughout the Old Testament—that God will be our God and we will be his people—is also repeated in the New Testament. At the end of the age, when Old Testament and New Testament believers alike stand before their Redeemer, we are told that “He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.” (Revelation 21:3).

What do you think?

Did people prior to the cross earn entrance to Heaven by keeping the law?

Has God changed the rules?

Or perhaps there’s two ways to Heaven – if we keep the law God might accept us – hmmm!


  1. Nathan W. Bingham

    Don: Great question. The Westminster Larger Catechism answers this very question and it may be helpful reading the same conclusion as your post yet expressed slightly differently:

    Question 34: How was the covenant of grace administered under the Old Testament?

    Answer: The covenant of grace was administered under the Old Testament, by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the passover, and other types and ordinances, which did all foresignify Christ then to come, and were for that time sufficient to build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah, by whom they then had full remission of sin, and eternal salvation.

  2. G F

    I would add that not only did those who were saved in the OT know their own sinfulness, which is to say they confessed they were sinners in need of God our savior, but that they repented of their sins. Remember paul the apostle said in Acts 20:21 “repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. So, it would be more helpful and accurate by affirming that believers in the OT believed in God and repented of their sin and turned from idols, or they were saved by believing in God and repenting toward Him, something to that effect. One might say that there is no mentioning of repentance in Genesis 15:6, but rather only that Abraham believed God… Well yes, but he was brought out of his pagan religion where he participated in idol worship in the Ur of the Calladees. That’s sin, Abraham was an ungodly sinner and Paul affirmed it in Romans 4:5 after he brought up Abraham and that God only justifes the ungodly, those as you said who admit and understand and confess they are sinners in need of a savior. You should also affirm that Abraham surrendered to the will of God, he went to the land that God would show him. That is, he left everything behind to follow God and His word. That would be confessing Jesus as Lord in the NT (Romans 10:9) or being like Levi the tax collector, who when Jesus approached him said, follow me and in principle Levi (who would later change his name to Matthew and write the gospel of Matthew) left everything behind… the text says in Luke. Abraham was saved by grace alone thru believing in God alone, trusting in Him as the Savior, the deliverer, and turning from his sins and idols toward God, surrendering to His will. Thanks for your post. We want to make sure people don’t just admit they are sinners but fully understand that they knew they were turning from ALL their transgressions as the OT repleatedly said. No one can do that apart from the grace of God since He alone grants such saving faith and repentance, but the principle is clear. I didn’t edit this, ran out of time, but hope it’s helpful and that you recognize it as the truth.

    • Don (Author)

      Rajesh, thanks for visiting and reading our blog. I respect your sincerity and understand that your perspective on God has been shaped by an entirely different perspective than is presented in the Christian faith.

      However, I respectfully point out that Christianity has its roots in creation and traces God’s dealing with people right from their beginnings. It would be a mistake to conclude that the Christian belief is simply one of many ways to God. The Bible makes it very clear that the only route to God is through the Lord Jesus Christ alone.

      If you would like to learn more about Jesus on your own, why not read the Bible in which you will learn about God’s interaction with people right back to the first man and woman?

      I have refer to a table to highlight just a few of the ways in which Christianity and Sikhism differ.

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