How Did People go to Heaven Before Jesus’ Death and Resurrection? (re-posted)

How Did People go to Heaven Before Jesus’ Death and Resurrection? (re-posted)

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[This was first posted March, 2010]

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 14:6-9) 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.”

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” 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 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. Roger

    Interesting theory. The folks who died before Christ were sort of “on pause” until he died on the cross? Then went to heaven?

    Or they went to heaven based on the future? What about folks who lived on the other side of the world, and never were exposed to the Bible or Christ.

    Maybe they were also granted ad hoc. Pay it forward, you’re good for it, if you bring a girl along they’ll let you in? Like a nightclub, but different.

  2. Don (Author)

    Roger, there are some questions about God’s sovereignty we cannot answer. He is God and we are not.

    “For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
    For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
    Isaiah 55:8-9

    But there are things about God of which we can be certain. The Bible reveals that He is both loving and just. It reveals that He hates sin yet loves sinners. It reveals that we are saved by faith and not by our own efforts. It reveals that Christ paid the penalty of sin for all those who place their faith in Him.

    The sequential nature of time is a constraint of humans, but not of God who is eternal and transcends time. So in that respect, Christ’s redeeming work on the cross transcends time. It may be convenient for us to think in terms of “pay it forward”, but when God saw the faith of Old Testament saints, he counted it as righteousness knowing that Christ’s redemptive work had ‘already’ paid the price for their sins.

    Now when it comes to those who have not been exposed to the Gospel, we are asking a question that is very troubling to many people. But knowing the God of the Bible, it should not be troubling to us. I am confident that God will deal with these situations in complete harmony with his nature and revealed truth. And when believers get to heaven, the answers to these questions will be known. In the meantime, we must decide what we will do with the truth God has revealed to us.

    We are sinners.

    Our sin separates us from God.

    Because God loves us, he has provided through Christ’s death, burial and resurrection a way of escape from the penalty of our sin.

    The real question is, have we accepted through faith this free gift of salvation? Or do we waste our energy and time asking questions that detract from the main thing, “What will we do with Christ?”

  3. Andrew

    This really interests me. We are told that their is something wrong with us from the day we are born. “we are sinners”. Than, that we need to fill the void with faith? In believing something that we will never understand?

    I was asking my aunt and mother this question today. Right after they told me that Jesus is the only way to heaven. What about before Jesus? If he wasn’t the only way before he existed than why can’t we get to heaven by just believing in “God”. And on top of a that, who ever said gods name was god anyway? He introduced himself as “I am”, never god.

    I’m sorry but, truth is never this hard to figure out.
    If something is THAT true than it should be easy to understand.
    Yet, none of us. Yes NONE of us will know ANY of these answers until we die.

    And even than, if we did come from monkeys, we won’t even know it at that point because we will not be able to think about it.

    Please shut me up

    • Don (Author)

      Hi, Andrew. Thanks for your comments. Very honest ones too! I don’t think faith is very hard. It’s not some sort of “thing” you have to have in quantity. Everyone has faith. Faith just means “trust”. We all trust in different things. The important thing, then, is what you put your trust in. Christians are convinced that we are sinful –that we do, say, and think wrong things, and that God is right to judge us for that. That is trust in Jesus’ death on the cross to pay for our sins: that he died in our place, taking on himself the judgement we deserve for our sins. Some people refuse to trust in Jesus, some do. Both have faith. One has faith in themselves, and not in God. One has faith in God/ Jesus. It’s not very hard to understand. And you don’t need to know everything to have faith in Jesus. Indeed you never will know everything. But you can know enough to trust in him.

      If people really do trust in God, they will trust in Jesus. For Jesus IS God. If someone says that they trust in God, but refuse to trust in Jesus, then they don’t trust in God. Before Jesus came, some people did trust in God, and were saved on that basis. Now however Jesus has come. The Bible is there for everyone to read. So no one can say that they are in the situation now of being before Jesus. Now anyone can trust in Jesus and be saved. As for God’s name, he did indeed say his name is “I am” in Exodus 3. However in many, many places throughout the Old Testament he does indeed call himself God, including in Exodus 3.

      I think Christianity is simple enough for a young child to believe and be saved. It’s very simple: there is a God who made you. We have sinned against that God. He is right to judge us. He gave Jesus to die on the cross to take our punishment, our judgement, on himself in our place. If we trust in Jesus we are saved. That’s it! To me the real question is: why wouldn’t you put your trust in Jesus?

      (The response to Andrew’s questions/comments was answered by Pastor Martin Pakula in Don’s absence. For those readers who might share similar questions to Andrew’s, click on the tab at the top of this page, “What is the Gospel?”)

  4. Andrew

    I honestly can’t think of a reason NOT to put my trust in Jesus. I have just been battling with beliefs. It’s hard for me to pick up the bible and read it when I don’t believe the miracles that Jesus did, or that a snake spoke, or even the imacculate conception. And if I can’t believe these things happened than how can I believe any word in the bible?

    I’m not saying I think it’s all a hoax. Just hard for me to trust that those things happened. Its like a barbed wire fence I just can’t get over.

    Ps. I didn’t know god referred to himself as god. Thank u for that.
    Also. Does the bible ever speak of Jesus as a child? Or a teen? It seems his story starts at age 30. Did Jesus always know he was the son of god? From birth? And if not, how could he have not sinned if he did not know? Was he not man? Did he not think bad thoughts as a child?

    Sorry if I’m random. Just have a lot of questions.

    Thank u for listening and commenting

    • SDG

      If you don’t believe the miracles of Jesus, then you clearly can’t believe that He died, was buried and rose again either. If you can’t believe in His resurrection then there is no point in believing in Jesus, and you have EVERY REASON not to believe in Him.

      But the written record of so many (4 different gospel writers, and letter writers – Paul, John, Peter, James), and all the witnesses at the time who could be interrogated, needs to be explained. The truth will not go away, and in our consciences we know that-

      a) this life is not all there is,
      b) that we were created by Someone who knows us intimately,
      c) that there is a Day coming when God will judge the world in righteousness and set all the terrible wickedness we mourn over, right at last. (and, says Paul, the proof of this is that Jesus was raised from the dead).

      Jesus made the way so simple and so easy for us: “I am the way, the truth and the life, no-one comes to the Father, but by me”.

      I am accountable to God in Jesus Christ who will judge the secrets of all mens hearts, and so are you. I can anticipate the return of the Lord Jesus, not as my Judge, but as my Saviour. He gave His life for me, and I trust Him without reservation, and I reject all my thoughts and ideas and attitudes to accept all that He says and all that He is for me. I REST in Him, and I hope one day you will too.

    • Don (Author)

      Andrew, thanks for your apparently sincere comments.

      As I read your comments and questions, I am struck by the fact that by them, you have described a god that is not the God of the Bible. The god you imagine is very limited in his power, incapable of miracles and different in no way from man. I could not believe in that kind of god either; what would be the point?

      But the God of the Bible is all powerful, all knowing, self-existent, without any limitations. He is our creator and sustainer, and I trust you will understand when I say that there is a certain irony when you say “I can’t believe that these things happened”. I am suggesting that you can’t believe because you have created in your mind a lesser god, a non-god.

      Trust in the God of the Bible. Not to be too glib about it, but the miracles of the Bible, even the ‘immaculate conception’ are a walk-in-the- park for the God of the Bible. If you believe there is a god, why not believe in the God the Bible presents us rather than a weak god of your own creation?

      Trust God, believe in Jesus – They will do the rest.

    • Dakota Chitwood

      Watch the show The Chosen. It kind of puts in perspective the life of Jesus. Even some parts of his younger life. The show is also funded strictly by donations so Hollywood doesn’t have a say in the story. These people are trying to tell it as accurately as possible.

  5. R B

    Does it seem probable that only a few people are in heaven now….Elijah, Enoch, and Moses, ? The remaining are waiting asleep (knowing nothing) until their blessed redeemer comes again in the clouds of glory to take all of his sons & daughters home to heaven

  6. Martin (Author)

    [The following response was written by Pastor Martin Pakula and posted by Don.]

    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 1 Thessalonians 4:13). 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 (Luke 23:43). Paul speaks about dying to be with Christ (Philippians 1:23). 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 (Matthew 27:52-53). This is, I believe, what Revelation refers to as the first resurrection (Revelation 20:5). 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.

    • Deben

      My first question: If I as a true believer of Christ die today, when will I be in Heaven? Is it after Jesus’ second coming and final judgement?
      My second question: Who all will stand in the final Judgement? Only new testament people or new testament people who are still alive when Jesus comes for the second time? What about dead bodies in graves who will get a glorified body?

      • Andrew Courtis

        Hi Deben. Thank you for your great questions. In answering your first question, the Scripture teaches that the believer instantly goes to Heaven (I believe this occurred in OT and NT times). 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). Some view Paradise has a temporary holing place for OT saints, however the use of this word in the NT makes it clear that it is a reference to Heaven (2 Cor. 12:3; Rev. 2:7). So believers go immediately to Heaven when they die – occurring before the Second Coming and judgment (see also 2 Corinthians 5:8; Philippians 1:23).
        In reply to your second question(s), all mankind will stand before the Lord in judgment (2 Timothy 4:1). Concerning glorified bodies, all believers of all time will receive a sinless body without corruption (Ezekiel 37:12-14; Daniel 12:1-2; 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17) at the return of Christ.

        • Deben

          Hi Andrew! Thank you for answering my questions.
          I still have some doubts.
          (Matthew 27:50-53) And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.
          Is not the above passage the case of getting glorified bodies?
          And what is the purpose of final judgement, if believers go to heaven instantly after they die and start enjoying Heaven and nonbelievers go to hell and start suffering? Is not this judgement already done?

            Andrew Courtis

            Debin, you are welcome. Again, another great question.

            In reference to Matt. 27:50-53 you asked if this is a “case of getting glorified bodies”. Matthew 27:52-53 is a fascinating passage of which there are numerous interpretations. A careful reading of this text makes it clear that not all OT saints were raised in this event, but “many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised” (emphasis mine). It is possible to view this as an event that records a kind of resurrection like that of Lazarus (John 11:38-44). So they likely didn’t receive glorified bodies (like Lazarus) and lived and later on died. However, if they did receive glorified bodies, this would be a foretaste of what will happen at Christ’s return. This was not the first resurrection spoken of in Scripture and nor was it the resurrection of all OT saints. We need to recognize that there is a lot the text doesn’t say. Who were they? How many of them were there? Why did they appear to people (which indicates that they would have been known to certain people)? We do not know the answer to these questions. However, it was a unique event that gives testimony to the power of God and a foretaste of what is to come.

            Your second question concerning judgment is very important. God’s judgment and blessing can occur in many ways in life. However, Scripture teaches that there will be a formal judgment. When it comes to judgment, there are two kinds of judgment (retribution and remunerative). The purpose of the unbeliever’s judgment will contain condemnation and retributive justice (Rev. 20:11-15). However, the believer’s judgment will serve the purpose of reward and testimony to God’s grace. The believer will experience judgment (Rom. 14:10-12; 1 Cor. 5:10) and this will determine degree of eternal reward (Luke 19:17-19).

  7. Don (Author)

    Ryan, thanks for your comment on this post, written more than a year ago. As I’m not sure what you mean by your comment, I’ll not respond.

  8. Cole

    Just have a couple comments/Questions. When you guys were talking about if people were saved prior to Jesus coming to earth. And I believe you said quote, “Christ’s redemptive work had ‘already’ paid the price for their sins.” Not to take it out of context, but if Christ paid the price for the OT people then why did he have to visit hell and proclaim the Gospel? Better yet, If God is giving everyone the benefit of the doubt and giving them all the thought of Jesus as their savior, that would represent a robotic system. If people have free will to believe or not believe in jesus as their savior at our current time then why wouldn’t people of the Old Testament have the same?

  9. Don (Author)

    Augustine is credited with this saying, “The new is in the Old concealed; the old is in the New revealed.”

    Man sees things through the lens of history; God transcends time. So God has been gracious to us in that He revealed His redemption plan progressively from creation to the cross.

    There was nothing robotic about the redemption of the Old Testament saints. It was their faith that was counted as righteousness. Romans 4:22-25 The writer of the New Testament book of Hebrews spends considerable time developing the idea that people of the Old Testament, like believers today, were saved by their trust or faith in God. Hebrews 11:13 (Read the entire chapter.)

    Faith is the key; the common denominator. When one acknowledges that due to his sinful nature, he is spiritually dead, accepting that there is no good in himself that deserves God’s favour, and accepts by faith God’s provision of grace, he is redeemed, made new, born again, ie. brought from death into life. The price for this redemption was paid by Jesus’ death in man’s place. Pre or post crucifixion, it doesn’t matter – Christ paid the price. Hence Christ’s bold statement in John 14:6 “no one comes to the Father except through me”.

    As for your question, “Why did he [Jesus] have to visit hell and proclaim the Gospel?”, I believe this reflects an inaccurate understanding of the Biblical record. Read this.

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