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” (Luke 16:23). 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. Luke 23:43, 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 (Rev. 21:1-9), 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 (Rev. 4-5). 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 (Psalm 23:6; Eccl. 12:7). Interestingly, when the Lord took Elijah, the Scripture says he was taken to Heaven (2 Kings 2:11 cf. Heb. 11:5 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 (Eccl. 12:7). 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.