Where did Old Testament believers go when they died?

One of the most ominous moments in the lives of those closest to Jesus occurs during what is commonly known as “the last supper,” where Jesus informs his friends that he will be betrayed by one of them (Jn 13:21), and also that he is leaving them (Jn 13:33). “Lord,” Peter asks, “where are you going?” “Where I go, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow later,” Jesus responds.

Jesus sensed Peter’s—and the rest of the disciples’—anxiety, and encouraged them by offering some insights into where he was going: “Do not let your heart be troubled … In my Father’s house are many dwelling places … I go to prepare a place for you … I will come again and receive you to myself, that where I am, there you may be also” (Jn 14:1-3).

Jesus was going to “the Father’s house,” a euphemism for what we more commonly call “heaven,” and, according to Jesus himself, his believers will one day get to be with him there. Jesus also designated the method by which a person can enter heaven, which is exclusively “through him.” He will “come again and receive us” (Jn 14:3) and more emphatically, “No one comes to the Father but through me” (Jn 14:6). He is “the way” (Jn 14:6).

This presents a quandary. What about all of the God-fearing people in the Old Testament? What about Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and Noah, and Moses, and Joseph, and Joshua, and David, and Samuel, and so many others who trusted God? If Jesus is the only way to heaven, and if Jesus didn’t come until after these men, then where did they go when they died?

The answer to this question is best grasped when heaven is understood as existing in “epochs” (or eras or ages), which is how Scripture presents it as existing. This might sound complicated, but most of us already understand heaven this way, we just don’t usually articulate it like this. Understanding heaven as existing in epochs clears up a lot of traditional confusion on the subject, and keeps us from convoluting different nuances of heaven into a single grouping.

The Bible shows heaven as existing in seven epochs, each of which is inaugurated via a Christologically-related event. The best example comes from the very question we are attempting to answer, which shows that heaven’s nature was altered upon Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Prior to Jesus’ resurrection (let’s call this a “pre-redemption” era, since it is the era prior to Jesus’ redemptive act on the cross and out of the grave), people could not enter heaven, but after Jesus’ resurrection, people can be “present with the Lord” in heaven (2 Cor 5:8). Jesus’ resurrection altered the way heaven functioned, namely by allowing believers the opportunity to now enter it upon death, and the Bible presents several Christologically-related events that have altered heaven in the past (for example the creation of the universe, which was “through Jesus” in Col 1:16; there must have been some kind of “heaven” even prior to earth, and so it was surely altered upon creation) and will alter it in the future (for example, after the second coming when the kingdom of heaven comes to earth). These epochs will not be expressly detailed here, but I plan to release a free eBook that divulges them in the future. For now it is sufficient simply to understand that heaven, while essentially the same abode, experiences alterations in its functionality, like a pair of pants that are altered by a tailor. The pants are the same pants even after an alteration, but they function differently than they did before. They might fit looser or tighter, or be longer or shorter, but they are the same pants. Likewise, Jesus “tailors” heaven via significant earthly events.

Therefore, heaven as it exists today functions differently than it did before Jesus rose from the dead. This difference inaugurates a new “epoch,” which is a major era of heaven in which it functions a certain way that is distinct from how it previously functioned. In this case it has to do with where a believer goes after he dies.

Now that we understand the general idea that heaven functioned differently in the Old Testament, we can turn our attention to the question: Where did the Old Testament believers go when they died? The Bible actually offers several clues on this very question, and the most prolific passage on the subject is what we know as the Parable of the Rich Man in Luke 16:19-31, a parable which includes significant deliberations on the subject of the afterlife. This parable tells the story of a rich man who died and went to “Hades” and a poor man named Lazarus who died and went to “Abraham’s bosom.” It is not insignificant that this is the only parable from Jesus that transcends everyday reality to focus on the afterlife.

One of the major questions surrounding this parable is whether or not it is a parable (a fictional story) at all, which might impact whether we ought to consider it as having the ability to tell us anything about the pre-redemption climate of the afterlife. Most scholars agree that it is a parable, but several also agree that its parabolic nature does not, at the same time, suggest that it cannot include doctrinal implications. One scholar notes that early Christians actually drew their theology from parables, but in later centuries they became a source of ethics instead, indicating that we often downplay the seriousness of Jesus’ parables. As the only parable from Jesus that transcends everyday reality to focus on the afterlife, the parable’s insights on the afterlife are helpful contributions to our question.

Understanding where Old Testament believers went after death requires a look at the contextual understanding of “Hades,” the place where the rich man went upon death. Hades, in Greek thought, is simply the “place of the dead.” In Hebrew it is the word “Sheol.” Both refer to the place everyone went upon death, whether righteous or unrighteous. This seems to be the general understanding of Hades during both the Old Testament and New Testament times.

The major twist in Jesus’ parable is that Lazarus, the righteous man, went to a place he calls “Abraham’s bosom.” Abraham’s bosom is described as if it is some kind of related, but separate chamber to Hades (Lk 16:23). In fact, the rich man could actually see Lazarus, and even communicate with him, reinforcing the idea that Abraham’s bosom is in Hades, the place of the dead. This presents an important distinction, because Abraham’s bosom is obviously not in heaven “above,” as we know it, but in Hades “below," and this is where Lazarus went after dying.

This seems to be the way that some Old Testament saints understood death. Jacob, for example, while mourning for his son Joseph whom he thought had died, said, “I will go down to Sheol to my son, mourning” (Gen 37:35). Jacob’s Old Testament understanding of death for his righteous, God-fearing son didn’t involve going “up” to the Father’s abode, as Jesus describes heaven, but “down” to Sheol, the Old Testament word for Hades. This is especially interesting because Jacob knew, according to Genesis 28, a passage which details his dream about angels ascending and descending from heaven to earth, that heaven was “above” him, but he still believed that he would go “down to Sheol” in his pre-redemption context. In Jacob’s mind, followers of God did not go to heaven when they died.

Therefore, it seems that this parable might provide clues into a pre-redemption afterlife, which suggests that Hades had both an unrighteous compartment and a righteous compartment, and that the Old Testament believers didn’t go up to heaven when they died, but down to Sheol, specifically into Abraham’s bosom, while the unrighteous went to the unrighteous sector of Hades/Sheol (Ps 9:17; 31:17; 49:14; Is 5:14).

This might be corroborated by Acts 2:27 and 31, which both state how Jesus, upon his own death, was not “abandoned in Hades.” Jesus himself seemingly taught that Hades is the place the unrighteous go upon death (Mt 11:23; 16:18). As a righteous man, Jesus didn’t go to the unrighteous side of Hades when he died, but to Abraham’s bosom. And this is where it gets especially interesting (and exciting!). Paul says that Jesus’ death and resurrection allowed him to ultimately ascend to heaven, that is, abandon Abraham’s bosom in Hades below and enter the Father’s house in heaven above. According to Paul (Eph 4:8-10), this is the fulfillment of a prophecy first detailed in Psalm 68:18, which describes Jesus “taking captive those who were captive.” Through his death, resurrection, and ascension, Jesus conquered the power of death that kept even righteous people from entering heaven (they were in “captivity”), and freed all of the Old Testament saints from Hades and took them with him to heaven, just as he said he would do with the disciples in John 14:1-6. Paul reiterates this in his letter to the Church in Colossae, writing,

“When you were dead in your transgressions … he made you alive together with him … having canceled out the certificate of debt … which was hostile to us, and he has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. When he had disarmed the rulers and authorities, he made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through him” (Col 2:13-15).

Abraham’s bosom is empty today, and all believers, upon death, are immediately translated to heaven above, where they dwell in the place that Jesus has prepared for them (Jn 14:1-6). This is the power of Jesus' resurrection--it frees us from the power of death, which separates God from man, and allows us to dwell with God in heaven.