WHAT HAPPENED TO OLD TESTAMENT SAINTS WHEN THEY DIED?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Wednesday, October 31, 2012 at 1:55pm
QUESTION: I know that we Christians go to Paradise to be with Jesus when die. But what about OT saints? What happened to them when they died? Did they go to Paradise? How could they, since Christ had not yet died for their sins? What does the Bible say?
ANSWER: I answered a similar question a couple of years ago, but I will do it here again and include a couple of extra thoughts.
A common idea has existed in Christendom almost from its beginning, namely, that the souls of believers who died before Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension could not go to “heaven,” or more precisely, to Paradise, since Christ had not yet died and atoned for their sins. The assumption was that their sins could not be truly forgiven until the blood of Christ was shed for them in actual history. Thus their souls had to exist in a “holding pen” or “waiting room” called the “limbo of the fathers,” until Christ died for them. This was not an unhappy state, but was significantly incomplete. Christ’s preaching to the spirits in prison (1 Peter 3:19) between his death and resurrection is taken to be his announcement that their long wait is now over, and they may now join him and the Father in Paradise. Ephesians 4:8 is taken to be the triumphal entry of these once-captive OT saints
into Paradise with the risen Christ at his ascension.
This is a fairly common view in Restoration Movement circles. Throughout my Bible college years I heard many times the idea that the sins of OT saints were not forgiven but were constantly being “rolled back” (actually it should have been “rolled forward”!) until the cross. As one church of Christ preacher recently put it, “So while the Bible does not specifically say [the sins of OT saints] were ‘rolled forward,’ they could not be actually forgiven until Christ died on the cross. So they were ‘rolled forward’ because they remained unforgiven until Christ died.” The reason usually cited for this conclusion is that the OT animal sacrifices were insufficient to provide forgiveness; therefore, forgiveness was delayed until the one true sacrifice of Christ could be made.
I believe this view is completely false. It is certainly true, of course, that the OT animal sacrifices could never be a basis for forgiveness of sins; only Jesus’ death on the cross could serve that purpose. The error, however, is in assuming that God could not dispense this Christ-based forgiveness before the cross actually occurred. We must remember that Christ was delivered up to his death “by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23). God not only knew ahead of time that this death would happen; it happened as a result of God’s own sovereign and inviolable plan. Because it was absolutely certain that the cross would occur, God freely dispensed its benefits before the fact. An analogy is a person who knows his paycheck is going to be automatically deposited in his bank account tomorrow, so he writes checks on it today, knowing the funds will be there when the checks reach the bank.
Romans 3:25 confirms this. Here Paul declares that the cross as a propitiation demonstrates the fact that God was completely righteous or just when he passed over the sins of pre-Christian saints and left them unpunished. Here Paul is answering a possible challenge to the righteousness or justice of God, thus: “God, you are supposed to be a holy God whose righteousness requires you to uphold your law and punish sinners. But you have been handing out forgiveness of sins for thousands of years! How can you get away with this, given your claim to be a holy and righteous God?” If God had not been actually forgiving the sins of OT believers, this kind of challenge would have made no sense. God is responding to the challenge simply by pointing to the cross: “Here’s how! So now you know!” I.e., any doubts concerning the integrity of God’s justice that may have been raised in OT times are now, “at the present time” (v. 26), completely dispelled by the actual event of the cross, which was a public event presented before the whole world.
We know from other Biblical teaching that God was fully forgiving sins in OT times. Paul’s main paradigm for the whole idea of forgiveness (justification) is Abraham (see Romans 4 and Galatians 3). In Romans 4:6-8 Paul also quotes David’s words in Psalm 32:1-2 on the blessedness of being justified by faith: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven, and whose sins have been covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account.” When God revealed himself to Moses in a special way, he declared that he is a God “who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin” (Exodus 34:7).
Where, then, did the souls of these forgiven OT saints go when they died? Their dead bodies were consigned to the grave (called sheol in the OT), but their souls went to the angelic “heaven” where God reveals himself to the angelic hosts in a permanent spiritual theophany of himself in a human-like form seated on a throne. This is the same place—i.e., Paradise— to which Christians’ souls go when we die. Before the incarnation of the Logos, of course, there was no presence of the risen Christ in the angelic heaven. Thus the deceased OT saints did not dwell there with Jesus. For Jews, however, they had the next best thing: they got to sit in Abraham’s lap (Luke 16:22)! There is simply no basis for the idea that the souls of the saints in OT times had to wait in a kind of limbo until Christ came, or for the idea that their sins were just “rolled back” until the time of the cross.
What, then, does Ephesians 4:8 mean when it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men”? Some have taken this “host of captives” to refer to the OT saints who have finally been released from their state of limbo and allowed to enter Paradise. A much better understanding, though, is that the “host of captives” are not just-released captives, but Satan and his demonic angels, who have just been soundly defeated through Christ’s death and resurrection, and who are now (figuratively) being led in chains as Christ’s captives in His triumphal victory march into heaven. They are being flaunted as the spoils of victory. (Cf. the binding of Satan in Rev. 20:1-3, which happened as the result of Christ’s redemptive work accomplished during his first coming. Cf. Matt. 12:29; Luke 10:18.)
How then should we understand 1 Peter 3:19, which says that Jesus “went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison,” between the time of his death and his resurrection? These are not the spirits of saved people, but the spirits of all the lost and condemned people who were existing in the prison of sheol (Greek, hades). They are awaiting the final resurrection and final judgment. This is the same place to which the spirits of the wicked dead are sent in NT times.
But what was Jesus doing by “making proclamation” to these spirits? It is a serious mistake to think he was preaching the gospel (good news) to them in any sense. The Greek word that means “preach the gospel” is not used here. The word he uses means in this context simply “to make a proclamation, to announce.” The point here is that Jesus is proclaiming his triumphant victory over his enemies, even before the resurrection takes place. He is announcing the truth of Colossians 2:15, “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” It is as if Jesus is saying to God’s enemies, “I told you so!”