(Where did Old Testament believers go, after death?)

Question: Were the people in the Old Testament, and the under the Law, saved by offering sacrifices as mandated by God? Did they go to heaven, or did they go to Abraham's bosom?

Answer: Thanks for the two questions. As to the first, I wrote an article on that some time ago, and posted it on my web site. In one sense, sinners in every age are all saved the same way, by the grace of God, and through faith in Him. But there are some differences, before and after the cross. You can find the article on that subject here: Old Testament Salvation.

As to the second question, you are referring to the teaching of the Lord Jesus in Luke 16:19-31.

Some treat this passage as a parable, but I don't believe it is. The parables of the Lord Jesus were made-up, fictional stories, used to teach important truths. (They also served to conceal truths from those who refused to believe on Him, Matt. 13:10-16.)

Generally speaking, the parables each taught one central lesson. The details were added to make a good story, but it's not necessary to find some hidden meaning in every detail, unless the Word of God specifically assigns a meaning to some detail(s).

The Luke passage distinguishes itself from the parables of Jesus in a number of ways.

☼ For one thing, we are not told it was a parable, which the Gospel writers often indicate (cf. Matt. 13:24, 31; Lk. 20:9; 21:29).

☼ The words "there was a certain rich man," and "there was a certain beggar" (Lk. 16:19, 20) seem to indicate that the Lord had specific real-life individuals in view.

☼ No parable names the people in it, but the Lord names several characters in this account. There is a beggar named Lazarus, with Abraham and Moses mentioned too. The rich man is sometimes called Dives (DIE-veez). But dives is simply Latin for "rich man," and we don't actually know his name.

☼ Most significantly, Abraham, the father of the nation of Israel, is not only named, but his comments are recorded (vs. 25-16, 29, 31). It seems to me this is a big problem for those who claim that Christ is telling a made-up story. They make the Lord guilty of attributing statements to a real person that he never made. In effect He would be creating a mythological Abraham.

It's better to see this as actual history, describing what happened to a believer and to an unbeliever, before the time of Christ's ascension. From it, we learn a number of things.

1) We learn that individuals back then had a conscious existence after death. They could think, and feel, and speak.

2) In Old Testament times (and until Christ went back to heaven), there was a special, temporary accommodation for believers, a place of peace and comfort called "Abraham's bosom" (in Luke 16:22).

3) There was a temporary place of fiery judgment to which the unsaved dead were sent, while awaiting the final judgment, and consignment to eternal hell ("the lake of fire," Rev. 20:15).

4) For the unbelieving rich man, there was no second chance to be saved after death, no possibility of crossing over to Abraham's bosom (Lk. 16:26). It is the same today (cf. Heb. 9:27; Rev. 22:11).

5) Dead Lazarus was not able (or not permitted) to return and communicate with the living (vs. 27-31). This, and other Scriptures such as Hebrews 9:27, indicate that there's no such thing as ghosts. (When spirits reputedly appear, or are heard from, they are more likely evil spirits in the guise of the departed.)

So, what happened to these two places accommodating the departed dead, after Christ's ascension? I believe the unsaved of ancient times are still there, and that the unsaved who die today go there as well, awaiting the last judgment at the great white throne (Rev. 20:11-15).

But today, those who are saved go immediately into the presence of the Lord, in the heavenly city where God's throne is (Phil. 1:21, 23). The saved who were sent to Abraham's bosom are now in heaven with the Lord as well. Included with them would be the believing thief who died on the cross next to the Lord Jesus. We know that because the Lord said to him, "Today you will be with me in paradise" (Lk. 23:43).

Though Ephesians 4:8-10 is interpreted differently by some, it is often taken to mean that when Christ died He visited Abraham's bosom, and "led captivity captive." That is, He showed those Old Testament saints that the final sacrifice for sin had been made, and that they could now enter God's heaven.

At death, Christians (Church Age saints) are ushered immediately into the heavenly kingdom to be with Christ. "To be absent from the body [is] to be present with the Lord" (II Cor. 5:8). And Paul had "a desire to depart and be with Christ, which [he said] is far better" (Phil. 1:23).