Thank you for being willing to research topics that trouble or simply confuse us. I know that I am thankful to have a pastor who is willing to do so.
My question is, considering the exclusivity of salvation in Jesus Christ, will the people who died in the Old Testament – who did not even know Jesus’ name – be granted salvation? And if they will, on what basis is this possible, especially in light of the fact they did not have faith in Jesus? I assume that they will and that it is possible, but I have been experiencing some difficulty trying to understand how we as Christians explain this. I was hoping some topics you might touch on in your response would be (1) the Jewish/Old Testament understanding of salvation and (2) the Jewish/Old Testament understanding of what happened to a person after they died.
Thanks, Pastor Von. Once again, I greatly appreciate your willingness to help us through difficult questions.
Thank you for your question. This is an excellent question that has been pondered by Christians for a very long time and a question I imagine many Christians ask themselves quite frequently.
First, I’d like to answer your question in reverse order. In terms of the concept of what happened when one died, our concept of a disembodied life in Heaven or Hell would have been a foreign concept to those in the Old Testament (OT). Rather, both “saved” and “unsaved” were destined for Sheol, which was the abode of the dead. Sheol was pictured as a place below the earth, or even in the depths of the earth itself (Ezk. 31:15, 17; Ps. 86:13; Job. 17:16).
The KJV renders Sheol as “hell” but this would be an incorrect rendering because even OT saints went to Sheol as it was pictured as the destiny for all (Ps 89:48 See also Gen. 37:35; 44:29; 1Kings 2:9; Ps. 18:5; 107:20; Prov. 1:12; 30:16; Ezek. 31:15-17; Jnh. 2:2). Sheol was pictured as a place of joylessness and darkness (Job. 10:21; Ps. 94:17; Ps. 88:12) but also a place where God was (Ps. 139:8) and a place where God could deliver people from (Ps. 16:10).
However, as gloomy as this might seem, Sheol may simply be another way of saying death or the grave. This would make sense especially in light of Peter interpreting Psalm 16:8-11 as being fulfilled in Christ when he says, “For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your Holy One see corruption” and then follows it by saying this passage cannot be about David since he is dead and buried, and his audience could visit his grave to that day.
All this to say, the OT does not have a category for the righteous going to heaven and the unrighteous going to hell but all dying, being buried, and languishing in the “abode of the dead.” This does not mean that the OT redeemed did not go to heaven, just that the OT does not tell us that they had a conception of this. Some believe alternatively that Sheol had an area for the righteous and an area for the unrighteous. So OT righteous would languish there until Christ redeemed them and rescued them from Sheol.
To your first question: when we see “salvation” or “rescue” in the OT, this is usually in regards to God rescuing people or nations from real flesh enemies. We sometimes spiritualize salvation in the OT but one would be hard-pressed to show that the OT does this. A classic example would be the Exodus event. God literally rescued Israel from her enslaving captures, Egypt. So they were “saved” by being freed from slavery and into the wilderness, eventually landing in the Promised Land.
There is also a misnomer that the Law was the means by which people were saved. In other words, God gave the Law so that those who kept the Law, could go to heaven when they died. The Law was for the people’s good (Deut. 6:24) and was not meant to be a means of salvation.
It is also interesting to read Paul’s take on the Law and its purpose from Galatians. He says that the Law doesn’t nullify the promise of salvation through Christ (“Abraham’s seed/offspring”) because it came after that promise and that the Law was added “because of transgressions” (Gal. 3:19). In other words, the Law makes sin evident and shows to whom all sin is against.
So if not by the Law, how were OT saints saved? It turns out, they were saved the same way we are: faith. Paul says (quoting Genesis 15:6) that Abraham wasn’t saved by works of the Law (this is also true since the Law had not been ratified yet) but he believed in God and it was counted to him as righteousness (Rom. 4:3). The author of Hebrews does something similar as he recounts those in history who had faith: By faith…Abel (11:4), Abraham (11:8), Sarah (11:11), Isaac (11:20), Jacob (11:21), Joseph (11:22), Moses (11:23), the people who crossed the Red Sea (11:29), the walls of Jericho (11:30), Rahab (11:31), etc. did what they did.
Now we are saved by faith/allegiance to Christ, while the OT saints were saved by something similar: faith/allegiance to God. The Law, then, serves to guide the OT saints by showing them what faith lived-out looks like. If they had faith in God then their allegiance would lie with Him and not to other Gods.
In fact, grace oozes throughout the OT. Back to Deuteronomy 6: God says that they are to love Him “with all their hearts, soul, and might,” and that “the words I command…shall be on your heart” (Deut. 6:5-6). So keeping the Law was not to be a robotic, emotionless exercise. Rather, they keep the Law “from their heart” because God had rescued them from Egypt by His grace (Deut. 6:20-23), given them cities they didn’t build (Deut. 6:10), houses they didn’t build (Deut. 6:11), good things they didn’t earn (Deut. 6:11), vineyards, olive trees, and cisterns they didn’t plant or build (Deut. 6:11).
But why? Why did God do all this for them? Was it because they were holy or good or better or more numerous than others? “…it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery” (Deut. 6:8).
Just as we are saved by grace through faith, the OT saints were saved by grace through faith. Just as God counts our faith as “righteousness,” God counted Abraham’s faith as “righteousness.” Just as God had taken the initiative in our salvation by His grace, not by anything we’ve done or could do, He took the initiative in the OT by His grace, without anything done by those in the OT.
Salvation, then, was “exclusive” in that one could only be saved by faith in God and His promises (which would included future rescue by “Abraham’s seed,” Jesus) only, not through any other means. Salvation now is in the same “exclusivity” but through God’s agent of redemption, Jesus.
I hope this answered your question, if not, please contact me and I will elaborate more on the particular area you feel needs more attention.
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