What happened to Old Testament believers after death?
The Old Testament speaks of a place called sheol in Hebrew (often translated "grave") where both the righteous and the wicked consciously live in the afterlife. For example, Psalm 9:17 teaches, "The wicked shall return to Sheol." Jacob, considered a man of God, also said he would die and go to Sheol (Genesis 37:35).
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In the New Testament, the Greek word hades is used as the equivalent of sheol. Jesus clearly taught that this Hades would include two divisions in Luke 16:19-31. The first division included Abraham, noting, "The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham's side" (v. 22). The second division was a place of torment: "in Hades, being in torment" (v. 23). The rich man was able to see where the righteous lived, though no one could cross from one side to the other.
Elsewhere Hades is also called Gehenna (Mark 9:45). Jesus also called the place where Abraham dwells "Paradise" (Luke 23:43). The apostle John made reference to these believers being with the Lord when he wrote in Revelation 2:7, "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God."
Other places also note the destination of the Old Testament believers. Jobs 19:25-27 points out that "in my flesh I shall see God." Psalm 23:6 reveals an attitude of one who will be in God's presence upon death. In Matthew 22:23-32 Jesus also debated the Sadducees, declaring God as the God of the living. This implied that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—as well as other Old Testament saints—were already in the presence of God.
The book of Hebrews also provides additional information about the Old Testament saints. First, Abraham was clearly with God after death: "For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God" (Hebrews 11:10). All of the Old Testament saints mentioned in Hebrews 11 also looked forward to this city and are there with Him now (Hebrews 11:16). While some argue that these saints may not have been with God in heaven before Christ, the other passages above indicate the Old Testament saints immediately entered God's presence upon death.
What about today? The same is true of believers who die, with each one "at home with the Lord" after death (2 Corinthians 5:6-9). As the apostle Paul wrote, "For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain" (Philippians 1:21). The believer who dies truly gains for he or she is immediately present with the Lord Jesus Christ for all eternity.
Before Jesus died for our sins, could people be saved? How?
What happens after death?
What is the intermediate state?
Will everyone go to heaven? Who will go to heaven?
Life after death – Does it really exist?
Truth about Eternity