How were people saved before Jesus’ death?
If Jesus' death gives us salvation, how did those who lived before Jesus' time on Earth get to Heaven? How did people in the Old Testament receive salvation? Whether in the Old or New Testament, faith that God would provide a way to take away sin was the way to salvation.
Since Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden, God has indeed provided. The Faith Hall of Fame in Hebrews 11 mentions Abel (Heb. 11:4), Noah (Heb. 11:7) and Abraham having faith and being saved.
By faith Abel was commended as someone righteous and offered a better sacrifice than his brother Cain (Heb. 11:4). Abel made an offering of firstborn flock God accepted (Gen. 4:4). This was evidence he was a man of God.
By faith Noah was warned about the flood and built an ark to save himself and his family (Heb. 11:7). He built an altar to the Lord after the flood and made a burnt offering (Gen. 8:20). The smell of it was pleasing to God (Gen. 8:21).
By faith Abraham went where God told him to go, even though Abraham had no idea where he was going (Heb. 11:8). He also made an altar to the Lord (Gen. 12:7). Abraham almost killed his only son when God tested his faith and told him to sacrifice Isaac (Gen. 22:1-12). An angel then stopped Abraham from killing Isaac. This confirmed his faith in God, and he was credited (Gen. 15:6).
The Leviticus covenant that God gave to Moses was based on animal and other sacrifices. These sacrifices were only temporary solutions to sin and were not permanent (Heb. 10:1-10) as Christ's death was the permanent solution. This would be like creditor saying he won't go after you, but your debt is still on your credit record. We won't go into the gory details of the sacrifices, but they are in the book of Leviticus. There were five types of offerings described.
The first was a burnt offering for sins in general. This was voluntary. It involved sacrificing an animal from the herd or flock (Lev. 1:2). For the herd it was a male without defect (Lev. 1:3) and presented at the Tent of Meeting. For flock either sheep or goat males without defect were sacrificed (Lev. 1:10). The sacrifice also could have been birds (Lev. 1:14).
The second was a grain offering that was to honor and respect God. This was also voluntary. It involved bringing fine flour and having oil and incense poured on it. It was then burned at the altar of the Tent of the Meeting (Lev. 2:1-2). Every gain offering was to be made without yeast (Lev. 2:11).
The third was a fellowship offering that was for thanking God. This offering was also voluntary. It involved sacrificing a male or female from the herd or flock without defect (Lev. 3:1,6).
The fourth was a sin offering that was for unintentional sins. Unlike the previous three, this was required. If an anointed priest unintentionally sinned, a young bull without defect was sacrificed (Lev. 4:3). The same applied for the whole Israelite community (Lev. 4:13-14). If a leader unintentionally sinned, a male goat was sacrificed (Lev. 4:22-23). For community members a female goat was sacrificed (Lev. 4:27-28).
The fifth was a guilt offering that was for sins against God and others. This offering was also required. For sins against any of the Lord's holy things, a ram from the flock was sacrificed (Lev. 5:15, 18; 6:6) and restitution was required (Lev. 5:16; 6:5).
Did Old Testament saints go directly to Heaven?
Did the Old Testament saints go to Heaven to be with God? Some argue they went directly to Heaven based on Psa. 16:10-11. Elijah went straight to Heaven (2 Kings 2:1). They say surely Moses and Elijah came from Heaven during the transfiguration (Luke 9:28-31).
This is debatable, but others believe before Christ's sacrifice believers occupied a section of Hades called paradise or Abraham's bosom while Hell was in the other section. Hades is not the same as Hell but is the underworld of the dead. Paradise and Hell in Hades were separated by a "great gulf" (Luke 16:26). This theory says when Christ died; all the sins were cleansed, enabling the saints to ascend to Heaven.
Several passages are cited to support this theory. One is Matt. 12:40 that says just as Jonah was in the belly of a huge fish, Jesus was at the center of the earth. Ephesians 4:8-10 is cited by some as saying Jesus was in the paradise section of Hades between the time of His death and resurrection. Christ then led those in Abraham's bosom to Heaven (1 Cor. 15:20). Three days after His resurrection, Jesus told Mary He did not ascend to His Father yet (John 20:17). If Jesus had been with His Father during the three days, He would have descended to Earth. After Christ died and was resurrected the saints who died before Him were raised from the dead and were walking around Jerusalem (Matt. 27:50-53). The theory says Christ holds the keys to Hades (Rev. 1:18) and brought them to Heaven.
Regardless of where the Old Testament saints went when they died, we can be assured we will be with the Lord when we die (Phil. 1:23). Heaven is now above (2 Cor. 12:2-4) and not in Hades. Christ died for people in the Old Testament as well as those who followed (1 Pet. 3:18-19; Rev. 5:9).