Many people ask-where did the Old Testament saints go when they died, before Jesus came, or “how do people who dont hear of Jesus go to heaven”. I have a very similar question, something that’s been confusing me for a while by now.
Animal sacrifice, which people in the Old Testament used to forgive them of their sins, was not revealed to the non Jews, or people who didnt live in Israel and werent a part of the Old Covenant. And the Old Testament Jews didnt evangelize people like Christians do today.
Were people who lived outside the Holy Land all doomed to hell, because they werent born in the right place and time? Basically, was there salvation for people before the New Covenant, but outside the Old Covenant?
The Bible does imply that non Jews in the pre-New Covenant era could repent. It says that the Caananites knew of God’s power but rejected him-implying if they repented, God would have given them a chance of having a relationship with him, and probably even salvation. Rahab is an example of that.
I had a conversation with somebody at church regarding this issue. He said God could have allowed people into Heaven based on their honest belief in God-like for example, the native americans who believed in the great spirit. But by that logic, Christians shouldnt evanglize others, because even people who arent Christians go to heaven. My theory is this-God deals with humanity differently under the New Covenant than in the Old Covenant. In the days before the New Covenant, God didnt judge peoples salvation as to whether or not they believed in the future messiah. There were other ways he did. tbm.org/were_people_saved_before_christ.htm
So how did He save them without the Holy Spirit regenerating them? Remember, Christ is the wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:24), and His wisdom has been available from the beginning of creation. By wisdom the LORD laid the earth's foundations (Prov 3:19). Jesus is the one who laid the earth’s foundations. Through him all things were made (John 1:3). Jesus, prior to His birth, existed in the form of the wisdom of God. When someone “found Jesus” they found “wisdom.” This wisdom enabled people to live righteous lives, just as the Holy Spirit gives us this ability. People’s noble lives proved that they had touched Christ in some way, or should I say, Christ touched them in some way.
The book of Proverbs is the book of Wisdom. I want you to notice that Solomon wrote nearly all the Proverbs, however, the last two chapters were written by two other men: Agur and King Lemuel. Search Israel’s biblical genealogy and you will notice that these two men are not mentioned in the Bible. A closer look at their names reveals that they were Gentiles and not Jews. How did Gentiles have a part in writing the Old Testament? Simple: wisdom is all inclusive. It belongs to all people who desire it.
Agur wrote: “I have not learned wisdom, nor have I knowledge of the Holy One.” (Prov 30:3) This was his humble way of saying that he did not know God in the same way as the Jews. Then he adds: “Who has established all the ends of the earth? What is his name, and the name of his son?” (Prov 30:4)
He did not know the name of God’s son, yet he had wisdom—enough that God would place his words in the Word of God. This shows you that non-Jews were saved outside of the Jewish system of sacrifices.
When I look in the past before Christ was born, I discover many religious leaders and philosophers that had the wisdom of God, and so I conclude that they were saved by Christ.
Consider Buddha: he lived 500 hundred years before Christ, yet he was enlightened by wisdom. Look at his eight-fold path and you will recognize much of the Sermon on the Mount. How did he get such truth before Christ was born? He received this truth simply because Christ came to him in the form of wisdom. Don’t misunderstand me: Buddha cannot save; only Christ can. I do not believe today's Buddhists are saved; only that if Buddha were alive today, he would be a Christian. The point is that I believe Christ saved Buddha and the evidence of his salvation was his wisdom. (Of course, only the Lord knows each heart, and He is the final Judge.)
We could say this about some philosophers like Aristotle and Plato. They often showed the spark of wisdom that could only come from Christ. In fact the early church fathers used their writings to confirm the truth of the gospel, and that was one way the western world accepted the gospel.
For those who want a clearer scripture to prove that non Jews were saved prior to Christ, then consider the words of our Lord: "The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon's wisdom, and now one greater than Solomon is here." (Matt 12:42) Jesus plainly considered the Queen of Sheba to be saved, or else how could she judge the generation of Christ? What was the evidence that she was saved? She came to hear the wisdom of God spoken through Solomon. There is no evidence in Scripture or in history to suggest that the queen ever became a Jew. Her hunger for wisdom confirmed her acceptance of Christ.
In conclusion, people prior to the birth of Christ were saved through Him by His wisdom. They were not saved in the sense of being born again and filled with the Spirit, but they were saved with the meaning of being forgiven by God. They did not enter heaven upon their death, because the way for heaven was not made available until Christ ascension, however they were in paradise (see Luke 16:19-31). During Christ ascension they were then carried into heaven with Him. That is where they are today—in heaven with Christ.