Q. First I would like to say that your bible studies have helped me and my family’s understanding of the bible tremendously and I would like to say thank you! My questions are: What happened to people who died before Jesus came to save us? Who went to heaven and who went to hell? What happens to people who die who haven’t heard about Jesus? Some friends of mine asked me these questions and I didn’t have any answers for them.
A. We get our understanding of what happened to people who died before the cross from the story of the Rich man and Lazarus, (Luke 16:19-31) incorrectly called a parable by some. It shows that no one could get into heaven before the Lord’s blood was shed for them. Instead, those who died believing from their Old Testament studies that a redeemer was coming to save them from their sins went to a place the Jews called Abraham’s bosom or Paradise. It was a place of comfort. It’s where Lazarus went. Unbelievers went to a place of torment like the rich man. Both were in the “abode of the dead” called Sheol in Hebrew and Hades in the Greek. While the two groups could apparently see each other there was a giant chasm that separated them so no one could cross from one side to the other.
When Jesus died, He went to Paradise (Luke 23:43) and when He rose He brought the faithful to Heaven with Him (Matt. 27:52-53, Ephesians 4:7-8). Since that time all who die in faith go straight into the presence of the Lord (Phil 1:21-24). The unsaved dead from all ages will remain in torment till the end of the Millennium when they’re brought back to life for their final judgment (Rev. 20:11-15).
As for those who die having never heard of Jesus (if there be any) Romans 1:18-20 tells us that the minimum requirement of every man is that having looked upon the Creation, he should realize there is a God Who created it, and therefore created him. My own view is that when a person comes to that realization, God will move Heaven and Earth to bring someone to tell Him about Jesus. We’re even hearing accounts of Jesus appearing personally to people in their dreams in places where it’s illegal to preach the Gospel. God goes to these extremes because He doesn’t want that any should perish but for all to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9).