…before Jesus’s atonement and resurrection? Now the standard evangelical answer is: of course. But first we need to look back to the Bible and see what it says.
In the Old Testament (OT) only one person goes to heaven explicitly: Elijah (2 Kings 2:11). Enoch is hinted at, but it doesn’t really tell us where he goes (Gen. 5:24). The Hebrew reads “and he was not” using a fun Hebrew express that we call the particle of negation. God took him somewhere. It’s likely he went to heaven since the same phrase appears in Elijah’s story. But only with the Elijah story would we know where Enoch went. These examples don’t help our problem though, because neither Enoch or Elijah died!
For Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and Aaron, when they die they are each “gathered to [their] people” (see Gen. 25:8, 17; 35:29; 49:33; Deut. 31:16; 32:50 respectively). David says that when he dies, he will go to be with his son (2 Sam 12:23). So maybe this going to be with your ancestors is heaven?
It could be interpreted as such, until we reach Psalm 49. In it, the Psalmist speaks about how we cannot ransom our life from God. We will all see “the pit” (this is a synonym for Sheol; see v. 14) [vv. 8-9]. The Psalmists hope is that God will ransom his soul *from* Sheol (15). The Psalmist tells us not to fear (or doubt God’s plans or goodness) when we see the rich and powerful, because though they go down to be with “the generations of [their] fathers” (v. 19) they will never see the light again (i.e., resurrection). The rich man and apparently the psalmist both share a similar fate with a big difference – the righteous will be raised to new life.
So when we get to the story of the deceased Samuel and Saul (1 Sam. 28) we read Samuel’s pronouncement that Saul and his sons will soon be joing him after their death (1 Sam. 28:19). David wants to be saved from Sheol (Ps. 16:10; 18:5; 30:3; 49:15; 86:13) which begs the question – why? If death just meant going to heaven, shouldn’t that be a good thing (i.e., Phil 1:23; Paul says it’s better than life on earth!)? Because of Jesus we do not fear death (Heb. 2:14-15), but David feared death (Ps. 55:4). How do we reconcile all of that?
John Frame (Presbyterian theologian) says “The OT teaches that after death, people go to a place called Sheol, a shadowy abode awaiting the coming of Christ.” (Systematic Theology, 1077)
Herman Bavinck (the great reformed Dutch theologian) says “Through death all the souls enter the abode of the dead, Sheol” (Reformed Dogmatics 4:599).
Maybe the OT saints did go to heaven prior to the death and resurrection of Jesus, but the OT doesn’t appear to say that (I do believe the OT saints are in heaven, now; but that is more than I can get into in this blog post). The point of this post is not to make any firm statements, but to raise the question of what happened to the saints in the Old Testament after they died.
If nothing else, you have to admit, the answer might not be as simple as you thought.
Help: I’d be interested if anyone has a good answer to the question of whether the OT saints went to heaven, pre-passion. I tried to give a simple and biblical explanation of what the OT says along with two well respected and Reformed theologians who show that this view is not antithetical to Reformed theology. I am doing my best to follow what the data says and would love to see what conclusions are drawn by others.