A while back, a friend wrote me and asked, “How do you justify [and explain] the people who died before Christ came [i.e., Abraham, Moses, David]?” This struck me as an important and insightful question. In our rush to talk about and theologize heaven and hell, we often pay little attention to people who would have lived and died before the time of Christ. So how do we think about those people? One place to being thinking about this topic is the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus from Luke 16, which has been used to reflect on questions of salvation and Paradise since at least the time of Ephrem the Syrian (4th century).Read Luke 16.19-31 (NIV):
19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
22 “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
25 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
27 “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, 28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
29 “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
30 “‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
31 “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
The people of Israel didn’t speak of a place called “heaven” (certainly not in typical American Protestant terms), but instead spoke of “sheol” (see Genesis 37.35 and Psalm 16.10 for example). Sheol (Hebrew) or Hades (Greek) came to be understood as a place where the quality of “existence” was divided into different abodes for the dead, much like we see in the parable. By Jesus’ time, the ‘good’ part of Sheol was often called “Abraham’s Bosom” or “Paradise” (which some scholars understand as a Babylonian term imported during the exile).
Abraham’s Bosom was not “heaven” the typical Christian sense nor was it “hell” in a typical understanding (no Dante or Milton here). This mindset was apparently prevalent enough among Second Temple Judaism that the early Christian Church adopted the model for their theology. From this point of view, when Jesus died we went to Paradise (his word in Luke 23.43). When he rose from the dead, it’s typically understood that took the faithful (“pre-Christ Christians” if you will, at least according to Church Fathers like Justin Martyr or Athanasius) to heaven with him. Additionally, some people read I Peter 4.6 as inferring that Jesus not only “retrieved” those from Abraham’s Bosom but also preached to the “dead” in the lower part of Hades (where the rich man was).The Catechism of the Catholic Church provides a similar perspective, saying:
“Scripture calls the abode of the dead, to which the dead Christ went down, ‘hell’— Sheol in Hebrew or Hades in Greek—because those who are there are deprived of the vision of God. Such is the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they await the redeemer: which does not mean that their lot is identical, as Jesus shows through the parable of the poor man Lazarus who was received into ‘Abraham’s bosom’: ‘It is precisely these holy souls, who awaited their Savior in Abraham’s bosom, whom Christ the Lord delivered when he descended into hell.’ Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him.” (CCC 633)
So what happened to people who died before Christ? First, that there is little in the way of specific certainty when talking about this issue, only the application of broad principles. I would suggest that our thinking on this issue trying to balance the justice and love of God regarding those who died before Christ. Second, there is clearly some linguistic and conceptual development evidenced from Old to New Testament, from simply “the place of the dead” to a view of “Abraham’s Bosom” that categorizes the dead. Personally, I think it’s important to start with the words of Christ on this issue and then offer any theology moving forward from his perspective. Third, the Incarnation of Christ stands as an important moment, not only for all those living after the first century CE but also before. We must not fail to acknowledge this fact.What do you think happened to people who died before Christ? How should we go about seeking an answer to this question?