How were people saved under the Old Covenant?
We see indications in the Scriptures that many people who died before the Gospel was presented through Jesus will be in Heaven. How were they saved in the Old Covenant? What about those who have never heard the Gospel?
True salvation that has been revealed in the New Covenant is the restoration of the Holy Spirit that had been lost in Adam and Eve. They violated the law by eating from the wrong tree, and lost the Spirit of Life, the Holy Spirit of God. Their death was the absence of the life of God that had been breathed into them when they were created. Jesus died for our sins, so that the Holy Spirit could be offered to us as a free gift, and there is no sin left unforgiven that could cause that life to leave again. This was not available until after Jesus was crucified and resurrected from the dead. Therefore, when asking how people were saved before this event, they technically could not have been saved in the same way we are today.
If salvation is the restoration of the Holy Spirit, there was no way for anyone to be saved before the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. I do sincerely believe that when I enter into Heaven, I will see many people who lived and died long before Jesus died and rose again. To explain why I believe this, I would prefer to refine the question. A refined question would be how will the people before the New Covenant be able to enter into the Kingdom of God in Heaven? The reason why I would like to refine the question is because I consider the personal interactive relationship we now experience with our God to be a very important part of our salvation. I do not see any evidence that they could have experienced a life here in this world like we experience, walking and living with the indwelling of our Creator. However, I do believe they could have walked in their daily lives, living in response to the truth of God that was revealed to them. Most people think of salvation as the means by which a person gets out of Hell and into Heaven. I do believe this is true, but I would also include that it is the means by which our God gets out of Heaven and into us. Because of this distinction, I would like to focus on a personís eternal destination and destiny beyond this life here.
There is no passage in Scripture that clearly explains how those before the time of the Messiah, Christ Jesus could have been saved. If there was, it would certainly be an easy question to answer. Because of the lack of direct information at our disposal, we are left with only our understanding of the character of our God. Therefore, I am only able to answer this question in light of what I know about my God from a general point of view, and assume what He will do.
There are several important things that I know with regards to my relationship with my God. The first is that He is God and I am not. I sincerely believe that He is and was and always will be. I recognize that He is the Creator and I am the created. The fall of humanity occurred in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve believed the lie that they could function in the way they were created to function without the divine presence of their Creator within them. They believed the satanic lie that they could reflect the image of God through their knowledge of good and evil, instead of their personal dependent relationship with their Creator. It was a belief that they could be like God through their obedience to what was good, and not live according to what was evil. An important truth that we all need to come to terms with is that we cannot be like our God through our knowledge of good and evil. We cannot live as He intended by a life of obedience to that which is good and rejection of that which is evil. When we acknowledge this hopeless condition, we are left with only one possible hope of entering into the Kingdom of Heaven one day. The only hope that will remain is the hope of the mercy and grace of our God, not our obedience or works.
It is by the grace and mercy of God that we are saved, not of ourselves or by what we do or donít do. This is the foundational criteria by which we are saved, and I sincerely believe that anyone before the time of Christ Jesus could have fulfilled this basic criteria. If a person would acknowledge their hopelessness and have hope that their God would find a way to save them, I see no reason why our God would send them to Hell. I am certainly making several general assumptions by stating this, but considering my understanding of my God, this is the best conclusion I personally can see and have confidence in.
A person would therefore be saved by their faith. They would be saved by their trust in the truth that they could only be saved by the mercy of God. This is one of the purposes of the law presented through Moses. The Law of Moses was Godís contribution to mankindís best effort to be like Him without Him. The law was not given to directly address the issues of salvation. There was no law given that said your obedience would provide you with entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven. It was given to show us that we could never obtain entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven outside of the mercy and grace of God. Not one person can satisfactorily obey the demands of the law except God Himself.
The Lord Jesus gave us a very interesting allegory recorded in Luke 16:19-31, that describes a place called Abrahamís bosom, or paradise. Jesus spoke of this place as a holding location that separated people who were going to live eternally in peace, and those who were going to live eternally in torment. He spoke of a rich man and a beggar named Lazarus, but He gave us no indication about the criteria our God used to determine who would go where. What Jesus did say was that the economic status of an individual was certainly not going to be the criteria used. The Pharisees were teaching that the wealth of an individual was an indicator of the divine favor towards that person. This teaching was based on the blessings of the law given in Deuteronomy 28. If a person was obedient to all of the commandments of God, they would receive the blessings of the flesh, the wealth of the world in return for their efforts. The Pharisees were also teaching that the curses of poverty, disease and failure would be upon those who were sinners. Therefore, they taught that a rich person was righteous, and a poor man was a sinner. The allegory Jesus gave was an indirect rejection of this theology, and He revealed that a successful life here on earth had nothing to do with a personís life in eternity when they physically die.
There are many people who live in this world with this very philosophy. They assume that if their life is going well here on earth, it will continue to go well in eternity. They assume that God will punish sinners and bless those who are righteous in their lives here on earth. This is a teaching that has also been promoted in many churches and Christian ministries. This is the criteria that many people use when they consider the revelation of God through Jesus Christ. If everything in their life is going well, they may assume that there is no need for them to truly consider what has been revealed through the Gospel. Many times I have been told by people that they are not unhappy with their lives, and therefore they have no need for Jesus. Why should they think about Heaven when their life here on earth is just fine? These are people who will likely go to Hell.
The Lord has not given to us the specific criteria He will use when allowing those before Jesus entrance into His Kingdom. We do know that many people will be there who died before the Gospel was revealed. I believe also that there will be many who died after the Gospel was revealed who never heard it. He has not revealed the specific criteria He will use for these decisions either. What I do know for certain, is that whatever God decides, it will be the right decision. I am very thankful that I wonít have to make this decision for anyone, and they probably should also be thankful. The most important thing for everyone to consider, is what will they do now in light of what has been revealed to them. The Gospel is being promoted throughout the world today and everyone who is exposed to it must decide if they are going to pursue and accept it, or ignore and reject it. Those who believe it must also decide if they are going to hide it in their own hearts, or if they are going to share it with others. We must all decide what we will do with what we have been given. In the end, we will have no alternative, but to trust that our God will make the right decisions, and those who will be in His Kingdom will be there justly.