Prior to Jesus dying on the cross, every soul went to a place called Sheol when they died.
Sheol means the abode of the dead.
The abode of the dead consists of two parts, hell and paradise (AKA Abraham’s bosom). Hell is where the souls of the unsaved reside. Paradise is where the souls of the saved used to dwell before Jesus died on the cross. When Jesus rose from the dead, he set free the righteous souls that were in Sheol and took them up to heaven. Now when a righteous person dies, he or she goes directly into the presence of God in heaven.
How did the people in Old Testament get saved?
Salvation in both the New and the Old Testament has always been through faith in God. It does not matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile.
We are both saved through faith.
Romans 3:30, “since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith.”
Romans 4:3, “For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” See also Genesis 15:6.
Hebrews chapter 11 is filled with examples of faith from the Old Testament saints such as Abel, Enoch, Sarah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and Israel, along with many others.
Hebrews 11:7, “By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.”
God told Abraham he would be a father of many nations (Genesis 17:14). Abraham did not live long enough to see many nations come from him, but both he and Sarah trusted that God would keep his promise, and they died in faith. Hebrews 11:13, “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them…”
The Old Testament believers knew that God promised to send the Messiah for our salvation, and they died in faith believing that promise.
Isaiah talked about the coming Messiah in Isaiah 53.
Job knew God was going to send a Messiah. Job 19:25, “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth.”
King David knew the Messiah would be one of his descendants (Acts 2:29-30). Acts 2:31, “he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption.
Hades is the Greek word for Sheol.
Romans 3:28, “So we are made right with God through faith and not by obeying the law.”
Where is Sheol Located?
Scripture indicates that Sheol is in the lower parts of the earth.
Ezekiel 26:20, “then I will bring you down with those who go down to the pit, to the people of long ago. I will make you dwell in the earth below…” ESV and NRSV both say “dwell in the world below.”
Numbers 16:30, & 33, “…The ground opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, then you shall know that these men have despised the LORD.”
Verse 33, “So they and all that belonged to them went down alive into Sheol, and the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly.”
Psalm 63:9, “But those that seek my soul, to destroy it, shall go into the lower parts of the earth.”
Amos 9:2, “If they dig into Sheol, from there shall my hand take them; if they climb up to heaven, from there I will bring them down. To dig into Sheol means it’s in the earth.”
People reside in three places. Philippians 2:10, “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.”
Ezekiel 31:14, “…For they have all been delivered to death, To the depths of the earth, Among the children of men who go down to the Pit. See also Ezekiel 32:18 & 24.
Psalm 63:9, “But those that seek my soul, to destroy it, shall go into the lower parts of the earth.” The word for lower parts is tachtı̂y; it means lowermost, a pit, depths, womb.
Other verses provide additional insights into the location of Sheol. Proverbs 15:24 indicates that hell is beneath, and Ezekiel 31:17 and Isaiah 14:15 state that it is down.
The core of the earth is very hot. I believe that core is the location of hell. Most likely, the fire in the center is where lava from volcanos comes from. Deuteronomy 32:22, “For a fire is kindled by my anger, and it burns to the depths of Sheol, devours the earth and its increase, and sets on fire the foundations of the mountains.”
Sheol has two compartments
In Sheol (AKA Hades), there is a place called hell and a place called paradise. Sheol contains chambers. Proverbs 7:27, “Her house is the way to Sheol, going down to the chambers of death.”
Both hell and paradise are in the center of the earth but are in two separate compartments. You can see a clear picture of these two places in the story of the rich man and Lazarus.
Luke16:19-32. “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. (AKA paradise/Abraham’s bosom).
The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.”
Romans 4:16 says Abraham is the father of all who believe. Lazarus was with the believers. The rich man in hell could see Abraham and Lazarus (Luke 16:23). They were both in Sheol, but the section that contained the believers was protected from the heat, and Lazarus was comforted there. We can also tell in Luke 16:24 that both Lazarus and Abraham had access to water, unlike the rich man in hell.
I would like to speculate that when Adam and Eve sinned, the Garden of Eden may have been moved to the paradise compartment in Sheol. Ezekiel 31:16 (NIV), “I made the nations tremble at the sound of its fall when I brought it down to the realm of the dead (Sheol) to be with those who go down to the pit. Then all the trees of Eden, the choicest and best of Lebanon, the well-watered trees, were consoled in the earth below.” Verse 18 (ESV), “Whom are you thus like in glory and in greatness among the trees of Eden? You shall be brought down with the trees of Eden to the world below.
Where Did Jesus Go When He Died?
Jesus did not go to heaven the same day he died.
Matthew 12:40, “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”
Jesus went to Sheol, which is located in the center of the earth, and he ministered to the souls that were in the paradise section. I am confident he did not go to hell, as some have speculated. Luke 23:43, “And he said to him, ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.'”
We also know that paradise was not heaven because after he rose from the dead, he spoke to Mary Magdalene and told her he had not yet gone to his Father. John 20:17, “Jesus said to her, ‘Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'”
When Jesus went to paradise, he brought the good news that scripture has been fulfilled to the believers who were waiting for the Messiah. 1 Peter 3:18-19, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison.”
King David long ago knew that this glorious day was coming. Psalm 16:10, “For you will not abandon my (David’s) soul to Sheol, or let your Holy One [Jesus] see corruption. Acts 2:31, “he, foreseeing this, spoke concerning the resurrection of the Christ, that His soul [Jesus] was not left in Hades, nor did His flesh see corruption.” See also Acts 2:27.
Revelation 1:18, “I am the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.” Now that Jesus had the key, he could set those prisoners free.
What happened to the souls that were in Sheol?
Hebrews 10:4, “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” Once the final sacrifice was made by Jesus and not by the blood of animals, those that were waiting in paradise could now enter heaven. Job 33:24, “and he is merciful to him, and says, ‘Deliver him from going down into the pit; I have found a ransom.”
Zechariah 9:11, “As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.”
After Jesus rose from the dead, all the Old Testament saints and the righteous souls waiting in paradise were set free and resurrected from their graves. Matthew 27:51-53, “…The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.”
Ephesians 4:8-10, “Therefore it says, ‘When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.'” (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)
Paradise was emptied and is no longer a holding place of souls. Psalm 71:20, “You who have made me see many troubles and calamities will revive me again; from the depths of the earth you will bring me up again.” Psalm 86:13, “For great is your steadfast love toward me; you have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol.” See also 1 Samuel 2:6.
When we die, where do we go now?
Now that the final sacrifice for our sins has been made, anyone who believes in Jesus when they die goes directly into God’s presence. Ephesians 3:12, “Because of Christ and our faith in him, we can now come boldly and confidently into God’s presence.”
Romans 5:2, “Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” 2 Corinthians 5:8, “We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord.”
God is a consuming fire
God is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29), and sin can’t be in the presence of God without being consumed. We can’t change the nature of the fire, but God can remove the sin, which is like gasoline on us. Isaiah 9:18-19, “Through the wrath of the LORD of hosts the land is scorched, and the people are like fuel for the fire…” Isaiah 33:14, “The sinners in Zion are afraid; trembling has seized the godless: ‘Who among us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who among us can dwell with everlasting burnings?'” Those that are unsaved have the fuel of sin on their being for all eternity.
Jesus came to remove our sins and wash us clean, so we can stand in the presence of Almighty God. 1 John 1:7, … “the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” Once we are saved, our nature becomes like gold. God’s nature then becomes to us a refiner’s fire. We don’t burn up; we are purified. Malachi 3:3, “He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver…” Job 23:10, “…when he has tried me, I shall come out as gold.” See also 1 Peter 1:7 & Zechariah 13:9.
Those who died without accepting the free gift of salvation will spend an eternity with their sins attached to them in a fire. Knowing that humans could never live a sinless life, God took on a body of flesh and lived a perfect and sinless life for us. Jesus was the spotless sacrifice that took on the punishment for our sins. Salvation is by grace alone. You are not able to earn it through good deeds. It was paid in full by Jesus and is a gift to you. If you want to accept the free gift of salvation, you need to believe in your heart that Jesus died for our sins and was buried, and that he was raised from the dead on the third day. Then acknowledge you’re a sinner; ask God to forgive you, and confess out loud that Jesus is Lord. Then you will need to reject sin and practice righteousness. No one is perfect, but as you walk with God, he will change your heart and give you a desire for righteousness.
You don’t have to get your life straightened out before you come to God. If you do, you could miss out on salvation. You go to God as you are, right now. You may be drenched in the gasoline of sin, but the sacrificial blood of Jesus will fully cleanse you. Luke 12:32, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom.”
For a more detailed look into why Jesus dying on the cross saves us from sin, check out my article Salvation Explained.
Your sister in Christ,