S.W. asked the question that provides this blog’s title. Essentially, he was asking how anyone could go to heaven prior to Jesus’ shed blood on the cross.
We know from Luke 16:19-31 that all the dead went to Sheol/Hades prior to Jesus’ ascension to heaven. Abraham and Lazarus were in the good part, and the rich man was in the bad part.
First, it’s important to recognize that the fact Enoch and Elijah did not die sets them apart from all other OT believers. They were taken alive to the third heaven. Since Sheol was the place for all the dead before Jesus’ ascension, that was not the place for Enoch and Elijah. They were not dead.
Second, S. W.’s question implies that no one could go to heaven before Jesus atoned for their sins. But this assumes that the atonement only went into effect when Jesus died on the cross. Romans 3:25 indicates that God “passed over the sins previously committed,” that is, sins committed prior to the cross. Old Testament believers were born again–even before Jesus’ substitutionary death and resurrection–because God could apply the blood of Christ to them pre-cross.
Third, we are not told in Scripture why OT believers went to Sheol instead of the third heaven when they died. If the blood of Christ made them all savable pre-cross, then it would seem there was no impediment to their going straight into the presence of the Lord upon death.
A hint may be found in Eph 4:8-9: “Therefore He says: ‘When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive, And gave gifts to men.’ (Now this, ‘He ascended’—what does it mean but that He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth?…).” Paul is alluding to Ps 68:18, or possibly summarizing all of Psalm 68. In that Psalm, the Messiah is the Victor who has saved sinful people. He goes to the lower parts of the earth (Sheol is in the center of the earth)i and takes those held captive there to the third heaven.
The Lord went to Sheol Himself when He died (“Today you will be with Me in Paradise.”) When He ascended forty days later, He took all the believers in Sheol to the third heaven with Him. The reason all the dead waited in Sheol was that Jesus, the Victor, wanted to lead them all into the presence of God.
If all the believing dead had gone directly to the third heaven, then there would have been no believers for Jesus to be with during those three days and no believers to take to the third heaven with Him when He ascended. But there was no deficiency in the OT believers that rendered them unqualified to go to the third heaven prior to Jesus’ death and resurrection. If that were the issue, then the moment He rose from the dead they all should have gone immediately into the presence of the Lord in the third heaven.
Here’s a different question: Were Enoch and Elijah lonely while in the third heaven? Enoch was there for thousands of years by himself before Elijah arrived. Then the two of them had to wait seven more centuries before other humans joined them.
I don’t think they could have been lonely in the presence of God and His angels. It would have been wonderful for them. Besides, time is experienced differently in God’s presence, with a thousand years being as a day (2 Pet 3:8).
I don’t know what they did. Of course, neither do I know what church-age believers are doing in heaven right now. Scripture doesn’t tell us. Of course, like us, they are awaiting the Rapture and the coming of the kingdom. They look forward to going to heaven, coming back to Earth for the Millennial kingdom, and then moving to the new Earth for the eternal kingdom.
Thanks for a great question, S. W.