Heaven in the Old Testament

Here’s a recent question I received:

Hi Craig,

The other day, a Jewish friend and I were speaking on the subject of Heaven.  Using only the Old Testament, since my friend is Jewish, where did the Jews go after they died?  I’ve spent some time looking myself, and so far can only find where Abraham and Isaac were “gathered to their people”.  Where would that be?  Looking at when people first died in Genesis, it just says they died.  And when I looked up Heaven, it just talks about “the heavens” in the Old Testament.

Also, I know it speaks of Abraham’s faith being credited as righteousness and other OT people too.  But what was needed in the OT to go to Heaven(or Abraham’s bosom as I understand it, but can’t find verification in the OT), or to enter into the presence of God, if they did that?

Lots more thoughts and conversations go through my head, but I am trying to keep it brief.

Thanks and I appreciate your time and expertise on this subject!

Oh, big question. The OT really doesn’t have all that much to say about heaven because it doesn’t exist yet, at least not the way Christians mean when they say we will “die and go to heaven.” That’s really not accurate. Christians often use the word heaven for two very different things. First, there’s the place we go when we die now. Second is the place where we will spend eternity. But they’re not the same at all. When we die now, we go to be with God as spirits, but after Jesus returns, we are given resurrected bodies and live for eternity in a “new heaven and new earth” i.e. a new physical creation as described in Rev. 21. This is the real “heaven” that most Christians are thinking of, but it isn’t inaugurated until after the second coming and 1000 year reign of Christ on earth. That’s what I mean when I say “heaven” doesn’t really exist yet.

However, the question about where God’s people go when we die now is still important, and your observation that the OT only speaks of “the heavens” is an important one. In the Bible, the term “heaven” always occurs in the plural and has three basic meanings, revealed by context:

1. The literal sky/space

2. The realm where spirits reside (both good and bad…Satan and demons operate “in the heavens” which is why Paul speaks of “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” in Eph. The term “heavenly realms” is actually, literally “the heavens”. English translations often fiddle with the language a bit to avoid confusion, but the term in the original language is the same as you find in Mat. 6:9 – “…our Father who is in heaven…”)

3. The particular part of the spiritual realm associated with God

When God’s people die now, they go to be in the presence of God and are conscious of this.  Obviously, this  great place, but as disembodied spirits, this isn’t entirely satisfying for us, which is why Paul speaks of it as being “unclothed” (2Co. 5:4). We are happy, but awaiting Christ’s return to earth and our resurrection at that time. In technical terms, theologians call this the “intermediate state”. That it is pleasant is suggested by Christ’s use of the term “paradise” to describe it to the thief on the cross (Luke 23:43…also by Paul in 2Co. 12:4). In the OT period, the same held true. God’s faithful were brought into his presence.

The OT typically describes the intermediate state with the term “rest” (or “slept” in some translations) as in “David rested with his fathers” (1Ki. 2:10). Two things to note. First, the Hebrew term “rested” (shakab) implies a period of inactivity that will come to an end, so we’re not talking about humans ceasing to exist). Second, the preposition “with” implies a conscious community experience with other humans. David further suggests this in 2Sa. 12:23 – …but now he has died; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me.” Note that he expected to go and be in relationship with his son who had just died.

OK…so in the OT, Jews were saved by faith. That is, they trusted that God would atone for their sin and forgive it. They means by which they expressed this faith was the sacrificial system whereas since Jesus the means by which we express this faith is trusting in Jesus as Lord and savior, but faith is the common element in both cases, which is why Heb. 10:4 specifically indicates that the sacrifices themselves did not atone for sin. It was faith in God’s provision which allowed the OT people to take advantage of God’s forgiveness.

That’s a lot to chew on, so I’ll stop here. Please don’t hesitate to ask follow-ups. I’m always happy to offer whatever insight I might have, but I don’t want to give you more than you’re really wanting!