Christianity claims there is only one path to God, and Christians believe this path is Jesus Himself. Is it a contradiction to say that Jesus is the only way to God, and also say that Abraham, Moses and David were saved before Jesus even came? Recently I received an email that framed the question this way:
What happened to all of the believers in our GOD before Jesus? What religion were
they? Did they go to Heaven, Hell?
This is a very good question.
Why do people need to be saved?
Ever since Adam and Eve disobeyed God by eating the fruit that was forbidden in the Garden of Eden, mankind has been in need of a Savior. From the start, God promised Adam and Eve (in Genesis 3:15) that a Savior would be born from Eve’s “seed.” This was the first glimpse of salvation God gave man after sin entered the world.
How are people saved now?
The Bible teaches that because of Adam and Eve’s sin, all humans are sinful, Jesus became God in flesh, lived a sinless life, was crucified, buried and resurrected on the third day to pay for our sins. If we, by God’s grace, put our faith in Jesus alone, we will be saved.
In other words, we are saved by grace, through faith in our Savior, Jesus.
How were Old Testament believers saved?
Before God changed his name to Abraham, Abram lived in a place called Ur of the Chaldees, which was located where Iraq is now. The Chaldeans worshiped many gods, especially the moon god. (1) Although we don’t know for sure what Abram’s religion was before he met God, we know from Joshua 24:2 that his father, and probably Abram himself practiced polytheism, worshiping many false gods. When God first spoke to Abram, he obeyed, and by faith left his home and called on God’s name, Yahweh. (2)
When God made a promise to Abram in Genesis 15, it says in verse 6 that “Abram believed the Lord, and He credited it to him as righteousness.” So it was his faith alone that caused him to be righteous before God.
Later in history, God gave Moses the law, which instituted a system of animal sacrifice. We know from Hebrews 10: 8-10 that these sacrifices weren’t what actually took the people’s sins away, but they pointed to the Savior who eventually would.
In the New Testament, the writer of Hebrews 11 articulates this in greater detail. He mentions Old Testament characters like Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, and Sarah, and says in verse 13:
These all died in faith without having received the promises,
but they saw them from a distance, greeted them, and
confessed that they were foreigners and temporary
residents on the earth.
He goes on to say that because of their faith, God was not ashamed to be called their God, and that they were approved through their faith.
Even Adam believed by faith in God’s promise to bring a Savior into the world. It was through his wife’s “seed” that this Savior, the Messiah would come, and Adam demonstrated his faith by naming her “Eve,” which means “mother of all living.” (3)
Old Testament believers were expecting the Messiah, and put their faith in His future salvation. The Bible tells us that they knew this Messiah would be born, be betrayed, die and be resurrected. (4) Salvation is based on the death of Jesus. The faith of Old Testament believers looked forward to it, and our faith looks back on it.
Put simply, Old Testament believers were saved in the same way we are—by grace, through faith in our Savior.
(1) Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, p. 1080-81
(2) Genesis 12
(3) Genesis 3:14-20
(4) Micah 5:2; Zechariah 11:12; Isaiah 53:5; Isaiah 26:19; Psalm 16:10
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