What Would a Person Have to Do to Inherit the Kingdom of Heaven Before Jesus Came?
Here is how I believe this happened, based on Scripture. All quotations are from the Contemporary English Version of the Bible.
We know that a person can only receive salvation by Jesus Christ, not by any denomination, or by their works. “‘I am the way, the truth, and the life!’ Jesus answered. ‘Without me, no one can go to the Father.'” (John 14:6), and “Only Jesus has the power to save! His name is the only one in all the world that can save anyone” (Acts 4:12) But how do we apply this to those who lived hundreds or thousands of years before Jesus’ incarnation? Are they in hell, or did God’s grace save those who responded to Him in faith?
People have had knowledge of God since creation. However, even though the existence of God was made obvious in His creation, human sinfulness became a problem, and people started practicing idolatry and immoral acts as a result of their rebellion. (see Romans 1:18-32) A person who has clear knowledge of God, but willingly turns against Him will not be saved. This was true then, and is true now.
However, many people prior to the beginning of the Church, such as Noah, Abraham, Moses, Rahab, and King David believed and were rewarded for their faith. I recommend reading all of Hebrews 11 for a better understanding of this. Another example is the thief crucified alongside Jesus who repented (Luke 23:39-43) What happened when a righteous person living prior to Jesus’ sacrifice died? I know that some who are reading this may accept the doctrine of “soul sleep” and disagree with the following interpretation. However, I feel the following verses explain the state of the dead in Old Testament times, and whether this was changed by Jesus’ sacrifice at Calvary.
Under the Old Covenant, the dead were believed to go to a place called sheol or hades to await the final judgment. However, Jesus’ death on the cross opened heaven to all who believe in Him. Please consider the following: Many were raised when Jesus died on the cross, and ascended into heaven (the holy city) at His resurrection. “Graves opened, and many of God’s people were raised to life. They left their graves, and after Jesus had risen to life, they went into the holy city, where they were seen by many people.” (Matthew 27:52-53)
The following verse is used to justify the belief that Jesus raised the righteous that were in sheol. “As the Scriptures say, ‘When he went up to the highest place, he lead away many prisoners and gave gifts to the people.” (Ephesians 4:8) The people of faith mentioned in Hebrews 1 are called a cloud of witnesses. “Such a large crowd of witnesses is all around us! So we must get rid of anything that slows us down, especially the sin that just won’t let us go. And we must be determined to run the race that is ahead of us.” (Hebrews 12:1-2)
In light of this, I believe that the righteous before the time of Christ were saved the way that we are now-by faith. They did not have the Gospel message as we know it, but they responded by faith to what had been revealed to them. If you haven’t received Christ, or have fallen away from Him, I invite you to answer the Savior’s Call found at this link: http://www.answers2prayer.org/saviours_call.html