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Were people saved before Christ?

Today’s Question: So what happens to the people that are not Christians—I mean the people before Jesus? Did they go to hell?

Melinda Fletcher

Bible Answer: This question has bothered many compassionate Christians through the centuries. They rightly do not want to believe that God would cast everyone that was born before Christ into hell. That doesn’t seem fair!

            They are right! Gen 18:25 says, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” God never judges righteous people in the same way that He judges the wicked. It is clear throughout the ages, that many people, prior to Christ birth, lived good lives. The question is: How did they live such good lives without Christ saving them? The answer: they could not without salvation. So how could Christ save people before His coming to die on the Cross?

            Here is the answer: First of all, Christ birth was not the time that Christ existed. He has always existed, because He is God the Son; He just did not have a flesh and blood body prior to His birth. However, He is the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world (Rev 13:8). So before His birth, God credited Christ death as an “I owe you.” Just like you write down I owe you to someone, you promise that one day you will pay it. The same is true of God. Before Christ came to the earth, God promised all people that one day He will pay for their debt, and so he counted their debts paid even before Christ died.

            So how did He save them without the Holy Spirit regenerating them? Remember, Christ is the wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:24), and His wisdom has been available from the beginning of creation. By wisdom the LORD laid the earth's foundations (Prov 3:19). Jesus is the one who laid the earth’s foundations. Through him all things were made (John 1:3). Jesus, prior to His birth, existed in the form of the wisdom of God. When someone “found Jesus” they found “wisdom.” This wisdom enabled people to live righteous lives, just as the Holy Spirit gives us this ability. People’s noble lives proved that they had touched Christ in some way, or should I say, Christ touched them in some way.

            The book of Proverbs is the book of Wisdom. I want you to notice that Solomon wrote nearly all the Proverbs, however, the last two chapters were written by two other men: Agur and King Lemuel. Search Israel’s biblical genealogy and you will notice that these two men are not mentioned in the Bible. A closer look at their names reveals that they were Gentiles and not Jews. How did Gentiles have a part in writing the Old Testament? Simple: wisdom is all inclusive. It belongs to all people who desire it.

            Agur wrote: “I have not learned wisdom, nor have I knowledge of the Holy One.” (Prov 30:3) This was his humble way of saying that he did not know God in the same way as the Jews. Then he adds: “Who has established all the ends of the earth? What is his name, and the name of his son?” (Prov 30:4)

            He did not know the name of God’s son, yet he had wisdom—enough that God would place his words in the Word of God. This shows you that non-Jews were saved outside of the Jewish system of sacrifices.

            When I look in the past before Christ was born, I discover many religious leaders and philosophers that had the wisdom of God, and so I conclude that they were saved by Christ.

            Consider Buddha: he lived 500 hundred years before Christ, yet he was enlightened by wisdom. Look at his eight-fold path and you will recognize much of the Sermon on the Mount. How did he get such truth before Christ was born? He received this truth simply because Christ came to him in the form of wisdom. Don’t misunderstand me: Buddha cannot save; only Christ can. I do not believe today's Buddhists are saved; only that if Buddha were alive today, he would be a Christian. The point is that I believe Christ saved Buddha and the evidence of his salvation was his wisdom. (Of course, only the Lord knows each heart, and He is the final Judge.)

            We could say this about some philosophers like Aristotle and Plato. They often showed the spark of wisdom that could only come from Christ. In fact the early church fathers used their writings to confirm the truth of the gospel, and that was one way the western world accepted the gospel.

            For those who want a clearer scripture to prove that non Jews were saved prior to Christ, then consider the words of our Lord: "The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon's wisdom, and now one greater than Solomon is here." (Matt 12:42) Jesus plainly considered the Queen of Sheba to be saved, or else how could she judge the generation of Christ? What was the evidence that she was saved? She came to hear the wisdom of God spoken through Solomon. There is no evidence in Scripture or in history to suggest that the queen ever became a Jew. Her hunger for wisdom confirmed her acceptance of Christ.

            In conclusion, people prior to the birth of Christ were saved through Him by His wisdom. They were not saved in the sense of being born again and filled with the Spirit, but they were saved with the meaning of being forgiven by God. They did not enter heaven upon their death, because the way for heaven was not made available until Christ ascension, however they were in paradise (see Luke 16:19-31). During Christ ascension they were then carried into heaven with Him.  That is where they are today—in heaven with Christ.

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