The exact date isn't important but at some point about 2000 years ago Christ died on a cross. Since that point Christians everywhere have put their faith in Him. He claimed to be the Way, the Truth and the Life and that nobody could get to the Father except through faith in Him (John 14:6).

That's great for everybody since then, but how were people saved before that? There are many more years of history before that date than after. Was there a different savior for them? Did they just believe in God but not in Jesus?

In very broad strokes, what does Christianity say on this matter (general doctrine) and more specifically, are there differing views on this held by major branches of Christianity? If so, what is a summary of the different doctrinal positions?

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    Note that in light of what we've learned about constructive and not constructive questions here on S.SE, I've updated this to be less of a "truth" question and more of an inquiring about Christian doctrine. I'd love to see some answers that reflect this and give good background on what any differing views are, who they are held by, and if/how the majority view has been shaped/changed/understood through time.
    – Caleb
    Commented Nov 19, 2012 at 14:54
  • 4
    My reason for posting a bounty on this still stands and I'm willing to cough up for an "acceptable" answer. Previous bounty notice: There are answers here that I happen to think are "right" doctrinally, but none that I feel I can accept because none of them deal with all the issues raised in my question. This question calls for something that gives an overview of possible positions and gives some broad strokes of who holds what positions both now and historically. Mechanics of how the major position(s) are said to work would also be nice, but not strictly required to answer the question.
    – Caleb
    Commented Apr 20, 2013 at 18:12
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    This question is way too broad. There is no "general doctrine" even about what salvation is. The question should at least be targeted to some branch of Christianity (Protestant, Roman Catholic, Orthodox).
    – guest37
    Commented Nov 18, 2017 at 6:11
  • 2
    @AlBrown If the @name exactly matches the way SE sites understand usernames (use the autocomplete) then they actually get a notification for them (as you will get for this). But yes, Meta Stack Exchange is a better place for these questions.
    – Caleb
    Commented Aug 7, 2021 at 21:03
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    @AlBrown Meta Stack Exchange already has a complete writeup on this, including the technicality of how to form proper @xxxxx to ensure the recipient will be notified in his/her inbox. Commented Aug 18, 2021 at 22:31

18 Answers 18


Before Christ, people were saved by believing in God's promise of the Messiah who was to come, as we are saved by believing in the Messiah who has come.

Hebrews 11:39-40 (ESV)

And all these [Old Testament saints], though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.

There is some speculation that because Jesus is the only way to the Father, OT saints were kept in a comfortable "holding place" (cf. Abraham's bosom in the parable of the rich man), and that when Jesus died he joined them and brought them with him to heaven

Eph. 4:7-10 (ESV)

But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it says, "When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men."

(In saying, "He ascended," what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)


The answer from aceinthehole is on the right track, but here is the key.

Hebrews 10:4 (NIV)

It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.

@Caleb, you are definitely onto something, because this verse clearly tells us that nobody in the old testament was actually saved through the law.

Hebrews 10:1 (NIV)

The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship.

Nobody can deny that the law given in the old testament is based off of something other then God's nature. The law was only a shadow of Christ Himself, in which, all of the fullness of God dwelled.

Hebrews 10:5-6 (NIV)

Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said:

“Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased.

Here's the key to God's Vindication

Romans 3:25-26 (NIV)

God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.

You see, the saints of the old testament were also saved through Faith in Christ and Love for God.

1 John 2:7

Dear friends, I am not writing you a new command but an old one, which you have had since the beginning. This old command is the message you have heard.

2 John 1:6

And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love.

The command to love was given to us from the old testament and is given to us again in the new testament. Remember Genesis, Hebrews, Romans and James where it talks about Abraham's great Faith in God? The law was not given to Abraham! Abraham was saved through Faith in God. And love for God, that Abraham would obey when he was commanded to sacrifice Isaac.

Abraham was saved through Faith and Love, just as we are today.


The New Testament frequently states that Jesus rose from the dead. This presumes that, yes, Jesus was fully dead at some point. Before Jesus, of course there wasn't a heaven, just a place of the dead referred to "Hades" or "hell" (as you acknowledge). As Jesus had died, he went there. Jesus preached the Gospel to the dead (1 Peter 4:6) and those that were saved rose and joined Jesus in heaven (Matthew 27:52).

Note that this is not necessarily the same as "hell" as we know it. The people here weren't damned. It was simply the place of the dead. "Abraham's Bosom", as it was called. It was distinctly a temporary place where the dead lay in waiting, and as such, is not eternal, as opposed to the eternal damnation of "hell" as we typically refer to today as Christians.

Here's a link that discusses this topic specifically with more references and depth: Catechism of the Catholic Church.


Since the fall of man, not that God revised and re-revised His plan of salvation over the ages for the fallen mankind. No. Salvation has always been the same—it is by God’s grace through faith which He planned right from the beginning to be achieved through the death of Christ. No one, either prior to the cross or since the cross, would ever be saved without that one pivotal event in the history of the world. Christ's death paid the penalty for past sins of Old Testament saints and future sins of New Testament saints.

The major difference is that before Christ’s earthly life, salvation was found in faith in the Lord. Adam and Eve, for example, had faith in God and fellowship with Him. Abraham trusted the Lord by faith. Genesis 15:6 tells us that Abraham believed God and that was enough for God to credit it to him for righteousness.

Hebrews 11 provides an entire chapter of people who followed the Lord by faith, not knowing the details of the Christ who would come.

The Old Testament sacrificial system did not take away sin, as Hebrews 10:1-10 clearly teaches. It did, however, point to the day when the Son of God would shed His blood for the sinful human race.

Hebrews 10:1(ESV)

For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near

Jesus was the fulfilment of the Old Testament sacrificial system, the one Savior who permanently restores relationship with God.

God's plan of salvation

God's requirement of what must be believed is based on the amount of revelation He has given mankind up to that time. Adam believed the promise God gave in Genesis 3:15 that the Seed of the woman would conquer Satan. Adam believed Him, and demonstrated it by the name he gave Eve Genesis 3:20 and the Lord indicated His acceptance immediately by covering them with coats of skin Genesis 3:21. At that point that is all Adam knew, but he believed it.

Abraham believed God according to the promises and new revelation God gave him in Genesis 12 and 15. Prior to Moses, no Scripture was written, but mankind was responsible for what God had revealed. Throughout the Old Testament, believers came to salvation because they believed that God would someday take care of their sin problem.

Late in His ministry, “Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life” (Matthew 16:21-22). At this Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. ‘Never, Lord!’ he said. ‘This shall never happen to you!’” Peter and the other disciples did not know the full truth, yet they were saved because they believed that God would take care of their sin problem. They didn't exactly know how He would accomplish that, any more than Adam, Abraham, Moses, or David knew how, but they believed God.

Today, we look back, believing that He has already taken care of our sins on the cross (John 3:16; Hebrews 9:28).

Prior to Jesus, salvation was based on faith in God and trust in His plan. Ultimately, it was still based on the death and resurrection of Christ, though God’s followers did not know exactly how that would look. Today, knowing that Jesus died for our sins, was buried, and rose the third day (1 Corinthians 15:3-4), the content of our faith is a bit more specific. However, faith is still the requirement for salvation, the object of our faith is still God, and the completer of our salvation is still Jesus.

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    This is an excellent entry delving into the truth of the matter (and a good match for the original version of the question), but it doesn't touch on the specifics of the question such as historical doctrines or different views held by different traditions (and thus not a great match for the current version).
    – Caleb
    Commented Apr 16, 2013 at 11:31

Here is a partial answer...

Matthew 27:52-53

52 and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; 53 and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many.

Here we have "saints" rising up, who had already died. Presumably these are righteous Jewish people, who believed in God, and also believed that he would provide salvation to them though they had not yet seen Jesus.

John 20:29

Then Jesus told him, "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."

Some have speculated that this refers to people who came before Jesus.

  • Most Christian traditions have much more to say about this than a speculation on one NT verse. What concept of a savior was there in the OT?
    – Caleb
    Commented Sep 2, 2011 at 20:26
  • Yes, certainly on more traditions, and and I don't know on the savior in the OT. Perhaps I should add a caveat "Partial Answer" ... Commented Sep 2, 2011 at 20:30
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    @Caleb: The concept of a Savior is deeply woven throughout the OT - the Jews called him "Messiah"; we now know him as Jesus. And Hebrews teaches us that faith in him who was to come is sufficient unto salvation. The work of the cross is not limited by our temporal experience.
    – user32
    Commented Feb 28, 2014 at 4:08

Jesus. The verses Romans 3:24,25 can give insight in this issue, there we read:

and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement,[a] through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—

In 33CE Genesis 3:15 fulfilled (Galatians. 3:13, 16). But from the moment that God uttered that prophecy the ransom price was as good as paid from his viewpoint, for nothing can prevent God from fulfilling what he purposes. With that basis God could forgive the sins of people befor Jesus' death.

  • This is the first response I see that answers the question "Who?". Jesus (is the only one who) saves people. He speaks in the present tense, "No man comes to the father except through me," (Jn 14:6) and applies it to all people (past, present, and future).
    – mojo
    Commented Dec 27, 2013 at 12:28


Being "saved" is a Christian concept related to the forgiveness of sins. Prior to Christ, Salvation was being saved from Earthly (temporal) grief. So, the question, from a pre-Christ perspective, is more appropriately worded as "Who forgave sins before ~33AD?"

Like today, sin was forgiven through sacrifice and repentance. The people were not made perfect, but they were forgiven of their sin.


For that, we look at Leviticus:

Leviticus 16:30 (NIV)
...because on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the LORD, you will be clean from all your sins.

Who forgave sins? God did, of course.

However, it was the sacrifices made by the priest and provided by the sinner(s) that allows for the forgiveness.

  • Leviticus 16 outlines the Day of Atonement that God created to allow for the sins of the nation of Israel to be forgiven
  • Leviticus 4 outlines the offerings that must be made for the atonement of an individual's sin.


Furthermore, without repentance, the sin was not forgiven:

1 Samuel 15:22
To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.


Isaih 1:13
Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations— I cannot bear your worthless assemblies.

If there was no repentance, then the offerings were in vain. If the person/people continued to sin and simply threw an offering at it, claiming it would be forgiven, the offering was considered detestable and not accepted.


God set forth a very clear plan and path to allow for the forgiveness of sins. These sins could be forgiven on a personal level or on a national level.

However, these offerings had to be made repeatedly. Jesus came and made a perfect sacrifice that allowed for us to become perfect in Him:

Hebrews 10:14 (NIV)
For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.


Who saved people before 33AD?

John 1:1-3

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

2 The same was in the beginning with God.

3 All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.


Colossians 1:13-17

13 Who has delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son:

14 In whom we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins:

15 Who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature:

16 For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him:

17 And he is before all things, and by him all things consist.

I believe Jesus Christ is the creator.

Genesis 18:2,3,23,33

2 And he lift up his eyes and looked, and lo, three men stood by him: and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself toward the ground.

3 And said, My Lord, if now I have found favour in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee from thy servant:

23 And Abraham drew near, and said, Wilt thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked?

33 And the Lord went his way, as soon as he had left communing with Abraham: and Abraham returned unto his place


Daniel 3:24-25

24 Then Nebuchadnezzar the king was astonished, and rose up in haste and spake and said unto his counsellors, Did not we cast three men bound into the midst of the fire? They answered and said unto the king, True O king. He answered and said, Lo I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they have no hurt; and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God.


1 Timothy 2:5

For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.

I believe that Jesus Christ ministered to people in the old testament. All the saints in Hebrews 11, except Enoch are dead and in their graves. Enoch was translated to heaven.

Hebrews 11:16

16 But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city.


Hebrews 12:22

But ye are come unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem and to an innumerable company of angels,


Revelation 21:2

And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.


Hebrews 11: 39-40

39 And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise:

40 God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect.


1 Thessalonians 4:15-17

15 For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep.

16 For the Lord himself shall decend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first:

17 Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.

I believe that all the saints that have died since time begin will be resurrected at the second coming of Jesus Christ. In Hebrews 11, verse 4, Abel begins the list of those who have died in Christ.

I would guess that ninety-nine per cent of all Christendom rejects this view. The truth of the bible is seldom embraced by the multitudes.


The only source of all mercy

There is no ounce of mercy that Christ has not purchased with his death on the cross. If this were not the case, then why did Christ have to die? This is an issue of God’s justice: if mercy is the suspension of justice, how can God give mercy and yet be just? The answer is that Christ justly purchased mercy on the cross. But if there is some mercy apart from Christ, then God’s justice is impugned (for giving unwarranted mercy) and Christ’s sacrifice is for nothing.

Everything is mercy

Mercy – mercy is the suspension of justice. This means that every moment we are not punished by God for sin is an instance of mercy, and made possible by mercy. In other words, we would not be able to walk around or take a breath on earth, if Christ had not purchased mercy. (Even common grace was purchased by Christ.) This obviously includes the Old Testament period: the mercy that was credited to Old Testaments was mercy purchased by Christ.

Why did Old Testament laws work?

Christ’s death was not effective because of the sacrificial system; the sacrificial system was effective because of Christ’s death. It was Christ’s death that made the first clothes a cover for sin; it was Christ’s death that made Able’s sacrifice acceptable. Christ’s death was not effective because of the Passover lamb; the Passover lamb was effective because of Christ’s sacrifice, etc. The Old Testament did not work forwards to the New Testament; Christ’s sacrifice worked backwards through the Old.

Was this faith in Christ?

You might think it is impossible to have faith in a Christ that had not arrived but this is not altogether clear... It may be that the Old Testaments saints had faith in Christ – perhaps in some indirect way. Abraham had faith in the promise and it was credited to him as righteousness. What promise? The promise that his children would be as numerous as the stars. This promise was fulfilled through Christ reconciling sinners to himself. Indirectly, Abraham had faith in Christ. Other examples might be mentioned, but you get the idea.

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    This is an okay answer, considering that the question is quite broad. Notice that it is from 2011 and actually should be closed by today's site standards (I actually submitted a close vote for it being too broad just now). I was following what you were saying until "Why did the OT laws work" section. Are you submitting that Christ's death worked retroactively? Do you think that is a general thing that majority Christian doctrine teaches? I think you need to back that up with some sources and scripture. I think the larger majority of Christians submit that God is simply merciful.
    – user3961
    Commented Jun 29, 2014 at 1:51

We often hear in Christian circles that “Christ had not died yet,” and therefore sins could not be remitted but a deeper study would reveal that Jesus’ death and resurrection can’t spiritually be confined to time and space being that he is God and all things are completed with him. It’s just a matter of the manifestation that we get to live out those things that has already been pre-ordained. He who has ears let him hear.

1 Peter: 1:19-20 But with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot: Who verily was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you.

Rev 13:8 “All who dwell on the earth will worship him, whose names have not been written in the Book of Life of the Lamb(Jesus) “SLAIN” from the foundation of the world.”

The above passages signify that before Abraham was, Jesus was “Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am.”(John 8:58). People tried to stone him for such a saying. Please don’t stone the messenger.

When we hear about Elijah being taken up without first dying or when we hear about those who died in the old testament but bought back to life, and even of all the animal sacrifices that could not actually take away sin but were acknowledged as though they did, this is all attributed to Jesus, our forerunner if they did, , now understand that they needed a forerunner to make such spiritual transitions possible. : Colossians 1:18 “And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence(surpassing all others). With Jesus as our forerunner, this made it possible for old and new testament faithful souls to share in the same common spiritual Rock-Christ.”

1Cor 10:1-3 Moreover, brethren, I would not that ye should be ignorant, how that all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea;2 And were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea;3 And did all eat the same spiritual meat; And did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ.

In telling Abraham that nations would be blessed through him was a form of “gospel” being delivered in the old testament. And on this basis alone, we must not dismiss or negate any portion of scripture but we must instead re-evaluate all scripture to fit the framework already pre-ordained in the old testament.

Gal 3:8-9 And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed. 9So then they which be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham.

Hebrew 6:19-20 That by two immutable things, in which it was impossible for God to lie, we might have a strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us Which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and stedfast, and which entereth into that within the veil; Whither the forerunner is for us entered-- Jesus,

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    Up-voted +1. The word nasah in Hebrew indicates an 'uplifting' of sins. And the word kaphar (kaph meaning hand) indicates the 'carrying of sins' or the keeping of sins 'in hand'. Containment is the concept. Thus sins are uplifted, and contained . . . . until they are laid upon the Sin-bearer, Jesus Christ Righteous. A good answer. Agreed. Redemption is only and solely through the one offering of Jesus Christ. It could not be otherwise for the blood of bulls and goats does not redeem, nor does the (supposed) law-keeping of men save them, either.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Mar 11, 2022 at 9:34

Before the Cross, people were saved by obeying the law. Salvation meant being protected. Paul said those who obeyed the law died, but he didn't say they went to damnation.

Gal 3:21 For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law. 22But the Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe.

23Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed. 24So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. 25Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law

1) Did Paul say that those who believed in God prior to Christ go to hell? No.

2) Was there life for those believers prior to Christ's arrival? No (vv. 21-22).

3) What was it like before "this faith came" (v.23)? They were prisoners.

4) Why did God do this? That the law might lead those loyal believers to Christ, and at that time they would receive the "promised" life. They would be a new creation; they would have LIFE.

Gal 3:14 He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith ---->we might receive the promise of the Spirit.

This is the view in Eastern Catholic denominations. It can be summarised by stating that God saves those who live righteous lives which is manifested in one way by proclaiming His role in making it possible to live that righteous life. God's salvation power is vested in the Church, through baptism of its members, admitted on agreement with God's laws.

The Roman Catholic denominations believe that God saves those who obey His righteous requirements through the administration of baptism. It is baptism that enables agreement with God's laws, since in man there is no evidence of any good.

The Arminian view in Western Evangelical denominations follow the Eastern church closely, except that it teaches that men are unable to obey God because of the effects of the Fall. God's grace touches all men, but men must chose to believe what God requires and that He will provide the grace to obey those requirements.

The Calvinist view in the Evangelical West differs in claiming that God's grace touches only some. Those chosen will be given grace to believe and so will be saved, since it is belief that saves. God completes what He starts, giving grace to do good works. Monergism, God enabling belief, with no contribution from man, is what separates the two major Evangelical denominations.


Who saved people before ~33AD?

Salvation is a function of faith.

Ephesians 2:8-9 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.

It is our new life in Christ which obliterates our sin.

Ephesians 2:5 Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;)

Colossians 2:13 And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses;

Those with faith in the Old Testament times did not receive the indwelling of the Holy Spirit;

Hebrews 11:39-40 And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise: God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect.

There did seem to be a way to accrue righteousness through faith.

Hebrews 11:33 Who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions,

James 2:23 And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God.

We know that some of those in Israel will receive eternal life.

Daniel 12:2 And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.

It may be that in contrast to us who have eternal life as the result of faith now, the Old Testament saints receive their eternal life at their resurrection.

John 5:24 Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life.

It may be that the reception of eternal life is the judicial act that blots out our sins. Christians receive it when they trust in Jesus and Old Testament saints receive it when they are resurrected. Either way it would still be Jesus.

There is a possibility regarding those who did not have the promises as Israel did. There is a general revelation of Jesus (the creator) in creation.

Romans 1:20 For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse:

The Bible says specifically that this revelation is sufficient to condemn those who reject it. However, we have no positive word if this revelation is sufficient to save any. It remains only a possibility.


How were people saved before Christ came?

After the Fall, God communicated to Adam and Eve promises of a deliverer, such as the promise of Genesis 3:15, "And I will put enmity between you [the serpent] and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel.". When they believed in this, they believed in the God who spoke it. They were "saved" because of their faith in the promise (believing in Him who spoke it), but still had to suffer the consequences of the Fall.

Later, still before the OT was written, God spoke to the people through prophets. Remember that there was no Hebrew race at the time, so this was not exclusively for Jews. He spoke through Enoch, the seventh from Adam (Jude 14-15) about the coming judgment. How many other people did God use to draw people to Himself? We don't know. We do know from examples throughout the OT and NT that God consistently used people to communicate His truths to men and women.

He communicated to Abram (Abraham), and Abraham believed God and God justified him by faith (Genesis 15:5-6), then he later ratified his faith by works of faith and obedience (James 2:21-24). Again, this was before there were Israelites. Curiously, what God said to him in Gen. 15, and what Abraham believed, was not a clear gospel story; God justified him for his trusting in God.

In addition, God sent an angel to a Roman citizen, Cornelius (Acts 10:1-7), telling him, "Your prayers and your alms have come up for a memorial before God." He drew him to someone who had the salvation message: the apostle Peter.

God warned King Abimelech in a dream about taking Sarah, Abram's wife. The king knew God's voice and responded appropriately (Genesis 20:1-11). There seemed to be a greater consciousness of God in those old days than we possess now in our secularized societies. I'm not saying that Abimelech was "saved," but he did believe God's words.

I've read a bulletin by missionaries who have heard of Muslims having a dream in which they see a man with wounds in his hands and feet telling them to go to the Christians and ask them about him. So God is still speaking to men today, using men and women to reach out to them.

So how were people saved before the OT was written? By God communicating Himself personally and people believing Him. When they believe His words, they are believing the one who spoke them, just like when Abraham believed God's promise.

However, theirs in pre-Christ times was not the salvation of the Christian faith, for they were not made children of God (unsure of this), nor did God dwell in them. Not until Jesus died on the cross and rose again could they receive the full salvation of their faith. Their sins were only covered, waiting for Christ to come. We get that doctrine from Romans 3:25-26, which tells us that God overlooked the sins of the past to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness by saving people through faith in Jesus. Many Christians believe that when Jesus died, He went into the region where the earlier believers were and communicated the gospel story to them to encourage them so they would have a fuller comprehension of the one they believed in. (This doctrine has its roots in Ephesians 4:9 and 1 Peter 3:19).

In addition, Romans 2:11-14 tells us that all of us have some form of the law in us so that we instinctively know when we are doing wrong against God, such as having a bad conscience, or making excuses for our bad behavior. All of this will be brought to light at the judgment, and none will be able to defend themselves. Romans 1:18-21 also tells us about God being manifested through His creation. Of course, this reasoning is hotly rejected in our secular society, but perfectly understood by religious societies, but not in exactly the same way.


This is not a complete answer, but one clear indication that salvation was an ancient concept, and that the ancient peoples of the Old Testament did not think of being saved only in a physical sense as some have suggested. They looked to God for mercy in judgement, for blessing in the afterlife and with an expectation of meeting God face to face, from early on:

Job states in Chapter 19:25-27

For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me!


According to traditional Catholic doctrine, no one. Righteous Old Testament people went to the Limbo of the Fathers. Then Jesus descended to that part of Hell, then he raised them from the dead, they were baptized, and then they went to Heaven.

1 Peter 3:18‐19‐ “Christ also died once for our sins… In which also coming he preached to those spirits that were in prison…”

Q: What is here meant by hell? A: Hell here means the Limbo of the holy Fathers, that is, the place where the souls of the just were detained, in expectation of redemption through Jesus Christ" Catechism of St. Pope Pius X, The Fifth Article of the Creed

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    Thanks for this answer. Can you expand on it with some sources. This could use some Biblical evidence for where they GET that belief and also somewhere in their official statements where it states this? (Mind you I'm not arguing I think your right that this is what Catholic doctrine teaches, but it could be a much more useful answer with some backing.)
    – Caleb
    Commented Sep 8, 2011 at 19:47
  • @iterationx "Limbo" is not the correct term here. "Abraham's bosom" would be more appropriate. Commented Oct 8, 2012 at 19:05
  • I'm not sure how to square the sentiment that "Then Jesus descended to that part of Hell and saved them" with the notion that they're in limbo and/or Abraham's bosom. Before I react further, are you referring to old Roman Catholic beliefs? Or are you referring to Traditionalist Catholics -- the folks who rejected Vatican-2 and subsequent encyclicals?
    – svidgen
    Commented Nov 20, 2012 at 23:34
  • @svidgen What do you think Christ descended into Hell for then - if not to release the spirits from prison. He did not release the Damned.
    – user
    Commented Nov 21, 2012 at 0:22
  • I'm not contesting, for the moment, the notion that Christ descended somewhere to raise the righteous. Your terms just aren't in agreement with each other. Was it hell or something else? Abraham's bosom, limbo, purgatory, etc.?
    – svidgen
    Commented Nov 21, 2012 at 1:08

In this time period the only concept of being saved is from physical harm, or slavery in the land of Egypt. During and after the time of sacrifices there was no issue with being forgiven by God.

The sacrifices themselves were done for unintentional sins, not all sins. Flour could be used as a substitute for the same effect. The sacrifices were not the only means of forgiveness, nor the most effective, and by itself did nothing. Intentional sin can only be atoned for through repentance, unaccompanied by a blood sacrifice- Psalms 32:5, 51:16-19. There's even a specific holiday God set up called Yom Kippur specifically for atonement (Lev. 23:26.)

A number of times it's mentioned that simply turning away from sins in itself brings forgiveness from god. (Jeremiah 36:3, Isaiah 55:7, Job 22:23-27.

Who was the Jewish savior? Jews were introduced to the God of Israel (The Father).

Who was Jesus to them? Judaism holds a very different view on Messiah then Christianity. In Christianity you accept the Messiah based on faith. In Judaism the Messiah would be accepted based on completion of all prophecies, and upholding the Torah without changing a single iota of gods word. Since in the Jews eyes this was not done, Jesus doesn't hold any significance to Jews.

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    Job stated, "I know that my Redeemer lives." (Job 19:25-27) He speaks of a resurrection. This completely refutes your idea that salvation was only from physical harm in the OT. He knew there would be a judgement (verse 29). He made sacrifices on his children's behalf in case of sin (Chapter 1). He looked to God to justify Him (23:10-12).
    – MutluAnne
    Commented Oct 25, 2017 at 0:02

How were people saved prior to 33 AD?\

The answer can be found thru Wisdom and by seeking Wisdom just like King Solomon prayed in Book of Wisdom chapter 9. How?

Thus were the paths of those on earth made straight,

and people learned what pleases you,

and were saved by Wisdom.

All people before Christ came and before Christ death were saved, as they seek the "Wisdom of God" and walk by it, like King Solomon did.

Those who trust in themselves are fools, but those who walk in wisdom are safe.-Proverbs28:26

Looking at the garden of Eden.

Satan greeted Eve, and deceived her, saying, you are the chosen Woman, to bear the "Wisdom of God", the Logos. And Eve had fallen to the trap, and Adam had fallen too. But God, promised the coming of the Wisdom of God, thru the incarnation of the Logos in Jesus Christ. And Jesus became the Wisdom of God.

The Message of the Cross 24but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength. 26Brothers, consider the time of your calling: Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were powerful; not many were of noble birth.…

Here we can see that St.Paul is pointing to Jesus as the "Wisdom of God". And continuing the passage will lead us to..

Wisdom from God

…29so that no one may boast in His presence. 30It is because of Him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God: our righteousness, holiness, and redemption.

But, Jesus became the "Wisdom of God" after He received the "Spirit of Wisdom"(Proverbs8:22) at Baptism, the anointing of the Holy Spirit.

All the Apostles and disciples in the Upper Room also received the "Wisdom of God", but only one among them, became the "Seat of Wisdom", as the Holy Spirit, perfectly and mystically dwells and rested in the tabernacle of God, the Immaculate Heart of Mary that was hewn by the Seven Sorrows or the Seven Pillars that became the house of the Holy Spirit.

Mary became the "Seat of Wisdom" in the Upper Room, because finally, the Holy Spirit can now rest in Her prepared or hewn immaculate heart.

The Way of Wisdom 1Wisdom has built her house; she has carved out her seven pillars.(Proverbs9:1)

And we can see this also, in Sirach24:12. The Holy Spirit cannot find a perfect dwelling place, where She can rest, among the Apostles and Disciples present in the Upper Room, as She search for a worthy creature, but then ,we knew, that the Holy Spirit already "overshadowed" the chosen Woman, and Her immaculate heart, was hewn by the seven sorrows or seven pillars, creating a perfect dwelling place for Her, to finally rest.

Sirach 24 …11And by my power I have trodden under my feet the hearts of all the high and low: and in all these I sought rest, and I shall abide in the inheritance of the Lord. 12Then the creator of all things commanded, and said to me: and he that made me, rested in my tabernacle, 13And he said to me: Let thy dwelling be in Jacob, and thy inheritance in Israel, and take root in my elect..-Sirach24:12

Mary's Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart is the Tabernacle of God, the Seat of Wisdom.

"Sweet Heart of Mary be my salvation."


Who saved people before ~33AD? In most cases people were required to save themselves by applying the law. For example if someone was ignorant to you and poked out your eye, you where to reply with the same reaction, therefore saving you from future confrontation.

Still though even in those days God decided to come down and save the people. With Moses for example, the 10 plagues, splitting the water, the manna in the dessert, etc. And many man other times and places, God finds his glory in coming down and knocking people straight. One instance that I thought was really cool, is as follows:

2 Chronicles 14:2 - 16:12

The exact date isn't important but at some point about 2000 years ago Christ died on a cross. Since that point Christians everywhere have put their faith in Him. I feel that many have put the wrong kind of faith in him, and/or expressed it poorly, including myself.

He claimed to be the Way, the Truth and the Life and that nobody could get to the Father except through faith in Him (John 14:6). Yes, Yes he did.

That's great for everybody since then, but how were people saved before that? To points out how few will be really saved read (1 Peter 3:18-20). Also again Jesus himself states how few (Luke 13:23-24). Yet still, depending if this message is to those that have already died, or those that are spiritually dead I do not know but it is written:

For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to human standards in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit. (1 Peter 4:6)

So either the spirit of corpses can return to happiness, or the spirit of depressed one (which I favor) will return to happiness. For it is also said:

He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You are badly mistaken!" (Mark 12:27)

There are many more years of history before that date than after. Was there a different savior for them? No the Same God has been here to save us.

Did they just believe in God but not in Jesus? This is that same thing. So no.

In very broad strokes, what does Christianity say on this matter (general doctrine) and more specifically, are there differing views on this held by major branches of Christianity? If so, what is a summary of the different doctrinal positions? Catholics put their faith in the Eucharist and the prayers of Mary, baptists put their faith that Jesus died for them regardless of repentance, Some put their faith on both, Mormons put their faith in what they do, and Jehovah Witnesses put their faith in saying a name. These are all avenues of faith, and it is not a point of right or wrong or which faith is correct. It is that faith must grow to produce the fruits.

But who humbly accepts the truth, and does not reject the spirit?

“You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! (Acts 7:51)

Who knows how fearful the truth is to rest on you! Who gets severely angry when they learn the offensive truths! Why do they get angry? Because pride is in their heart, and they separate themselves from Love, and they can't believe what has happened, so they call for death. In the ignorance, they call themselves to the grave. Humility however, it has been said:

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)

Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did. (1 John 2:6)

Otherwise we trip on the stone of truth and fall into depression and anger, then after tear apart what God has put together.

Clearly I say to you that the Kingdom of Heaven stares you in the face! And hard it is to enter without humility and faith that you are forgiven, and also faith that God will fight for you against the lie.

For in days of old Mom and Dad argued, and the children cried out for it to end. And the only thing that can save us, is the Jesus, his teachings, his way, and our change within.

For if you gain no understanding of the spirit while you are alive, how will you be able to use the spirit to reconstitute your body?

For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. (Matthew 23:12)


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    Paul stated that no one could be justified by the law (Galatians 2:16), for the law was impossible to keep (Romans 3:9-20). God is the same yesterday, today and forever, and God incarnate was the only One who could fulfill His law. Saints of old had to have faith for salvation (Hebrews 11). God didn't want their sacrifices as much as He wanted them to honor him in their heart. (Malachi --especially 2:1-5). At all times, man is saved by grace through faith in God our Savior, who is fully revealed by Jesus, the full embodiment and image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:19,15).
    – MutluAnne
    Commented Oct 26, 2017 at 0:14

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