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Abraham's Bosom, Saints under the Altar, Resurrection

My husband handed me a question last week that someone had given to him.  He was hoping I could answer it for him.  I've spent two or three hours working on the answer, so I decided I'd share my response here as well.

Q: If the dead who died and believed in God (Old Testament) which the Bible refers to as Abraham’s bosom, are they the saints under the altar that Revelation talks about?  If so, did Christ bring them to heaven after his resurrection or while he was in the pit?

Abraham’s bosom = Heaven / Paradise

There is only one passage that talks about “Abraham’s bosom,” and that is in Jesus’ parable in Luke 16 and not in all translations.  In the New International Version, Luke 16:23 says that Lazarus (a man in a parable, not the brother of Mary and Martha) was “by his side,” meaning beside Abraham’s side. 

To see how all the different translations word this, go to:

The idea of a dead person being “in Abraham’s bosom,” or “by his side,” is simply another way of saying “in heaven.”  In this parable, the beggar had made it to heaven but the rich man who had refused to help the beggar when they were both living was in hell.

In the Old Testament, the concept of going to heaven or hell when one dies was commonly believed.  This is why Jesus was able to say:  “I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven,” (Matthew 8:11) and his listeners understood what he was talking about.

Saints Under the Altar = Martyrs

Revelation 6:9-11 NIV
“When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, "How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?" Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed.”

Those under the altar didn’t die from natural causes or disease.  Neither did they die as the result of accidents.  These people were dead because of God’s Word and because they had maintained their testimony.  In other words, those under the altar are a select group of people—those who have been martyred for their faith. 

Based on Hebrews 11, we know there were many martyrs in the Old Testament times.  From history we know there were many martyrs during the ages from the time of Jesus until now.  These are those whose souls are under the altar.  If the pastor died in a car crash tomorrow, he would go to heaven, but he wouldn’t be under the altar.

Christ in the Pit = He Preached

There is very little said in the Bible of what Jesus did during the three days of death. 

1 Peter 3:18-20 is the only place that talks about it:
“He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.” (NIV)

This passage says nothing about Jesus bringing anyone to heaven.  He just went to preach.  We’re not told what the results were. 

Bring them to Heaven after his Resurrection?
There is Ephesians 4:8-10 that could be interpreted to suggest Jesus took people to heaven with him after his resurrection, but there is nothing else in the New Testament to corroborate that view:

“This is why it says: "When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men." (What does "he ascended" mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions ? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.)” (NIV)

Notice that those he led when he ascended on high were captives.  That means they weren’t willing participants.  That doesn’t speak to me of righteous people going to heaven with Jesus.

Furthermore, when Luke describes Jesus going up to heaven in Acts 1, there is no mention of anyone going with him.

When Jesus died, tombs were opened and many who were dead were raised again to life but there is no mention of them going to heaven ahead of anyone else.  Matthew 27:51-53 NIV:

“At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split. The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus' resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people.”

Christ Brings them to Heaven
The common Christian belief about what happens when a person dies is that the bodies stay in the ground and the souls/spirits go to Heaven or to Hell (or Purgatory according to Roman Catholics).  It is not until Jesus’ Second Coming that the bodies of those who died will be raised.  Here are some verses to look at:

Of course we know that Jesus said to the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” Luke 23:43 NIV 

1 Corinthians 15:20-24 NIV
“But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power.

In other words, Christ was the first to experience resurrection, so when he comes again (see the promise in Acts 1), those who belong to him will also be raised from the dead.

2 Timothy 2:11, 12 promises:

“If we died with him [Jesus], we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him.”

1 Thessalonians 4:14-17
“We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord's own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.”

This puts the time of the resurrection at the time of Jesus returning to earth as described in Acts 1. 

From what I know of the Bible (and I’ve read it through many times) and specifically from the verses above, I would say that the souls of the righteous go to heaven at the time of death, regardless of whether they died before Jesus or after Jesus.  Otherwise, why would “Abraham’s bosom” be used to describe the place of paradise? 

And if Abraham was there before Jesus died (see the first verse above), then why not the others who were righteous before Jesus died?  And if the thief on the cross was going to be in Paradise the same day as Jesus, it stands to reason that so will all others who have been made righteous by Jesus’ blood—whether they are martyrs or not.  Our bodies will follow later, according to the verses quoted above.

If you have more questions, please feel free to ask.


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