I remember when I was young, I was taught that there was a place called “Abraham’s Bosom.” The way it was explained to me made perfect sense at the time. You go to heaven if you trust in Christ. You go to hell if you don’t. People go to heaven because Christ’s atonement on the cross paid for their sins. Without Christ, you are still held liable for your sin. Since God cannot be in the presence of sin (Hab. 1:13), those who are not covered by Christ’s death can’t be in the presence of God. Those who are covered can be in the presence of God.
So far so good?
But there is a problem: what about all God’s people who came before Christ’s death? What about Abraham, Moses, David, and Isaiah? According to the Christian “Abraham’s Bosom” theory, they were not yet covered by Christ’s blood. Conclusion: they, before Christ’s death, were not in the presence of God. They were somewhere else—some temporary abode—waiting for their sins to be covered by Christ’s death.
This abode was known as “Abraham’s Bosom.” Think “Protestant Purgatory” or something like that and you will be close. Abraham’s Bosom existed as a holding tank for God’s people until Christ’s death on the cross could cleanse them of their sins. Once the atonement was made (Christ’s death), Abraham’s Bosom was vacated and all its occupants were ushered into God’s presence in heaven.
The name “Abraham’s Bosom” came from the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16. “Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom, and the rich man also died and was buried” (Luke 16:22). Notice, this parable was given before Christ’s atonement. Therefore, people have said this must be the place, between heaven and hell, pre-Cross saints went.
Why Abraham’s Bosom is not separate from God’s presence
As nice and tidy as that might sound, it does not really work. There is no such place as Abraham’s Bosom that is separate from the presence of God.
First, the idea that God cannot be in the presence of sin is untenable.
The passage in Hab. 1:13 simply means that God is too pure to approve sin. It has nothing to do with sin or evil being in God’s presence. God can be in the presence of sinful beings. Here are some examples:
- After the fall, we find God walking in Eden with Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:8).
- Satan himself can be in God’s presence. In Job 1:6, we see Satan presenting himself before God (see also 1 Chron 18:18-21; Rev. 12:10).
- We see a council before God in heaven that includes deceiving spirits (1 Kings 22:19-23)
- Christians, who are still sinners (1 John 1:8), are the temple of the Holy Spirit. Obviously, the Holy Spirit must be able to be in the presence of sin.
- Christ, God incarnate, was in the presence of sin the whole time he walked the earth (John 1:14). He was even carried in the womb of a sinner!
Second, the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus does not teach that “Abraham’s Bosom” is a separate heaven.
In the parable, Christ is confronting the religious leaders’ bad theology. They were lovers of money (Luke 16:14). They believed that being rich and healthy was a sign that God was on your side. If you were poor and sick then God was not with you. In the parable, the rich man, whom all the Pharisees thought was the quintessential representative Jew with great rewards waiting for him in heaven, found himself in torment in Hell. The poor sick man, who was, in the mind of the Pharisees, the quintessential representative bad Jew, was ushered by the angels to Abraham’s “side” or “bosom.” The idea is not ontological (dealing with a physical place), but relational. To be at one’s side or bosom represented the closest place of fellowship one could have with another. The one who the Pharisees believed was not a good child of Abraham winds up at the closest place of fellowship with Abraham that there is—Abraham’s bosom.
Christ was being rhetorical. The rich man is unnamed and forgotten forever. Lazarus’ name means “God helps”. The rich man dies and is buried. The poor man dies and is carried by the angels. The rich man goes to hell, “far away” from Abraham (Luke 16:23). The poor man goes to Abraham’s side, in heaven.
This is not affirming some Second-Temple judaism belief in a third compartment of the afterlife. It is just idiomatic of talking about being in the good place, heaven.
Saints in the Old Testament did not need a special dispensation. God can be in the presence of sin. If he could not be in the presence of sin, we are in big trouble. Nevertheless, they were forgiven in anticipation of Christ’s atonement. When David, Abraham, Moses, and other Old Testament saints died, they immediately went into the presence of God on the bases of Christ’s shed blood, though yet future.
Paul speaks very clearly about the status of pre-cross saints:
“Being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; 25 whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; 26 for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (emphasis mine).