A popular idea among many Christians today is that saints who died in the Old Testament era did not immediately go to heaven, but were placed in some intermediate abode until the time of the resurrection. This idea has been adopted even by some who believe the doctrines of grace.
Advocates of this theory typically claim that individuals in Old Testament times could not have been carried into heaven because redemptive blood had not yet been shed for them. Of course those teaching a conditional salvation generally have a motive in adopting this theory because their proposed conditions of salvation oftentimes were not met, and perhaps could not have been met, by saints in the Old Testament era. The intermediate state therefore serves as a patch over an otherwise glaring hole in their doctrine. Since the doctrines of grace have no such deficiency, it is a bit surprising to find its advocates also adopting the idea of intermediate states. In what follows, I am primarily addressing those who are, or claim to be, believers in grace, yet adhere to this idea. I believe these are inconsistent positions.
Advocates of this theory commonly claim that paradise in the scriptures refers to the intermediate state of the righteous, and that it was part of the Old Testament Sheol. It is further claimed that Sheol had two compartments separated by an intraversable gulf; one compartment for the righteous and the other for the wicked, and that these two compartments can be seen in the account of the rich man and Lazarus in Lu 16, where it is claimed that Abraham's bosom was paradise, or the intermediate abode of the righteous.
To all of this I object on the basis of:
1) There are certain things the Lord has chosen to clearly reveal in the scriptures and other things He has chosen to leave as mystery. Regarding the state of man after death, we should expect this to be placed in the former category. Otherwise, our ultimate personal interest in matters of religion would be left in a state of conjecture. Yet I do not know of a single scripture expressly declaring the existence, in past or present, of an intermediate state. Theories asserting such are, at best, based on interpolation, yet we should expect explicit revelation on matters such as this.
2) The New Testament term paradise must refer to nothing other than heaven, as can be seen from:
a) Paradise is equivalent to the third heaven or the place where God dwells (2Co 12:1-4).
b) One must be caught up to Paradise (2Co 12:4), whereas one typically descends into Sheol (De 32:22; Pr 15:24; Isa 14:9; Eze 31:16).
c) Paradise is the location of the tree of life (Re 2:7).
d) Paradise is the place where Christ and the thief went after their crucifixions (Lu 23:43), yet the scriptures elsewhere make it plain that Christ ascended unto the Father at such time (Joh 13:1; 14:1-4).
3) The account of the rich man and Lazarus (Lu 16:19-31) has one man in heaven and the other man in hell immediately after their deaths. The idea that Abraham's bosom was ever used by the Jews in reference to an intermediate state has no support to my knowledge, and it is highly unlikely they would use such a blessed description of Sheol given the way the latter is described in the Old Testament. On the other hand, there is ample evidence that the Jews did in fact use this term in reference to heaven (see Gill's comments). Besides, it is very plain that the rich man did not go to an intermediate abode, but went directly to hell, and as the case of Lazarus was diametrical to this, the reasonable inference is that neither was he placed in an intermediate abode.
4) Wherever the deceased went prior to the crucifixion, it is evident they did not all go to the same place. Lazarus went to a place of comfort whereas the rich man went to a place of torment. Further, these two places were separated by a gulf that no man could cross. Even the advocates of intermediate states commonly acknowledge this, saying these two men were placed in separate compartments of the intermediate state. But this observation provokes the following question: Upon what legal basis was Lazarus distinguished from the rich man? and upon what legal basis was any sin-cursed man of the Old Testament era put in the place of comfort instead of the place of torment? It cannot be consistently claimed that the basis was the prospect of redemptive blood, for then the advocates of intermediate states would be endorsing the very principle they purport to oppose. If one could not be delivered from hell to Heaven on the basis of prospective blood, but had to be retained in an intermediate state until such blood was shed, then it stands to reason that this intermediate state could not have made any distinction between the wicked and righteous, because the basis for such distinction had not yet been validated. Yet it is clear from the rich man and Lazarus that a distinction was indeed made.
Another perplexing question is that if the promise of redemptive blood was sufficient to deliver one from the tormenting intermediate state to the comforting one, then why was it insufficient to deliver one from the torments of hell to the bliss of Heaven? and where is the scripture stating that it would be suitable for the former purpose but not for the latter?
On the other hand, if it be claimed that the deceased were divided between the intermediate states on the basis of their own merit, then matters only become worse, because then it could not be the case that Jesus truly delivered any Old Testament saint from hell. He merely delivered them from one place of comfort to a better place of comfort. This is absurd.
5) Col 3:20 asserts that Christ by the blood of His cross reconciled all things unto Himself, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven, but what would there have been to reconcile in Heaven if saints were prohibited from going there prior to the shedding of Christ's blood? I believe the meaning of this scripture is that Christ reconciled those who had formerly died and gone to heaven on the promise of redemption, and that He further reconciled those who were yet alive and would yet live on the earth.
I believe these objections are sufficient to show that intermediate states have no real support in the scriptures. Whether it be the Old Testament era or the New, the departed souls of men were immediately transported to their final destinies.