As a kid, this was one of the unanswered questions that pestered me whenever I watched Bible movies around Christmas and Easter time. In the New Testament, we’re told that Jesus is the only way to Heaven (John 14:6, Acts 4:12). But Jesus didn’t come until the first century A.D. Doesn’t that mean that for thousands of years, people didn’t have any way for atonement?
Actually, in the Old Testament, there was an atonement system set up. In the years before Christ, if you wanted to atone for your sins, you would bring an animal and sacrifice it on the alter. Lamb sacrifice. Although for those who couldn’t afford to purchase lambs for sacrifice, doves were acceptable. You couldn’t just sacrifice any old lamb either. The lamb had to be completely without blemish, no physical defects whatsoever. A “spotless” lamb. Now, does this mean that the animal sacrifices took away the sins of the one sacrificing the animal? If so, why did Jesus have to die? Couldn’t we have just continued to offer sacrifices forever? No. In fact, The New Testament tells us that sacrificing animals did not take away the sins of anyone (Hebrews 10:4-11). But you might be wondering, “in that case, why did God tell them to do it?”
I have understood it this way. The lambs were meant to pay the price for sin before Jesus came in a way that’s similar to how credit cards are used before you have the actual money to pay for something. Now, Paul makes it clear in the New Testament that the blood of animals can never take away someone’s sin. That’s true. It’s also true that credit cards cannot actually pay for anything you purchase. Credit cards are pretty much IOUs. They’re used to get what you want to purchase until you actually have the money to pay for whatever it is that you’re buying. MONEY pays for things. Credit Cards don’t. But the credit cards are used until you have the money to pay for the item. In same way, even though animal sacrifices didn’t take away the sins of anyone, they were a sign to God that they were trusting in Him to take away their sins. So that those who offered sacrifices to God (with a repentant heart, of course) were submitting themselves to God and trusting that He would deal with the absolution of their sins. Jesus’ death on the cross is what the paid the price for everyone’s sins even in the Old Testament times. It’s just that, unlike people after His death, Jesus’ death had a retroactive effect on the people who were born before He was. The Old Testament saints looked forward to the cross, whereas we look back.
So, just as credit cards are acceptable to obtain the items you purchased until you have the actual physical money to pay for it, so sacrificial lambs were acceptable until the REAL sacrifice (The Lamb Of God) came along. This is how it was possible for people get saved before Jesus came along.
You have to remember that the Mosaic Law, which was impossible for sinful humans to fulfill, was a precursor of things to come, namely, Jesus Christ. When you sinned, you had to offer blood to atone for your sin. But the next day, you would sin again, and the process had to be done again. Jesus’ blood that he shed, atoned for all sin, yesterday, today and tomorrow. He was perfect, and so was his blood, and now we don’t need to make sacrificial offerings; like he said on the Cross, “It is finished”.
In the book of Hebrews, we’re told of the many patriarchs of the Old Testament, and how they were saved because of the faith that they had placed in The Lord. Christ’s atoning death was applied to them because of that.