The phrase "Bosom of Abraham" refers to the place of comfort in sheol (Greek: hades) where the Jews said the righteous dead awaited Judgment Day. The phrase "Bosom of Abraham" is found in in Jesus' parable of the Lazarus and the Rich Man.
The afterlife as portrayed in the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus fits this concept of the Bosom of Abraham.
In the 3rd century, Hippolytus of Rome referred to Abraham's bosom as the place in hades where the righteous await judgment day in delight.
Augustine of Hippo likewise referred to the righteous dead as disembodied spirits blissfully awaiting Judgment Day in secret receptacles.
Since the righteous dead are rewarded in the bosom of Abraham before Judgment Day, this belief represents a form of particular judgment.
While commentators generally agree upon the meaning of the "Bosom of Abraham", they disagree about its origins. Up to the time of Maldonatus (A.D. 1583), its origin was traced back to the universal custom of parents to take up into their arms, or place upon their knees, their children when they are fatigued, or return home, and to make them rest by their side during the night (cf. ; ; ; sqq.), thus causing them to enjoy rest and security in the bosom of a loving parent. After the same manner was Abraham supposed to act towards his children after the fatigues and troubles of the present life, hence the metaphorical expression "to be in Abraham's Bosom" as meaning to be in repose and happiness with him.
According to Maldonatus (In Lucam, xvi, 22), whose theory has since been accepted by many scholars, the metaphor "to be in Abraham's Bosom" is derived from the custom of reclining on couches at table which prevailed among the Jews during and before the time of Christ. As at a feast each guest leaned on his left elbow so as to leave his right arm at liberty, and as two or more lay on the same couch, the head of one man was near the breast of the man who lay behind, and he was therefore said "to lie in the bosom" of the other.
It was also considered by the Jews of old a mark of special honour and favour for one to be allowed to lie in the bosom of the master of the feast (cf. ), and it is by this illustration that they pictured the next world. They conceived of the reward of the righteous dead as a sharing in a banquet given by Abraham, "the father of the faithful" (cf. sqq.), and of the highest form of that reward as lying in "Abraham's Bosom".
Among Christian writers, since the 1st century AD, "the Bosom of Abraham" has gradually ceased to designate a place of imperfect happiness, and it has generally become synonymous with Heaven itself. Church fathers sometimes used the term to mean the limbo of the fathers, the abode of the righteous who died before Christ and who were not admitted to heaven until his resurrection. Sometimes they mean Heaven, into which the just of the New Covenant are immediately introduced upon their demise. Tertullian, on the other hand, described the bosom of Abraham as that section of Hades in which the righteous dead await the day of the Lord.
When Christians pray that the angels may carry the soul of the departed to "Abraham's Bosom", non-Orthodox Christians might mean it as heaven; as it is taught in the West that those in the Limbo of the Fathers went to heaven after the Ascension of Jesus, and so Abraham himself is now in heaven. However, the understanding of both Eastern Orthodoxy and Oriental Orthodoxy preserves the Bosom of Abraham as distinct from heaven.
The Book of Enoch describes Enoch's travels through the cosmos and divides Sheol into four sections: for the truly righteous, the good, the wicked awaiting judgment at the resurrection, and the wicked that will not even be resurrected.
In William Shakespeare's play Henry V, after the death of Sir John Falstaff, Mistress Quickly asserts confidently that "He's in Arthur's bosom, if ever man went to Arthur's bosom." Quickly, an uneducated innkeeper, has presumably confused the Christian idea of Abraham's bosom with the legend of King Arthur. The belief of soul sleep holds that the dead (righteous and unrighteous) rest unconsciously while awaiting Judgment Day.