Bible Basics about Heaven

Here is what you need to know about God’s dwelling place and key Hebrew and Greek words, all spelled out in clear English. Paradise is also discussed.

Let’s get started first with word studies and then study the Scriptures.

The Old Testament

It was written in Hebrew (and a little of Aramaic), and the let’s look at a key word, which has wide-ranging meanings, depending on the context.

The Hebrew noun shamayim (pronounced sha-may-eem or sha-my-im and used 421 times) can refer to the place where meteorological phenomena occur, like rain, lightning, sunshine, and storms (e.g. Gen. 8:2, Is. 55:9-11; Job 38:29; Deut. 33:13; Jos. 10:11; 1 Sam. 2:10; Zech. 6:5; Ps. 147:8). The sun, stars and moon and other astronomical things occur in heaven (Gen. 15:15; Deut. 4:19; Job 9:8-9; Ps. 8:3). Birds fly there (Gen. 1:26; Deut. 28:26; 1 Kings 16:4; Ps. 8:8). Signs and wonders will appear there (Is. 50:3; Ezek. 32:7; Joel 2:10).

The second main meaning of the Hebrew noun is the invisible and separate realm where God dwells. God dwells above the heavens, for the highest heavens cannot contain him (1 Kings 8:27). Therefore, God does not live in the space-time universe, where we do.

Yet, his heaven and our heaven intersect. Manna is rained down from heaven (Exod. 16:4), and God will rain down hailstones from heaven (Jos. 10:11). Heaven and earth are often paired together, to describe God’s total universe (Gen. 1:1; 14:19; 2 Kings 19:15; Ps. 115; 15; Jer. 10:11). Heaven is where God dwells, and earth is given to the sons of men (Ps. 115:16).

New Testament

It is written in Greek, and the noun is ouranos (pronounced oo-rah-noss, and used 82 times in Matthew, and 52 times in the Revelation. In Matthew’s Gospel is it is used in the phrase “kingdom of heaven” (e.g. Matt. 3:2; 13:24; 25:1, literally heavens, plural). The entire book of the Revelation gives a superb panorama of heaven.

It can be translated as “sky” (Matt. 16:3; Mark 13:25). God created the heaven (sky) and the earth (Acts 4:24; 14:15; 17:24; Rev. 10:6; 14:7).

The redeemed go to heaven when they die. However, Mounce says it is important to realize that in the NT, the emphasis is not a dwelling place for disembodied spirits. Yes, that is important, but God’s redemption includes all creation (Rom. 8:19-22). The culmination of God’s work is a new creation, a new heaven and earth (Is. 65:17; 2 Pet. 3:13; Rev. 21:1).

Jesus prayed: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven (Matt. 6:10). Ultimately and finally, heaven and earth will merge, at the very end of days, because earth will be reconstituted in some way. That’s God’s whole long-range project from the very beginning.

Now what about paradise?

Paradise appears three times in the NT: Luke 23:43, where Jesus promised the robber or insurrectionist that he would be with the Lord in paradise. Then the term appears in 2 Cor. 12:3, where Paul says he was caught up in paradise and the third heaven (v. 2), so paradise and the third heaven are the same. For Paul, the third heaven was paradise. Finally, the term also appears in Rev. 2:7, where the Ephesian church was promised to eat of the tree of life, which in the paradise of God, if they repent and overcome their trials. Rev. 22:2 says the tree of life is in heaven.

Therefore, in Paul’s theology paradise = heaven

Therefore, in John’s theology, paradise = heaven.

Therefore, in my theology paradise = heaven.

Yet, what about Lazarus in the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16:19-31)? After Lazarus died he was in Abraham’s bosom or side. Is that the same as paradise? This is not clear. Abraham’s bosom could be a metaphor for a blissful afterlife in a story. It is not to be taken literally, but it is merely a story element, like many others circulating in the Greater Middle East, which show communication between those experiencing bliss and those experiencing torment, after they died. The point is that the unjust on earth are to be warned to be generous and not miserly. (I prefer this option.)

However, some interpreters see the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man as expressing a true picture of the afterlife. So either Abraham’s bosom was a temporary “waystation” for Lazarus before he got to paradise /  heaven, or Lazarus was in heaven / Abraham’s bosom / paradise after he died. If he was in a temporary “holding place” before he got to heaven / paradise, then Jesus went there to rescue him and many other OT saints and believers–right after his resurrection–and brought him and them up to heaven / paradise. (1 Pet. 3:19 hints that Christ’s rescue of these people was a possibility, though Peter calls the place “prison,” not Abraham’s bosom, and a prison seems to be unpleasant.)

See my post in a series 10. Do I Really Know Jesus? Did He Descend into Hades to Preach?

As usual, I prefer the streamlined interpretation and conclude that paradise = heaven, and the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man was just a story similar to other such stories circulating around the area. I don’t build an elaborate theology on one parable.

See my post Rich Man and Lazarus: True Events or Just a Parable?

As to the rest of the definitions and realities of heaven generally, they will be looked at next:

1.. Heaven is God’s dwelling place.

In 1 Kings 8:30, during Solomon’s prayer of dedication of the temple, he affirms that God would hear from heaven, his dwelling place, and he would forgive. So there is a big difference between God’s dwelling place and his temple. God promised the glory cloud over the ark of the covenant in the tabernacle, but this was a little of heaven on earth in a holy place.

In the Lord’s prayer, Jesus taught us that our Father is in heaven (Matt. 6:9).

Phil. 2:10 says that every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord, whether people are in heaven or on earth or under the earth. So there are at least three levels, in Paul’s theology, as saw above.

2.. It is where his sanctuary is.

Ps. 102:19 says that God looked down from his sanctuary, from heaven.

Jesus went up into heaven and sprinkled the heavenly tabernacle with his blood and and obtained eternal redemption (Heb. 9:12, 24-25).

So the earthly level reflects, weakly, the heavenly level.

3.. It houses God’s throne.

Ps. 2:4 teaches that The LORD looks that the nations conspiring together and the One who is enthroned in heaven laughs and scoffs at them.

Isaiah prays that God would look down from heaven from his lofty and holy and glorious throne (63:15).

Rev. 4:2-10 has beautiful and awesome pictures of the God’s throne, where the twenty-four elders throw their crowns.

4.. It is where Christ ascended.

In Luke 24:51 and Acts 1:8 say that Jesus blessed his disciples and went up into heaven. “He was taken up” (1:8), so God raised him up.

Heb. 9:24 says that Jesus did not ascend to a human-made tabernacle, for that was a mere copy, but he entered heaven itself. He now appears for us in God’s presence.

5.. It is where Jesus Christ lives.

In Acts 7:55-56 Stephen was in the process of getting stoned to death, and he saw heaven open up and the glory of God shone and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God. Some teach that Jesus usually sits on the throne, but here he was welcoming his first martyr.

6.. Is heaven within our universe or outside it?

The universe and the earth are feeble reflections of the heavenly realm.

Theologian Millard Erickson is right:

In premodern times the ascension was usually thought of as a transition from one place (earth) to another (heaven). We now know, however, that space is such that heaven is not merely upward from the earth, and it also seems likely that the difference between earth and heaven is not merely geographic. One cannot get to God simply by traveling sufficiently far and fast in a space vehicle of some kind. God is in a different dimension of reality, and the transition from here to there requires not merely a change of place, but of state. So, at some point, Jesus’s ascension was not merely a physical and spatial change, but spiritual as well. At that time, Jesus underwent the remainder of the metamorphosis begun with the resurrection of his body (pp. 710-11).

So, heaven is a place, but with its own dimensions. Though our universe palely mirrors it, it is not as if heaven is a planet or is on a planet. Yes, it may have buildings and a river (at least one), and a tree of life, and a new Jerusalem (which is probably a symbol of the church), and in that sense our universe borrows from it, but all those images may be symbolic, just so we can understand spiritual realities in our own minds. But if those things are literal, then for me that’s okay too.

Erickson’s description correctly contradicts theologians Wayne Grudem’s claim about heaven. Grudem writes: “It is surprising that even some evangelical theologians hesitate to affirm that heaven is a place or that Jesus ascended to a definite location somewhere in the space-time universe” (p. 617). But then Grudem goes on to say that heaven is invisible to our eyes, as if it is a different dimension. He is confused. It cannot be part of the space-time universe, which we occupy, and be another dimension, which we don’t occupy.

Nonetheless, those two options are available to the reader:

(1) Heaven is contained within in our space-time universe;

(2) Or it is in another dimension that our space-time universe deficiently mirrors, but it is not contained within our space-time dimension.

One thing is for certain, heaven is not on a planet, as some teach. As Solomon prayed at the dedication of the temple: “The heavens, even the highest heavens, cannot contain you” (2 Chron. 6:18). So I prefer the second option.

How does this post help me grow in Christ?

Jesus prayed that God’s will should be done on earth as it is in heaven. This should be our prayer, too. But how is it done? By preaching socialism or the gospel? It is the gospel, not a gigantic redistribution program. Yes, have a safety net, but caution must be used in bringing the “gold” of heaven down to earth. Yes, charity is good, but people can do this better than sending a welfare check to healthy people.

The answer is that everyone on the planet must be saved. If they were to be saved, their lives would be transformed from the inside out. God would lead them towards prosperity and growing crops and livestock if they live out in the plains of Africa, for example. If they live in the city, then honesty and noncorruption would prevail, but only if they enjoyed the Holy Spirit’s presence and purifying process changing them. Therefore the Holy Spirit through regenerated believers is the best person to bring heaven to earth.

SOURCES

Works Cited

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