Heaven is the place where the redeemed will someday be (Matt.5.12; Matt.6.20; Eph.3.15), where the Redeemer has gone and intercedes for the saints, and from where he will someday come for his own (1Thess.4.16). The term can also refer to the inhabitants of heaven (Luke.15.18; Rev.18.20).
The Biblical doctrine of heaven has never received, from a theological standpoint, the consideration that theologians have given to the doctrine of hell and eternal punishment. Shedd, for example, assigned two pages in his Dogmatic Theology to heaven, and eighty-seven pages to eternal punishment. Dr. Niebuhr in his quite exhaustive work, The Nature and Destiny of Man, gives no consideration to the matter of heaven except for a the statement, “It is unwise for Christians to claim any knowledge of the furniture of heaven.” Professor John Baillie asked the question, “How many preachers during these last twenty-five years have dwelt on the joys of the heavenly rest with anything like the old ardent love and impatient longing, or have spoken of the world that now is as a place of sojourn and pilgrimage” (And the Life Everlasting , 15). Furthermore, as many have pointed out:
The rapid changes in Western civilization have subjectivized and secularized heaven. In the nineteenth century, the concept grew increasingly vague, with wide scope in meaning. Eschatology which gathered up the “apparatus of celestial being” gave much assurance and comfort, but lacked reality. The twentieth century has been ever more devastating to the idea of heaven. The word “heaven” has been appropriated for many purposes, and used in connection with dreams, loves, lyrics, and fiction, until now it has been deprived of meaning for much of society (Ralph E. Knudsen, Theology in the New Testament , p. 408).
Of the hundreds of occurrences of the word heaven in the English Bible, practically all are translated of just two words—the Hebrew word shamayim and the Greek word ouranos. The Hebrew word means literally, “the heights,” and the Greek word has a similar meaning, “that which is raised up,” and as an English word its primary meaning is generally “that which is above,” that is, above earth and above man.
The atmospheric heavens
When the word “heaven” occurs in the Bible, it refers, except when it is used figuratively, to one of three realms—to the atmospheric space immediately above us, to the stellar heavens that must ultimately embrace the universe, and to heaven as the abode of God. In Catholic and medieval theology, these three realms are referred to as Coelum Aqueum, Coelum Sidereum, and Coelum Empyreum. Interestingly enough, these are the three basic meanings of the word ouranos in Greek classical literature.
The atmospheric heavens include the space that immediately surrounds the earth, the air that we breathe, technically known as the troposphere, which does not extend more than twenty meters above the earth. The space above this is called the stratosphere. The most frequently occurring atmospheric phenomenon in the Scripture, is, of course, rains, and also, on rare occasions, snow. One of the most relevant and wonderful passages embracing these matters is:
For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return not thither but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it (Isa 55:9-11).
Frost also is said to be sent from heaven, and dew as well (Job 38:29; Deut 33:13fn.). Probably the statement regarding Jehovah casting down “great stones from heaven” at the battle of Gibeon refers to huge hailstones (Josh 10:11). Frequently, the Bible mentions thunder from heaven (1 Sam 2:10, etc.). Often, clouds are identified with these atmospheric heavens: “He covers the heavens with clouds, he prepares rain for the earth, he makes grass grow upon the hills” (Ps 147:8). Clouds often have an eschatological importance, especially in relation to the Second Advent of Christ.
The Bible often speaks of “the four winds of the heavens” (Zech 2:6; 6:5). Probably the statement that “bread [came] from heaven” (Exod 16:4; Ps 78:24) refers to atmospheric heavens, though it also may include the idea of bread (manna) being a gift from God. Birds of heaven, such as eagles, and others, are announced in the initial account of creation (Gen 1:26, 30; Prov 23:5). Generally, these atmospheric phenomena point to favors bestowed upon the human race, but sometimes they embrace destructive forces, as fire and brimstone sent down upon Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19:24ff.).
The celestial heavens
The Hebrew people were forbidden to worship these stellar bodies (Exod 20:4); were condemned for offering sacrifices and gifts to the “queen of heaven” (Jer 44:17-25), and were forbidden to indulge in astrological speculations (Isa 47:13). Whereas the word “heaven” in the Old Testament is generally a translated of shamayim, occasionally the Hebrews used the word shahaq, which in the King James Version is generally translated “clouds,” but in revised versions, is normally translated “sky.” In such phrases as “under the whole heaven,” the reference is to the totality of mankind, as “the kingdoms under the whole heaven” (Dan 7:27).
Heaven as the abode of God
Although it is true that the Scriptures teach that “the heaven of heavens cannot contain” God (1 Kings 8:27 ASV), and that God is everywhere present in the universe, nevertheless, they clearly affirm that heaven is in a particular way the habitation of God. “For thus says the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: ‘I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite’” (Isa 57:15); “Look down from heaven and see, from thy holy and glorious habitation. Where are thy zeal and thy might? The yearning of thy heart and thy compassion are withheld from me” (63:15).
Heaven often occurs in the Bible as a synonym for God, as in the phrase “he looked up to heaven” (Matt 14:19; cf. Luke 9:16). When the prodigal son said, “I have sinned against heaven,” he meant that he had sinned against God (Luke 15:18; see also Matt 23:22; Rom 10; etc.).
The relationship of Christ to heaven
The subject of heaven is inextricably identified with the ascension of Jesus Christ. The Apostles' Creed summarizes what the New Testament says on this in the clause, “He ascended into heaven.” This was stated by the Lord Himself (John 20:17) and by Luke in his account of the Ascension (Luke 24:51; Acts 1:9). This event is confirmed in references in the letters of Paul (Eph 4:10; 1 Tim 3:16; 1 Pet 3:22). To ascend into heaven was to ascend to God. Schilder has well said that The ascension of Christ is of special meaning in the history of heaven. It reveals anew that the history of heaven is closely bound up with that of the earth. The diastase and the conjunction are clearly revealed. For Christ withdrew from the dwelling place of His people. The Greek puts it thus: He made diastase between Himself and them. But there is conjunction also; Christ carried His physical body to heaven, a pledge of the coming union between heaven and earth. And He sent His Spirit as a counter pledge—the Spirit who utters that longing of men with unutterable groaning, crying out, “How long, O Lord?” And heaven, too, awaits that consummation; the Son intercedes for the church, straining toward that end, that great moment of time. And the blessed cry out also, “How long, how long, O Lord?” How long before we shall reach that “moment of time when earth and heaven shall be drawn together, as they ought to be”? (K. Schilder: Heaven What Is It? , 56).
The present inhabitants of heaven
From ages long before the creation of man, heaven was the home of the angels, a word that occurs 170 times in the New Testament, only five of which do not relate to these supernatural creatures. Large groups of these are referred to as hosts, e.g., “Praise him, all his angels, praise him, all his host!” (Ps 148:2; cf. 103:21). No doubt, “the holy ones” refer to angelic beings (Job 5:1; 15:15; Zech 14:5). Barth goes so far as to say, “A dogmatics which tried to escape the task of Angelology would be guilty of an indolent omission which might well jeopardize the whole church” (Church Dogmatics, Vol. III, p. 374).
The cherubim, which first are mentioned immediately after the Fall of the first parents, are referred to in the well-known passage that states that after driving man out of the garden of Eden, God “at the east of the garden of Eden... placed the cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life” (Gen 3:24). Apart from symbolic references, they appear especially prominent in Ezekiel 10, where they are apparently to be identified with the living creatures of the first chapter. It is impossible here to interpret all the complicated details given concerning these creatures in Ezekiel. Moorehead’s comment on these supernatural beings is a model of conciseness when he says that they are “hieroglyphs of God’s attributes, of the eternal forces and infinite powers of the throne of God.... The execution of His will is through the power and forces which He Himself has created, angels, natural law, human beings and the animal creation.”
The possibility of heavenly life now
At the beginning of the Lord’s ministry, in the great prayer He taught His disciples, a life ruled by heaven is certainly implied; “Thy will be done, On earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10). This recalls the passage (Heb 1:14) that calls angels “ministering spirits.” True servants of the Lord cannot do anything else but obey His will, as Paul himself enjoined his readers not to be men-pleasers, but “servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart” (Eph 6:6). A prayer such as this, taught by the Lord Jesus, certainly must be one that can be fulfilled. Paul in his letter to the Philippians has one of the fullest statements regarding the present relationship to heaven to be found anywhere in the Scriptures. He connects the heavenly influence upon present life with the great truth that some day in heaven believers will be clothed in a body conformable to the glorious body of the Lord Jesus: “For our citizenship is in heaven; whence also we wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ: who shall fashion anew the body of our humiliation, that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, according to the working whereby he is able even to subject all things unto himself” (Phil 3:20, 21 ASV). The Greek word translated “citizenship” is politeuma, which meant first of all, a commonwealth or a state, and then it came to mean a colony of foreigners who, in the environment of their present residence outside of their native country, were living according to the laws of the country of which they were citizens, not according to the laws of the country in which they were living. One form of this word is actually translated “citizenship” in Acts 22:28.
Westcott’s interpretation of this phrase deserves study:
...the supramundane, supra-sensual eternal order, or as we should say generally, “the spiritual world” which is perceived by thought and not by sight. This is not distant or future but present, the scene even now of the Christian’s struggle where his life is already centered and his strength is assured to him and his triumph is already realized.
The hope that sustains us is laid up for us in heaven (Col 1:5). Believers “share in a heavenly call” (Heb 3:1), that is, they have “tasted the heavenly gift” (6:4).
The rule of heaven in the Apocalypse
The ark of the covenant is seen, the symbol of God’s faithfulness in bestowing grace on His people and in inflicting vengeance on His people’s enemies. This is evidently a solemn and befitting inauguration of God’s final judgments as it is a conclusion of the series pointed out by the trumpets which have been inflicted in answer to the prayers of the saints. It is from this temple that the judgments proceed forth (cf. 14:15, 17; 15:5ff., 16:17); from His inmost and holiest place that those acts of vengeance are wrought which the great multitude in heaven recognize as faithful and true (19:2). The symbolism of this verse, the opening for the first time of the heavenly temple, also indicates of what nature the succeeding visions are to be: that they will relate to God’s covenant people and His dealings with them (H. Alford; see Rev 15:5).
The Bible begins with God, the Creator of heaven and earth. The New Testament begins with One coming down from heaven to establish the kingdom of heaven and to fulfill the promise of life in heaven forever with Him. Appropriately, the last book of the New Testament in depicting the final and universal rebellions against Christ—participated in by men, by Satan, by Satan’s angels, and by the antichrist—shows heaven and its supernatural citizens as possessing a foreknowledge of all that is to happen on earth, and supernatural power to determine the time and limitations of these outbursts, to announce and execute the judgment of God, and to participate in the final disposition of every power arraigned against God. Here is fulfilled in final and irrevocable reality the oft-heard pronouncement that all power and authority has been given to Christ and He and He alone is able to subdue all things unto Himself and to bring those whom He has redeemed into their eternal habitation, which is the habitation of God.
Bibliography and Further Reading
- R. Baxter, The Saints’ Everlasting Rest, or a Treatise of the Blessed State of the Saints in their Enjoyment of God in Glory (1649, in Works of Richard Baxter )
- J. Bunyan, The Holy City; or, the New Jerusalem (1665, in his Works , 308)
- I. Watts, The World to Come; or, Discourses on the Joys and Sorrows of Departed Souls at Death, VII (n.d.), 1-215; Heaven; or, An Earnest and Scriptural Inquiry into the Abode of the Sainted Dead, 17th ed. (1848); The Heavenly Recognition (1851, 9th ed. , 288; 13th ed. )
- Bishop R. Mant, The Happiness of the Blessed Considered, 6th ed. (1853), 225
- H. Harbaugh, The Heavenly Home; or, the Employments and Enjoyments of the Saints in Heaven, 9th ed. (1858), 365
- Countess Valerie des Gasparin, The Near and Heavenly Horizons (1861), iv, 404; (1887), vi, 311; (1908, with an introduction by Dr. G. C. Morgan), vvvi, 183
- J. Crampton, The Three Heavens (1871, 1876), xliv, 416
- F. W. Grant, Facts and Theories as to a Future State (1879), 496
- D. L. Moody, Heaven and How to Get There (1880), 119; G. H. Pike, The Heavenly World. Views of the Future Life by Eminent Writers (1880), vi, 328
- S. Fallows, The Home Beyond: Views of Heaven and Its Relation to Earth by over Four Hundred Prominent Thinkers and Writers (1883), 410
- T. Hamilton, Beyond the Stars; or, Heaven, Its Inhabitants, Occupations, and Life, 4th ed. (n.d.), 270
- J. Paton, The Glory and Joy of the Resurrection (1902)
- E. M. Bounds, Heaven: A Place—A City—A Home (1921), 151
- A. Kuyper, Asleep in Jesus, Eng. trans. (1929), x, 353
- U. Simon, Heaven in the Christian Tradition (1958), xviii, 310; The Ascent to Heaven (1961), 181
- R. Pache, The Future Life (1962)
- W. M. Smith, The Biblical Doctrine of Heaven (1968).