What do you imagine when you think about heaven? Wings and halos? Sitting around on clouds? Playing harps? Pearly gates and streets of gold? Where is heaven anyway?
Is heaven the place we go to when we die?
The NIV Old Testament mentions ‘heaven’ or ‘heavens’ 346 times. The very first verse in the Bible says that God created the heavens and the earth. And in this sense, ‘the heavens’ simply means the sky above the earth and anything contained in it such as the sun, moon, and stars. It was also thought to be where dew and rain (and sometimes fire) came from. In Exodus, the Lord rained down manna from heaven.
Genesis 21 says that God called Hagar from heaven, and in the next chapter the messenger of the Lord called Abraham from heaven. Some passages say heaven is God’s holy dwelling place, that God hears from heaven, and that God is the God of heaven. Psalm 11 is the first to mention God’s heavenly throne, and other places mention God’s sanctuary in heaven. So heaven is understood to be where God is.
The NIV New Testament has 276 Mentions of ‘Heaven’
In the gospels, heaven was opened and Jesus saw the Spirit descending like a dove and heard a voice from heaven. Jesus speaks of our reward (or treasure) in heaven, our names being written in heaven, and of our Father being in heaven—most notably in the Lord’s Prayer. And he refers to angels in heaven. Metaphorically, Jesus said ‘I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven’. And he spoke of manna as ‘bread from heaven’.
When Stephen was killed he said, ‘I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’ Paul refers to our heavenly dwelling—meaning our resurrection body. And he also mentions our citizenship in heaven—and then there is his reference to the mysterious ‘third heaven’.
Ephesians talks about the ‘heavenly realms’ where God seated Jesus at his right hand and then raised us up to be seated there in Jesus. There are rulers and authorities there and also spiritual forces of evil there. Hebrews talks of Jesus sitting down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven and calls Jesus the great high priest who has ascended into heaven.
All in all, these references are quite vague and give us very little understanding of what ‘heaven’ is like. In fact, many of the references may not speak of a specific place at all. No wonder the most familiar depictions of heaven involve wings, halos, clouds, and harps. Is this where we go when we die?
What Does the Book of Revelation Say about Heaven?
Surely the book of Revelation gives us detail about heaven—just think of the streets of gold and the gates of pearl. But, actually, this is not the case for two reasons. 1) Revelation is written as apocalyptic drama and most everything about it is symbolic; it does not predict the future nor describe literal details. 2) And even dispensationalists (who take Revelation very seriously) do not think Revelation describes heaven but rather the millennial (1000-year) kingdom.
Never-the-less, Revelation mentions ‘heaven’ 45 times. Like the Old Testament, John refers to the creator of the heavens and to rain coming from the heavens.
John indicates that he saw a door standing open in heaven and a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it. Later, he saw a mighty angel coming down from heaven robed in a cloud, with a rainbow above his head, his face like the sun, and his legs like fiery pillars. Even later, he again saw heaven standing open and before him was a white horse and its rider called Faithful and True.
John says that “God’s temple in heaven was opened, and within his temple was seen the ark of his covenant. And there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake and a severe hailstorm.”
John ‘saw’ a lot of stuff!
John speaks repeatedly of hearing voices from heaven and of angels coming from heaven. He also heard a sound from heaven like the roar of rushing waters, or a loud peal of thunder, or harpists playing harps. The two witnesses, too, heard a voice from heaven saying “Come up here” after which they went up to heaven in a cloud.
Chapter 12 is especially interesting. “A great sign appeared in heaven: a [pregnant] woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head.” And then “another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads.” After that, there was war in heaven between Michael and his angels and the dragon and his angels in which the dragon and his angels lost their place in heaven, and the dragon was hurled down.
At the end of his story, John saw a new heaven and a new earth, because the first heaven, the first earth, and the sea had passed away. And, finally, he saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.
So What Do We Learn about Heaven?
I would say ‘basically nothing!’ Other than ‘the heavens’ being the sky and ‘heaven’ being vaguely where God is, I don’t know anything about heaven from these passages. Do we go there when we die? That seems like a mere assumption or speculation. But what about the ‘kingdom of heaven’? I did not list those references here. What about the kingdom of God? How do heaven, the kingdom of heaven, and the kingdom of God relate to each other?
We will talk about that next time. In the meantime—two questions: What are your thoughts on heaven? (and) Where do you think we go when we die?
Jesus without Baggage exists to assist and support those questioning beliefs they have been taught in fundamentalist, traditional evangelical, and other groups. If you know someone who might find Jesus without Baggage helpful, feel free to send them the introductory page: About Jesus without Baggage.
Articles in this series: The Kingdom of God
What Is Heaven and Where Is It?
Heaven, the Kingdom of Heaven, and the Kingdom of God
How Do We Become Part of the Kingdom of God?
2 Parables of the Kingdom from Planting
The Kingdom of God is Like… (7 Short Kingdom Parables)
The Kingdom of God is Like Attending a Banquet
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