Today we are pleased to share the latest post in our new weekly series, Beyond the Book. This month J. Richard Middleton will be discussing interesting things he learned about eschatology while working on A New Heaven and a New Earth.
Also, as part of this series we are giving away three copies of A New Heaven and a New Earth. The winners will be announced at the end of the month, and you can enter here.
“Despite the popular concept of “heaven” as an immaterial realm, the term is used in the Bible primarily for the physical cosmos beyond the earth and as the symbolic “location” of non-earthly, transcendent realities, like God, other (false) deities, and angels.” – J. Richard Middleton
In my last post I addressed a pattern that I discerned in many New Testament texts, namely, preparation in heaven (in the present) for revelation on earth (in the future).
But what exactly does the word “heaven” refer to in the Bible?
Rather, in the Old Testament the term “heaven” (or, literally, the “heavens”) is part of the created universe: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1). Heaven thus refers to that part of the created cosmos that is beyond the earth (the realm of the sun, moon, and stars); it can often be translated simply as “sky.”
Heaven is therefore that part of the cosmos that humans don’t normally have access to. According to Psalm 115:16, “The heavens are the LORD’s heavens, but the earth he has given to human beings.”
Because of its inaccessibility to humans, which we could call its transcendence (a word meaning that which is “beyond”), heaven can be said to be the “place” where God dwells, where he has established his throne, from which he rules the earth (this is, of course, metaphorical or symbolic language because God is not literally located in the sky).
Paradoxically, then, heaven is a symbol both of God’s transcendence and his immanence—because the creator of the cosmos (consisting in heaven and earth) has chosen to dwell within the created order. Thus heaven can sometimes be substituted for God, as a metonymy, as in the phrase “kingdom of heaven.”
When we pray for God’s kingdom to come on earth “as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10), we are treating heaven as God’s realm. But heaven is not God’s realm alone.
Some Old Testament texts associate false gods or the angelic host with heaven. Thus Isaiah 24:21 states: “On that day the LORD will punish the host of heaven in heaven,/ and on earth the kings of the earth.” And when Psalm 148 calls on all the inhabitants of creation (heaven and earth) to praise God, “heaven” is taken to include angels, along with sun, moon, and stars (148:2-3).
Job 38:7 even identifies angels with stars, when it affirms, in Hebrew parallelism, that on the day of creation “the morning stars sang together/ and all the sons of God shouted for joy.” This identification of angels with stars underlies the claim in Judges 5:20 that “The stars fought from heaven,/ from their courses they fought against Sisera.”
Although we can’t tell exactly how the ancient Hebrews understood the relationship of the physical heavens (with the sun, moon, and stars) to the divine or angelic entities that populated this realm, it does not seem that they thought there were two distinct heavens (this is a later conceptualization).
Rather, in biblical usage “heaven” has a primary, literal reference to the sky overhead and an extended, symbolic reference to the realm of God and other non-earthly, transcendent realities (whether portrayed as good or evil).
It is because of the symbolic use of heaven as the dwelling of corrupt transcendent beings (false gods in the Old Testament, and evil spirits/ fallen angels in later Jewish and Christian writings) that the New Testament envisions “a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev 21:1) and promises the reconciliation of “all things” in heaven and on earth to God through the cross of Christ (Col 1:20). The entire created order (including “heaven”) has become corrupted and needs purging of evil. Therefore redemption must be cosmic in scope.
J. Richard Middleton (PhD, Free University of Amsterdam) is professor of biblical worldview and exegesis at Northeastern Seminary and adjunct professor of theology at Roberts Wesleyan College, both in Rochester, New York. He authored The Liberating Image and coauthored the bestsellers Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be and The Transforming Vision.