The Meaning of “Heaven” in the Bible

BeyondTheBookBA

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.

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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?

Cover ArtSurprisingly for modern readers, it does not refer, in any simple or clear way, to a “spiritual” or immaterial realm. It certainly does not refer to an uncreated realm.

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.

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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.

Comments

  1. This volume needs to be required reading within Evangelical colleges and seminaries (at the very least). Richard does a fantastic job of dealing with the text proper and aiding the conversation to move forward with Biblical language and categories.

  2. Dave Belles says:

    Hi Dr Middleton,

    Interesting article. Did you address in the book Paul’s statement in 2 Corinthians 12:2 where he says he was caught up into the “third heaven”, which he refers to in verse 4 as “Paradise?” Is he setting up for the later developments you referred to where heaven itself is subdivided?

    Thanks,
    Dave Belles

    • Hi Dave, I didn’t deal with Paul’s reference to the “third heaven” in the book. In fact, I didn’t explicitly focus on the question of what “heaven” means at all; so this blog post arose out of reflection on my research after the book was written.

      Perhaps there are a few relevant points to make here in response.

      The first is that Jewish apocalyptic literature (around the time of the New Testament) begins to use the idea of three, seven, or more heavens (sometimes the same apocalyptic work can’t even agree on how many); but even these works have in view something physicalistic, in the sense that a figure (like Enoch) is taken by angels “up” from earth to and through the visible sky/heaven, to more transcendent levels of heaven, but they all tend to be described in visible/physical categories (so even at this stage “heaven” is not yet the metaphysical, invisible dimension it becomes in later theology).

      Second, when Paul uses the term “third heaven” I take it that he is alluding to an idea in Jewish thinking that was current at the time (although there is no hard evidence that any extrabiblical reference to three heaves is pre-Pauline). But I don’t think Paul is making a theological claim; it may be more like him referring to baptism for the dead (alluding to a current practice to make his own point). He isn’t even sure if he was in the body or out of the body. So I don’t put much theological stock in this one-time usage.

      The final point to make is that “paradise” isn’t the same as “heaven,” either in the Jewish apocalypses or in the New Testament (I do discuss this a bit in the book). My fourth post will be explicitly on what “paradise” means, so I’ll hold off on saying more at this point.

      I hope that helps.

  3. David Pearson says:

    I find this very insightful and already I am seeing implications for the way we ought to do theology. If, as you state Richard, that heaven is both transcendent and immanent, as the God “beyond” creation chooses to “dwell within the created order”, then there is obvious need for us to focus on how we make the created order more like God. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” must then be a mission statement for the church as she tackles the “ungodliness” that characterizes fallen creation, since the goal is to help make this order conform more and more to God’s will. Isn’t this the very purpose of the commandments to Israel in Moses, that they create a just space where all can flourish? Isn’t it also the concern of the prophets, who lament that Israel’s idolatry has not only replace Yahweh with gods of their choosing, and in the process of ignoring the first commandment they then break the second (love thy neighbour as thyself) and trample on the weak and defenseless? Isn’t it also the concern of Jesus, when he states, “You tithe dill, mint and cumin, but have neglected the weightier matters of the law – love, justice and mercy” (Matthew 23:23)? And the concern in the Book of Acts, where having understood Jesus’ command about what it means to be a witness of the Kingdom the disciples go on to try to create the just community of Deuteronomy 15 (Acts 2:42ff)? I think the evangelical church (in the main) has for too long ignored this principle and has done theology in a way that makes it a bit too unconcerned about issues of this realm. Thanks for your post.

    • David, I think you have hit the nail on the head with your focus on the lived implications of eschatology.

      Too many people (even those with a salutary belief in the motif of the redemption of creation) get sidetracked with speculation about what the “new earth” will be like (similar to the patristic and medieval speculation about how resurrection of the body works if a shark ate part of your arm 20 years before). I am truly not interested in speculation about (for example) which animals will be in the new creation (Does this include all species that ever lived? Every animal or just representatives of each species? Also insects, bacteria, etc.?). Eschatological language is symbolic, and we shouldn’t forget that.

      The whole point of eschatology is to give us hope to live in the present so as to manifest God’s purposes in our lives and in the world. According to Paul, “If anyone is in Christ—new creation! The old has gone, the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17). New creation starts now. We are already raised to new life; the eschaton has arrived and we have the foretaste of the Holy Spirit to empower us for lives of discipleship (that the Spirit will raise us at the last day is but the culmination of what has already started). Or, as I say in the book, ethics is lived eschatology.

      So, thanks for your insightful comments.

  4. John Mulholland says:

    Thank you for this dialogue on your book Professor Middleton.

    A question – I am wondering about what has caused so much confusion for Christians about heaven, the heavens, the heavenly realm, the transcendant.

    In a new book, also published by Baker, God’s Wider Presence
    http://www.bakerpublishinggroup.com/books/god-s-wider-presence/348650
    Robert Johnston at Fuller argues that there are two major lacunae in Christian theology today regarding – general revelation about the presence of the current activity of God in human experience and the Holy Spirit as a currently active member of the Trinity.

    To what degree are we confused about heaven, the transcendant, because we have little or no understanding of current active presence of God and the work of the Holy Spirit?

    I have begun to think that “go to heaven” has become the default position not just because of the inadequate theology of creation and redemption, but because we really do not believe in, cannot imagine a God who is active in our midst today. Rather, as is said repeatedly in sermons, God is currently sitting on God’s throne and Jesus sitting at God’s right hand “in heaven” – preachers do not immediately then say, remember everyone, this is a poetic image for something hugely grand and transcendant, thus leaving their hearers with an idea of human looking figures sitting on gold thrones, waiting for the moment when people will be “raised” and put before them to stand and sing in glowing robes.

    If God is sitting on a throne, Jesus sitting at the right hand of God, and the Holy Spirit who knows where – and none of them actively now doing anything, since all of them have “done their thing” – God created the cosmos, Jesus died for sin, and the Holy Spirit set people on fire 2 millenia ago and then buzzed off,
    then it would seem to follow that heaven is some distant realm with no connection to God’s grand creation and ongoing creativity in the Cosmos [e.g., the new stars and galaxies we can now see with modern telescopes].

    In short, if we think today with a literalistic understanding of ancient poetic images in the Bible, it seems to me that it is easy to think of heaven as some vastly different realm with no connection to our home on the Earth.

    How do we develop images that are closer to our much greater knowledge of the cosmos today? And, how do we develop images that would work with better theologies of creation, holistic redemption, a constantly active presence of God in our midst, and a dynamic ongoing Holy Spirit?

    Thanks in advance for your time and thoughts. – John M

    • John, Thanks for your articulation of this problem.

      I myself have no problem using biblical language and imagery (even though this is clearly symbolic, metaphorical language arising from a premodern culture). The question of whether we need to develop alternative images that connect better with the contemporary world is an interesting one.

      On the one hand, I think it can be helpful for Christians to inhabit the language and rhetoric of the biblical text (and this goes for much more than eschatological texts). I accept the reality that these images are point to, and because of this I try to read the various texts carefully as literary/visionary pointers to this reality. I try to understand what the text’s (re)description of reality was getting at in its original context, and so I treat this imagery as normative and non-negotiable. In other words, I am not a “liberal.”

      On the other hand, I am not a fundamentalist, even (perhaps) not a “conservative” (I have been called a post-conservative evangelical). While I want to read the text carefully in order to inhabit it’s worldview, I do this without thinking that we should take the details as empirically factual descriptions of reality (in the modern sense of “fact”). I take the text precisely as symbolic.

      In my eschatology book I mention G. C. Berkouwer’s warning about the difficulty of trying “to come up with a systematic harmonization” of “multiform” eschatological imagery in the New Testament. Berkouwer suggests that when confronted by a diversity of seemingly incompatible images, we can still discern “what is intended in the passages.” I try to follow this advice.

      I think I was warned off taking eschatological imagery “literally” (as the term is used today) in my first semester of undergraduate studies, when I took a course on biblical hermeneutics. That language of origin (creation) and end (eschatology) was highly symbolic and not an empirical description of reality, was hammered home, and also that the primary function of biblical eschatology is to influence our actions in the present. So I was never tempted by ‘literalism.”

      It is, I believe, a second-order interpretive task to relate biblical imagery of origin and end to what we know from science about the origin and ending of the cosmos, including the evolution of life on earth. I think your comments suggest that this is an important interpretive task, and it is something that I want to explore (I’ve already begun exploring the relationship of creation and fall to evolution and I’m working on a paper on Genesis 3 that addresses this).

      So thank you for your timely comments.

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