I have been thinking a lot lately about the doctrine of hell, and so the afterlife has really been on my mind. But the other day I woke from a dream – which is often how God gets my attention – thinking about heaven.
I don’t know about you, but all my life I heard the idea that the destiny of true believers was to go to heaven when we died, where we would live forever in God’s presence, that we’d live in glorious mansions, walk on streets of pure gold, and be eternally at peace and rest, with no responsibilities but to worship God forever.
But what was rolling around in my spirit as I awoke was Jesus saying in John 4:34 “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me and to finish His work.” Taking my example from Jesus, I realized, perhaps my eternal fulfillment might be an active participation in Jesus’ work, not merely resting in His presence and worshiping forever. And I suddenly realized that perhaps my ideas about heaven didn’t account for this activity.
So I suddenly began to wonder, where on earth (if you’ll pardon the pun) did we get the idea that heaven is a place of eternal rest and reward?
It interests me how much my old set of ideas focuses on reward. Perhaps that shouldn’t surprise me; after all, evangelical Christianity, in which I definitely grew up, was very transactional: if you do good things, you get good things. If you believe the right things (and in some denominations if you also do enough good things), you get good things for eternity. If you do bad things – or you don’t believe in Jesus’ saving grace – you get punishment. So heaven is (naturally) the preferred outcome, but in any case, it’s all about reward (heaven) or retribution (hell).
Where does that evangelical idea about heaven come from? I’m beginning to think it’s more legendary than scriptural, so I figured it was appropriate to crack open the Bible and look at the concepts. So let’s take a survey of heaven in the Bible.
In the NASB, there are 437 references to words translated as “heaven” and 28 references to “heavenly.” So I’ll quickly step through those references.
The Old Testament Heaven
Let’s start with the Old Testament. Although the word “heaven” appears frequently in the early books, there’s no sense at all of it being a human soul’s destiny: it’s always about God’s domain (or where rain and stars reside). It’s always “in heaven” or “from heaven” or “between heaven and earth.”
This is quite consistent with the ancient near-east cultures: the gods lived on a different plane, and rarely interacted directly with humanity or the natural world. That plane was usually visualized as existing physically above the sky.
The first real hint of any Hebrew belief in heaven-as-destination is the story of Elijah being taken up in a whirlwind to heaven at the end of his earthly life, and that wasn’t necessarily about Elijah’s destination – as much as the direction of his departure.
The only real discussion in the Old Testament about a desire to go to heaven is in Isaiah 14:13-14, which is actually thought to refer to Satan’s desire to take the place of God. It says “But you said in your heart,’I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God, And I will sit on the mount of assembly In the recesses of the north. I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.’” Of course, this is about a created spirit or angelic being who originated in heaven, and wanted to return there to take over, not about a human who originated on earth who wanted to achieve an eternal reward. So it’s quite in line with ancient culture’s ideas about the spirit realm, with occasional visits to the earth.
In Amos 9:2, the Lord rejects those sinful Israelites who try to escape His judgement by ascending to heaven: “Though they dig into Sheol, From there will My hand take them; And though they ascend to heaven, From there will I bring them down.“
And that’s pretty much it for the Old Testament – the Jewish Bible – speaking to heaven as a destination for humans. It’s essentially silent about the topic.
There is a fascinating read on a Jewish website about the Jewish doctrine of heaven.
In particular, it seems that it’s much more Jewish to believe that “The real heaven is not what happens in a supernal realm after death. To discuss that would be a diversion and distraction from the real theme. The real heaven is what happens down here as the fruit of our collective labor of millennia. We’re not in the business of getting to heaven. We’re in the business of bringing heaven down to earth.“
Note that Jesus, in John 3:13, speaking with Nicodemus about being “born again,” and referring to the Jewish doctrine from the Hebrew Bible that He knew very well, says that “No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man.” Of course Jesus was referring to Himself. In this statement, He was effectively saying that nobody had ever gone from earth to heaven before Himself. So it’s interesting that in this reference, He was not correlating being born again with going to heaven, and one might even read this as refuting that idea.
Heaven in the Gospels
So that’s the Old Testament; what about the Christian New Testament?
When He reaches the age of ministry, Jesus starts talking about heaven right away – but usually about the Kingdom of Heaven – which He frequently discusses having already come to earth. There are dozens of examples of the phrase “Kingdom of Heaven,” and I won’t detail them here because they’re all simply references to this new interface between man and God that had been ushered in on the earth into human culture by Jesus, not a destination for humans.
In Matt 5:12 and Luke 6:23, Jesus says our “reward is in heaven.” Same thing in Matt 6:20 and Mark 10:21 and Luke 12:33 and Luke 18:21 regarding storing up and having treasure in heaven.
This doesn’t mean that our reward is to GO TO heaven – it says that our reward IS IN heaven – IS, not WILL BE. Going to heaven to get our reward is not necessarily the proper interpretation here, even though that’s how evangelicals have always tended to interpret and teach it.
Most of Jesus’ words about the spiritual heaven that is not on earth involve it being a dwelling of God and the spirit realm – very much like the Old Testament’s use of the Hebrew word for heaven. Jesus also refers to it, as in Matt 21:25 and Mark 11:30-31, as being a source of authority, a place of recording of worthiness (Luke 10:20). So Jesus’ teachings actually line up pretty well with the Hebrew Bible – and this is not surprising given His familiarity with Scripture.
Interestingly, while Matthew focuses very strongly on the descriptions and nature of the Kingdom of Heaven, Mark barely touches on Jesus’ comments about the Kingdom of Heaven.
Various verses in the Gospels discuss both the angels and Jesus moving between earth and heaven. Jesus (as noted above) identifies Himself as having descended from heaven in John 3:13 and 3:31. He also speaks about bread “which comes down from heaven” in John 6 – the true bread of God, which He then identifies as Himself.
Of course a common verse used to explain heaven is John 14:2-3, in which Jesus says “In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way where I am going.“
We’ve always assumed this meant that Jesus was going into heaven to prepare dwelling places IN HEAVEN for us.
But what is the Father’s house – because our dwelling places are “in My Father’s house“? And why didn’t Jesus use the word “house” instead of “dwelling places?”
I think scripture is pretty clear that He makes His dwelling place in His people, not in a location. Perhaps a better way to think of this concept is that in God’s holy people are many dwelling places for us. He will receive us to Himself, so that we may also dwell where He is, in the midst of His people. Of course Jesus prayed in John 17:21 “that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us.” And Rev 21:3 says “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them.” If He dwells in us, and not in habitations made by human hands (as noted in Acts 7:48-50), and we also dwell in Him, why would we assume that our reward is a physical mansion that Jesus went to build for us?
The Rest of the New Testament
In Acts, heaven is often identified as the source of the word of the Lord, or spiritual encounters (such as Saul/Paul on the road to Damascus) and the provision of good things for natural man (like rain and food), but never as a destination of believers.
Ephesians 6:9 says that Jesus is in heaven (“their Master and yours in heaven, and there is no partiality in Him“).
Phil 3:20 says “our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” Again, not our destination, but the source – in a legal sense – of our citizenship.
Col 1:5 speaks of “the hope laid up for you in heaven,” a similar idea to Jesus’ identification of the place where our treasure is stored (or perhaps recorded).
1 Thess 1:10 says “to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, that is Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath to come” again identifying Jesus as the One who came from heaven.
Of course the most famous verse that is used to justify the idea of the rapture and a heavenly destination is 1 Thess 4:16-17, which says “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord.“
It’s important to note that this does NOT say directly that we will, after meeting the Lord in the air, be taken up into heaven. That’s purely an interpretation, convenient if you believe that’s our destination. But ancient cultures understood that you went out to honor and welcome a conquering king (being announced with fanfares and heralds) to escort him into your city – not to go back with him to HIS city. So this imagery, to ancient eyes, would not have meant leaving earth at all, and instead would have meant welcoming Jesus to the earth as conquering king. It wasn’t escape at all – it was submitting to the king’s rule within your own territory.
2 Thess 1:7 says that “the Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven,” again emphasizing the Jewish concept of heaven being the source of authority and rule.
Heb 12:23 says “to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven.” Again, this does not say “living in” heaven: it discusses, again, a legal matter of being recorded on heaven’s books, which lines up perfectly with previous ideas about our earthly deeds and our reward being recorded there. A person who is enrolled with a city government doesn’t live in the courthouse where the documents are stored; he lives in his own home as a citizen of that city. Enrollment in the Kingdom of Heaven is a citizen of the kingdom, but doesn’t necessarily imply that we live where the books are kept.
1 Peter 1:4 says “to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you.” As with the other verses, this is often interpreted that our inheritance will be obtained when we get to heaven. But I think by now it should be clear that it appears to me that it’s also quite valid to understand this as being recorded there, kept for us until the appropriate time.
1 Peter 3:22 talks about Jesus “who is at the right hand of God, having gone into heaven, after angels and authorities and powers had been subjected to Him.” Once again we see the idea of heaven as the place of rule and power.
2 Cor 5:1-3 says “For we know that if the earthly tent which is our house is torn down, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2 For indeed in this we groan, longing to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven, 3 inasmuch as we, having put it on, will not be found naked.” Note that this doesn’t say “dwelling IN heaven” – it says “dwelling FROM heaven.” It identifies the source, not the destination. “Eternal in the heavens” is a little harder to explain, but I tend to believe this refers to the eternal spiritual nature of the house, not where it supposedly physically exists.
An important reference is 2 Peter 3:10-13, which says “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up. Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be destroyed by burning, and the elements will melt with intense heat! But according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells.“
Note that the last word in verse 10 is heurethēsetai, Strongs 2147, meaning “will (not) be found.” So “burned up” is really a questionable translation, but perhaps understandable based on the “burning with heat” reference earlier in the verse.
So this verse is particularly interesting, since it sets the stage for the impermanence of the current heavens. If dead people have been going there for 2,000 years, it’s certainly not going to be where their souls live forever, since it says that those heavens would be destroyed on the Day of the Lord – unless you insist that the heavens in question are only the atmosphere and the realm of the planets and stars. But that’s pretty hard to justify, since the last part of verse 13 is “in which righteousness dwells” – which is certainly not the physical heavens.
Also, you may already recognize that this idea of a new heavens and a new earth will reappear at the end of the book of Revelation.
Heaven Described in Revelation
So we get to Revelation.
Most of the references to heaven in Revelation are about things coming down out of heaven. There are two kinds of such references: first of physical things such as hail or brimstone or astronomical stars falling down from heaven, and second the judgements and the messengers that execute those judgements coming out of heaven to earth.
Many other references are to the authority and realm of God existing in heaven, and things being spoken from that realm affecting the earth.
There are plenty of references to created things IN heaven, but those throughout the New Testament refer to the angelic realm. For example, Rev 10:6 says “swore by Him who lives forever and ever, WHO CREATED HEAVEN AND THE THINGS IN IT, AND THE EARTH AND THE THINGS IN IT, AND THE SEA AND THE THINGS IN IT.” This has a clear delineation between things that are each in their proper place – a common theme in Hebrew scripture, the idea that boundaries should not be crossed.
Rev 11:12 says “And they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, ‘Come up here.’ Then they went up into heaven in the cloud, and their enemies watched them.” This refers to the two witnesses (or prophets) being taken up into heaven – one of very few references seemingly to earthly creatures going up into heaven. Given the highly metaphorical character of Revelation, those witness could very well be spiritual beings anyway. Also, note that this language “come up here” is reminiscent of John being called to “come up here” in Rev 4:1. So it could easily be descriptive of an invitation to temporarily see things from a spiritual perspective, not a final destination.
Rev 19:1 speaks of a great multitude in heaven, but it doesn’t identify them as human souls. It says “I heard something like a loud voice of a great crowd in heaven” but the voice then goes on to say “‘Hallelujah! For the Lord our God, the Almighty, reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give the glory to Him, for the marriage of the Lamb has come and His bride has made herself ready.’ And it was given to her to clothe herself in fine linen, bright and clean; for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints.” Clearly this is identifying the completed, righteous church as the Bride of the Lamb – but the voice identifying her is not herself. This leads me to conclude, much to my own surprise, that this particular great multitude may not include humans. So this verse doesn’t seem able to describe humans in heaven.
Rev 20:11-15 describes the great judgement at the end of time, “Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sits upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them. 12 Then I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne.” Jesus described something similar in Matt 25:31-46, but interestingly, He begins by saying that “the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne” and “all the nations will be gathered before Him.” This is intriguing because it describes Jesus and the angels coming. They would not be coming TO heaven; they would be coming FROM heaven, which any Jew listening to Jesus would immediately assume as the natural abode of God and His angelic servants. Also, note that Rev 20:11 describes that earth – AND HEAVEN – “fled away from His presence on the throne, and no place was found for them.” This, together with gathering the nations together, implies to me that the great judgement is not in heaven, even though He will be seated “on His glorious throne” which for the preceding Revelation references to His throne imply that it is in heaven. That is not really surprising, since ancient thrones were generally portable. Note also that Rev 21 says that God will establish His throne on the new earth in the new Jerusalem.
Twice in Rev 21 the holy city, the new Jerusalem, is identified as coming down out of heaven from God, onto the new earth. Righteous humans are welcomed into that city; Rev 21:24-26 says “The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. In the daytime (for there will be no night there) its gates will never be closed; and they will bring the glory and the honor of the nations into it.” And Rev 22:14, which rounds out the description of the new Jerusalem, says “Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter by the gates into the city.” So there’s no aspect in Rev 21 that implies that the righteous nations will spend eternity IN HEAVEN – because the new Jerusalem will be situated ON EARTH.
In this survey, I’ve deliberately skipped mentioning all the times where the Bible mentions heavens as a clearly earthly matter – the so called first heavens, the realm of the birds and the source of rain or the abode of the stars and planets. I think it’s pretty clear that those references have nothing to do with the destination of our souls.
And that’s pretty much the entirety of the references to heaven in the Bible.
I don’t know about you, but although there is clearly a promise of reward for the faithful, I don’t see a very clear indication, if any, that we “go to heaven when we die,” no matter what we did or believed. And I certainly don’t see any indication at all that we spend eternity in bliss. Our tears will be wiped away, but it doesn’t seem to be lying on a couch being served by angels.
What DOES Await Us?
So if our traditional evangelical tropes about heaven are not well-supported, what IS supported?
The way I read things, our destination is to be united with the Lord, not a physical (or metaphysical) place with real golden streets and mansions.
Eternity does not appear to be a matter of existing without care or concern. It’s pretty clear from Rev 21 that eternity is not stasis or unchanging. Rev 21:22-27 is especially intriguing. It says: “22 And I saw no sanctuary in it, for the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb are its sanctuary. 23 And the city has no need of the sun or of the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God has illumined it, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24 And the nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. 25 And its gates will never be closed by day, for there will be no night there; 26 and they will bring the glory and the honor of the nations into it. 27 And nothing defiled, and no one who practices abomination and lying, shall ever come into it, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.“
Some things to note here:
There WILL be defiled things outside the city. And this is after the great judgement! We tend to believe that anyone not reconciled to Christ will spend eternity in hell, from the moment of their death, but this verse calls that idea into question: it teaches that there will be defiled people not living in the perfect holy city.
The nations will walk by the light of the city – which implies to me that those nations are OUTSIDE the source of light. If the defiled are still living outside the city, yet in its light, then even the defiled will walk in the light of holiness. And this calls into question the idea that all defiled things will be cast in an eternal lake of fire. It also speaks to our ongoing role in witnessing to the glory of God, even in eternity.
The gates will never be closed, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. This implies that as time passes, even the rebellious kings and their subjects will be cleansed from their defilement, and enter the city at last.
Many theologians have observed that Revelation is highly metaphorical, so it’s hard to claim we can build a perfectly stable and solid theology from its rather sparse treatment of the particulars of heaven and eternity. But if we still use Revelation together with the rest of the Bible as a general roadmap to the purposes of God for His people throughout history into eternity, it seems clear to me that God’s intent is to dwell with – or as one with and within – His people, and His intent is to fully redeem the earth and establish His holy city on earth, not in what we’ve called heaven.
Do we “go to heaven?”
Based on this survey, which was a first for me, to actually walk through all the references at one time, I get a fairly strong sense that there are vanishingly few references to humans going to God’s heavenly dwelling. Heaven is envisioned by the scriptures as the domain of God and His spiritual creation, from which He speaks and judges and rules and provisions the earth. He will one day unmake heaven and earth and remake them anew, and at that time move His dwelling place and throne to earth. Given that heaven is God’s present dwelling, and our deeds are recorded and our rewards stored on our future behalf, it’s not surprising that Jesus spoke about our reward being “stored up” in heaven. But that says nothing concrete about having to go there to claim it – especially when it’s clear that God will move His throne to earth, and presumably all the good things stored up on our behalf will come with Him. I do believe we’ll meet Him in the air someday, but not to continue up into heaven, but instead to escort Him as the victor onto the earth, where our ultimate destiny is to rule and reign with Him forever.
And this brings me to my final point: I don’t see any description of heaven as a place of reclining on couches with angels meeting our every whim, or of simply standing around the throne singing God’s praises. Instead, I see a depiction of a new earth that will need to be ruled – especially the nations which will need to be discipled and taught to bring their glory into the new Jerusalem. And our job is to rule, which is an active job, not a passive one of blissful reward.
This is clearly a big departure from what I used to believe. It’s been stirring in me for a few years. I’m quite sure that others have trod this path before, but for whatever reason I’ve heard not a single sermon in over 45 years in the church that really attempted to consider these matters at any depth.
A More Immediate Reward
I realize that directly assaulting such a deeply-embedded theological topic like heaven or hell is deeply unpopular, especially among those who base their entire doctrinal structure and Christian motivation upon the reward/punishment theology of heaven and hell. But as I have moved away from that theology, I find I’m actually MORE motivated to maturity while I’m here on earth, and more motivated to consider how my earthly actions affect others. When my theology was all about heaven as my personal destiny, much of my motivation was about self-preservation and obtaining my own reward. But in this new light, it’s increasingly about how those around me encounter the Lord, and how I can bring relief and blessing and a knowledge of the true Living God to them in this life. It’s increasingly about building that one true Body of Christ, where we are in Him and He is in us, and we are one with each other. It’s a very different focus than on me and my reward.
So maybe it’s time to retire this idea of going to heaven when we die, and start focusing on, as the Jews have said all along, bringing heaven down here onto the earth.