The concept of heaven as some sort of an otherworldly paradise, better than anything our mundane existence on planet Earth has to offer, is embraced by nearly all religions. Billions of believers yearn to be there. But if heaven really exists, what is it like? Is it a literal three-dimensional place or is it merely a metaphorical mental state? Is it located on the surface of a cosmic sphere somewhere in outer space or is sequestered in a secret spot here on planet Earth? Is there only one heaven or are there multiple heavens? Is it inhabited only by divine beings or is it accessible to mortal earthlings? Is it entered by the redeemed immediately after death or do we have to wait until Jesus returns? Is it a blissful theme park where we fellowship eternally with friends and divine beings, or is it a monotonously boring place where we simply sit on clouds and play harps?
There is considerable variation among the different religions in how heaven is perceived, even among Christians who ostensibly base their beliefs on the Bible. Our perceptions of what heaven is like should be based on scripture, but our views vary depending on our interpretations of scripture and our perspectives may be tainted by what we are told by parents, pastors, teachers, or friends, or by what we see in movies and other media. Setting aside for the time being what others believe, let’s focus on what the Bible reveals about heaven.
Is heaven literal or metaphorical? The Hebrew word for “heaven” (shamayim) is used 392 times in the Old Testament and the Greek word for “heaven” (ouranos) is used 256 times in the New Testament. The English translations of these words into singular “heaven” or plural “heavens” are used somewhat interchangeably, vary among different versions of the Bible, and are debated among theologians (e.g., “heaven” of KJV and “heavens” of NIV in Genesis 1:1). The terms “heaven” or “heavens” usually have three distinct meanings: 1) the Earth’s atmosphere, in which birds fly (Lamentations 4:19) and from which rain and snow fall (e.g., Deuteronomy 11:11; Isaiah 55:10; Acts 14:17); 2) more distant heavenly bodies, including the moon and stars or the entire universe (e.g., Genesis 1:1); and 3) the abode of God (e.g., Matthew 6:9), which is usually what comes to mind when we think of heaven. “Heaven” can also substitute for the name of God, such as “sinning against heaven” (Luke 15:18-21). The first two of the three usual meanings (the atmosphere and the universe) are certainly literal, for we can see them. Theologians debate whether the third meaning of heaven as the home of God is literal or metaphorical. Perhaps the strongest argument for heaven being a literal place comes directly from the words of Jesus in John 14:2 (KJV): “In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.” It’s difficult to dismiss such language as being metaphorical.
Where is heaven located? The Bible does not state where heaven is located, but dozens of verses refer to both heaven and earth as though they are distinctly different places (Deuteronomy 4:39; Joshua 2:11; 2 Kings 19:15; 1 Chronicles 29:11-12, 6:14; Ezra 5:11; Psalm 6:34, 115:15, 121:2, 124:8, 134:3, 146:6; Ecclesiastes 5:2; Isaiah 14:12, 37:16, 66:1; Jeremiah 33:25, 51:48; Matthew 5:18; 6:19-20, 24:35, 28:18; Mark 13:31; Luke 2:14, 10:21, 16:17, 21:33; John 14:2-3; Acts 14:15, 17:24; 1 Corinthians 8:5, 15:40-49; Ephesians 3:15; Colossians 1:16-20; 3:2; Philippians 2:10; 3:20; 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17; Hebrews 1:10; 2 Peter 1:18). Based on these verses it is difficult to conclude that heaven is a utopian slice of paradise somewhere here on planet Earth. If indeed heaven is a literal place, it must be somewhere else in the universe, presumably well beyond our solar system.
How many heavens are there? The dwelling place of God is usually referred to as singular “heaven.” Aside from the frequently used term “heavens,” which usually refers to the atmosphere or constellations, there is only one enigmatic Bible text explicitly quantifying the number of heavens. In 2 Corinthians 12:2, Paul refers a man “caught up to the third heaven.” The usual explanation is that Paul is referring to the first heaven as the atmosphere, the second as the constellations, and the third as the home of God. This explanation is consistent with the three usual meanings of heaven described above.
Who inhabits heaven? The Bible repeatedly declares that heaven is the dwelling place of God (Deuteronomy 26:15; 1 Kings 8:30-49; 2 Chronicles 6:23-39, 18:18, 30:27; Psalm 11:4, 20:6, 102:19, 103:19, 115:3; Ecclesiastes 5:2; Isaiah 66:1; Matthew 5:16-45, 6:1-32, 7:11, 10:32-33; 12:50, 16:17, 18:10-35, 23:9; Mark 11:25; Acts 7:49-56; 2 Corinthians 5:1; Ephesians 6:9; Colossians 4:1; 2 Timothy 4:18; Hebrews 1:3, 12:22; Revelation 11:19, 13:6). Jesus was in heaven before his earthly ministry (John 3:13-31, 6:33-58; Ephesians 4:10; 1 Thessalonians 1:10, Revelation 7:9-11), and after his earthly ministry Jesus returned to heaven (Luke 24:51; Acts 1:1-11, 7:56; 2 Thessalonians 1:7; 1 Thessalonians 4:16; 2 Thessalonians 1:7; Hebrews 4:14, 8:1-2, 9:24-26, 12:22-24; 1 Peter 3:21-22). Angels dwell in heaven (Matthew 18:10, 22:30, 28:2; Mark 12:25, 13:32, 16:19; Luke 2:13-15, 22:43; John 1:51, Galatians 1:8; Hebrews 12:22; Revelation 10:1, 11:11, 12:7-9, 14:7, 15:1-6, 18:1, 20:1) and presumably represent the “host” (KJV) or “multitudes” (NIV) of heaven mentioned in a few texts (2 Chronicles 18:18; Nehemiah 9:6). Satan and his angels dwelled in heaven until they were expelled after a war with Michael (usually interpreted as Jesus) and his angels (Revelation 12:7-9). The patriarch Enoch “walked with God” (Genesis 5:22-24), suggesting that he was taken to heaven. The prophet Elijah “went up by a whirlwind into heaven” (2 Kings 2:11). Moses is apparently in heaven because he appeared with Elijah at the transfiguration of Jesus (Luke 9:30; Matthew 17:3; Mark 9:4). Many Christians believe that our ancestors who have died and merit salvation are currently in heaven, but several Bible texts, as we shall see below, suggest that the reward of eternal life has yet to be received.
Can humans go to heaven and, if so, when? The Bible clearly teaches that the redeemed will receive eternal life (e.g., Matthew 19:29, 25:46; Mark 10:30; Luke 18:30; John 3:15-16, 36, 4:14, 5:24, 6:27-68, 10:28), but Christians are divided on whether eternal life is granted when we go to heaven immediately after death or after Jesus returns. Nevertheless, several texts strongly suggest that the redeemed, including King David, have not yet ascended to heaven (Matthew 3:13; John 3:13; Acts 2:34) or received their reward (Hebrews 11:13), and will be resurrected when Jesus returns and ascend with Him to heaven (Daniel 12:2; John 5:28-29, 6:44-54, 11:24; 1 Corinthians 15:20-23, 51-54; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17).
What is heaven like? The Bible offers few clues about the physical appearance of heaven; in contrast, more details are provided for New Jerusalem, which descends from heaven to a new earth (Revelation 21-22). However, we know that there are many homes in which we will live (John 14:2-3) in the city of the living God, where multitudes gather to worship (Hebrews 12:22-23). Within this city is the temple of God with the ark of the covenant (Revelation 3:12, 7:15, 11:19, 15:5). Presumably inside the temple there is an open door leading to God’s throne, which is encircled by a rainbow and surrounded by twenty-four other thrones, and nearby there are seven lamps (Revelation 4:1-5, 7:9-17). In front of the throne there appears to be a sea of glass that is crystal clear (Revelation 4:6, 15:1-2).
What will our daily lives be like in heaven? We are told that “no eye has seen, ...no ear has heard, and...no human mind has conceived the things God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9). Nevertheless, the Bible provides glimpses of what life will be like in heaven.
To begin, we will be much more comfortable. Our bodies will be transformed so that our previous infirmities will disappear, our new bodies will be incorruptible (Isaiah 35:3-5; 1 Corinthians 15:42-54; Philippians 3:20-21), and we will all be beautiful (Zechariah 9:16-17). We are assured that we will no longer suffer from excessive heat, physical or emotional pain, crying, or death (Isaiah 65:19; Revelation 7:16, 17, 21:4). Surely we will be happy in heaven, rejoicing and leaping for joy (Luke 6:23). Although we will still eat food and drink beverages (Matthew 8:11, 26:29; Luke 22:18, 29-30; Revelation 19:9), we will no longer suffer from hunger and thirst (Revelation 7:16). Because the carnivorous beasts of our planet will apparently be transformed into peaceful vegetarians in heaven (Isaiah 11:6-7, 65:25), we too will likely be vegetarian. Perhaps we will retain our earthly names because we will be eating with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, whose names are not changed, in heaven (Matthew 8:11), and our names are written in the Lamb’s book of life (Revelation 21:27). The Bible does not tell us what our apparent age will be; presumably we will appear grown up but youthful, and our appearance will not change with age. Likewise, we are uninformed about whether our gender will be retained, but Jesus apparently retained his gender after his resurrection and so may we. Although it’s difficult to comprehend the implications, we apparently will not be married (Matthew 22:30). Just as Adam and Eve were given the task to work in the Garden of Eden and take care of it (Genesis 2:15), we will probably have jobs in heaven, but surely they will be more enjoyable and satisfying than our current toils. Although we won’t be able to take anything from earth to heaven (1 Timothy 6:7-8), we won’t worry about our personal possessions because they will not be corrupted by moths or vermin, and will not be stolen by thieves (Matthew 6:19-20). We will enjoy fellowshipping with a diversity of redeemed humans representing many nations, tribes, and languages (Revelation 7:9), and together we will enjoy worshiping our Creator and Redeemer in heaven and the new earth throughout eternity (Isaiah 66:23).
To paraphrase a popular song by MercyMe, for now we can only imagine how enjoyable life will be like in heaven. Perhaps those who have suffered the most in this life are the most eager to go to heaven. More than a century ago a young schoolteacher, Eliza Edmunds Hewitt (1851-1920), became bedridden for a prolonged period after being struck in the back with a heavy slate by a boy who was being disciplined. Despite her painful condition, she shared with others the joy she felt in knowing Jesus by writing poems, many of which became popular hymns. One such hymn, published in 1898, eloquently expressed her emotions—and those of all of us—as she eagerly awaited her arrival at the ultimate travel destination:
When we all get to heaven,
What a day of rejoicing that will be!
When we all see Jesus,
We’ll sing and shout the victory!
Floyd Hayes is a Professor of Biology at Pacific Union College.
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