There are few things cherished more strongly among true believers than heaven—it is the confident assertion of just about all that 'I'm going to heaven when I die'. However, the Bible itself says very little on the subject. The reason is because Scripture concentrates more on the Person than the place. Its focus is on the Lord. Yes, as Christians, we are to "rejoice" that our "names are written in the heavens" (Luke 10: 20), but we belong there because we know the One who fills that place. The place is nothing without the Person—heaven is only heaven because the Lord is there.
If the Bible does not say much about heaven, then this is in contrast to popular theology. While the Word of God lays great emphasis on the Person, Christian writers and speakers place undue emphasis on the place. And because they have much to say, they cast around looking for verses and passages on which to hang their doctrine. The end result is that Scripture is frequently interpreted in a very loose way—misinterpreted in fact. For example, Isaiah 51: 11 is erroneously taken to be a description of heaven: "So the ransomed of Jehovah shall return, and come to Zion with singing; and everlasting joy shall be upon their heads: they shall obtain gladness and joy; sorrow and sighing shall flee away". It is the old problem of reading ourselves and our blessings into passages that really refer to others. The context of the passage shows that it is about Israel and the coming millennium—an earthly scene. Indeed, it is common practice to confuse the millennial glory—the public display of the kingdom of the heavens, (or heaven’s reign over the earth)—and heaven itself.
Some people are in the habit of quoting texts—so much so that the Bible seems only to be a collection of texts rather than one whole. No one doubts, for example, that the words "their heart shall be joyful in Jehovah" (Zech. 10: 7) is a true reflection of how we shall feel when we are in heaven, but the prophet was not writing about heaven!
Instead of letting Scripture teach us, this is importing our own thoughts into the Word (even if the thoughts in themselves are correct). If we are not careful, the true message of the Bible will be rapidly lost under a mass of so–called 'spiritual' applications. To learn about heaven we need to turn to the Scriptures that actually speak about heaven.
The Old Testament Concept of Blessing
The OT concept of blessing was linked with earth rather than heaven. Thus when "Abram passed through the land to the place of Shechem, to the oak of Moreh", God appeared to Him with the promise that "Unto thy seed will I give this land" (Gen. 12: 6, 7). The apostle Peter makes use of the earthly character of the blessing belonging to Israel to bring out the superior nature of the Christian hope. Thus (speaking to Jewish Christians), he proclaims "Blessed [be] the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who, according to his great mercy, has begotten us again to a living hope through [the] resurrection of Jesus Christ from among [the] dead, to an incorruptible and undefiled and unfading inheritance, reserved in [the] heavens for you" (1 Pet. 1: 3– 4, my emphasis). Of course the truly godly among the children of Israel looked for something more than what was merely outward. Thus Abraham himself "waited for the city which has foundations, of which God is [the] artificer and constructor" (Heb. 11: 10). However, this does not alter the earthly character of what they anticipated—Daniel, for example, was promised at the very end of his life that "thou shalt rest, and stand in thy lot at the end of the days" (Dan. 12: 13), his lot being his inheritance in the promised land.
Sheol, Hades and the Lake of Fire
The hope of the Jew was to be raised at the end of the age in order to be a part of the Messiah’s glorious reign over the earth. What lay between death and resurrection was Sheol or The Grave. Now Sheol (or Hades, its NT equivalent—compare Ps. 16: 10 and Acts 2: 27) must not be confused with The Lake of Fire. The Lake of Fire (or Hell) will not be occupied by anyone until after the Lord comes in glory and power to judge the earth (see Rev. 19: 20; 20: 11–15).
Sheol and Hades are somewhat vague terms which refer to the temporary state of departed spirits. In Hades, Lazarus was "comforted" (Luke 16: 25) as being in "the bosom of Abraham" (v22), while the rich man was "in suffering" (v25). The believing Jew had no concept of going to heaven when he died but it would appear that he had some understanding that he would enter a temporary state of blessing prior to the "resurrection in the last day" (John 11: 24). That state the Lord here describes as Abraham’s bosom (which, note, has a personal touch to it: 'Abraham's bosom').
Death occurs when the spirit is separated from the body (see James 2: 26). The Lord Jesus, in that He "became dead" (Rev. 1: 18), entered Hades—"for thou wilt not leave my soul in hades, nor wilt thou give thy gracious one to see corruption" (Acts 2: 27). His soul, as disembodied was in Hades, while the corruption (that He did not see) refers only to His body in the tomb.
The thief on the cross also entered Hades, but that state (assuming he was a Jew) is not now described as 'the bosom of Abraham' but "paradise" (Luke 23: 43). Both the Lord and the thief were in the disembodied state, and both are described as being in a sphere of blessing: "To–day shalt thou be with me in paradise" (Again, note the personal nature of the blessing: 'with me'). Now after his resurrection, the Lord was seen by his disciples for "forty days" (Acts 1: 3) after which He was "carried up into heaven" (Luke 24: 51). So how could the thief be in paradise with Christ from the start when the Lord did not ascend into paradise until many days later? The mistake is to make too direct a link between paradise and heaven as a place. The thief was in paradise because his spirit was in the presence of the Lord. Exactly where the Lord was is not the point—the thief was with the Lord. The Person, rather than any place as such, is what the Lord here describes as paradise.
For the Christian who has died, his state of blessedness is described as "being with Christ" (Phil. 1: 23). Again, the focus is on the Person. Of course Christ is now in heaven but the Scriptures do not exactly say that this is the current position of those who have "fallen asleep through Jesus" (1 Thess. 4: 14). If it was, then at the rapture, when the Lord will "descend from heaven" (v16), shall these spirits leave heaven too? To say so would be to miss the point. The spirits are not said to be in heaven, but to be "with Christ". It is a spiritual idea rather than one about physical locality as such—a state rather than a place. Some talk of "so great a cloud of witnesses" (Heb. 12: 1) looking down from glory on the living saints but this owes more to imagination than Biblical fact. As Christians, we "boast in hope of the glory of God" (Rom. 5: 2), but glory is associated with resurrection and not the state after death (see 1 Cor. 15: 43). Our entrance into glory will be at the rapture (see 1 Thess. 4: 16, 17). Being "absent from the body and present with the Lord" (2 Cor. 5: 8), though blessed, is not an identical thought to being in heaven as such.
The Witness of Paul
It has been said that no one knows anything of heaven from experience because no one has returned to tell it. This is not true. In 2 Cor. 12 Paul relates how he was "caught up to [the] third heaven" (v2). Since he speaks of the third heaven, we are justified in assuming that there are two others (see Eph. 4: 10; Heb. 4: 14), and also that the third heaven is third because the writer was counting from where he was—on earth.
It can be implied then that the first or lower heaven is what we breathe with our lungs and see with our eyes—the air and sky. Thus we read of the "fowl of the heavens" (Jer. 4: 25) and the "clouds of heaven" (Mark 14: 62). The writer of Genesis also refers to the expanse between the waters on the earth and the evaporated waters held above the earth as "Heavens" (Gen. 1: 8). Again, when the Lord raptures his saints to glory, we shall "meet the Lord in [the] air" (1 Thess. 4: 17). Using the Tabernacle as a divinely given figure of the heavenlies, the first heaven would correspond with the Court, which bordered the outside world in the same way as the first heaven touches the earth.
Man always looks up into the heavens. The limits of his natural eyes are the stars and planets beyond the atmosphere of the earth. This we take to be the second heaven, corresponding with the Holy Place of the Tabernacle. The first verse in the Bible refers to the establishment of the second heaven: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" (Gen. 1: 1). The "present heavens" (which refers to the physical heavens in their entirety) will be "dissolved" at the end of the millennium. The "day of God" (or the eternal state) will be marked by "new heavens and a new earth" (2 Pet. 3: 7, 12, 13).
This brings us on to the third heaven, the place where Paul "heard unspeakable things said which it is not allowed to man to utter" (2 Cor. 12: 4). Man can appreciate the first and second heavens for they are physical but here we are clearly beyond all human powers of investigation, or even of thought or expression. This heaven then corresponds to the Holy of Holies—the very presence of God Himself. Paul was "caught up into paradise" which reminds us of that great 'catching up' which will shortly take place for all those who have been made "fit for sharing the portion of the saints in light" (Col. 1: 12). We, in anticipation, wait for God’s Son "from the heavens" (1 Thess. 1: 10).
The Witness of Stephen
If the third heaven is out of reach of the natural powers of man, it is not beyond that of a man "full of [the] Holy Spirit" (Acts 7: 55). Stephen "fixed his eyes on heaven" but his gaze took in more than normal for he beheld "the heavens opened" (v56). That which is usually closed off to the eye of man was opened up to him.
What Stephen saw in heaven was a man standing in the very presence of God: "Lo, I behold the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God". The rejected man on earth is crowned with glory and honour in heaven. Men dream of going to heaven when they die, but there will be no heaven for them then unless they prostrate themselves before heaven’s Man now. Why? Because God has highly exalted him, and granted him a name, that which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow" (Phil. 2: 9, 10). And every knee will bow, for Christ now sits "at [the] right hand of God, waiting from henceforth until his enemies be set [for the] footstool of his feet" (Heb. 10: 12, 13).
The Witness of John
Traditional belief as regards the Devil is that he is the king of hell, but the Bible teaches quite the contrary. Instead he is "the ruler of the authority of the air" (Eph. 2: 2) and not only that, he accesses the very courts of God Himself. The present position is that hell is empty and that Satan moves freely in and out of heaven.
John calls the Devil the "accuser of our brethren …who accused them before our God day and night" (Rev. 12: 10), and we get a remarkable illustration of this in the OT. The verses speak for themselves: "And there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before Jehovah; and Satan came also among them … And Jehovah said to Satan, Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God and abstaineth from evil? And Satan answered Jehovah and said, Doth Job fear God for nought?" (Job 1: 6, 8, 9). Why God allows such things is a mystery for which Scripture does not supply an answer.
However, it was given to the apostle John to make known how this intrusion is brought to an end: "And there was war in the heaven: Michael and his angels went to war with the dragon. And the dragon fought, and his angels; and he prevailed not, nor was their place found any more in the heaven. And the great dragon was cast out, the ancient serpent, he who is called Devil and Satan, he who deceives the whole habitable world, he was cast into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him" (Rev. 12: 7–9).
Many Christians would turn to the book of Revelation when seeking verses that describe heaven, but careful examination shows that many of these are misinterpreted. In chapter 4, the apostle John has a vision of "a door opened in heaven" and a voice saying "Come up here, and I will shew thee the things which must take place after these things" (v1). However, much of what John saw does not relate directly to heaven itself, but is heaven’s view of events transpiring on earth. Even chapter 21, which is commonly taken to be a description of heaven itself, is not all that it seems. Verse 4, "And he shall wipe away every tear from their eyes …" etc. has as much to do with earth as with heaven. This is because there will be saints on earth as well as in heaven—the idea that all believers will be in heaven is widespread, but it is a misconception nonetheless. The immediate context is "the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of the heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband" (v2, my emphasis). It would be more accurate to say that v4 does not describe heaven as such, but the blessed conditions into which all God’s people are introduced irrespective of whether their portion is heavenly (in the new Jerusalem) or earthly.
The Witness of Christ
Speaking reverently, there is no one who knows heaven better than the Lord Jesus. The first man was "out of [the] earth, made of dust", but "the second man, out of heaven" (1 Cor. 15: 47). His own testimony was "I am come down from heaven, not that I should do my will, but the will of him that has sent me" (John 6: 38). Furthermore, while Elijah was carried up into heaven by a whirlwind (see 2 Kings 2: 11), and Enoch "was not, for God took him" (Gen. 5: 24), Christ was the only one who went up of his own volition. Hence "no one has gone up into heaven, save he who came down out of heaven, the Son of man who is in heaven" (John 3: 13).
The Lord Jesus inhabits heaven because of who He is for "the Christ … is over all, God blessed forever" (Rom. 9: 5). Yet He also has a place there as Man by right, because of what He has done. No other man has place or portion there. Nonetheless the Lord distinctly promised His disciples while with them on earth that "I go to prepare you a place; and if I go and shall prepare you a place, I am coming again and shall receive you to myself, that where I am ye also may be" (John 14: 2, 3)1. How could it be that we, sinners by nature, could have a place where He is? The wonder of the Gospel is that "as we have borne the image of the [one] made of dust, we shall bear also the image of the heavenly [one]" (1 Cor. 15: 49). Christ has brought this about by His death on the cross, and as "raised up from among [the] dead by the glory of the Father" (Rom. 6: 4) and "received up in glory" (1 Tim. 3: 16) our place with Him is all prepared. Heaven is heaven because He is there.
If our idea of heaven is personal happiness, meeting departed loved ones or a place of peace and rest, then we have rather missed the point. Heaven is indeed a real place with definite and blessed features, but it only becomes heaven because Christ is there. Long ago, a true disciple of the Lord enquired of Him "where abidest thou?" (John 1: 38, my emphasis). For him, the place was only as good as the Person. May you and I have the same outlook!
1: Strictly speaking, the subject of John 14: 2, 3 is the Father’s House, although heaven is clearly included in the thought. As Christians, our abode is in heaven, but the "many abodes" (v2) may embrace blessing on earth.