What is heaven? What is heaven to you? What is heaven to your neighbour? If a clear answer were available there would not be so much ambiguity about the subject.
The Hebrew word is sha-ma’yim. It is plural and literally means someplace(s) ‘high above.’ The Greek word for heaven is Ouranos, which means sky. The same word is used for the god Uranus, who was the husband of Gaia, mother Earth.
The word sha-ma’yim appears in the first verse of the Bible, ‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth...’ From the very beginning a distinction is drawn between the earth we know and places about that we don’t know. A close relationship between heaven and earth was understood by Hebrews and Greeks.
The second appearance of the word sha-ma’yim is in Deuteronomy 10:14. ‘To the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything under it.’ The Old Testament consistently describes heaven as the abode of God and angels. Earth is the home of men and women, who may be visited by angels.
Where did people in the Old Testament go after death? Not a single verse suggests that the souls of deceased humans rise up to heaven. The Old Testament consistently refers to the dead inhabiting a place called Sheol (Hebrew) or Hades (Greek). The resting of place of the dead was not ‘hell’ as Christians have come to understand Hades, but a ‘grave’ or ‘pit’ which signifies a place of mass burial for the human race. The word sheol is found numerous times in the Old Testament.
Genesis 37:34-35 And Jacob tore his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his loins, and mourned for his son (Joseph) many days. And all his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted; and he said, ‘For I will go down into the grave (sheol) unto my son mourning.’
Ecclesiastes 9:10 Whatsoever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave (sheol), where you are going.
Greeks and Romans shared the belief that dead souls would pass eternity in a dreary subterranean demi-monde. An exception to the rule was made for heroes who would spend eternity in the Land of the Blessed, enjoying food, drink and sex exactly as they had done during their earthly lives. Both Homer and Hesiod described Elysium and the Elysian Fields, which was as remote to the vast majority of mere mortals as the high heavens of the gods.
Heaven begins to take on new meanings in the New Testament. Within the first verse of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus announces (5:20) ‘whosoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.’ How would these words have been interpreted by a Jewish audience that could only conceive of God and the angels in heaven? ‘Will be called great in the kingdom of heaven’ could refer to a conversation between God and angels, or even a declaration by God alone. These words would not have been interpreted as a promise that humans would be lifted up to heaven. The most probable interpretation was that Jesus, as the Messiah, would establish a heavenly Kingdom on earth. This would account for the huge crowds that greeted him as a conquering ruler. The crowds rapidly dwindled as the promised ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ became increasingly abstract and remote.
Later in the Gospel of Matthew (16:19) Jesus promises Peter he will receive keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. But there is no suggestion that Peter needs to travel to heaven to take possession of the keys or that he will rule from heaven. The promises refer only to this world. ‘Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven...’
Other verses in the New Testament refer to Heaven as God’s throne and earth as his footstool Acts (7:49), Jesus returning on the clouds of heaven (Mark 14:62), and the wrath of God being revealed from heaven (Romans 1:18).
A curious passage that has elicited much discussion is found in 2 Corinthians 12:2. It describes a visit to heaven to ‘hear inexpressible things which a man is not permitted to tell.’ The account is given by Paul but he says he heard it from a friend and admits he is not certain whether it was an actual physical visit to heaven or merely a vision. To cloud matters more, Paul says the man was caught up to ‘the third heaven.’ From its first verse the Bible speaks of heavens in the plural. Is the full number of heavens three? Some claim there are seven heavens. What does Paul report? He is not permitted to tell. Did he see people in this third heaven? Paul is not permitted to tell. What was the point of even mentioning this visit/vision to the third heaven? Paul is not permitted to tell anything except that it gave him the right to boast about being privy to divine visions and revelation.
The most revealing feature of Paul’s anecdote is that third heaven (12:2) and paradise (12:3) are both used to describe the mysterious place. ‘Paradise’ is a richly evocative word which will open new doors onto the afterlife. This word is only used a few times in the Bible.1) to describe Eden, which is clearly not celestial. 2) in the Book of Revelation to describe restored Eden and the tree of life (Revelation 2:7). There is no reason to believe this refers to a celestial paradise. 3) in Luke 23:43 which is a problematic verse, easily misinterpreted.
Every use of the Greek word ouranos in the New Testament refers to God and is remote from human experience. The only detailed description of the afterlife are found at the end of the Book of Revelation in chapters 21 and 22. But these are prophesies of distant, future events which will take place after life on earth is ended, after the 1000 year resurrection, after the old heaven and earth have been dissolved. Only then will the New Heaven and Earth described in the final two chapters of revelation be created. The afterlife appears to take place in a renewed terrestrial Eden rather than a celestial heaven.
What does the New Testament reveal about the current state of the dead? Has it added anything to the bleak mass grave of Hades revealed in the Old Testament? The short answer is no. The New Testament is clear that there will be a future resurrection and in the distant future, a New Heaven and a New Earth.
For many devout Christians this is a shocking assertion. We have heard over and over from the pulpit and at funerals that the dead are lifted directly to eternal paradise. Surely this is what Jesus taught? This blessed assurance is the hope of the Church. It is what orthodox Christians have always believed.
What about the story of Lazarus and the rich man? (Like 16:19-31) This is held up as proof positive that the dead are already assigned to heaven or hell and fully conscious of their judgement. Or it could be a parable about evidence and belief. If the rich man is in hell simply because he was comfortable in this life and did not give everything he owned to the poor, we are all doomed. Why would the rich man’s brothers believe a beggar had risen from the dead to bang at their door and warn them to change their wicked ways? Jesus makes his point at the end of the parable for his hearers: the world already has Moses and the prophets which they have not believed. In a short while he will rise from the dead and most will not believe him.
The Early Church came from a two different religious traditions: Hebrew and Pagan. Both groups brought with them the same expectation of the afterlife. They believed that their ancestors were sleeping or living a dim-half life beneath the earth. This was an ancient tradition. There was nothing fearful in believing the dead ‘rest in peace.’
The first generations of Christians were concerned about their dead parents, grandparents, and great grandparents who had never heard the gospel. What provision had God made for the dead to hear this new Gospel? The first Christians were concerned about infants who died too young to accept Jesus as their Saviour. What provision had God made for them? The Gospel proclaimed that Jesus was, and would be, Saviour of all. It was clear to Early Christians (it is still true, but not so clear to modern Christians) that the vast majority of the human race had never heard of Jesus. What provision had God made for all those people to hear the Gospel of salvation?
Early Christians were familiar with the dead being laid in a place of rest. They were terrified by the idea of standing in the presence of Almighty God. They began to interpret scripture to describe an intermediary place where the dead – New Testament Christians, Old testament Jews and Gentiles, infants and non-Christians from remote lands - would be resurrected for 1000 years to prepare themselves to spend eternity with Almighty God. They perfectly understood the warning (Revelation 21:27) ‘Nothing impure will ever enter into it (the New Jerusalem) nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful.’ Early Christians were under no illusions or delusions that their best efforts at living holy lives had not fully eliminated impurity, shameful behaviour and deceit.
The Early Church did not spend a lot of time thinking about eternity. A 1000 year future resurrection was a strange new idea but at least they could understand its purpose. What they were supposed to do throughout eternity in the New Heaven and Earth was too remote and abstract to contemplate.
Augustine had different ideas. He was at war with Pagans and required an immediate solution. Augustine could not allow Pagans the option of reconciling with God during a future resurrection. They must submit to Christian baptism immediately. As well as abolishing freewill and freedom of worship, Augustine abolished the dangerous belief in a literal, future 1000 years resurrection. Christians of his day were no less impure, shameful or deceitful than the Early Church. He knew full well that the Bible made it ludicrous to promise people they would be lifted directly to God’s presence. Augustine replaced the resurrection with Purgatory. How long were the impure required to be purged? God alone would decide, according the degree of sin. The sinner’s imagination would increase the punishment to fit the crime.
The Catholic Church continues to teach that the impure will spend time in purgatory. But what of heaven? Where do purged Catholics go after release from purgatory, and what do they do? The final chapter of The Teaching of the Catholic Church (Canon George D. Smith, 1952) is devoted to the subject of heaven and provides some remarkably candid insights.
(p1275) ‘In earlier times some were misled by certain texts in the Apocalypse of St. John (The Book of Revelation) and by the strange fancies of Jewish-Christian circles, exemplified in Papias, early in the second century. They imagined that after the General Resurrection a reign of Christ with the risen saints would be established here on earth for 1000 years. Only after the expiration of the period would the saints enter heaven and consummate bliss…These ideas were held by some in the East and West. Tertullian, Victorinus and Lactantius among the Latin Fathers, St. Irenaeus among the Greeks were affected by them; but their very words betray that these fancies were not shared by all Christians.’
Canon Smith’s candour about the Early Church can excuse his implication that the text of orthodoxy is that beliefs be held unanimously. Justin Martyr (110-165) stated clearly that this belief was widely held. ‘I and all others who are right-minded Christians on all points, are assured there will be a resurrection of the dead, and a thousand years in Jerusalem...’ Canon Smith goes on to speak about when, where and how the judgment will occur.
(p 1276) In reading the early Fathers, who speak of a delay after death, even for the saved, before they entered eternal bliss, we must remember that in many instances they are speaking of the Holy Souls in Purgatory, though they may not have used this technical term…’ Canon Smith knows perfectly well that the term purgatory and the complete doctrine were originated by Augustine in the 5th century. It requires an enormous lead of faith to believe that ‘in many instances’ the early Fathers were speaking about anything even remotely like the modern conception of purgatory. Canon Smith goes on to admit, ‘Still, even after making allowance for such cases, there must remain undoubted instances, especially of Greek Fathers, who postpone the bliss of heaven for the saved until after the General Judgment… Some few of these would use language which would suggest a state of sleep, or unconscious rest for the Saved until the day of Judgement.’
We must applaud Canon Smith for his candour even while deploring his subtle allusion that these dubious ideas do not originate with Roman Catholics but with ‘Greek Fathers’, just as in the previous quote he associated Papias with ‘Jewish-Christians’. Are we to understand that Jesus, Paul and the Apostles are somehow suspect in their beliefs because they are ‘Jewish-Christians’?
So what does the Catholic heaven look like, once the impure have passed through the purgatorial fires and been made pure? Heaven is essentially the sight of God face to face. The final chapter of The Teaching of the Catholic Church covers pages 1248-81 but does not address the question about what the blessed will actually do for eternity apart from contemplate the beatific vision.
‘At first it may seem difficult that our happiness in heaven can consist in an act of contemplation and love. On earth the common idea of enjoying oneself consists in some gratification of the senses: a sumptuous banquet, sweet music, healthy exercise, a beautiful landscape; or the company and praise of our fellow men, the achievement of some great work through the exercise of our brain and skill, the discovery of something fresh and new, the travelling through unknown and sunlit lands. These and a thousand other things flit before the human mind when it imagines supreme happiness, for this happiness is thought of as an endless variety of such things as our own experience on earth suggests. A life of contemplation may seem a pale existence, holding little attraction for us. On reflection, however, it becomes more and more evident that the highest and happiest life must be the complete satisfaction of mind and will in the sight and possession of an infinite personal Being.’
The Protestant Reformation had many complaints about Catholics and Catholicism, but agreed with Augustine on most points of doctrine, with the exception of purgatory. Luther and Calvin dismissed purgatory as a Catholic error, although it was an essential element of Augustine’s theology.
How did Luther and Calvin bridge the gap between the impurity of Christians and the perfection of heaven? Calvin provided an ingenious solution derived from Augustine’s writings against freewill. Predestination makes both purgatory and intermediary resurrection absolutely unnecessary. God alone decides which depraved humans will be saved. The elect are drawn by irresistible grace. They cannot reject salvation because Calvin’s God does not grant freewill. Because humans have no freewill, God can unilaterally change everything about them the moment they are dead. They don’t to cooperate or even be aware of the changes that have been made to their nature and character.
What does Calvin’s heaven look like? His Institutes of the Christian Religion fills up four volumes and 1258 pages but the index does not include a single reference to heaven or paradise. Why did Calvin have so little to say about heaven? Part of the answer is provided by John T. McNeil in his History and Character of Calvinism. McNeil notes that Calvin wrote commentaries ‘on the entire New Testament except Revelation, a book which he acknowledged he could not fathom... (p 153) Calvin could not understand the Book of Revelation because it utterly opposed his theology. Heaven was of little interest to him because God’s will alone would prevail. Humans divested of their passions, lusts, interests and distractions would be fully equipped to pass eternity contemplating the beatific vision of Allmerciful God who had saved them from eternal wretchedness.
Modern Charismatics share the Catholic and Calvinist belief that humans are judged at the instant of death. Unlike Catholics, Charismatics do not believe in purgatory. Unlike Calvinists, Charismatics do not believe in predestination which makes freewill irrelevant. Modern Charismatics believe that we are endowed with freewill, that we are responsible for accepting the free gift of salvation, and that the choice we make in this life will determine whether we pass eternity in heaven or hell. These beliefs are difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile.
The first problem concerns the multitude of humans who never had the slightest chance to accept Christ as their Saviour. Infants are granted a free pass into heaven. How this can be reconciled with their adult freewill is impossible to explain. Does God specifically kill off infants whose salvation was foreknown and predestined? This is a hard question. Skeptics have suggested that if early death is a guarantee of eternal salvation, loving parents would offer their children up as sacrifices rather than let them grow up to be teenagers and adults who might reject the gift of salvation.
Charismatics are divided over the fate of non-Christians. Those with universalist tendencies would like to think that all good people, from all races and nations, will be welcome in heaven. Those who remain indoctrinated by Augustine and Calvin insist that not a single non-Christian will be spared eternal torment. Why? Without Christ there is no salvation! This was one of the main reasons the Early Church saw a general resurrection as a means of offering salvation to all.
Charismatics also need to consider whether they die sufficiently pure to enter into the presence of Almighty God. They answer that the Church has always taught that the dead in Christ go directly to heaven, like Lazarus in the parable. Of course this is not true. The Early Church believed that the dead would spend a 1000 year resurrection preparing for eternity. Catholics believe that their dead will be purged for periods that may greatly exceed 1000 years. Only Calvinists believe their dead will go directly to heaven, and that is because the elect have been predestined for heaven despite their will. The Calvinist solution does not hold for people who believe in freewill.
Charismatics freely admit that they die as impure as Catholics, Calvinists and Christians of the Early Church, but they are not terrified of standing in the presence of Almighty God. Many Charismatics expect to be on a first-name basis with Jesus, and to spend eternity enjoying the same interests they love here and now. This is a brand new idea in the realm of theology. Stodgy old ideas of wings and harps and eternal praying, have been replaced by modern ideas of entertainment, the pursuit of happiness and eternal playing.
How will these carefree heaven dwellers look back at life on earth? What will they have learned? How will they apply that knowledge? Perhaps they will be so completely transformed into sinless, tearless perfection that they will not remember the sin and suffering endured for thousands of years, and the multitudes of friends and loved ones condemned to eternal torment?