What is Heaven?

Few words carry such meaning and confusion as “Heaven”.  Little children address assign both their prayers and hopes to heaven, while the word’s sheer breadth of meaning confuse elderly academics. 

Part of the confusion stems from what C. S. Lewis called transposition.  That word derives from the activity of re-composing a piece written for one musical instrument, say, the piano, for another instrument, say, a guitar.  The piano, of course, can play many more notes than the guitar, so often several notes or chords written for the piano piece will be represented by only one note or chord on the guitar. 

In the same way, the word “heaven” is used to describe more than one thing.  In fact, it designates several related but separate ideas, and only by pulling the strands of the knot apart can we gain access to the meaning.

First, heaven can mean the air or the atmosphere.  Birds and clouds fill this heaven, and it is from this heaven that the rain quenches the thirst of the earth.

Second, heaven can mean what we refer to as space, or what is beyond our atmosphere. This heaven is populated not with birds, but stars and planets. 

Now, both these two senses sometimes blend together to refer to all things that are above the earth.  In this sense, sometimes all physical creation is designated by the terms, “the heavens and the earth”, as in Genesis 1:1.  But they can also be distinguished.  For example, Psalm 8 refers to the heavens in verse 3 as being filled with the “moon and stars, which you have set in place”.  That same Psalm could later speak of man’s role of dominion over the things of this planet, which include the beasts of the field, the fish of the sea, and the birds of the heavens (verses 6-8). 

Another sense of the word heaven is also used in that same psalm.  Verse five says that mankind has been made, “a little lower than the heavenly beings”.  Both the context and the New Testament usage (Hebrews 2:5-8) tell us that this means that mankind is made a little lower than angelic beings, that is, inhabitants of the spirit world.

The third sense heaven, then is as a spiritual realm, not a place in the universe.  Heaven in this sense is not somewhere one could travel physically; it is nowhere on the map on the universe, nor does it exist physically “outside” the universe.  This is apparently what Paul meant when he said he was given a vision of “the third heaven” ( II Corinthians 12:2). I will be speaking of this heaven the rest of the way.

This meaning of heaven is inherently difficult for those not in heaven to understand, just as a three-dimensional universe would be inherently obscure to a person who lived in only two dimensions (as Edwin Abbot illustrated in his wonderful classic novel, Flatland).  It speaks of what is both beyond this world, and what is not like this world.  Yet, as Ecclesiastes seems to hint in that enigmatic phrase, “you have set eternity in our hearts”, humans have been reluctant to give up the idea that something is “beyond”, even if it proves difficult to comprehend.

It may be helpful to distinguish four aspects of this third sense of heaven.  These distinctions are conceptual, not actual (or noetic, not ontological, if you like being technical).  That is, they distinguish between four different aspects of the third meaning of heaven, not four different additional heavens.

The first aspect of this heaven (that would be 3a for you obsessive types), is that of the spirit world.  Psalm Eight calls angels heavenly beings because heaven is their abode, as it were (though again, not physical abode).  It is their sphere of existence and activity.  Of course, angels also interact with humanity, for humans are spiritual beings as well as physical beings, and humans alone are, by nature, both physical and spiritual.  Angels are not.  They have, by nature, no physical body, though they can adopt at least the appearance of one in order to communicate with mankind. 

By the way, in this sense, even demons (fallen angels) are said to exist in heaven.  Paul reminds us that our struggle is not against physical foes, but spiritual ones, who exist “in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12). 

In this sense, then, the main emphasis is on what heaven is not: a physical place in the universe.  It exists in a totally different (and more fundamental way) than the universe.  Think of an aquarium constructed at the factory, then filled with water, plants and fish by the hobbyist.  What exists outside the aquarium is both prior to and more fundamental than what exists inside it (since forces and wills outside the aquarium affect what is inside it).

The second aspect of heaven (3b) is as the place where God “dwells”.  Now, of course, both the scriptures and all orthodox Christian theology insist that God does not have a body of any kind.  He is a spiritual being (John 4:24) and thus does not occupy space.  Space and time are features of this universe, and the concepts of time and space simply do not apply to the one who created this universe with its space and time.  We use phrases like that God existed before the universe or exists outside the universe, but these expressions are concessions to the poverty of our words to express what we have no experience of; they are not technically accurate.

What can it mean, then, when scripture pictures God as dwelling in heaven?  Why would Jesus teach us to pray, for example, “our father, which art in Heaven?” God is emphasizing, through metaphor, His transcendence over our existence, and his control over all that happens in this universe.  Transcendence means that He is not contained in this universe, nor limited by anything in this universe (neither the laws and forces of nature or the schemes and power of man).  To say that God is “in heaven” is to affirm not that he exists physically in a place one could point to on a map, but that this world can neither contain Him nor limit Him. 

For the believer, one other thing about heaven as God’s existence is also dear. That is the idea that we will in some way share that dwelling with Him.  This is the idea behind the promise of Jesus that “in my father’s house are many rooms…I am going to prepare a place for you….on that day you will realize that I am in my father, and you are in me, and I am in you” (John 14).  The mystery and ambiguity of what this actually looks like spring from the incredible, category-breaking nature of the promise: that somehow, physical and once-fallen beings like ourselves will dwell with the Spirit who is beyond all. 

The third aspect of heaven (3c) is the place of perfection and power which somehow exists “alongside” this world we experience.  Though heaven in this aspect is often seen as being “above” our world, this is metaphorical, not literal.  It is good to raise our eyes or voice to heaven, as long as we understand the reality beyond the symbol. 

In this sense, help comes from heaven to the supplicant believer.  Isaiah 57:15 says,

 For this is what the high and exalted One says—
   he who lives forever, whose name is holy:
“I live in a high and holy place,
   but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit,
to revive the spirit of the lowly
   and to revive the heart of the contrite.

James 3:15-17 speaks of wisdom that comes “from heaven”, Psalm 14:2 says the Lord examines men by looking down from heaven, while psalm 105:40 testifies that he satisfied his people by sending the “bread of heaven” (manna).   All these verses, and dozens more, speak of heaven as not only the place God dwells, but the place from which he interacts with this world.

Finally, the fourth aspect of heaven(3d) describes the coming, perfect kingdom: the perfect order and beauty of the eternal state, the place where true believers will, in a resurrected body, commune with God, worship God, and rule with God over a perfected physical creation.  Interestingly, this is not usually called “heaven” in the scriptures, but in many ways this is the goal and fulfillment of the first three aspects of heaven. The eternal dwelling of God in the spirit realm, with all its beauty, holiness, power, and perfection, is now open to a new humanity.  As the oak replaces the acorn, the new heaven and new earth (that is, the entirety of the physical creation) replace the old heaven and old earth.   This New Jerusalem both comes down from heaven (Rev. 21:2) and becomes heaven, the place where God and His people now dwell together.  The shout raised at the event will celebrate the marriage of heaven and earth, of God and His people: “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them, and be their God.  He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away (Rev. 21:3-4). 

One final question needs to be addressed: Is it correct to say that when a believer dies, they “go to heaven”? 

I think the answer to this is yes, but we should understand that in a full way, not a simplistic, childish way.  God is not dwelling on a cloud somewhere beyond the planets, waiting for us to come and pick up our harps and join him. And certainly the fullest and final expression of heaven (3d) awaits the judgment and resurrection, events that are still in the future from our perspective.  Yet, Paul could also speak of his impending death with the comforting thought that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (Phil. 1:19-26), and Jesus could promise the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise”. 

The paradox between these two themes (immediate communion with Christ after death versus the wait for the judgment, resurrection, marriage feast and New Jerusalem) has led many biblical scholars to posit something of an intermediate state between our present death and our future resurrection.  That is, when we die we exist in some state in communion with Christ, but are not resurrected bodily till the general resurrection in the last days.  Others have suggested that the intermediary state should be called soul-sleep, that is, that our body seems to be asleep while our soul is with Christ.  My own problem with this is understanding how we could exist in a disembodied state.  The idea goes beyond our human experience, and thus, our human reason.  This does not mean it should be rejected, but it does suggest we leave the description of the intermediate state open. 

But perhaps the tension between our immediate communion with Christ (at death) and our delayed resurrection should not bother us too much if we remember that time is a category of this world only, and that what we may experience immediately (while not in this world) may, from the perspective of this world, be far in the future. 

So, in this sense, I think it is permissible to speak of believers going to heaven when they die, as long as we understand that the emphasis of the scripture is not on our individual entrance to the pearly gates, but God’s plan to redeem and perfect creation (of which we, amazingly, can be a part). It is when we fully understand that the overwhelming purpose of God is to create a new resurrected humanity capable of dwelling with Him as rulers over a perfected new creation, so that He can expand the circle of Trinitarian love to (for He is love), that we truly long with creation itself (Romans 8: 18-25) for the day when the voice cries out: “Now [at last!] the dwelling of God is with men!”. Come quickly, Lord Jesus!