Skip to main content

Why Foreign Missions? 22b Heaven

Why Foreign Missions? 22b Heaven


We speak of ‘heaven’ as the place where the righteous/believers go after death.  The previous study focused on the terms ‘sheol’ and ‘paradise’ as the place of the departed.  The present study will expand this with a focus on ‘heaven.’  Under investigation here is to what extent should our proclamation of the Gospel offer a personal hope beyond this life.  Holistic ministries that help the poor are rightly grounded in Scripture.  Yet we need to recognize that there is a potential (not necessary) tension between mission that is focussed on addressing human need here and now and mission that involves pointing people to the hope we have after death and in the future.  Also, the Prosperity Gospel, so wide-spread and so unbiblical, is a false teaching that has infected many Evangelical and charismatic fellowships in recent decades.  It offers health and wealth to believers here and now and has no answer to suffering and death apart from the indictment of people’s levels of faith: ‘If you only had more faith, you would not have these struggles.’  Thus we rightly continue our study of a Biblical view of life after death as part of our larger study on the Gospel that we proclaim as part of the mission of the Church.

I would add one further comment on the relevance of this study of heaven for missionary proclamation by way of introduction.  The distinction in Scripture between ‘heaven’ and ‘earth’ provides a division between our own, personal life before God and our corporate, earthly relationships.  As we saw in the previous study of ‘Sheol,’ there is an Old Testament notion of being gathered together with the ancestors—meaning the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in particular and others in general—the notion of ‘heaven’ in the New Testament is both more individualistic and more universal.  It is more individualistic in that one might go to heaven upon death as a believer but not be gathered to be with dead relatives who were not believers.  It is more universal in the sense that there will be believers from every tribe, language, people, and nation (Rev. 5.9; 13.7; 14.6).  This teaching eclipses animistic ties to the tribe’s ancestors or a spouse’s unwillingness to become a believer because his or her deceased wife or husband had not come to faith.  The hope of heaven also eclipses unduly nationalistic or ethnic foci in the faith.  And it directly challenges the notion that mission that has to do with our separating the wheat from the chaff in this life (as in the medieval Christian crusades, Afrikaner settlement in South Africa, or American ‘manifest destiny’ settlement of native American tribal lands—or as in many Muslim practices towards non-Muslims).  Rather, the notion of heaven stands as a conclusion to a mission on this earth during which invitation to repent and believe remains open until death (e.g., ‘For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil,’ 2 Cor. 5.10).   In such ways, a study of life after death is highly significant for our larger study of Christian missions.

The notion of ‘heaven’ as the place of the departed righteous developed over time, and yet the idea of a heavenly realm is found throughout the Bible.[1]  The Hebrew term for ‘heaven’ is plural—shamayim.  It can mean the sky above (e.g., Gen. 6.17, the first occurrence of the term: ‘I am going to bring a flood of waters on the earth, to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life; everything that is on the earth shall die’; cf. Gen. 15.5, where God tells Abraham to look toward heaven to count the stars) or the place where God and his angels live (‘And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, "What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is,’ Gen. 21.17; cf. 22.11, 15).  In Gen. 28.12, Jacob sees a ladder extending from the earth to heaven and angels ascending and descending upon it.  Jacob’s response to this vision is, ‘And he was afraid, and said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven" (Gen. 28.17).  The term appears in the NRSV 836 times in the Old Testament, New Testament, and Jewish Apocrypha, and it is found in most Biblical authors—it is a thoroughgoing concept essential to a Biblical worldview.  The following study investigates the Biblical texts (not the other Jewish texts) on ‘heaven’.

A Three-Story Universe

As to a Biblical worldview, Ex. 20.4 offers a basic understanding of a three-story world of heaven, earth, and the (watery) region under the earth: ‘You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth’ (cf. Dt. 5.8).  Yet this basic notion can be expanded: Dt. 10.14 speaks of heaven and the ‘heaven of heaven.’  Paul spoke of three levels of heaven itself (2 Cor. 12.2).  The early (2nd c. AD?) Christian apocryphal book, the Ascension of Isaiah, has Isaiah pass through seven levels of heaven.  Thus there is some flexibility in the literature in speaking of a three-story universe and of levels of heaven itself.

Heaven is Where God Dwells

Heaven is the place where God dwells: ‘The LORD is in his holy temple; the LORD's throne is in heaven. His eyes behold, his gaze examines humankind’ (Ps. 11.4; cf. Dt. 26.14; 1 Kgs 8.30; cf. 1 Kgs 8 and 2 Chr. 6; Ps. 123.1).  The ‘place where God dwells’ is also the temple, and so there are two related ideas of God dwelling in his temple in heaven or in his temple on earth.  Even so, a place such as a temple cannot contain the God of heaven and earth ('But who is able to build him a house, since heaven, even highest heaven, cannot contain him? Who am I to build a house for him, except as a place to make offerings before him? (2 Chr. 2.6; cf. 6.18).  Paul, too, says that Jesus ascended ‘far above all the heavens’ (Eph. 4.10).  Thus, every creature in the three-part universe, in heaven, on earth, and under the earth, will bow before him (Phl. 2.10).  The author of Hebrews, too, says that Jesus ascended through the heavens (4.14) and is exalted ‘above the heavens’ (7.26).  He contrasts the earthly with the heavenly—the heavenly country (11.16), the heavenly Jerusalem (12.22), and a heavenly sanctuary (8.5; 9.24).  Peter speaks of a heavenly inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading (1 Pt. 1.4).  Already, believers are oriented heavenward.  They are seated with Christ in the heavenly places (Eph. 2.6).  They have died, and their life is hidden with Christ in God (Col. 3.3).  Their citizenship is in heaven (Phl. 3.20).  Especially significant, the future heavenly things are brought into the present because the Holy Spirit has been sent from heaven (1 Pt. 1.12).  The overlap of the notions of heaven as the place where God dwells and his angels reside and as the skies above allows for the notion that a tall building (Gen. 11.4—the tower of Babel; cf. Is. 14.13) or mountain (cf. Dt. 4.11) approaches God’s place or that rain is something God pours out from his heavenly treasure (Dt. 28.12).  Also, since flames go upwards, an offering on an altar pictorially represents sending a gift to the heavens: ‘When the flame went up toward heaven from the altar, the angel of the LORD ascended in the flame of the altar while Manoah and his wife looked on; and they fell on their faces to the ground’ (Jdg. 13.20).

God and the Beings in Heaven

There are beings in heaven: ‘One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them’ (Job 1.6; cf. 2.1). Since heaven and the skies overlap, worship of the sun, moon, and stars can be understood as worshiping heavenly beings: ‘They rejected all the commandments of the LORD their God and made for themselves cast images of two calves; they made a sacred pole, worshiped all the host of heaven, and served Baal’ (2 Kgs 17.16; cf. 21.3, 5; 23.4-5).  The Biblical perspective is that these other beings and objects in heaven are part of creation and not to be worshiped alongside God (Gen. 1.14-19; Ps. 19.1-6; 33.6); they are to worship God (Ps. 29.1; 69.34; 89.5-6).  As with other Near Eastern religions, God is said to ride through the heavens and thunder from above (Dt. 33.16; 2 Sam. 22; Ps. 18; 68.33).  Yet he both made heaven and earth (Ps. 89.11; 96.5; 104.2-3; 124.8; 134.3) and rules both (Josh. 2.11; Ps. 103.19; 115.3).  God is not one among other heavenly beings to be worshiped (Israel was enticed into Canaanite worship of heavenly beings, cf. Jer. 7.18; 8.2; 19.13; 44.17-19, 25).  He is the God in heaven, as writings during the exile attest by speaking of him as ‘the God of heaven’ (Ezra, Nehemiah, Daniel; cf. Jonah 1.9).  Indeed, God is above heaven (Ps. 113.4, 6), and there is no place in heaven, on earth, or in Sheol where one can go away from God (Ps. 139.8).  To emphasise that he alone is God, Isaiah says that the heavens will be destroyed (Is. 34.4-5) and God will create new heavens and a new earth (65.17; 66.22).  Peter restates this in 2 Pt. 3.5-13.  The earthly and heavenly dualism is fully present in the book of Revelation.  The souls of ‘dead who from now on die in the Lord’ will rest from their labours (Rev. 14.13), and the blood of the martyrs calls out from under the heavenly altar (for their death is a sacrifice unto God), ‘How long?’ (Rev. 6.10).  The two martyred witnesses are called up to heaven (Rev. 11.12).  Indeed, the saints turn out to be the heavenly Jerusalem (Rev. 21.1-4) and the temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb (Rev. 21.22).

God and the Earth

The Biblical perspective is that, because of sinful humanity, the earth is in need of God’s rule.  God is bringing earth under the control of his rule just as heaven is already under his control (cf. the Lord’s Prayer, Mt. 6.11; Lk. 11.2; Revelation).  Ps. 115.16 says that ‘The heavens are the LORD's heavens, but the earth he has given to human beings.’ Satan, too, is a cause of the chaos on the earth to be overcome: ‘Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming, "Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Messiah, for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God’ (Rev. 12.10; cf. Mt. 4.8-9; Eph. 2.1).

Places of the Dead

As already seen in the discussion of Sheol in the Old Testament, so too the New Testament has the notion that there are two different places for the dead, one good and the other a place of torment.  The clearest description of this comes in the story of Lazarus and the rich man, told in Luke 16.  Upon his death, Lazarus, the poor man, goes to where Abraham is and finds comfort (Lk. 16.22, 25).  Being with the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is equivalent to being in the kingdom of God in Lk. 13.28.  The rich man goes to Hades and is in agony and tormented in flames (16.23-24).  Elsewhere, Jesus speaks of the wicked being thrown into outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Mt. 8.12; 22.13; 24.51; 25.30; Lk. 13.28), a furnace of fire (Mt. 13.42, 50), Gehenna (Mt. 5.22, 29, 30; 10.28; 18.19; 23.15; 23.33; cf. Mk. 9.43, 45, 47; Lk. 12.5; James 3.6), Hades (Mt.11.23; 16.28; Lk. 10.15; 16.23; Acts 2.27, 31; Rev. 1.18).  Revelation distinguished Death and Hades, the place of the dead, from the lake of fire (Rev. 20.13)—the latter is the second death and so a final state.  In the story of Lazarus and the rich man, a chasm separates the two places, which are visible to one another (Lk. 16.23, 26).  Jesus speaks of a resurrection of life and a resurrection of condemnation (Jn. 5.29).  Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats also depicts the righteous entering the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world and the wicked going to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels (Mt. 25.34, 41).  This future judgement and resurrection is brought into the present in a passage such as Lk. 16’s story of the rich man and Lazarus, where the state of those departed from this life is depicted prior to the future resurrection.

Heaven is the place where the righteous go after life on earth.  We find this idea already in the Old Testament: ‘Now when the LORD was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind…. (2 Kgs 2.1; cf. v. 11).  The notions of ‘kingdom’ and ‘heaven’ overlap, as also ‘paradise.’  This is clearly seen in the exchange between the criminal and Jesus on the cross: ‘Then he [the criminal] said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."  43 He [Jesus] replied, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise" (Lk. 23.42-43).  The distinction between heaven and earth becomes blurred because God reigns over both and because believers already experience a heavenly existence and will in the future partake of one.  Also, Jesus has already entered heaven. While the ultimate hope of believers is a resurrection body, heavenly existence characterizes such a body.  Thus, there is some similarity between heavenly existence upon death and the future heavenly existence in the resurrection body.

Heaven and Heavenly Existence in the New Testament

The Greek term for ‘heaven’ is ‘ouranos’ and is found in both the singular and plural.  In the New Testament, Matthew in particular likes to use the plural in the phrase ‘Kingdom of heavens’ (regularly translated in the singular in English).  The differences between heaven and earth are overcome through Jesus’ ministry.  The Kingdom of God or ‘the Kingdom of the heavens’ (Mt.) draws near through Jesus’ coming and ministry (Mt. 4.17; 10.7).  Even as it grows on the earth like a mustard seed (Mt. 13.31-32), it is also a heavenly goal.  One should store up wealth in heaven (Mt. 6.20; 19.21), and heaven has to do with ‘eternal life’ (Mt. 19.16, 23).

The difference between heaven and earth also applies to the body that dies and the resurrection body.  As Paul says in reference to the physical body in this life and the spiritual body in the life to come, ‘There are both heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is one thing, and that of the earthly is another’ (1 Cor. 15.40), and, ‘So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable.  43 It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power.  44 It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body’ (1 Cor. 15.42-44).  Paul concludes, ‘Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven’ (1Cor. 15.49).

These words apply to the resurrection body, the ultimate hope of the believer.  Yet Paul applies the distinction of earthly versus heavenly to the intermediate state as well in his next letter to the same church. He says, ‘For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.  2 For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling--  3 if indeed, when we have taken it off we will not be found naked.  4 For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life’ (2 Cor. 5.1-4).  Being ‘naked’ or ‘unclothed’ appears to mean existence between death and the resurrection.  Believers hope to be ‘further clothed,’ transition directly to the resurrection body.  Still, Paul can say, ‘Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord’ (2 Cor. 5.8).  Paul can conceive of being out of the body—he does not suppose that existence requires a material body (2 Cor. 12.2).

Jesus’ ministry entailed bringing the kingdom of heaven to this earth—something for which the disciples were to pray (Mt. 6.11).  John’s Gospel, in particular, emphasises that Jesus is the Son sent by the Father from heaven.  The Gospels understand the descent of the Spirit of God upon Jesus at his baptism as a rending of the heavens such that any difference between God’s kingdom rule in heaven and God’s reign upon the earth is overcome (Mk. 1.10).  Through his death and resurrection, Jesus received all authority in both heaven and earth (Mt. 28.18; Acts 7.55-56).  And yet, the coming of the Son of Man on the clouds of heaven that will entail a final judgement is still future (Mt. 24.36-42).  Jesus will remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration (Acts 3.21).  Jesus’ ascension to heaven (Acts 1.2, 10) does not mean his absence in the interim but his reception of power and authority to direct the Church’s mission before the final judgement.  In John’s Gospel, Jesus says that those who believe in Him will do greater works because Jesus has gone to the Father (Jn. 14.12).


Thus, we might say that heaven is already and not yet.  Heavenly existence is part of the resurrection hope sometime in the future, but the righteous dead have gone to heaven already (before the resurrection).  The vertical cosmology of heaven and earth can be stretched out temporally in terms of this age and the age to come.  Just as there is an overlap of the ages between the first and second coming of Jesus, so too there is an overlap of the heavenly and earthly realms.  Heavenly existence is already a feature of life for believers in this life.  Jesus has brought the kingdom, the Spirit has been given from heaven, and Jesus already reigns in power from the heavenlies.  Believers who have died are already in heaven, and yet a future resurrection will entail heavenly bodies. Thus, while we hope for a restoration of creation in the future and an end to all evil on this earth, we know that the righteous who have died have already begun to experience this ultimate state because they are in heaven.

The notion of ‘Paradise’ brings to mind the original garden of Adam and Eve.  Christian life can be told with respect to this story.  Yet, when ‘heaven’ is in view, the Christian life is told in terms of God’s rule, His Kingdom, Jesus’ exaltation, and the place where God dwells.  The former idea involves looking to the past, whereas the latter involves looking to the future and is expressed in the New Testament in terms of Jesus’ identity with God, who rules from heaven.  Paradise and heaven are brought together, though, as in Rev. 21 (heaven) and Rev. 22 (Paradise).  Temporally, they already exist, and yet will in the future be revealed on earth.  Thus, those who die in Christ go to heaven, where God dwells and rules, and they experience heaven or Paradise already even though, temporally, Paradise will one day be revealed on this earth.

Jesus’ teaching involved warning people about the future, challenging them to prepare for heaven instead of hell.  A Biblical missiology must include such a warning as much as it includes a hope for the righteous.  Those in Christ can hope to depart upon death and go to be with Jesus.  They will go to heaven and be comforted from this world’s chaotic evil, sin, suffering, and death.  The judgement for what one has done in the body may be future, but that judgement is already known upon death.  The resurrection may be future, but heavenly existence from the time of death anticipates the existence to come on the day of resurrection.  Paradise can already be entered upon death even if it will be restored in the new heavens and the new earth in the age to come.

Biblical missionary proclamation should involve offering people this personal hope to righteous believers.  We might ask people, ‘If you were to die tonight, do you have an assurance that you will go to heaven and be with Jesus because you have received his sacrifice for your sins and accepted him as the Lord of your life?’  We learn from the Old Testament that heaven is where God dwells; we learn from the New Testament that heaven is also a place to which God gathers those who die in Christ.  Jesus tells his disciples that he is going to the Father, where he will prepare a place for them, for the Father’s house has many places to stay (Jn. 14.2).  Jesus tells the repentant thief on the cross, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise’ (Lk. 23.43).

[1] This study has been written with an awareness of the need to pay attention to possible differences between authors and texts over time.  There is development between the Old Testament and the New Testament periods, e.g., and authors can use stock ideas in new ways.  We also need to pay attention to different genres—such as poetry in the Psalms and apocalyptic imagery in apocalyptic literature.  The present study does not press these distinctions, not because I am unaware of the importance of methodology in Biblical theology but because I think that there is a remarkable continuity in many of the texts despite some clear development of ideas—and because this is only an essay, not a book!  Readers, though, are encouraged to pay attention to possible differences in the literature over time, in different genres, between different authors, and in addressing issues for different purposes and in different contexts.