This is the first in a series of articles recently published by Wes McAdams on his blog “Radically Christian.” Many people have come to me with questions in this area, and this series does a good job of answering them. Without necessarily endorsing every specific point he makes, I think the views he presents are certainly more Biblical than what we often picture; accordingly, we will publish this series over the next five weeks. I commend it to your attention. BP
What the Bible says about heaven is quite different from what many Christians have in mind. Christians today think of heaven as the final destination of the saved. We ask how to get to heaven, who will be in heaven, who won’t be in heaven, and if we will recognize each other in heaven. Unfortunately, these questions miss the heart of the biblical story of heaven. This is the first in a new series exploring what the Bible says about heaven.
What is Heaven?
Both the Hebrew word (“shamayim”) and the Greek word (“ouranos”) that we translate “heaven” refer to everything above the surface of the earth. In English, we have more than one word for these spaces: sky (everything between earth and earth’s atmosphere) outer space (everything beyond earth’s atmosphere) heaven (the invisible realm where God dwells)
But to the ancient Jewish people, these were all, “the heavens.” This is why Paul speaks of a man who, Was caught up to the third heaven (2 Cor 12:2). Ancient Jewish people pictured the heavens as having multiple dimensions, layers, or levels. So, we need to understand, in biblical terminology, “the heavens” encompass all that is above us.
Furthermore, because the heavens are above and the earth is beneath, the heavens are a place of ruling and reigning (see Eph 3:10). In other words, the things in the heavens are not only above us in a spatial sense, but more importantly for this discussion, in a hierarchical sense. Of course, God is above all the rulers and authorities in the heavens and on the earth, because he created all things.
So, when we think about heaven, especially as it pertains to God’s dwelling place, we should think of it as being the place of highest or greatest authority. Heaven is above, not because you can get there in a spaceship, but because God occupies the most exalted space over all creation.
The Tabernacle as a Copy of Heaven
The book of Hebrews explains that the tabernacle (the tent that was later replaced by the Jerusalem temple) was a copy and shadow of the heavenly things (Heb 8:5). Therefore, understanding how the tabernacle was constructed can help us understand what heaven is all about.
The innermost portion of the tabernacle was the Holy of Holies or the Most Holy Place. This section housed the Ark of the Covenant, God’s seat of mercy. In other words, it was a representation of God’s throne room. When the high priest entered this section once a year, it was as if he was approaching God’s throne to seek forgiveness for the collective sins of the people.
Separating the Most Holy Place from the next section, the Holy Place, was a thick curtain. Then there was a second curtain that separated the Holy Place from the rest of the tabernacle (see Heb 9:1-10). These curtained sections seem to me to represent the layers of the heavens that separate humans from God’s heavenly throne room.
So, if you picture the high priest entering into the Most Holy Place once a year, it is as if he is acting out an ascension through the skies into the throne room of God. (There is also a sense in which God descended to make this drama possible.) But what this high priest was only pretending to do (ascend to the throne room of God), Jesus actually did when he passed through the heavens (Heb 4:14). The Hebrew writer says, Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf (Heb 9:24).
This is why the Ascension of Christ is so important to Christian theology. Saying, “Jesus is in heaven,” does not mean Jesus has gone where all “good people” go. It means the resurrected Jesus is enthroned above all things, as both King and High Priest (Heb 1:3-4). Jesus occupies the place of highest authority.
The City of God in Heaven
Not only is God’s throne room in the heavens, so is his garden city. The city of God seems to be a cross between an idyllic Jerusalem and the Garden of Eden. Revelation gives us a beautiful picture of, the holy city, new Jerusalem (Rev 21:2).
This heavenly city is the antithesis of earthly cities. Human beings have corrupted every city on earth. Violence, oppression, indulgence, and exploitation are the way of life in every city. We have stained every brick and every stone with blood. Death and decay form the very foundations of our cities. But human hands did not make the city of God. Its designer and builder is God (Heb 11:10).
This city will one day descend from heaven to be received by God’s people. And this is why the writer of Hebrews refers to it simply as the city that is to come (Heb 13:14).
Heaven is Not Our Final Destination
That is why, when we talk about spending eternity “in heaven,” I believe we are actually getting the picture backward. The Bible says the city of God will come to us from heaven. God will no longer be “up” there, separated from us. In the end, the dwelling place of God is with man (Rev 21:3).
The New Testament describes the present heavens and earth as passing away. God will tear open the skies, like the curtain of the temple. He will roll them back like a scroll. Fire will destroy all the worldly kingdoms, empires, nations, and cities (2 Pet 3:7). And after the present heavens and earth pass away, the city of God will descend like a beautifully adorned bride (Rev 21:1-4).
I realize, it may surprise you to hear that the city of God will descend from heaven. That is why I’m writing this series. Hopefully, by the end of the study, we will see why heaven holds all we hope to become and receive but is not our final destination.