Heaven, Heavens, Heavenlies
"Heaven" is the created reality beyond earth. "The heavens and the earth" ( Gen 1:1 ) circumscribe the entire creation, or what we call the universe. God does not need heaven in which to exist. He is self-existent and infinite. Place is an accommodation of God to his finite creatures. God transcends not only earth, but heaven as well.
"Heaven" designates two interrelated and broad concepts the physical reality beyond the earth and the spiritual reality in which God dwells. Frequently, the word "heaven" appears in the plural. The nearly exclusive word for heaven in the Old Testament, samayim [Iy;m'v], is an intensive plural more literally translated "heights" or "high places." Jehovah is, therefore, "God most High" ( Gen 14:18-20 ; Psalm 18:13 ). Of the 284 occurrences of its New Testament counterpart, ouranos [oujranov"] (lit. "that which is raised up"), about one-third are plural.
The Physical Heavens. The ancient distinguished between two domains of the physical heaven perceivable by the senses. The immediate heaven is the surrounding atmosphere in which the "birds of heaven" fly ( 1 Kings 21:24 ). The phenomena of weather occur in the atmospheric heaven, including rain ( Deut 11:11 ; Acts 14:17 ), snow ( Isa 55:10 ), dew ( Dan 4:23 ), frost ( Job 38:29 ), wind ( Psalm 135:7 ), clouds ( Psalm 147:8 ), thunder ( 1 Sam 2:10 ), and hail ( Job 38:22 ). Beyond the atmospheric heaven is the celestial heaven, also called the "expanse" or "firmament" ( Gen 1:8 ). It includes the heavenly lightsstars having "fixed patterns" ( Jer 33:25 ; Nahum 3:16 ), and the sun and moon ( Gen 1:14-16 ). The fixed character of the celestial heaven has evoked figures of speech to describe it. For example, it has windows ( 2 Kings 7:2 ), a foundation ( 2 Sam 22:8 ), a gate ( Gen 28:17 ), ends ( Deut 3:43 ), a remote part ( Neh 1:9 ), and is like a curtain ( Isa 40:22 ).
God employs the atmospheric and celestial heavens in his self-revelation to human beings. First, the heavens witness that a glorious God exists. "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands" ( Psalm 19:1 ; Rom 1:19-20 ). Moreover, the pattern of seasons, yielding life-sustaining food, witness to God before believers.
Second, heaven contains signs establishing God's promises. The rainbow signifies that God will never destroy the world by a flood again ( Gen 9:12-16 ). The innumerable stars are an object lesson of the abundant way God will fulfill his covenant with Abraham ( Gen 22:17 ; Exod 32:13 ; Deut 1:10 ; 1 Chron 27:23 ; Neh 9:23 ).
Third, God displays miraculous signs in the heavens. Fire comes down from heaven, both to judge ( Gen 19:24 ; 1 Kings 18:38-39 ) and to indicate acceptance of a sacrifice ( 1 Chron 21:26 ). God provided the Israelites with "bread from heaven" during their wilderness trek ( Exod 16:4 ). God stopped the sun's movement ( Jos 10:12-13 ) and used a star to pinpoint the Messiah's coming ( Luke 2:9 ). He also spoke audibly from heaven on occasion ( Gen 21:17 ; Genesis 22:11 Genesis 22:15 ; Acts 11:9 ). Believers look for the return of Christ in the clouds of heaven ( Mark 14:62 ; Acts 1:11 ; 1 Thess 4:16-17 ).
Fourth, the vastness and inaccessibility of heaven are visual reminders of God's transcendence, God's otherworldliness, however, is a spiritual, not a spacial, fact. When Solomon prayed at the dedication of the temple, he acknowledged, "the heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you" ( 1 Kings 8:27 ).
The Dwelling Place of God. Heaven most commonly refers to the dwelling-place of God. Heaven is where the glory of God is expressed in pristine clarity. The term "glory, " therefore, has popularly been used as a synonym for heaven ( Rom 8:18 ). Actually, God's glory is above the heavens ( Psalm 113:4 ; 148:13 ) because it is the sum total of his attributes that are expressed wherever he is present ( Exod 13:21-22 ; Psalm 108:5 ; 2 Col 3:7-18 ). In heaven there is a continual acknowledgment of God's glory ( Psalm 29:9 ). Various figurative expressions identify God's heavenly abode such as "the highest heaven" ( 1 Kings 8:27 ), "the heavens" ( Amos 9:6 ), and "his lofty palace in the heavens" ( Amos 9:6 ). Paul speaks of being taken up into "the third heaven" ( 2 Cor 12:2 ). Although he does not identify the first two, possible references to the atmospheric and celestial heavens are suggestive.
The Heavenly Perspective. God invites human beings to adopt his heavenly perspective. All blessings, whether natural or supernatural, are from God ( James 1:17 ; see John 3:27 ), who is Creator and Sustainer of the universe ( Rom 11:36 ). Israel rightly regarded rain as a heavenly gift from God ( Deut 28:12 ). Likewise, drought was a sign of God's displeasure ( Deut 28:23-24 ).
The extent to which earthly blessings evidence heavenly approval needs to be conditioned. Job, for example, suffered many things unrelated to his faith and obedience. In Job's suffering, however, God was orchestrating his sovereign and just purposes from heaven ( Job 41:11 ). Jesus taught that the span of life on earth is severely limited when considering heavenly blessing. When the godly suffer at the hands of the unrighteous, for example, rejoicing is commanded knowing that a great reward in heaven awaits ( Matt 5:12 ). Nevertheless, "Our Father who is in heaven" gives daily bread ( Matt 6:11 ) and "good gifts to those who ask him" ( Matt 7:11 ).
What of those who do not adopt a heavenly perspective? Ecclesiastes, with its theme the meaninglessness of life lived "under heaven" (i.e., from a purely earthly perspective), asks readers to consider that "God is in heaven and you are on the earth" (5:2). Jesus solemnly warned, "Not everyone who says to me, Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven" ( Matt 7:21 ). (The phrase "kingdom of heaven, " found only in Matthew's Gospel, is a circumlocution for the "kingdom of God" [see 19:23-24 , where they are used interchangeably], owing to the Jews' reticence to utter the holy name of God. ) Also, Paul warns that partiality is forbidden even in the case of a master-to-slave relationship, because "both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him" ( Eph 6:9 ).
Those claiming a heavenly inheritance are required to bring the earthly and the heavenly into alignment. Jesus linked entrance into the kingdom of heaven to repentance ( Matt 4:17 ), humility ( 5:3 ; 18:1-4 ), witness ( Matthew 5:10 Matthew 5:16 ; 10:32 ; 16:19 ), obedience ( 5:19 ), righteousness ( 5:20 ), compassion ( Matthew 18:10 Matthew 18:14 ; 23:13 ) and stewardship ( 19:23 ). Proactively, believers store up treasures ( 6:20 ) by being prudent managers of the little and perishable on earth in order to insure the abundant and enduring in heaven ( Luke 16:1-13 ). Either the earthly or heavenly value system will prevail. So, those who pray, "Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven" ( Matt 6:10 ) are obliged to live from a heavenly vantage point.
Christ and Heaven. The greatest witness on earth to heavenly glory is Jesus Christ ( John 1:14 John 1:18 ). As the temple was the dwelling-place of God in the midst of Israel, so in a greater way the Incarnate is the dwelling-place of God. The Son uniquely preexisted with the Father in glory ( 17:5 ), "come down from heaven" ( 6:38 ), was "the bread from heaven" ( 6:32 ; see John 6:41 John 6:50 John 6:51 John 6:58 ) entered into heaven ( 1 Peter 3:22 ), and ascended far above all the heavens ( Eph 4:10 ). Christ's essential oneness with the Father is established in that the Old Testament notion that Jehovah "fills heaven and earth" ( Jer 23:24 ) is ascribed to Christ ( Eph 1:23 ; 4:10 ; Colossians 1:16 Colossians 1:20 ).
The writer to the Hebrews details the person and work of Christ from a heavenly perspective. Although Creator of heavens and earth ( 1:10 ), the Son is now seated at the right hand of God's throne in heaven ( 1:4 ), mediating for believers ( 4:14-16 ). Christ is to be worshiped because God exalted him "above the heavens" ( 7:26 ; see Php 2:9-11 ). His redemptive work is completely efficacious because, unlike the priests of the old economy who ministered in a copy of the heavenly temple, Christ alone was qualified to enter the presence of God in heaven ( 9:23-24 ). Believers now "have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus" ( 10:19 ).
The second coming is the terminus ad quem of Christ's intercessory work in heaven ( Acts 3:21 ). Believers await anxiously for Christ's coming "from heaven" ( 1 Thess 1:10 ; 4:16 ) at which time unbelievers will be judged ( 2 Th 1:7-8 ). John, looking forward to "that day, " said it was "heaven standing open" ( Rev 19:11 ). The figure of an opening heaven is employed at the revelation given to Ezekiel ( 1:1 ), the phenomena surrounding the Lord's baptism ( Mark 1:10 ), Stephen's vision of Christ ( Acts 7:56 ), and John's vision of the apocalypse ( Rev 4:1 ). But it is on account of Christ ( John 1:51 ) and his work ( Rev 11:19 ; 15:5 ) that the opening of heaven is complete. It is fitting that all manner of celestial phenomena will accompany the opening of heaven. It was a frightful thing for Israel to have the heavens shut and the blessing of God's physical provision withheld ( Deut 11:17 ; 2 Chron 7:13 ; Luke 4:25 ). How much more terrible is it to be shut out of the kingdom of heaven where there is living water ( Matt 23:13 ; 25:10 )?
The Spirit and Heaven. The giving of the Holy Spirit is directly tied to Jesus' entrance into heaven ( Acts 2:33 ). The Spirit was sent from heaven ( 1 Peter 1:12 ). He is the heavenly gift ( Acts 2:38 ), a foretaste of the blessings of heaven ( John 7:37-39 ). He is also a guarantee of believers' future inheritance ( Eph 1:13-14 ). The writer of Hebrews indicates a relationship between "the heavenly gift, " the Holy Spirit, and the powers of the age to come ( 6:3-4 ). When Peter linked the Spirit's coming with Joel 2:28-32 ( Acts 2:17-21 ), he was saying that the eschatological hope of heaven was near. The "last days" had begun.
Believers and Heaven. Believers have a present and future heavenly status. Presently believers are citizens of heaven ( Php 3:20-21 ) with a heavenly calling ( Heb 3:1 ); their names are written in heaven ( Luke 10:20 ). They groan to be clothed with a resurrection body, "a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands" ( 2 Cor 5:1 ). It will be a body like Christ's. The restoration of the image of God in human beings from earthly to heavenly will be complete ( 1 Cor 15:45-49 ). The eternal inheritance of future blessings promised by God is secure because it is "kept in heaven" ( 1 Peter 1:4 ), and because believers are joint-heirs with Christ who has already been glorified ( Rom 8:17 ).
The heavenly future all believers anticipate is the fulfillment of God's purpose in creating the universe. It will include worship of the type revealed in the Book of Revelation ( 7:10 ; 11:16-18 ; 15:2-4 ). Worship will involve rehearsing God's glorious Acts ( 19:1-2 ). In addition to ascription of worth, worship will involve service unspecified works done in obedience to God and for God ( 22:6 ). Believers are to offer this kind of service to God now ( Rom 12:1 ). In contrast to present suffering, God promises believers that they will reign with Christ in heavenly glory ( 2 Tim 2:12 ; see Matt 19:28 ; Revelation 20:4 Revelation 20:6 ). In heaven believers will have fellowship with God and with each other in a perfect environment ( Heb 12:22-23 ).
In the Heavenlies. Paul stresses the believer's solidarity with Christ. Since a believer is "in Christ" and since Christ is in heaven, the believer is "in the heavenlies" (en tois epouraniois). Accordingly, God has blessed the believer "in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ" ( Eph 1:3 ). This precise phrase occurs only five times in the New Testament, and only in Ephesians ( 1:3 ; 1:20 ; 2:6 ; 3:10 ; 6:12 ). The believer's heavenly blessings depend on Christ's heavenly session ( Eph 1:20 ) and the spiritual union each believer shares "with Christ" ( Eph 2:6 ). God does not merely apply the ministry of Christ to believers. He sees believers with Christ wherever he is and he is now in heaven. Believers are commanded to adopt an earthly lifestyle of dying to sin and living to righteousness ( Rom 6:4 ), and to set their minds on the heavenly reality that will soon be revealed in Christ ( Col 4:1-4 ). In other words, believers should live consistently with who, and where, they really are.
Paul indicates, however, that "the heavenlies" are also the realm of spiritual powers. Paul likely is referring to Satan and his demonic host, calling them "rulers, " "authorities, " and "spiritual forces" ( Eph 3:10 ; 6:12 ). Although their final defeat is sure ( Eph 1:19-23 ), believers are called upon to practice an eschatological lifestyle, equipped with heavenly weaponry wielded by those who are "strong in the Lord" ( Eph 6:10 ). The battles of life are won on earth with heavenly weapons, not earthly ones.
The Consummation. At the final consummation, God will make "new heavens and a new earth" ( Isa 65:17 ; 66:22 ; Rev 22:1 ). It is "new" (kainos [kainov"]) in kind, not merely in time. One may wonder why a new heaven is necessary. One possibility is that the heavens (the plural is employed in Hag 2:6 ; Heb 12:6 ; see also Heb 1:10 ; 2 Peter 3:7 2 Peter 3:10 2 Peter 3:12 ) have been affected by sin inasmuch as they are the place of the activity of evil angels and forces ( Matt 24:29 ; Eph 6:12 ). The "new heavens and earth" follow the judgment of Satan ( Rev 20:7-10 ) and the Great White Throne judgment ( 20:11-15 ), both of which take place in heaven and will never be repeated. Also, the "new Jerusalem" that John saw "coming down out of heaven from God" ( Revelation 21:2 Revelation 21:10 ) is a new characteristic of heaven, perfectly suited to extend God's glory ( 21:11 ).
The sharp distinction between heaven and earth will be removed when God makes all things new. The essential feature of the New Jerusalem is the intimate presence of God among his people ( 21:3 ; 22:4 ). Interestingly, there will be no temple, "for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple" ( 21:22 ). Its magnificence is only hinted at in figurative terms (21:11-22:5). Everything that is not consistent now with this picture of heaven will be done away with ( 21:4 ).
The Angels, Satan, and Heaven. "The host of heaven" can refer to the stars ( Neh 9:6 ; Isa 24:21 ; 34:4 ; Matt 24:29 ), but more frequently in Scripture it denotes angels ( 1 Kings 22:19 ; Luke 2:13 ). God warns against worshiping the celestial host ( 2 Kings 23:5 ; Jer 19:13 ; Acts 7:42 ) as well as the angelic host ( Col 2:18 ). When referring to the angels the term carries a military connotation ( Joshua 5:14-15 ; Dan 4:35 ). God at times employs angels from heaven to do his bidding. They will be particularly active at Christ's return ( Matt 24:31 ; 2 Thess 1:7-8 ; Rev 8:2-10:11 ). Who can say to what extent angels are active today on earth? The truth might be found in Jacob's vision of a ladder extending from earth to heaven on which the angels of God ascended and descended ( Gen 28:12 ). Nevertheless, the dwelling-place of angels is heaven ( Mark 12:25 ; 13:32 ; Luke 2:15 ), where they worship God ( Matt 8:10 ). The heavenly host rejoice when human beings repent ( Luke 15:10 ; 15:7 ).
Satan is a fallen angel who apparently had access to the presence of God in heavenly places ( Job 1:6-7 ). If Revelation 12:7-12 looks back to the ministry of Christ, the "casting out" of Satan and his evil angels from heaven occurred when Christ entered heavenly glory (see Luke 10:17-20 ). Now Satan's sphere is more limited. He is "the prince of the power of the air" ( Eph 2:2 ) in the process of moving downward in successive stages until he is thrown into the lake of fire ( Rev 20:10 ).
Bradford A. Mullen
See also Eternal Life, Eternality, Everlasting Life; Glorification
Bibliography. J. Gilmore, Probing Heaven: Key Questions in the Hereafter; K. Schilder, Heaven, What Is It?; C. R. Schoonhoven, The Wrath of Heaven; U. E. Simon, Heaven in the Christian Tradition; W. M. Smith, The Biblical Doctrine of Heaven; P. Toon, Heaven and Hell: A Biblical and Theological Overview; A. E. Travis, Where on Earth Is Heaven?
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Heaven, Heavens, Heavenlies'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".