Rev. Shiju M. George Faculty India Bible College & Seminary Kumbanad
The Bible presents the heaven and the earth as two separate realms. In New Testament ‘Heaven’ refers both to the abode of God, as well as to the place of eternal habitation for those who obey God and follow Jesus. It is a place where life will be lived to the full, in the way the designer planned and a place of great joy. Here let us see how the concept of heaven is explained in the New Testament.
1. Use of the Word “Heaven” in the New Testament
The root word for “heaven” in the New Testament is ouranos. This can refer simply to the sky or the air over the earth where birds and clouds fly (e.g., Mt 6:26; Lk 17:24), or outer space, the region of sun, moon, and stars (e.g., Heb 11:12). It can imply God’s domain (e.g., Mt 5:16; 6:9; 23:22; Mk 11:25; Lk 11:13) and the abode of the angels, the unseen spirit-world of good angels as well as the world of unseen evil spirits (e.g., Mt 18:10; 22:30; Lk 2:15; 22:43; Eph 6:12; Rom 8:38). Moreover, there are references of heaven as God’s abode (cf. Jn 13:3; Acts 7:55), from which the Son (Jn 3:13; 6:33, 38) and the Spirit (Jn 15:26) are sent. The author of Hebrews uses the term ‘heaven’ to refer to two different realities in the cosmos. There are the “heaven” that are part of the changing, temporary creation. These will “perish” and “wear out like clothing” in stark contrast to the “heaven” of unchangeableness and the constancy of the Son (Heb 1:10-12).
Another word used for heaven is Paradeisos. Originally the term referred to a “park” or “nobleman’s estate”, which means paradise. This appears three times in the New Testament (Luke 23:43, 2 Corinthians 12:4 and Revelation 2:7). It denotes the “entrance into the glory” after death, implying a heavenly existence and also with “the third heaven.” In Second Temple Jewish literature paradise could refer simply to heaven, the divine abode and place of bliss; to the place of heavenly abode immediately upon death; or to an intermediate abode of the righteous. In addition, the phrase kolpos Abraam appears only once in the Gospels, in Luke 16:22 (see also Lk 16:23, in contrast Hades is use as a place of torment), where it refers to “Abraham’s side” or “Abraham’s bosom,” that is, to the place of honor at the end-time banquet.
The New Testament use other terms and images for heaven, including inheriting the kingdom (e.g., Mt 25:34), eating in God’s kingdom (Mt 8:11; Lk 13:29; 14:15), shining like the sun in the kingdom (Mt 13:43), dwelling in “my Father’s house” (Jn 14:2-3), and inheriting, having and going into eternal life (e.g., Mt 25:46; Mk 10:30; Jn 3:16). In the afterlife, “the righteous are like the angels, they are God’s children and children of the resurrection” (Lk 20:36).
2. Paradise: The Intermediate Heaven
Though Paradise is used as another word for Heaven, there is more to see about it. Jesus’ promise to the repentant thief on the cross was, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with me in the Paradise” (Lk 23:43). This explains where believers reside prior to receiving their resurrection bodies and living in the new heaven and new earth, which is sometimes referred to as the intermediate heaven. Although believers will not receive their resurrection bodies until the rapture, it is clear that believers will have bodies in the intermediate state in heaven. At the transfiguration, Moses and Elijah appeared with Christ to the apostles (Mt 17:3-4). They appeared in bodily form. Similarly, in the account of Lazarus and rich man (Luke 16: 19-31), Lazarus is pictured reclining, banqueting style, next to Abraham, indicating he was there in physical form (Lk 16:24). When the believers are martyred during the tribulation, they remember what happened to them, and they are given robes (Rev 6:11).This indicates that in the intermediate heaven there is continuity between who each person was on earth and who each person is in intermediate heaven. Now let us see a truth beyond the intermediate heaven, the heaven itself.
3. Heaven: A Reality
Heaven is a certainty because it is the place from where Jesus has come (e.g., Jn 3:13; 6:38; Rom 10:6) and it is the place Jesus ascends after his resurrection (Lk 24:51; cf. Acts 1:9-11; Eph 4:10) and from where he will return (Phil 3:20, 1 Thess 4:16; 2 Thess 1:7). Repeatedly in John 6 Jesus says that ‘he had come down from heaven.’ He ascended there to be with the father at His “right hand”. It is the place of future bliss for the righteous (Mt 13:43) who follow him. On the contrary, Jesus used hell consistently to refer to the place of punishment and suffering prepared for the devil and his angels (Mt 25:41; Lk 8:31), as well as those people who reject God in future. Jesus promised his disciples who are righteous to take them to this heaven, “the Father’s house”, where he prepares room for them. In the heavenly realms, the exalted Christ is seated at God’s right hand (Eph 1:20), and the Christian is seated with him (Eph 2:6) enjoying “every spiritual blessing” (Eph 1:3). Moreover, in the book of Revelation, John shares his vision through which he witnessed that heaven is a place beyond the visible firmament. It is the throne of God surrounded by a variety of angelic beings and giving worship with “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth”, to the one God and the Lamb (Rev 4:1-5:14). Revelation looks forwards to the joining of these two realms in the new heavens and new earth (Rev 22:1-5), where God finally dwells with humanity as the new Jerusalem descends to the new earth, bringing with it the dwelling of God and the Lamb. To enter into this dwelling of God, the heaven, the word of God teaches us some essential facts.
4. Qualifications to Inherit the Heaven
One of the qualifications to inherit heaven according to New Testament is to believe in Jesus and being led by the Spirit. In John 3:16 it says, “…everyone who believes in him (Jesus) …may have eternal life” and in Gal 5:18 it says that those “led by the Spirit…will receive the kingdom of God.” The names of such believers are written in heaven (Lk 10:20). Moreover, those who are persecuted on account of their relationship with Jesus have a reward in heaven (Mt 5:12; Lk 6:23).That is why Jesus instructs people to store up treasures in heaven (Mt 6:20; Lk 12:33) because heaven is the destination of those who are raised up at the judgment (Mt 11:23; Lk 10:15). On the contrary, those who reject Jesus (Mt 11:20-24) and the prophets reap hell as their reward. In addition, those who are guilty of hypocrisy (Mt 23:15, 29), hateful language and intent (Mt 5:22), unfaithfulness (Mt 24:45-51), unrepentance (Mk 9:43-47) and disobedience (Jn 15:6) are liable to its judgment. But those who live a godly life by accepting Jesus as the Lord and Savior can have a blessed hope of inheriting the heaven as they live here on the earth
5. Heaven: A Hope in the Present about the Future
As we live in this mundane world, it is the hope of the future that sustains us in our Christian life. Throughout the New Testament we see that the believers are advised to have hope in the present about the future though they have questions about the delay of the Parousia and the outbreak of persecution against the church. In the words of Jesus and the Apostles ‘hope’ is the often repeated concept. It is the hope of “Seeing God.” In 1 Peter 1:8 it says, “Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy.” Here Peter urges the suffering community to have hope though they do not see Jesus physically now, they will see Jesus in future in heaven. And in I John 3:2-3, we see the hope of “seeing God,” for “when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” The book of Hebrews as an extended exhortation to a community wavering in its commitment in time of persecution introduces the anchor as the image that symbolizes hope (Heb 6:18-19).In effect, Hebrews summarizes the biblical teaching on hope, which it regards as rooted in God’s promises and related to Christ (10:23). Just as Christ bore patiently with the struggle of the cross to enter into God’s glory (12:1-2), so the believer is to keep focused on where Christ has gone, into God’s heavenly presence. Then the believer will definitely receive rewards when Christ comes in glory and take us to heaven.
6. Heaven: A Place to Receive Rewards
The Bible recognizes that it is entirely righteous and wholesome for the believers to work for rewards as they hope for heavenly living. These rewards will only come when Jesus returns from heaven as we see in the last chapter of the book of Revelation. Jesus himself declares, “Behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to render to every man according to what he has done (Rev 22:12).” Those ‘Rewards shall be given for Christian hospitality (Mt 10:41, 42; cf. Mk 9:41), for love for enemies, ‘expecting nothing in return’ (Lk 6:35 RSV). The message of Christ to the seven Churches of Asia (Rev 2-3) furnishes several rewards. For those ‘who have not soiled their garments’, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy’ (Rev 3:4). Their names will remain in ‘the book of life’ (3:5) and Jesus will ‘confess’ each one’s name ‘before his father and before his angels.’ He says, ‘the one who conquers, I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God…and my own new name’ (3:12). Jesus warns: ‘I am coming soon. Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown’ (3:11). ‘The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne’ (3:21). Those who win ‘the victory’ of faith (1 John 5:4) will ‘eat of the tree of life, which is in the Paradise of God’ (Rev 2:7) and to those who are ‘faithful unto death (i.e., die for their faith)’, says our Lord, ‘I will give you the crown of life’ (2:10), also ‘some of the hidden manna, and … a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows expect the one who receives it’ (2:17). Moreover, the promises to the Apostles (Mt 19:28) that they would sit on the thrones and judge seem to be extended to all who ‘overcome’. Keeping this in mind in our earthly life we need to be very serious to store up our treasures not on earth but in heaven.
7. Heaven: Its thought Motivates to Store Up Treasures in it
When we consider the fact that this present creation is a temporary one and that our life in the new creation will last for eternity, we have a strong motivation for godly living and for living in such a way as to store up treasures in heaven. In reflecting on the fact that heaven and earth will be destroyed, Peter says the following: Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of persons ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be kindled and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire! But according to his promise we wait for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:11–13).
And Jesus very explicitly tells us: Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also (Matt. 6:19–21). If your heart focus on heaven and store treasures in heaven, then you can enjoy the beauty and abundance of heaven.
8. Heaven: A Place of Great Beauty and Abundance as well as Joy
Scripture consistently portrays the heaven as a place of great beauty and joy. On the contrary, hell is portrayed as place of divine judgment in the afterlife, including where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mt 8:12; 22:13; 25:30), “undying worm” (Mk 9:48)”, “fire that is not put out” (Mt 3:10; 7:12; 13:40, 42, 50; Lk 3:9; Jn 15:6; cf. “hell of fire” in Mt 5:22; 18:9; “unquenchable fire” in Mt 3:12; Mk 9:43, 48; Lk 3:17; “eternal fire” in Mt 18:8; 25:41), “eternal punishment” (Mt 25:46) and “God’s wrath” (Jn 3:36). Whereas, heaven is a “holy city” (Rev 21:2), a place “prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (21:2). In that place “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more” (21:4). There we can drink “from the fountain of the water of life without payment” (21:6). It is a city that has “the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal” (21:11). Parts of the city are constructed of immense precious jewels of various colors (21:18–21). It will be free from all evil, for “nothing unclean shall enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life” (21:27). In that city we shall also have positions of rule over God’s entire creation, for “they shall reign forever and ever” (22:5). But more important than all the physical beauty of the heavenly city, will be the fact that we will be in the presence of God and enjoying unhindered fellowship with him. “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (21:3–4).
In the Old Testament, when the glory of God filled the temple, the priests were unable to stand and minister (2 Chron. 5:14). In the New Testament, when the glory of God surrounded the shepherds in the field outside Bethlehem “they were filled with fear” (Luke 2:9). But here in the heavenly city we will be able to endure the power and holiness of the presence of God’s glory, for we will live continually in the atmosphere of the glory of God. “And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb” (Rev 21:23). This will be the fulfillment of God’s purpose to call us “to his own glory and excellence” (2 Peter 1:3): then we shall dwell continually in “the presence of his glory with rejoicing” (Jude 1:24; cf. Rom. 3:23; 8:18; 9:23; 1 Cor. 15:43; 2 Cor. 3:18; 4:17; Col.3:4; 1 Thess. 2:12; Heb. 2:10; 1 Peter 5:1, 4, 10). With such joy our hearts and voices will join with the redeemed from all ages and with the mighty armies of heaven singing, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” (Rev. 4:8).
Therefore, as we live a temporal life here on this earth, let us keep in mind that we have to live in heaven eternally. So let us be very serious in living out a godly life. Our faith in risen Jesus Christ and a life led by Spirit can help us to go to heaven. Though today we may have troubles and tribulations in our lives, let us not be disheartened rather have hope in God for he will one day take us to his ‘eternal home’ where we get rewards for what we did here on earth as well as we can experience great joy and eternal peace. May God enable you to inherit the ‘eternal Heaven’ and help us not to miss it out.