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Peter & Kelly + Lukas + Emmet + Danai

Going to Heaven: The concept of heaven in the Bible and Christian teaching
Research Paper (All Nations Christian College) 2 June 2004 — Peter Passchier

Is participation in Freemasonry wholesome for disciples of Jesus?
Advanced Religions Paper (All Nations Christian College) 7 May 2004 — Peter Passchier

Passages from Colossians and Hebrews compared
Assignment Christology (All Nations Christian College) 5 December 2003 — Peter Passchier

Is Israel's election related to any inherent qualities?
Assignment Old Testament Theology (All Nations Christian College) 28 November 2003 — Peter Passchier

The Gospel and the Religions
Reading Report Theology of Mission (All Nations Christian College) 11 November 2003 — Peter Passchier

Efforts towards unity within the church
Assignment Churchplanting (All Nations Christian College) 27 June 2003 — Peter Passchier

Jesus: transactional or transformational?
Assignment Leadership (All Nations Christian College) 20 June 2003 — Peter Passchier

Isaiah in crises
Assignment History and Literature of the Hebrew Bible (All Nations Christian College) 17 March 2003 — Peter Passchier

Do missionaries destroy cultures?
Assignment Social Anthropology (All Nations Christan College) 6 December 2002 — Peter Passchier

Temple Tumult
Assignment New Testament: Gospels and Acts (All Nations Christian College) 29 November 2002 — Peter Passchier

Initial Assignment (All Nations Christian College) 1 October 2002 — Peter Passchier

A Narrow Escape
A Narrow Escape (Creative writing) 13 September 2015 — Kelly Passchier

Research Paper (All Nations Christian College) 2 June 2004 — Peter Passchier

Going to Heaven: The concept of heaven in the Bible and Christian teaching


Any discussion on the subject of heaven requires reliance on revelation almost by definition; fortunately, there are a large number of writings that can be studied, inspired or not. This paper is concerned with the emphases in preaching and teaching about heaven; Christianity is well known for its expectations about afterlife, but what role does the concept of heaven play in biblical eschatology and soteriology?

The most common images of Christian heavenly afterlife are that of a city and a garden, and then there is the dreaded and debated subject of hell. It has been argued that any discussion of either heaven or hell requires the other to be examined; this paper will only focus on heaven, and considering the findings, it may prove to have been fruitful.

The use of heaven-related words in the Bible

Old Testament

In the Hebrew Bible, two words qualify as referring to heaven, RaKYa` (firmament, occurring 17 times) meaning expanse or sky, and ShaMaYiM (heavens, occurring almost four hundred times) referring to space, both below (sky) and above (heaven) the firmament — it might be that the dual form of the Hebrew word reflects this. These words cannot be sharply distinguished, for in Genesis 1:8 it reads that God called the firmament heaven, and the words are used in parallelism in Psalm 19:1. Of these two words, heavens has a broader range of meanings and seems to be inclusive of firmament, which is a technical cosmological term (Traub & Von Rad, 1967:503). The firmament is separating the waters below and above it, Genesis 1:9 recounts how the waters under the heavens were gathered together to make dry land appear; the waters were not only thought of as around the land, but also under the earth, as expressed in Exodus 20:4. The phrase the heavens and the earth is taken to refer to the whole of creation (Reddish, 1992:90); sometimes the waters are included in this expression (Traub & Von Rad, 1967:503). Remarkably in contrast with other writings of the ancient Near East, God is stated to be the creator of the heavens and the earth. The whole structure can be pictured as a dome, supported by pillars (Job 26:11), based on foundations (that can be shaken — 2 Samuel 22:8); in the dome are (lattice) windows, which can be opened to let the blessings of God come through (Maleachi 3:10), or the waters, snow or hail from above (Genesis 7:11, Isaiah 55:10, Joshua 10:11). The lights of the sky are fixed at the firmament (Genesis 1:14), but also the birds fly on its face (Genesis 1:20). Von Rad is struck by the non-mythological view of the heavenly lights as compared to the religious views of the other ancient near-east cultures (Traub & Von Rad, 1967:503-504). Apart from the obvious distinction between sky and the realm beyond it, there is little indication of a hierarchical view of heavenly spheres before the intertestamental period; the phrase heaven of heavens might be influenced by a Babylonian cosmology (Traub & Von Rad, 1967:503) or it might be a rhetorical hyperbole. Possibly it sets apart the dwelling of God from the heavens at large, parallel to the distinction between the Holy and the Holy of Holies in the Hebrew tabernacle and temple. Heaven is seen as the ultimate dwelling place of God; although He was also said to dwell in Zion (Psalm 72:2, Isaiah 8:18), in the tabernacle or temple (1 Kings 8:27), and perhaps on mount Sinai (Deuteronomy 33:2). The paradox of the Creator partaking in His creation by dwelling in heaven is expressed in 1 Kings 8:27 — the heavens and the heaven of heavens cannot contain Him, let alone any earthly dwelling place; but then He does visit the earth (Exodus 19:18) and dwelled among His people (Exodus 29:46).

The visions of the heavenly throne room occur in an older and in a newer part of the Hebrew Bible; in Exodus 24:10 Moses and the elders of Israel see the sapphire floor —blue as the sky— and so does Ezekiel (in 1:26 and 10:1). Ezekiel's visions also describe the cherubs around God's throne, on which He also rides (2 Samuel 22:11 and Psalm 18:10, an image probably borrowed from Canaanite religion); these cherubs are also represented on the ark of the covenant (although only with two wings each). In Isaiah 6:2-6 seraphs are mentioned, beings with six wings like in Revelation (although Jewish commentators generally equate them with Ezekiel's cherubs); confusingly, the same word (SeRaPh) is also used for fiery serpents (see Isaiah 14:29). There are no other accounts of angels or heavenly beings in heaven, except for the sons of God assembling in the ancient book of Job (1-2) and the frequent references to the heavenly hosts. The prophecy of 1 Kings 22:19-23 presents a parallel between the sons of God in the book of Job and the host of heaven, standing on the right and left hand of God. The host of heaven is subject to God, but absolutely not to be worshipped (see Deuteronomy 17:3 among many), and often associated with Canaanite religion (for instance 2 Kings 17:16). God is called the Lord of hosts hundreds of times, but the hosts of the Lord can also mean those beings belonging to him, like the Israelites in Exodus 12:4, or it might just refer to the stars in the sky. According to Alt (in Traub & Von Rad, 1967:505) the references to the Lord of hosts reflect the Canaanite pantheon and the Ugaritic host of the sun (Gordon, in Traub & Von Rad, 1967:505-506); in Assyrian times, the worship of the heavenly hosts resurfaced with a more practical and less mythological approach (Bietenhard, 1976:189). In Zechariah 1:8-11 those whom the Lord has sent to cruise the earth (conform Job 1:7, compare Zechariah 6:5-7) assemble somewhere on earth, and in 3:1 Satan is assembled before the angel of the Lord. The heavenly hosts are thus associated with heaven both functionally and adjectively, but their specific place within biblical cosmology is never clearly delineated in the Hebrew Bible (see also Traub & Von Rad, 1967:503).

Daniel describes in his night visions that eventually he saw one like the Son of man coming with the clouds of heaven to the Ancient of Days, receiving an eternal kingdom (Daniel 7:13-14). In the Old Testament there are two accounts of people who have not died like others; Elijah is explicitly taken up to heaven (2 Kings 2:11), while Enoch is taken by God. Tabor (1992:91) argues that the texts do not necessarily imply that they have taken up residence with God in heaven, as both accounts are biblically ambiguous (see 2 Chronicles 21:12 and Hebrews 11:13). Heaven is strongly associated with the idea of permanence (see the days of heaven in Deuteronomy 11:21), but it is not exempt from judgement, as exemplified by Isaiah (34:4, 51:6). Heaven itself is not the source of authority, and it is specifically demythologized in the Hebrew Bible (Bietenhard, 1976:189). The idea that heaven is a blueprint for things on earth might be read into the things that are shown to the prophets (Daniel 7, Ezekiel 40, Zecheriah 2, and perhaps Exodus 25:9), but it seems to be a later development, and there is no clear case for this idea in earlier writings, except for the tabernacle or temple, although this is never explicitly stated. As for the Septuagint translation, the Hebrew heavens is always translated as ouranos, sometimes —especially in psalms and hymnic material— to its plural form (alien to the Greek of that time), but on occasion it might express an Oriental idea of a plurality of heavens. In a few instances a reference to heaven is added to increase the vividness of the description, to clarify the meaning, or to associate God firmer with heaven — in some cases possibly for dogmatic reasons (Traub & Von Rad, 1967:509-510).

New Testament

In the New Testament, all words relating to heaven stem from the root noun ouranos. The word is possibly related to an Indo-European root for water, but the links to the very ancient Greek god Ouranon are etymologically stronger. Uranus (the more common Latinized form of Ouranon) derived from the earth goddess Gaea, they married, and he was eventually deposed of by their son Kronos; as these mythological connotations decreased in significance, ouranos became to mean firmament or heaven (Bietenhard, 1976:188), both the sky and the dwelling place of the gods (ouranioi or epouranioi). In the New Testament, ouranos occurs almost three hundred times, in about one third of the cases it is in the plural form; the plural is common in Matthew, Ephesians and Colossians, Hebrews, and 2 Peter. Over one third of all occurrences of ouranos in the New Testament are found in Matthew, and in over half of those it is found in the phrases the kingdom of the heavens —a phrase unique to Matthew— and father in heavens; note that both phrases have a Semitic plural (Traub & Von Rad, 1967:513). There are no successful attempts to meaningfully distinguish the uses of the single and the plural forms (Traub & Von Rad, 1967:534). One fifth of all occurrences of heaven are found in the book of Revelation (only once plural), while John's gospel contains only the singular form (19 times) — indicative of an absence of gnostic or Jewish speculations (Bietenhard, 1976:195). Ouranios (heavenly) occurs 6 times in the New Testament, only in Matthew's and Luke's writings, mainly as the rendering of the Aramaic phrase heavenly Father. The equivalent adjective epouranios is found 18 times, over half of them in Paul's writings, and one third in Hebrews. Ouranothen (from heaven) occurs two times (Acts 14:17, 26:13), both times with a dual meaning of from the sky and of supernatural origin.

In the vast majority of cases, heaven has theological connotations, even in the two instances (Luke 4:25 and Revelation 11:6) that mention the heaven being shut, so that no rain is able to fall. Even when used in the sense of firmament or atmosphere, the term ouranos never loses its symbolical character of the home of the divine (Pr.-Bauer in Traub & Von Rad, 1967:514). Heaven is used in combination with earth and usually the sea too, to state that they are all created (Acts 4:24, 14:15, Revelation 10:6), and under God's Lordship (Matthew 11:25), that they will pass away in God's judgement (2 Peter 3:10) and be re-created (Revelation 21:1). The term cosmos (kosmoß) is used increasingly to denote heaven and earth, and it is explicitly defined as such in Acts 17:24 (Traub & Von Rad, 1967:514), while in John's writing cosmos is decidedly apart from heaven.

God is associated with heaven, but the emphasis is more on His total Lordship —also over heaven— than that His position in heaven authenticates His transcendence. Rather than that His throne is in heaven, heaven is His throne (Matthew 5:34, Acts 7:49); only in Revelation is throne used as a relative locus, embedded in symbolical meanings. Two thirds of the times that God is called Father, His heavenly status is mentioned; in around a quarter of the other cases, Jesus is talking about His Father — not needing the qualification of heavenly (Traub & Von Rad, 1967:520). Within Rabbinical Judaism, the use of the word heaven was given preference over direct references to God, which is reflected in Luke 15:18.

The sky (like in Acts 1:10-11) is the outer limit of the heavens, there is no strong distinction, no orderly cosmology in the Scripture; Jesus lifts His eyes up to heaven (Mark 6:41) to focus on God, and Stephen (Acts 7:56) saw God in —and through?— the opened heavens, and John enters through a door in heaven (Revelation 4:1). While Jesus was on earth, heaven was opened unto Him at His baptism and the Spirit of God descended on Him; in John 1:51 there is continual interchange between Him and heaven, mediated by angels. There was a voice from heaven at His baptism (Luke 3:22) and when He announced His death (John 12:28 — in Mark 9:7 it came from a cloud); God's words sounded, in some cases mediated through angels, and in Acts 2:2 a sound came from heaven in a tangible revelation at the first Pentecost after Jesus' ascension. In Ephesians (4:10) Jesus ascends far above all heavens — heaven is not the goal, but a realm to be transversed; Jesus went through the heavens (Hebrews 4:14) and entered heaven itself (Hebrews 9:24). According to Traub (Traub & Von Rad, 1967:525) this evidences gnostic influences, where the heavenly realms are populated with evil beings, sealing humanity off from the true God — so Jesus opens up the way to communion with God in almost a physical sense. He has attained the same position as God of authority over heaven (Ephesians 1:21 and Hebrews 7:26 — whereas in Ephesians evil beings are present in the heavenly realms, Hebrews speaks only of angels in a neutral or positive sense). Jesus is expected to come from heaven to earth again (1 Thessalonians 1:10) on the clouds of heaven (Mark 14:62); these should be distinguished from the clouds of ascension (Pr.-Bauer, in Traub & Von Rad, 1967:522). His sign will be appearing —visible to all— in the heaven (Matthew 24:30), and His elect will be gathered by the angels "from the end of the earth unto the end of heaven".

Angels are in heaven, seeing God (Matthew 18:10) but not omniscient (Mark 13:32), descend from or return to heaven (Luke 22:43, 2:15); also evil angels are there (Revelation 12:7-9 — the past tense here does not necessarily signify that the prophecy has been fulfilled, compare Revelation 20:13). Bietenhard (1976:193) situates the evil powers in the lower realms 'our side' of the firmament. The beings in heaven were created by Jesus and for Him (Colossians 1:16). Matthew 22:30 Jesus says that people in the resurrection will be like the angels of God in heaven, in that they are not engaged in matrimonial relationships; notice that the dispute is not about heaven, but about the resurrection. Remarkably, of all twenty six New Testament instances of the word cloud, only three have no heavenly connotations; clouds are the vehicle of ascension and descension to and from heaven, and the place where God is. In Revelations 11:12 the two prophets are resurrected and eventually ascending up to heaven in a cloud after having been dead in the streets for days; this is reminiscent of the ascent of Elijah, but very much part of the final unfolding of eschatological events.

There is no mention of a specific plurality of heaven, except for 2 Corinthians 12:2-4; because of the multitude of disparate extrabiblical theories nothing definite can be said about the nature of these heavens (Hughes, in Bietenhard, 1976:192; Barth, in Traub & Von Rad, 1967:535), except that paradise (paradeisos — adopted from the Persian into the Greek and used in the Septuagint for the garden of Eden) is found in the third heaven. Revelation 2:7 says that the tree of life is there, and that 'overcomers' will eat from it (see also Revelation 22:2); the presence of the tree of life draws a parallel with the garden of Eden (Genesis 3:24).In the Old Testament, the garden of Eden is mentioned in Genesis 2-3 and in a few prophets: Isaiah (a promise for the land of Israel), three times in Ezekiel (twice used to describe the past, once as a promise for Israel's future) and Joel (in connection with judgement).

Heaven is also described as a place where treasures can be stored (Matthew 6:20) and rewards (Matthew 5:12), and inheritances (1 Peter 1:4) are kept and eventually received; the names of members of the Church are recorded in heaven (7 times in the New Testament, see Philippians 4:3 and Hebrews 12:23) and they have citizenship there (Philippians 3:20) in the heavenly Jerusalem (Galatians 4:26). Heavenly authority has been granted in Matthew 18:18: what you forbid or permit on earth will be ratified in heaven. Interestingly, heaven is never explicitly associated with the concept of eternal life (zooeen aioonion), the phrase occurs over forty times, over half of them in John's writings (for instance John 5:39); eternal fire, destruction, punishment and damnation occur altogether 7 times. Eternal life is connected with the concept of resurrection (anastasis — also mentioned over forty times), for the resurrected will not die, nor marry (Luke 20:34), but there are no explicit links with heaven. The notions of judgement and judging are encountered well over two hundred times, not always related to judgement by God.

Extrabiblical influences on the Judeo-Christian concept of heaven

When Abram was called out of his land and people, the Semitic people of Ur and Haran worshipped the gods in heaven above the heavenly ocean, and they venerated their ancestors who had passed away to the region of sheol below the waters under the earth. Sheol was a dark place, and besides the dead it was inhabited by infernal deities who were served by the dead (Cooper, 1992:25); but it was radically different from the concept of hell The Semitic religion was very complex with an abundance in ritual; the Mesopotamian sources are much richer in their descriptions than the biblical material (Mendenhall, 1992:69). Ancestor worship was a private ritual, while the worship of the heavenly deities was a community affair. Sheol was thought to be layered, and ancestors that resided in the higher lighter layers could bestow powerful blessings; performing rituals kept the ancestor in a higher layer, and this benefited both parties. The death could also be consulted through necromancers; they retained their personality, memory and knowledge, had inside information, and power to aid or harm the living, giving them a god-like status (McDannell & Lang, 2001:2-7).

When the law was given to Moses, it was clear on worshipping YHWH alone and to cut off any communication with the dead, although it took until the end of the pre-exilic period to really take hold on the people of Israel; sheol was even more seen as a place of isolation, and its inhabitants led a shadowy existence. Instead, the patriarchs and martyrs —public figures— were venerated, and rituals became more communal and less family-oriented (McDannell & Lang, 2001:7-11). Johnston (2002:81) remarks that the biblical emphasis is on sheol as the destination of the ungodly, but the majority-view of sheol in the Bible is the place where all deceased people go; this is also found in Greek though, for instance in Homer .Later, in Plato, heaven denoted everything; this exemplifies the notion that heaven is the archetype for the earthly realm (following Pythagoras), all earthly things are found in their ideal form in heaven (as also found in Hebrews 8:5, 9:24, or Matthew 6:10).

The resurrection belief was historically probably first articulated by Zoroaster and was an integral part of Iranian religious views, and probably influenced the post-exilic Jews, although Hosea mentioned it before that. Even before the exile, the prophets had reiterated God's promises for a great restoration of the nation of Israel, and throughout all the political changes of the exile and beyond, this hope became more important for the Jews (McDannell & Lang, 2001:11-14). God's power to resurrect the dead was already mentioned in 1 Samuel 2:6, national resurrection was promised in Ezekiel 37 and Hosea 6:1-2, while individual resurrection was mentioned Isaiah 26:19 and Daniel 12:2. In the intertestamental period, especially from the second century BC there was a barrage of apocalyptic writings about resurrection, and by the time of Jesus, this belief was common among the Jews (see Acts 23:8); in later Judaism resurrection became widely accepted, both the Mishna and the Talmud contain the phrase resurrection of the dead. This did not necessarily result in eternal life, but a long and prosperous one (according to 1 Enoch). Although the requirement of righteousness for resurrection necessitates judgement, in Old Testament writings there is no explicit mention of judgement after death (Johnston, 2002:237). The concept of hell (gehenna — a Greek adoption of a Hebrew word) is not found in the Hebrew Bible, only its precursor Ge-Hinnom, later the Jerusalem garbage incineration place; it first entered Jewish thought through a few late pseudepigrapha, but possibly even earlier through the Palestinian Targums (Powys, 1997:188,424). The trend for increased stress on individual post-mortem compensation within Judaism solidified in the diaspora, and helped Judaism survive apart from Jerusalem (Powys, 1997:193-) by de-emphasizing both corporate and this-worldly hope. The pseudepigraphical books of 1 Enoch, 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch and the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs are considered indispensable to the comprehension of New Testament eschatology (Käsemann, in Plevnik, 1997:16-17). Eastern views of a layered heaven became commonplace in Jewish apocalyptic literature, with numbers ranging from two to ten, with three and seven being the most popular (Collins, 1998:30); these layers either apply to the hierarchies of heavenly beings, or to levels of reward for human beings, but the latter idea is hardly found in Jewish literature. Paul gave evidence in several letters of the idea of a multitude of heavens, but the major work on heaven —Revelations— clearly speaks of one.

The scripture about Enoch being taken by God is very old, yet there is remarkably little speculation about this event before the intertestamental period; neither Enoch's nor Elijah's departure was ever seen as a model or considered a possibility in general (Johnston, 2002:200). For the Hellenistic Jews considering the resurrection, the restoration of Israel was not an important or even attractive notion, and a more individualistic option was welcomed; they considered Judaism as a belief-system instead of a state-ideology. The concept of paradise (or the garden of Eden) gained prominence as the place where the righteous were rewarded with eternal life. The idea of continued fellowship with God for the righteous in heaven and being rescued from sheol (hades in Greek) was in tune with the developments in Greek philosophy. Plato had concluded that the mythical Isles of the Blest or the Elysian Fields should be located above the stars, where the disembodied soul could enjoy a purer existence, and thus the Homeric tradition of hades was rejected (Alderink, in McDannell & Lang, 2001:17). Another synthesizing influence came from Philo of Alexandria, who incorporated Plato's ideas more firmly within Jewish thought; he saw the soul as immortal, immaterial and asexual, reaching different planes in heaven or even reincarnating on earth again (McDannell & Lang, 2001:14-19), although Josephus has been known to represent the resurrection —abhorrent to Greek dualistic views— as reincarnation — resurrection was not an option (Wright, 2003:81-84).

When Christianity appeared on the scene, the Sadducees were the least interested in resurrection or eternal life, regarding themselves blessed materially and spiritually —through the temple ritual— already in this life; this fully-realized eschatology probably did not even entertain the concept of sheol: the soul withered when the body died, an almost Skeptical attitude. The Pharisees were more dogmatically and legalistically oriented, believed in the resurrection and in the restoration of Israel, standing in the developing apocalyptic tradition. Increasingly, the word heaven was used as a a circumlocution to refer to God (Keck, 1992:86). The apostle Paul was especially grounded in their teachings and ideas, yet recognized that the resurrection of Jesus and the promise of His parousia meant that God's kingdom would be fully realized. The idea of a dying and rising Messiah, the idea of judgement having been given to that Messiah, and the idea of that Messiah returning to earth at a later time do not derive from early Judaism (Witherington, 1992:226). The persecutions that intermittently plagued the young Church led to a compensational emphasis in its view on heaven; enduring violent injustice for maintaining one's commitment to Jesus was encouraged by extra incentives for martyrs; the book of Revelation is a definite example of this tendency.

In the transformation from a fringe cult to the official religion of the Roman empire, a huge number of theological streams ran parallel, shaped by influences in the world around them. Firstly Gnosticism —later popularized in Neo-Platonism— brought confusion through its mystical-philosophical influences; heaven was a perilous place with deities that could not be trusted to be the true God, and the soul mainly sought liberation from the restrictions of the material realm. Another main influence was asceticism, fleeing the world and repudiating earthly needs, rejecting any compensationalist ideas about heaven and looking forward to fulfilment of their world-renouncing ideals. Within the mainstream of the church itself institutionalization became a pressure that led to the formation of expectations of perfection, and (the ideas about) heaven should be the best possible. McDannell & Lang (2001:67) mention three prototypes of the patristic heaven: Irenaeus' ideas of heaven as a glorified material world, Augustine's initial idea of a purely spiritual heaven, and his later idea of a semi-spiritual heaven which was less theocentric and more mundane.

Mediaeval Europe went through an urban revival through the prosperity of its merchants and artisans, philosophically Aristotelism was rediscovered, and optimism, realism and piety went hand in hand to produce a number of new influences on the concept of heaven (McDannell & Lang, 2001:69-70). The view of heaven as the city of God rose to prominence alongside the view of heaven as a pristine garden. Scholastic deliberations arrived at a conceptually clear heaven, with the ordered beauty of newly rediscovered rationality, while mysticism focussed on the intimate unity with God in heaven, characterised by love overflowing.

In the Renaissance, the common conception of heaven was of two, not strictly separated levels (McDannell & Lang, 2001:111-144): a divine level where God was present, and a human level which was more like a paradise — with much more emphasis on the latter. Because the classics came into vogue again, Cicero —perhaps the first proposer of the idea of meeting loved ones again in heaven— was enthusiastically emulated as an inspriration of the many works of art from that period.

When the Reformation came, and with it the desire to be scriptural and to do away with idolatrous frivolities, and return to the pure devotion of God — which can also be said of the Contra-reformation movement within the Roman Catholic church, focussing on Mary and God's intimacy with the soul (McDannell & Lang, 2001:145). This resulted in a theocentric focus, with less esthetical inclinations; the word was emphasized over the image, and heaven was described in terms of the Bible as much as possible.

With the autonomy that the Enlightenment brought to the West, followed by the advent of Romanticism, the vision of heaven acquired its characteristics. A main work that was followed by others like it is Milton's seventeenth century Paradise Lost, borrowing from the Renaissance's two-tiered heaven. The human level was a perfect and sensuous world that would last forever.

McDannell & Lang (2001:353-356) make much of the pendulum movement between theocentric and anthropocentric views of heaven — possibly because they like the latter so much more. Reviewing the Western views of heaven, they classify the early Christians, Augustine in his earlier days, medieval scholasticism and mysticism, the protestant reformers, and more orthodox contemporary brands of theology as more theocentric, while Irenaeus, Augustine in his later days, the Elucidation in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as more anthropocentric. Their classification is compounded by loading austere, sterile and static elements unto the theocentric pole, while the anthropocentric pole is decidedly mundane, wishful and romantic.

Heavenly afterlife in Christian soteriology and eschatology

Within the discipline of systematical theology, soteriology isn't as well developed as Christology. While the Church —starting in the first centuries after Christ— invested a lot of effort into discussing and philosophising about the nature of Jesus, the concept of salvation remained largely unchallenged within the Christian communities. Even after twenty centuries, the the different models that aim to explain the saving nature of the Christ-event are mostly based on biblical texts and notions. McIntyre (1992:29-52) lists thirteen models of soteriology, twelve of which are directly geared towards explaining the work of Jesus on the cross —the other one being of a secondary nature— but only one of them links in any way with the notion of heaven. The model labelled salvation not only implies getting saved from something, but also for something; soteriology, deriving its name from salvation —soteria— has tended to focus on the death of Jesus —the source of salvation— rather than the results for its beneficiaries. Consequently, little attention has been given to the concept of heaven within soteriology as a sub-discipline of systematic theology; Davies (1999:14) complains that even within theology as a whole, heaven is treated scantily. In systematic theology, the subject of heaven is usually addressed under the heading of eschatology rather than soteriology. Milne (:13) adds that the relevant biblical texts do not have heaven as their only —let alone primary— focus. Yet the concept of heaven is intimately tied to soteriology, especially in popular preaching and evangelism; the question "are you saved?" stands next to "are you going to heaven?" in ascertaining people's 'eternal destiny'. The question of reaching that destination is usually answerable by "believing that Jesus paid the price for your sin", including the awareness and confession of sin and asking and receiving God's forgiveness.

The common understanding is that believers go to heaven at the moment they die, based on Paul's deliberations in Philippians 1:23 and 2 Corinthians 5:8, although both texts have a selfish ring to them in the context of Philippians 1:22,24 and 2 Corinthians 5:7,9,15. Heaven is not the focus of these passages —it is not mentioned— but being with Jesus is the issue; the metaphor of a pilgrim in a strange land (the current world) is being employed here, the pilgrim is only at home with Jesus (see also Hebrews 13:14). There is some ambiguity in the New Testament concerning sleep and death, like in John 11:11-14, did the girl die in Matthew 9:24? Paul refers to death with sleep in 1 Corinthians 11:30 and 15:51-52, and 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17 and 5:10; sleep is most probably a common euphemism for death rather than a description what happens after death. There are few —if any— passages in the Bible promising that people go to heaven when they die (Caird, 1994:270), yet it can be inferred from these texts in Paul's writings: believers will be with Jesus —who is currently in heaven— when they die. The souls under the altar in Revelation 6:9-11 —presumably having died in Christ— are within calling distance of the Lord; the altar might symbolize their blood having been shed, and sprinkled at the feet of the altar like in Jewish sacrificial ritual. The great multitude in Revelation 7:9-10,13-17 has come out of the great tribulation, being with God in heaven, and then in Revelation 19:1-9 a great multitude is mentioned again, and in 20:4 the martyred —those of the first resurrection— are said to reign with Christ for a thousand years. But 1 Thessalonians 4:16 also mentions being brought with Jesus down from heaven, for "we will always be with the Lord" — Paul did not give special emphasis to martyrs like John did in the book of Revelation. When 1 Thessalonians 3:13 talks about Jesus coming with all His saints, this is most probably the same event; in only one instance in the New Testament (Jude 14-15: the Lord comes with his myriad of saints to judge) saints might be thought to refer to angelic beings, as it is probably a quote from the pseudepigraphical book of Enoch, derived from Deuteronomy 33:2. In 1 Corinthians 6:2 human saints —including the addressees of the letter— are said to judge the world, but in Romans 14:10 —not in insurpassable contradiction— Paul says that "we" will all stand before Christ's judgement seat, and 1 Corinthians 6:3 states that the believers will even judge angels. Judgement implies chastisement, and 1 Corinthians 11:32 says that believers will not be condemned after having been thus judged and chastised. Then there are the texts of Luke 16:19-26 where the poor man Lazarus was carried to the bosom of Abraham (understood to be in paradise by the Jews), the rich man went to hades, could see Abraham and call to him, but there was an great chasm between them, or Luke 23:43 where the criminal is promised that he will be with Jesus in paradise today. If these texts are considered together with the souls in heaven in Revelation, then it seems that before the resurrection of the righteous and the unrighteous (Acts 24:15) and the final judgement (Acts 17:31) it is already clear who is who, and the judgement has more the character of an execution than of an inquiry, although an account will have to be given on judgement day (Matthew 12:36); this is in accordance with John 5:29, a resurrection of life and a resurrection of judgement. An interesting case is made by Powys (1997:218-228) that the story about the rich man and Lazarus was tailored by Jesus to fit their ideas of immediate retribution and reprove the external motivation of rewards-based piety, exposing their immediate, individual, anthropocentric and spatial ideas about paradise; then it becomes inconsequential to the nature of afterlife. Hughes (in Powys, 1997:269) has proposed that today in Luke 23:43 might apply to "I say" rather than to "you will be with me in paradise".

But while people might be concerned with individual eschatology, this has not been a concern for the people of God historically, because there was no idea of afterlife in the Hebrew Bible, except in one's descendants and the nation as a whole; Abraham was blessed in his offspring and the blessings they would be and receive (Genesis 12:2). Historical eschatology is more concerned with heaven, earth and humanity as a whole, and overall this is the focus of Scripture (see also Powys, 1997:40). When Paul is talking about inheritance and the heavenly body, he is talking about historical eschatology; even though this concerns individual believers, for everyone it happens all at the same time of Jesus' parousia, illustrating that Jesus is the fulfilment of all eschatology. 1Corinthians 15:40-49 speaks about heavenly or spiritual bodies, contrasting them with earthly bodies, but this in no way implies something about dwelling in heaven; 2 Corinthians 5:1-4 draws the same comparison, although the terminology of building might on first glance lead to the erroneous conclusion that the text speaks about a house that believers have in heaven (but see also John 14:2). Examining the instances of obviously realized eschatology, like Ephesians (2:6) which speaks about believers being seated together in the heavenlies, or Philippians 3:20 about current citizenship in heaven, this seem to be statements of allegiance rather than location or even destiny. Being in Christ —who is currently in heaven— describes our position more in a legal way than in any physical way, and the citizenship metaphor is probably not lost on people familiar with the system of Roman citizenship: being a citizen of Rome does not mean that you are or will be living in the city of Rome, but that the rights of a Roman citizen are yours, where-ever you are. The text of Philippians also says that the heavenly citizen is waiting where he is, expecting the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ; a Roman citizen might even expect the emperor to come and sort out local problems (Wright, 2003:230). The New Testament does bring some radical new concepts that do not figure in the Hebrew Bible: a final resurrection and judgement, hell, eternal life, and of course the atoning sacrifice of God's Son. Interestingly, almost all of these concept have since found their way into Jewish tradition as well — except for the crucial last one, which remains a stumbling block.

There is great disparity with regards to the question of the position of eschatology within theology and Christian thought in general; some have made it the sole focus of their attention, some see it as an indispensable core, and some have relegated it to the fringes of the Christian faith. Faith is not just hope (contra Bultmann) but it relies on the object of hope, which is eschatological by definition: resurrection, judgement, eternal life in the Kingdom of God (Beker, in Plevnik, 1997:311). With regard to eschatology, while examining the time charts for the different systems and schemes for comparison, the new heaven and the new earth (Revelation 21:1) are always found at the very end, including the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:2-27) —also called the Bride of the Lamb— and the river of water of life flowing from God's throne, with the tree of life in its midst. Beyond lie speculation and conjecture, but before it the whole landscape of eschatology, with all the battles and strife. Heaven is always there, in the supernatural background — or is it really the foreground?? Heaven touched the earth when Jesus came and proclaimed His Kingdom, when He finished His battle and His Kingdom was established, and when the Holy Spirit was sent to incorporate believers into the Kingdom. When Jesus will return to the earth and establishes His reign, and when His Bride comes down from the new heaven unto the new earth, then the Kingdom will be fulfilled and God will be all in all (1 Corinthians 15:28): heaven and earth will be united in an unprecedented way.


Heaven is not the focus of salvation in the Bible, as has been stressed by many authors already (like Caird, Wright, and Powys); the main point of both soteriology and eschatology is Christ's return to the earth to establish God's kingdom, and secondary to this is the resurrection and judgement that will follow. Going to heaven when one dies is not unbiblical per se, but it is not the emphasis of the New Testament, and it is in lieu of the resurrection unto life. The hope that is presented in the New Testament is corporate rather than individual, future-oriented rather than immediate, theocentric rather than anthropocentric, temporal rather than spatial, and other-worldly rather than this-worldly (Powys, 1997:412-416).


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