OK, I might as well admit it at the beginning: I have procrastinated about this study, because I know it will rattle a lot of cages. Ask the average individual who has an “evangelical” bent, of whatever “flavor”, why a person should identify with / “believe in” Jesus, and you are likely to hear some variation on the theme, “in order to go to heaven when you die.” Search the New Testament, however, and you will fail to find a single reference to that objective. It simply isn’t there, folks.
Oh yes, I know that people have concocted elaborate collections of “proofs”, by combining poorly translated phrases gleaned from dissected bits of “verses” completely isolated from their contexts. Most of these owe their “success” (read, “believability”) to the mistaken notion that the “Kingdom of God” (Matthew calls it the Kingdom of heaven) is entirely a future phenomenon – an idea that we have shown to be in error in studies #19, 20, and 21.
A careful perusal of the word “heaven” itself results in a very different picture.
Ouranos, ( as well as its related words) is the only Greek word ever translated “heaven.” It is also rendered “sky” and “air”. These choices were made wholly at translators’ discretion: there is no guidance in the grammar or vocabulary to lead one way or another, except one’s perception of the context – (birds, for example, fly in the “air” – Mt.6:26). If one wishes to translate “literally”, therefore, he must concede that any of these three words is an equally legitimate choice, in every instance.
Historically, the primary meaning of ouranos, according to Liddell/Scott, was “the vault or firmament of heaven/sky, where the stars and other heavenly bodies are set”. It also included “the universe”, “climate”, or “anything shaped like the vault of heaven: a roof, ceiling, lid, tent, or pavilion” or even “the roof of one’s mouth, the palate”, as well as being considered the abode of the gods (but not of dead mortals, however illustrious or exemplary their earthly lives may have been.)
Many of these ideas appear in the New Testament. “Heaven” is a part of creation, along with the earth and the sea (Mk.13:27, Ac.2:5, 2:19, 4:24; Eph.1:10, 3:15; Col.1:16, 1:23; Rv.5:13, 10:6,14:7, 14:15). With them, it will eventually“pass away” (Mt.5:18, 24:35; Mk.13:31, Lk.16:17, 21:33; Rv.20:11).
It is where the stars are (Mt.24:29, Mk13:25, Heb.11:12, Rv.13:10, 9:1); the location of clouds (Mt.24:30, 26:64, Mk.14:62, Ac.1:11); where rain comes from (Lk.4:25, 17:29; Jas.5:18), and how one can predict the weather (Mt.16:2,3; Lk.12:56). It provides a metaphor for great distance or extent (“from one end of heaven to the other” Mt.24:31 and parallels), and “every nation under heaven” (Ac.2:5, Eph.3:15).
But the New Testament also expands the reference to include “the throne of God” (Mt.5:34, Ac.7:49), the dwelling of the Father (14x in Matthew alone), the “place” where both Jesus (Jn.3:13,6:38) and the Holy Spirit (I Pet.1:12) came from; where Jesus presently resides (Mk.16:19, Ac.3:21, 7:55, Heb.9:24, 12:25; I Pet.3:22), and from whence he is expected to return to earth (I Cor.15:47, Phil.3:20, I Thes.1:10, 4:16; II Thes.1:7).
Heaven is represented as the source of visions (Jn.1:32, Mt.3:16, Mk.1:10, Lk.3:22, Ac.2:2, 9:3, 22:6, 10:11, 11:5-10, II Cor.2:2, II Pet.1:18, and throughout the Revelation),
the source of the “assignments” of both John the Baptist and Jesus himself (Mt.21:25, Mk.11:30, Lk.20:4,5),
and also of “signs”, especially regarding the Lord’s identity (Mt.6:1, Mk.8:11, Lk.11:16) and his return (Lk.21:11, Mt.24:30).
It is the abode of some (not all) “messengers” (see reference to aggelos in “Helps for Word Study” lesson 3) – (Mt.18:10, 22:30; Mk.12:25,13:32; Lk.2:15, 22:43), and also of “powers”, both benign and malevolent (Mk.13:25, Lk.21:26).
The names of faithful disciples are recorded there (Lk.10:20, Heb.12:23).
“Rewards” – Lk.6:23,(W.S.#98) and “treasures” (Mt.6:20, 19:21, and parallels) are “on deposit” there.
Decisions regarding matters on earth (Mt.16:19, 18:18) are represented as being made “in heaven”.
Interestingly, however, the much quoted parable of the respective fates of the rich man and the beggar (Lk.16:19-31) does not employ the word ouranos at all, nor do the accounts of any of the individuals raised from death: Lazarus (Jn.11), the daughter of Jairus (Mk.5:35-43, Lk.8:49-56), the widow’s son (Lk.7:11-17), and Tabitha / Dorcas (Ac.9:36-42). None of these regaled their audiences with tales of “visits to heaven” or anything of the kind. We will look at the entirely separate issue of “death” in the next study.
The epistles, which we have referenced only briefly up to this point, reveal a slightly different perspective. Both Paul (Eph.4:10) and the writer of Hebrews (7:26) speak of Jesus’ exaltation “above” or “higher than” the heavens, and Paul details the obligation of all creatures “in heaven and on earth and under the earth” to worship at his feet (Phil.2:9).
Peter refers to the heavens, although “made” by the word of God (II Pet.3:5), “passing away” (3:7, 3:10), “being on fire” (3:12)– (Wait a minute! that’s not where we’ve been told fire was!) — , and he looks forward, as does John, repeatedly in the Revelation, to “a new heaven and a new earth” (3:13), in which, at last, “justice will settle down to live”!
Our hope (Col.1:5), our Master (Eph.6:9, Col.4:1), the focus of our behavior (Phil.3:20), our destined “dwelling” (physical body?) (II Cor.5:2), our enduring – as opposed to confiscated – possessions (Heb.10:34), our inheritance (I Pet.1:4), are all presently “in heaven”, despite the surprising discovery that nothing is said about anybody but Jesus and the two “witnesses” / martyrs from Rev.11:12,13,15 actually “going there”! (Rom.10:6, Heb.9:24, 4:14).
In fact, Peter (Ac.2:34), Paul (Rom.10:6) and John (3:13) all assert that this is impossible for ordinary mortals!
Although in John’s visions recorded in the Revelation, there are numerous scenes of thousands “around the throne” singing praises, remember that neither the time, the individuals (except for their faithfulness), nor the geographical (or cosmological) location is specifically identified.
In the final scene, the New Jerusalem is seen “coming down from God out of heaven (Rev.21:2) after the introduction of the “new heaven and new earth.”
Stay tuned, and review the studies of the Kingdom (#19,20,21) and “Life” (#28) in preparation for an examination of the New Testament approach to the “destiny” of the faithful.