This is the eighth in a series of articles on biblical terms that describe the afterlife and the unseen world.
Is heaven the final destination of all who rest in Jesus? Or do we spend eternity someplace else?
In 2 Corinthians 5, the apostle Paul describes two different and mutually exclusive states of existence for the Christian. While we are on earth, “at home in the body,” we are “away from the Lord.” And when we are “out of the body” we are “at home with the Lord” (5:6, 8).
The New Testament teaches that upon death, believers’ souls/spirits separate from our lifeless bodies and enter the presence of God in heaven (see also Phil. 1:21-24). There, we enjoy intimate fellowship with our Lord while awaiting the future resurrection and glorification of our bodies (John 5:28-29; 1 Cor. 15:51-58; 1 Thess. 4:13-18).
We see magnificent glimpses into the throne room of heaven through the visionary eyes of the apostle John in the Book of Revelation: the triune Godhead; an emerald-colored rainbow surrounding a glorious throne; living creatures; elders; angels; and redeemed people from every tribe, language, people, and nation.
The combined voices of all creatures in heaven, on earth, under the earth, and in the sea proclaim, “Blessing and honor and glory and dominion to the One seated on the throne, and to the Lamb, forever and ever!” (Rev. 5:13).
We may be tempted to stop here, as if heaven is the final destination in life’s long journey. It is breathtaking. But it gets better. Heaven, a place so awe-inspiring that Paul is not allowed to speak the inexpressible words he hears while visiting there, nevertheless is a temporary home for those who rest in the Lord until He returns to earth and brings us with Him.
As Randy Alcorn writes, “The intermediate Heaven is not our final destination. Though it will be a wonderful place, the intermediate Heaven is not the place we were made for – the place God promises to refashion on a resurrected Earth. We must not lose sight of our true destination. If we do, we’ll be confused and disoriented in our thinking about where, and in what form, we will spend eternity.”
So, what should we know about heaven?
While rabbis in ancient times envisioned as many as seven heavens, the Bible generally uses the Hebrew word shamayim and the Greek word ouranos in three ways:
(1) The atmospheric heaven, or the sky (Gen. 1:8). It’s where the birds fly (Mark 4:32), the clouds carry storms (Luke 12:56), and the rain falls (James 5:18).
(2) The stellar heaven(s), where the moon and stars shine (Ps. 8:3; Heb. 11:12).
(3) And the domain of God, or His dwelling place (1 Kings 22:19; Luke 20:4).
The Scriptures also speak of the “heavens” as a metaphor for where Christ reigns with His church (Eph. 2:6), as well as the unseen spiritual realm inhabited by evil beings (Eph. 6:12). The context determines the proper meaning of the word.
For the purposes of this brief study, we are concerning ourselves with what the apostle Paul calls the “third heaven” (2 Cor. 12:2), or the domain of God. It is the intermediate state between death and resurrection for Christians, giving way ultimately to everlasting life on a restored earth.
In the next column we examine a dozen New Testament truths about heaven and look ahead to the day Jesus creates new heavens and a new earth.