by K.W. Leslie, 28 October
HEAVEN 'hɛ.vən noun. The dwelling place of God, his angels, and debatably good humans after they die. Traditionally depicted as above the sky.
2. A euphemism for God himself. [“Sin displeases heaven.”]
3. The sky, perceived as a vault containing the sun, moon, planets, and stars.
4. A place of bliss. [“This is heaven!”]
5. Short for the kingdom of heaven, i.e. God’s kingdom.
6. The state of being in God’s presence, namely after death.
[Heavenly 'hɛv.ən.li adjective.]

As you can see, there are multiple definitions of our word “heaven.” But when Christians talk about heaven, we mean the dwelling place of God. Right?

Not really. In fact not usually.

In my experience, when Christians talk about heaven, we’re actually talking about the kingdom of heaven. In other words, God’s kingdom. Which is meant to happen here on earth. We Christians are supposed to be already living like it’s here—and when Jesus returns, he’ll fully set it up and run it. But too often Christians act like this kingdom does not happen on earth, and never will: It’ll happen in heaven. In the future. After we die. When we do stuff in heaven, “heaven” is always way later. Or we describe the stuff we’ll be doing in New Jerusalem… which is actually in New Heaven, which is not even the same heaven the scriptures typically mean.

I listed six definitions of heaven. No, I’m not gonna therefore say there are six heavens, like C.S. Lewis did when he wrote about four loves. There are likely more definitions of heaven than even that.

But there are Christians who claim there are multiple heavens. Not just the current heaven, and the New Heaven of Revelation 21. There’s the seven heavens of Dante Alighieri’s Paradisio, the 10 heavens of the Pharisees, and the three heavens which you’ll hear Evangelicals talk about ’cause they’ve neither read Paradisio nor 1 Enoch.

Confused yet? Maybe a little. Hope not. Let’s start with the bible’s descriptions of the heavens.

The original ideas.

In the beginning God created the heavens. Ge 1.1 That word שָּׁמַ֖יִם/shamáyim refers to the skies. It’s a plural word; it means more than one sky. It’s where humans first got the idea there’s more than one sky. There’s the sky above our world… and there are other skies. Of other worlds? Well yes, but that’s not what the ancients imagined.

The ancients didn’t believe, as we do, that space is infinite. They believed it to be finite; that it had a back wall of fixed stars. But even though they figured space was finite, they did realize it was vast. Like Claudius Ptolemy wrote in his Almagest in the second century CE,

Moreover, the earth has, to the senses, the ratio of a point to the distance of the sphere of the so-called fixed stars. A strong indication of this is the fact that the sizes and distances of the stars, at any given time, appear equal and the same from all parts of the earth everywhere, as observations of the same [celestial] objects from different latitudes are found to have not the least discrepancy from each other. One must also consider the fact that gnomons set up in any part of the earth whatever, and likewise the centres of armillary spheres, operate like the real centre of the earth; that is, the lines of sight [to heavenly bodies] and the paths of shadows caused by them agree as closely with the [mathematical] hypotheses explaining the phenomena as if they actually passed through the real centre-point of the earth.

Another clear indication that this is so is that the planes drawn through the observer’s lines of sight at any point [on earth], which we call ‘horizons’, always bisect the whole heavenly sphere. This would not happen if the earth were of perceptible size in relation to the distance of the heavenly bodies; in that case only the plane drawn through the centre of the earth could bisect the sphere, while a plane through any point on the surface of the earth would always make the section [of the heavens] below the earth greater than the section above it. Almagest 1.6

While some ancients might’ve imagined the stars to be a few miles up, or a few thousand miles up, the smarter ones—and the medievals who read their books—knew the vault of the sky was immeasurably big. Earth was measurable; Archemides figured out its size in the 300s BC. Space wasn’t.

But still: What’s on the other side of the back end of space?

Well, God at least. It’s why Solomon figured even the highest heavens couldn’t contain him, 1Ki 8.27 and he wasn’t just using hyperbole to suck up to God. The LORD fills all of time and space, and exists in all of it; his presence is everywhere. It’s why Solomon described God as dwelling in heaven. 1Ki 8.39, 43, 49 We humans are limited to this world, and the few others in our solar system which our rockets can reach. God’s not. He fills the massive space between the stars. Look anywhere in the sky; God’s there too.

The problem with God being infinitely big, filling the cosmos, and extending beyond any limits of the cosmos, is that our finite human minds can’t picture it. Can’t imagine it. God has to have a location. We want him to have a home, and it can’t just be the universe itself! Since he’s sovereign, we like to imagine him in some kind of throne room. Solomon recognized it’d be foolish to imagine our infinite God in some earthly throne room in a temple someplace… but we kinda like the idea of it being a throne room God built, ’cause we figure he’d do a way better job than we ever could.

Hence the prophets imagined a God who’s high and lifted up, seated on a throne. Sometimes God, in their visions, looked like this. I don’t know whether these weren’t apocalyptic visions—images God gave the prophets which they could relate to, but doesn’t quite reflect the reality. ’Cause does God need a throne room? Where courtiers sing his praises constantly, and bow down to him, and suck up to him like human nobles do their kings and queens? A physical, metal and stone and wood chair for a spirit to sit upon? A specific location for an unlimited being?

The more we talk about God’s throne room, compared to who and what God is, the more ridiculous it sounds. But God doesn’t mind condescending to our level when necessary, and maybe all this heavenly-throne-room imagery is God letting his followers know he is high and lifted up… and okay, if he’s gotta use human ideas to convey that truth, fine. So we’re given images of a dimension where God exists, with a throne, with the constant serenades of angels and freaky-looking creatures… where the spiritual is represented by physical things, and God can take a seat.

Does such a throne-room type heaven exist? Maybe. Does it have to? Nah. But it probably helps us understand the reign and worship of God better, so those are the images we’re given in the scriptures.

The mythology.

Ancient pagans kinda went back and forth about where their gods and their dead lived. Sometimes they’d be at literal earthly locations, like Mt. Olympos in Greece. Sometimes they’d be on different planets, like the Norse considered their nine realms. The “underworld” of the Egyptians might have meant the literal other side of the planet, but many Egyptians understood it to be another dimension. Likewise the Greco-Roman gods were alternately believed to be watching from “heaven.”

Naturally these pagan ideas leaked into popular culture—and Christianity—with the result being we figure heaven is the dimension where God lives, and looks upon us. Or heaven is a place… somewhere up there. And it’s where angels live. And where good people go when they die. Maybe where all the other spirits are, both good and bad, although likely not the bad ones.

Because the bible never gets specific about what “the heavens” actually consist of, most Christians are content to borrow the pagan ideas. Sometimes we even teach them. Consequently a lot of Christians are horrified when they go studying the bible on their own, and can’t find any of this stuff in there.

Probably in the first century BC, some overenthusiastic Pharisee composed 2 Enoch, a pseudepigraphal book (which means Enoch ben Jared Ge 5.21-24 didn’t actually write it, ’cause duh) in which angels took Enoch on a trip through all 10 heavens:

  1. The first heaven contains 200 angels who supervise the stars, snow, and dew.
  2. Angels rebelled against God, and he kept them in the second heaven as punishment. Commentators wonder whether this is what Jesus meant by “outer darkness.” Mt 8.12
  3. The third heaven is paradise. God had scooped the Garden of Eden out of the earth, put it in a place “between corruptibility and incorruptibility,” 2En 8.5 and now the blessed dead live in it. As for the wicked dead, there’s a section on the north side where they go, which isn’t so nice.
  4. The fourth heaven contains the sun, moon, 8,000 stars, and 150,000 angels. (Other than the 200 angels in the first heaven. And for some reason, there only 1,000 angels in the fourth heaven at night. Probably the others sleep.)
  5. In the story of how the nefilim came to be, watchers (the “sons of God,” Ge 6.1-4 a type of angel) bred with humans. Rather than stick ’em in the second heaven with the other criminals, God put ’em in a whole new prison in the fifth heaven. (In 2 Enoch and other myths, Enoch was the prophet who told God on ’em. This trip through the heavens was one of Enoch’s rewards.)
  6. Archangels occupy the sixth heaven.
  7. Other scary, mighty angels occupy the seventh.
  8. The seasons, the times of the year, are stashed in the eighth heaven as kind of an attic, and are let out whenever their times come.
  9. The constellations of the zodiac are in the ninth heaven.
  10. God occupies the tenth.

First-century Jews were fully aware of 2 Enoch. Jesus’s brother Jude even quoted it in his letter. And when Paul wrote about a person who experienced the third heaven—

2 Corinthians 12.2-4 KJV
2 I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) such an one caught up to the third heaven. 3 And I knew such a man, (whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) 4 how that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.

—this is what he meant. Paul met someone who had a near death experience, or claimed to. Paul didn’t know whether this was merely a vision (“in the body”) or a true out-of-body experience, and wasn’t gonna speculate. But that’s what the person was claiming: The dude died and went to paradise. The same paradise Jesus told the believing thief on the cross he would go to. Lk 23.43 That’s the “third heaven.”

By the time Jesus told the Dives and Lazarus Story, a number of Pharisees were insisting the blessed dead and the reprobate dead could not be in the same heaven, so this’d put Dives in the second heaven with the fallen angels. Some of ’em also insisted the fallen angels couldn’t be in the second heaven either, ’cause it’s too close to earth, and that bothered ’em, so they had to be transferred to the watchers’ prison in the fifth heaven. Yep, they rearranged the heavens a little. Meh; Pharisees invented the 10-heavens idea anyway, so why couldn’t they rearrange things a bit? Seems redundant to have two angelic prisons anyway.

As for God, all alone in the tenth heaven… well it doesn’t explain the rather crowded throne room scenes in Revelation, with angels and elders and living creatures and whatnot. But then again Revelation actually came from God, and the 2 Enoch ideas were pure human imagination.

Jump forward another century and there’s another Pharisee document, the Babylonian Talmud, which identifies seven heavens, not 10. The Jewish Encyclopedia sorts ’em like so:

  1. Velon, where the sun travels. Is 11.22
  2. Raki’a, where the sun, moon, and stars are. Ge 1.17
  3. Shekhakim, where the millstones grind manna for the righteous. Ps 88.23
  4. Zebul, a heavenly Jerusalem where Michael offers sacrifices on its temple’s altar. Is 63.15, 1Ki 8.13
  5. Ma’on, full of angels who sing at night, but not day. Dt 26.15, Ps 42.9
  6. Makon, where precipitation comes from; it’s all kept behind fiery doors. 1Ki 7.30, Dt 28.12
  7. ’Arabot, where angels, justice, righteousness, and God are.

Quite likely the Talmud’s idea is where the Muslims got their idea of seven heavens, as found in the Quran: “Don’t you consider how God created the seven heavens, one upon another, in perfect conformity with one another, and made the moon therein a light, and made the sun a burning lamp? Quran 71.15-16

Now let’s jump forward to the 1300s, when Dante Alighieri of Florence created one of the greatest Italian-language literary works, Comedìa, later called Divina Comedìa, in which he traveled through the 10 circles of hell, the nine rings of Mt. Purgatory, and the nine celestial spheres of the heavens. Yep, one heaven fewer—or two heavens more, depending on the century—than the Pharisees.

When you talk heaven with the ancients and medievals, they didn’t always figure there was any difference between the natural skies and spiritual realms. They expected the skies we looked at are the heavens where angels and spirits and dead humans live. Dante described the heavens as spheres, and by spheres he meant worlds—the different worlds of our solar system. Heaven’s another planet. Or the moon.

Different worlds for different virtues, though. Or deficiencies. Dante sorted ’em by the characteristics usually attributed to the Roman gods for whom our worlds are named.

  1. The moon contains those saints who were inconsistent (you know, like lunar phases) in how they followed God.
  2. Mercury contains those who were too hasty, too ambitious, sought glory too much, to be gracious.
  3. Venus contains those were too horny to follow God alone; they were constantly distracted by sex.
  4. Mars contains martyrs, who died “battling” for Christianity.
  5. Jupiter contains the just, the “kings of justice.”
  6. Saturn contains those who exhibit self-control, like monks.
  7. The sphere of the fixed stars contains those saints who actually achieved human perfection, and exhibited God-like levels of faith, hope, and love.
  8. The primum mobile sphere (the back end of the sky) contains angels who’d never experienced sin.
  9. The empyrean sphere (beyond the sky; full of fire) contains the essence of God.

The ancients only knew about six planets and the moon; the “seven planets” of classical antiquity. Uranus wasn’t discovered till 1781, Ceres till 1801, Neptune till 1846, Pluto till 1930, Haumea till 2004, Eris and Makemake till 2005… and yeah, tons of dwarf planets have been discovered since. I don’t know how that’d’ve messed with Dante’s cosmology. Probably not much; he’d just put other saints on them.

In medieval Christian numerology, the number seven was a lucky number and a big deal, and y’notice Dante put the very best saints in the seventh sphere. Likewise the Pharisees who founded Judaism, and the Muslims, considered the seventh to be the top heaven, where God is. So pretty much all the medievals of the Abrahamic religions were fixated on seven heavens for quite a long time. “Seventh heaven” is still popular slang for the best place one can be.

But at some point in the 1800s—potentially earlier—some Christian who’d read neither Dante nor 2 Enoch, nor knew of a seventh heaven, got it in his head there are only three heavens. ’Cause the bible doesn’t describe seven heavens. The plural “heavens” is found in the scriptures, indicating there’s more than one; and Paul referred to a third heaven, so there’s at least three. But the scriptures say nothing of a fourth heaven… and why do we really need more than three anyway?

Hence as I grew up Evangelical, I was told there were three heavens. Two of which aren’t really heaven.

  1. Earth’s atmosphere.
  2. Outer space.
  3. God’s abode. And when you die, you go to that heaven.

This, they claim, is how the folks in the bible understood it. Although feel free to poke around ancient literature for what the folks in the bible understood, and I guarantee you this description won’t be found anywhere. I looked. It’s where I found 2 Enoch.

Okay. Yes I’ve been pointing to 2 Enoch a lot, but don’t get the idea I believe there are 10 heavens. I point to it only because that’s the popular culture’s idea of heaven in Jesus’s day. That’s the worldview of the apostles. It’s not bible; same as Dante’s nine heavens were the worldview of Christian medievals for quite a long time—and is the worldview of C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy, ’cause he taught medieval literature, remember?

The only thing I claim to know, is there are multiple heavens ’cause the scriptures say “heavens.”

God’s omniscience means he fills the universe. There’s no place he’s not. If you wanna say outer space is literally the abode of God… okay I’m fine with that. If you wanna claim we go there when we die, I don’t know about that, ’cause the bible doesn’t say so. We go someplace, as Jesus described in that one parable; there’s an afterlife; there’s paradise. Whether it’s in heaven, or a heaven, I dunno. Paul calling it “the third heaven” doesn’t mean it is in the third of multiple heavens, same as “sunrise” doesn’t literally mean the sun orbits our spinning earth: He was using the popular term for it. It’s a euphemism, same as “asleep” can mean “dead.”

God’s kingdom.

When Christians fumblingly console grieving people with how their loved ones are “with Jesus in heaven,” sometimes we really do mean it. We figure “absent from the body means present with the Lord” (a phrase loosely taken from 2 Corinthians 5.8 KJV) so we picture them hanging out with Jesus right this instant. It’s comforting, so why not say it?

It’s a lot nicer than pointing out how little the bible actually says about the afterlife. What little we have comes from Jesus’s parable. Lk 16.19-31 But while we Christians might share this story with one another, and teach about it in church, we don’t really like this image of the afterlife. Most of us actually claim Jesus did away with this afterlife when he died: He went there with the keys to hades, unlocked it, and took all the saints with him to heaven. (Though a minority claim we’re asleep—taking Jesus’s metaphor for death Jn 11.11-14 literally. We’ll be in this “soul sleep” till the resurrection.)

Hence Christians don’t talk about going to paradise; we talk about going to New Jerusalem. Rv 21-22 With its pearly gates, streets of gold, mansions, trees of life, and all that. Nevermind that Revelation describes New Jerusalem as being placed on New Earth at the end of history; there’s a whole millennium first! But that’s the story we’d rather tell one another. Not of waiting for resurrection, waiting to live again; of eternal life.

Heck, you even hear people talk about seeing New Jerusalem in their near-death experiences. It’s why I doubt their experiences. I’m sticking with bible. We get to New Jerusalem later. After Jesus returns. Not yet.

Meanwhile it’s best not to dwell on the afterlife, and what people might experience there. I suspect most of the reason God tells us so little about it, is so we don’t start making grandiose plans about what we’ll do when we’re there. (Or fuss about what we won’t have there.) What the scriptures pointed us to is resurrection, and that’s what I point to when people are grieving. Our loved ones will live again. Jesus will resurrect them, and bring them with him, when he returns. That’s our future hope. Not heaven.