Heaven (in the Bible)

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In the Old Testament the word heaven is used both with cosmological significance as part of the physical universe and with religious significance as the dwelling place of God, particularly as the source of His salutary blessings. In the New Testament heaven is, on the one hand, the place from which Christ came and to which He returned and, on the other hand, the ultimate home of the blessed who die in the Lord.

In the Old Testament. Cosmologically the Hebrew word for heaven or the heavens (šāmayim ) is often used as the equivalent of firmament. In such contexts heaven indicates the solid vault that holds back the waters above the firmament (Gn 1.8; Ps 148.46). In this vault are windows or floodgates that open to let rain fall on the earth (Gn 7.11; 2 Kgs 7.2, 19; Mal 3.10). The heavens are like a huge inverted bowl whose rim rests firmly on foundation pillars (2 Sm 22.8; Jb 26.11). The stars of heaven are suspended from this solid dome (Gn 1.14). The Israelites were impressed particularly by the unshakable solidity of the heavens (Ps 148.6; Is 40.22, 44.24, 45.12). At the end of time, however, their structure will be shaken and destroyed (Mt 5.18, 24.29; Mk 13.25; Ap 6.13, 8.10, 9.1). Whereas the firmament (râqîa ') is a technical term designating this vault, šāmayim has a more general meaning; it often means all that is above the earth. Thus the birds who fly in the air are called the "birds of heaven" (Gn1.26, 1.28, 1.30, 2.1920). Heaven describes also the region above the firmament where God has built His storehouses for snow, hail, and wind [Jb 37.9, 37.12, 38.22; Jer 49.36; Ps 134 (135).7]. Since Hebrew had no single word to express the concept of world [see world (in the bible)] or universe, the phrase "heaven and earth" was used to indicate the sum total of all that God had made (Gn 1.1, 2.4). [see cosmogony (in the bible)].

Heaven is God's abode (Dt 26.15; Ps 2.4). In all the cosmological contexts the heavens are spoken of as God's handiwork, for He spreads them out (Is 40.22,44.24) and establishes their foundations (2 Sm 22.8). Heaven belongs to God in a special way as His dwelling place. God gives men the earth as their special domain [Gn 1.28; Ps 8.610, 113B (115).16], but He reserves heaven for Himself. It would be colossal pride on man's part, such as the pride of Babel (Gn 11.19; Is 14.1314; cf. Lk 10.15; 2 Thes 2.4), to attempt to force one's way up to heaven. God rules all things from His throne in heaven. The throne is pictured as resting upon the firmament (Ex 24.10; Is 66.1); His palace is built above the waters of the heavens [Ps 103 (104).3, 13]. There the King is surrounded by His heavenly court (1 Kgs 22.1922; Jb1.6; Is 6.13). Israelite tradition strove to express in various ways the truth that the transcendent God, dwelling in the heavens, was also Yahweh present and active in the midst of His people upon earth. In the yahwist narratives Yahweh "comes down" to earth to intervene in the affairs of men (Gn 11.5, 11.7, 19.24; Ex 19.18). He also "comes down" to meet with Moses or the people at the tent from time to time (Ex 33.9; Nm 11.17, 11.25, 12.5). The bethel narrative (Gn 28.1012) shows that the earthly sanctuary is the site of God's special presence because it is the point of contact between heaven and earth. When Jacob had a vision at Bethel of angels descending from heaven, he called the place "the gate of heaven" (Gn 28.17). The theology of the deuteronomists places greater emphasis upon heaven as the dwelling place of God in order to underline the divine transcendence. God sends before the people His angel in whom "His name" resides (Ex 23.21); He is present in His temple by "His name" (Dt 12.11), but God Himself remains always in heaven. In Deuteronomy Yahweh speaks to His people from heaven (Dt 4.36) rather than from Mt. Sinai itself (Ex 19.11, 18, 20). God cannot dwell upon earth since even "the heavens and the highest heavens [i.e., the region above the firmament] cannot contain" Him (1 Kgs8.27). This transcendence, however, does not result in remoteness, for God dominates all things and knows them intimately [Jer 23.2324; 2 Chr 2.6, 6.18; Ps 138 (139).812]. In the later sections of the Old Testament, those dating from the Persian period, "the God of heaven" becomes the usual title for Yahweh [Dn2.1819, 28, 37, 44; Jon 1.9; Ps 135 (136).26; Ezr 1.2; Neh 1.45; 2 Chr 3.23].

Israel looked to heaven as the source of salvation and of all blessings (Gn 49.25; Dt 33.13; 1 Kgs 8.35). In the heavens God had established His grace and His salvific word [Ps 88 (89).3; 118 (119).89]. Israel looked back with nostalgia to the time before man on earth had been shut off from heaven. Man had then enjoyed familiarity with God and the fullness of blessings (Gn 2.814; 3.8, 1719). Israel longed for the day when God would rend the heavens to bring salvation to earth (Is 63.19; 45.8). On his part, man expressed the desire that he himself should somehow be lifted up to heaven, where he would find perfect salvation in communion with God [Ps 72 (73).2328]. This special privilege was accorded enoch (Gn 5.24) and elijah (2 Kgs 2.11). Salvation would somehow consist not only in a descent of God to earth, but also in a return of man to God in heaven (Is 55.1011).

In the New Testament. The desire that God would "rend the heavens and come down" (Is 63.19) was fulfilled in the coming of Jesus Christ. At the beginning of His ministry "the heavens were opened" (Mt 3.16 and parallels) in order that salvation might descend to earth (cf. Acts 2.2) and that God might reveal His Son to men (Mk 1.11, 9.6, 15.3839). Of himself man could not ascend to heaven to behold the revelation of "the mystery hidden in God" (Eph 3.9; Jn 1.18, 3.13; Rom 10.6). God sent His Son to bring this revelation to earth (Mt 11.27; Jn 1.19, 3.11, 14.9). The Old Testament concept of the sanctuary as the place where earth was opened up to heaven (Gn 28.12) found its full realization in the person of Christ (Jn 1.4751), who was Himself the new Temple (Jn 2.1922). Christ returned to the Father in heaven (Jn6.62, 13.1; Heb 9.1112) as the first fruits of the Resurrection (1 Cor 15.20), as the firstborn among many brethren (Rom 8.29). As forerunner (Heb 6.20), He enters heaven to prepare a place for his followers (Jn 14.3).

The ascension of jesus christ into heaven thus inaugurates a period of eager expectation. The Christian longs for Christ's parousia from heaven (Mk 14.62; Mt 25.31; 1 Thes 1.10, 4.16; 2 Thes 1.7), when He will seek out His own and raise them up to the clouds of heaven (1 Thes 4.17; Phil 1.23; 2 Cor 5.68). Christ will introduce them into the kingdom of His Father (Mt 25.34; 1 Cor 15.24), the new Jerusalem (Rv 3.12, 21.3, 1014). Heaven is the consummation of salvation history when the world will be transformed into a new heaven and a new earth (Is 65.17; Rom 8.1923; 2 Pt 3.13; Rv 21.1), and God will be all in all (1 Cor 15.28).

Bibliography: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963), from a. van den born, Bijbels Woordenboek 948951. j. schmid, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche 2, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 195765) 5:354355. g. gloege, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 7 v. (3d ed. Tübingen 195765) 3:331333. g. von rad and h. traub, in g. kittel, Theologisches Wöterbuch zum Neuen Testament (Stuttgart 1935) 5:496535. j. m. fenasse, "Le Ciel dans la tradition biblique," La Vie spirituelle 107 (1962) 604623. u. e. simon, Heaven in the Christian Tradition (New York 1958).

[j. plastaras]