It is important to note that in the Hebrew Bible the word (šāmayim) is plural; English translations sometimes use “heaven,” sometimes “the heavens.” In Genesis 1.6–8, the creation of the firmament (NRSV: “dome”) is described, “and God called the firmament Heaven [NRSV: Sky].” This was regarded as an overarching vault resting on pillars at the ends of the earth. Above it was the celestial ocean, and above this the dwelling of God (cf. Ps. 14.2). In the firmament were openings or “windows” through which the upper waters came down in the form of rain (Gen. 7.11). At times, the term “the heavens” refers to the expanse in which the birds fly (Gen. 1.20), at times to the starry heavens, and at other times still to the highest heaven above the firmament. The context decides which meaning is appropriate.
The starry heavens are regarded as a witness to God's being and creative power; continually they “are telling the glory of God” (Ps. 19.1). These heavens remind humans of their littleness and the wonder of God's concern for them (Ps. 8.3–4). Humans' ignorance of “the ordinances of the heavens” (Job 38.33) helps to fill them with awe.
In the course of the biblical period, more transcendent ideas of God developed, and Jeremiah declares, “Do not I fill heaven and earth? says the Lord” (23.24). But even when the concept of God's omnipresence was expressed, other expressions were retained. According to 1 Kings 8.27, Solomon recognizes that heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain God; but later in the same prayer he repeatedly asks, “Hear in heaven your dwelling place” (8.30, etc.). Isaiah 65.17 speaks of “new heavens and a new earth”; this hope for a new, or renewed, creation had important developments in later apocalyptic.
With respect to heaven as the final abode of God's people, this is hardly to be found in the Hebrew Bible, where for the most part the fate of everyone, good or bad, was the shadowy realm of Sheol (see Hell). After the exile, however, Persian and Greek ideas stimulated Jewish thinking in new directions, and this is seen in some of the apocalypses of the period. Bitter persecution also produced the conviction that God would not leave without some vindication those who had died for their faith. The doctrine of resurrection was at first associated with the hope of life on a renewed earth (see Afterlife and Immortality).
By the Roman period, a blessed future holds a sure place in Jewish thinking, particularly among the Pharisees; the Sadducees retained the conception of a universal Sheol. In the New Testament generally, the servants of God are encouraged to look forward to a blissful eternity with God (see Luke 20.38), but the word “heaven” is used sparingly in this connection (e.g., Mark 10.21; Matt 5.12), other terms such as “eternal life,” “glory,” “my Father's house,” being preferred. Hebrews 11.16 speaks of those who “desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.” Paul is more concerned with the company than the place and speaks of the future life as being “with Christ” (Phil. 1.23) and as seeing “face to face” (1 Cor. 13.12).
The term “heaven” still occurs in the New Testament in the sense of “sky” (e.g., Mark 13.25; Luke 13.19 [NRSV: “air”]). In the letter to the Hebrews, mention is made of the heavens of the present creation that are destined to perish (Heb. 1.10–11), the heavens through which Jesus passed (4.14; 7.26), and the realm beyond, where he sits on the right hand of God “in heaven” (8.1). The last of these resembles in some ways the Platonic heaven of ultimate realities, of which earthly things are copies (cf. 9.23–24 and 8.5).
The word “heaven” does not necessarily refer to a literal place, for already the Christian sits with Christ in the heavenly places (Eph. 2.6). Jesus, who has “all authority in heaven and on earth” (Matt. 28.18), shares the omnipresence of the Father; he “ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things” (Eph. 4.10).
There is more about heaven in the book of Revelation than in any other book of the Bible, and vivid pictures are given of the throne of God and the Lamb, with living creatures and elders, angelic hosts and multitudes of the redeemed, drawn from every nation, bringing homage and praise. Popular conceptions of heaven have been derived largely from the imagery of this book.
Two other matters need mention. Some of the noncanonical writings give detailed descriptions of multiple heavens, up to seven or more. But Paul was not necessarily thinking of these when he wrote of his mystical transport into the third heaven (2 Cor. 12.2); an alternate explanation is that the expression indicates a high degree of spiritual exaltation. Second, Jewish tradition came to have such reverence for the name of God that “heaven” and other substitutes were used; thus, for example, the prodigal son says, “I have sinned against heaven and before you” (Luke 15.18, 21); and Matthew generally uses “kingdom of heaven” and only four times “kingdom of God.”
See also Paradise.
Taomas Francis Glasson